The Hard Crackers project is just over five years old. During that time, we have published almost a hundred articles in nine issues of our print journal and posted more than 350 articles on our web page. It had always been our intention to keep the two types of articles more or less separate, but at times, for one reason or another, stories appeared in both the print and digital formats. As we have explained previously, we felt obliged to alter our original plans when faced with the devastation of the COVID pandemic and with the extraordinary eruptions of the George Floyd Rebellion. For a year and more, we exclusively concentrated on website postings and delayed publication of a next print issue until April of this year.
During our first three years, we came to value in-person launch events for the print issues as a way to distribute copies and to engage those who attended in conversations about topics of mutual interest. However, as the pandemic endured, we recognized and agreed with the importance of avoiding indoor gatherings of any sizable numbers and relied on filling orders placed through the STORE on this web page. As of now, copies of all back issues, including the Special Issue devoted to Hard Crackers’ founding editor Noel Ignatiev (except Issue #1), remain available for sale.
As a result of the limits to distribution that resulted from the pandemic, many really good articles have not been seen by those who rely on the website. We thought it would be helpful to post a selection of those articles in order to increase their readership and promote sales of back issues. We’ll begin with a couple of articles from Issue #8 (published in June of 2021), then go back to ones from earlier issues. We’ll be posting them along with new submissions. That will probably take us almost to the end of the year. We’ll begin today with a fine piece by Marty Brown from issue #8.
Portland, Pottawatomie, and “The Good Lord Bird”
By Marty Brown
In 1941 my distant cousin, Nellie Groves, filed suit against Warner Brothers Pictures for their depiction of John Brown in the movie “Santa Fe Trail.” A music teacher and violinist with a vaudeville act, she was used to being announced on stage as “the granddaughter of John Brown, The Liberator, Martyr of Harpers Ferry,” and she was outraged by the film’s depiction of her grandfather as a bloodthirsty, maniacal murderer. She claimed the movie damaged her stage career.
I thought of her in the spring of 2020 when my newsfeed started filling up with stories about a new miniseries based on James McBride’s 2013 satirical novel, The Good Lord Bird, improbably starring Ethan Hawke as my great-great-great-great grandfather, John Brown. Originally slated for a July 2020 release on Showtime, the miniseries was rescheduled for October after the murder of George Floyd and the widespread protests for racial justice that ensued. At the time of this writing at the end of December, those protests continue in the city of Portland where I live, and where Nellie Groves lived too.
When she filed her lawsuit in 1941, the living memory of the Civil War was close to dying out. John Brown’s cultural capital was sinking, but his name still had the power to stir patriotic feelings. As far as Nellie Groves understood, her grandfather was an American hero who lived and died to purge our republic of its original sin. He made “the gallows glorious like the cross,” in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson. She was horrified by “Santa Fe Trail,” not just for its grossly distorted portrayal of her grandfather, but also for the way in which the movie wantonly discarded the known facts. “Warner Brothers, through the medium of the motion picture Santa Fe Trail has made a vicious attack upon my grandfather. They called him an enemy of mankind, a murderer, and a vicious killer. They besmirched his name by showing episodes which never occurred, and all through the picture are distortions of the truth. They misrepresent and vilify the character of a nation’s hero.”
Nellie Groves’s lawsuit made the papers and she received many letters of support, including one from a medical doctor in Los Angeles who wrote: “It is an outrage, unbridled license and ruthless violation of tradition the way these low class Jews and others sacrifice right, honor and common decency and respect merely for box office returns…. Some of these low Jews would even make Lincoln a ruthless renegade, as they have John Brown, if they thought they could get away with it.” 
This was 1941, the same year that hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered in ghettos and concentration camps and pogroms all over Europe, the same year that the gas ovens went into operation at Auschwitz.
At the same distance from WWII as she was from the Civil War, I wonder how John Brown’s granddaughter felt about the doctor’s letter. Did she agree about the Jews in Hollywood or was she appalled, as I am, by the doctor’s words? Did she believe, as I grew up believing, that the Emancipation Proclamation had ended the bondage of Black people in America once and for all? Did she know any Black people in the ultra-white cities of Portland and Seattle where she lived?
Nellie Brown Groves was born in 1878, nearly two decades after John Brown’s execution for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia for his raid on Harpers Ferry. She never knew him. Her father was Salmon Brown, a son of John by his second wife. Salmon wasn’t at Harpers Ferry, but three years earlier, at the age of 17, during the Kansas-Missouri border wars of the 1850s, he was among the band of men who attacked a proslavery settlement near Osawatomie, Kansas, and killed the men with broadswords in the middle of the night. That event, which came to be known as the “Pottawatomie Massacre,” is the most infamous episode of John Brown’s infamous career. Even historians who are sympathetic avert their eyes from that night in 1856 and back away slowly from the scene, carefully stepping around ponderous questions. Is it ethical to sacrifice the lives of a few for the sake of millions? Is violence a necessary instrument of revolution?
If Salmon ever talked about this chapter of his life with his daughter, he might have told her that the attack on that proslavery settlement on Pottawatomie Creek was a preemptive strike in response to a credible threat against their lives. He might have driven home the point that they were actively under siege from armed proslavery mobs and border ruffians who were conspiring to overthrow the democratic process through blatant fraud and violence, had long been conducting a relentless campaign of terror against the Free State settlers, and had just three nights before sacked the seat of their provisional territorial government at Lawrence.
I have a different set of questions when it comes to Pottawatomie, and here are some of them: What distinguishes a massacre from warfare? Whose lives matter more? Who gets to decide?
On May 10, 1919, Salmon Brown put a gun to his head and fired a fatal shot. He was 82 years old, had been bedridden for years, and thought he was a burden to his wife. It happened in an old Portland foursquare in the Montavilla neighborhood, just off what is now 82nd Avenue, or Highway 213. With Salmon’s suicide, the last eyewitness and the living memory of the “Pottawatomie Massacre” was gone.
Salmon Brown—abolitionist, shepherd, butcher, meatpacker, father of 10 children, husband to Abigail, and the last son of John Brown to die—was buried with fanfare in the Grand Army of the Republic Cemetery on a hill in southwest Portland.
More than a hundred years have passed since that gunshot rang out, and nobody much remembers Salmon Brown. His house still stands, much as it stood then. A 1917 photograph from Outlook magazine shows him in the back garden, leaning on a hoe, white beard to his navel. His garden has long since been paved over. There’s a Walgreen’s right around the corner. There’s no plaque, no monument, no marker. It’s just a typical Portland foursquare, too close to 82nd Avenue, close enough for passing trucks to rattle the windows in their frames.
In Portland today, 82nd Avenue is a dividing line, on the east side of which people’s lives are disproportionately affected by poverty and all of its associated afflictions—crowded living conditions, food insecurity, barriers to healthcare and education, untreated mental illness and addiction, and a greater likelihood of death from communicable diseases such as COVID-19.
In Portland, where Black people account for less than 6% of the overall population, 82nd Avenue isn’t a symbolic stand-in for the racial divide, like Troost Avenue in Kansas City, but demography and geography align to tell a different story than the one we tell ourselves. Portland still associates its Black communities with the historically Black neighborhoods of inner Northeast Portland, even though gentrification has forced most Black people out. Most white people in Portland don’t regularly encounter Black people. It’s easy for us well-meaning progressive types to ignore or deny what we don’t see and slip into the comforting delusion that Portland is an antiracist liberal bubble. In fact the city has always been a hive of white nationalist ideology and activity, from the nineteenth century sundown laws, to the twentieth century Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Nations, to the Proud Boys of today.
I live west of 82nd, a few miles from downtown. My neighborhood was first developed in the 1920s, just after Salmon’s suicide, carved out of small orchards and truck farms. Nearby there is a row of streets named for Civil War heroes: Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, Caruthers. There is no Brown Street.
On the other side of the Willamette River, at the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse in downtown Portland, demonstrators assembled nightly all through the summer and fall to protest police brutality, systemic racism, and the overreach of federal law enforcement. In August, catastrophic wildfires that smothered the city with toxic smoke brought only a temporary pause. Now, at the end of the year, the protests are less frequent, smaller, and more diffuse, fractured by schisms and simmering disputes that occasionally boil over into public view.
I haven’t spent much time away from home since the Coronavirus arrived. If I didn’t follow the news or talk to people, I probably wouldn’t even know about the protests. From my comfortable home in my gentrified neighborhood, I watched the news all summer with a deepening sense of dread. Cameras lingered on acts of vandalism and violence. I struggled to reconcile the riotous scenes on my screen with the eerie pandemic stillness of the streets outside my door. My largely liberal-progressive, sometimes sanctimonious, basically boring Portland neighbors were being portrayed in the national media as violent, radical extremists.
The news coverage put me in mind of the propaganda war waged in Nellie Groves’s lifetime, in the era of Jim Crow. It wasn’t just about erecting monuments to the Confederacy but also about subverting the mythology of the North. It only took the end of living memory to upend John Brown’s popular legacy, from that of a national hero about whom anthems were sung to that of a violent nutcase with a doomed plan to incite a slave rebellion that even slaves wanted none of.
Like Nellie Groves, I never met John Brown, and I’m every bit as biased as she was, just as righteously defensive about his legacy. The sinister fiction of “Santa Fe Trail” was novel and shocking to her in 1941. To me, growing up in the late twentieth century in urban white America, it was the standard fare.
When I was still in elementary school, in the 1970s, my parents stood me in front of the famous John Steuart Curry mural in the rotunda of the Kansas State House to snap a photograph. I looked up at the larger-than-life likeness of my forebear, with a rifle in one hand and a bible in the other, a pistol on his right hip and sword on the left, and what I mostly felt was fear. I took it on faith that he was crazy—in a hearing-voices, muttering-to-himself, cold-blooded-killer kind of way.
Now that I’m a lot older and a little bit more woke, I think that “crazy” is simply and literally how the culture of twentieth century white supremacy understood the mindset of a white man who genuinely believed that Black men were his equals in the eyes of God.
John Brown definitely had issues. He suffered episodes of depression after crushing personal losses, and he had obsessive tendencies. He was absolutely convinced that slavery was an indefensible moral wrong, which isn’t a sign of mental illness. After running stations on the Underground Railroad for most of his life, he grew impatient with the speechmaking and pamphleteering of his fellow abolitionists and set out late in life to take up arms.
Langston Hughes published a famous poem in 1951 about dreams deferred and their tendency to explode. Some demonstrators in Portland have channeled their justifiable rage into looting stores, toppling statues, dismantling fences, setting fires, breaking windows, disrupting surveillance cameras with lasers, and throwing fireworks at the limestone edifice of a courthouse that dispenses justice unevenly at best.
It takes a kind of madness to persist in believing that your individual actions can bring down a long-established tyranny, to keep standing up against the lies of an immoral system and insisting on the truth. Maybe that’s the kind of crazy that John Brown eventually became, the kind that comes from the impossibility of reconciling what all your senses tell you with all the lies you’re being fed.
Last summer, when unidentified federal agents started apprehending Portland demonstrators without any stated cause, the protests escalated. When a convoy of right-wing vigilantes rolled through town waving assault rifles and firing paintballs at the assembled crowds, they escalated again. A man identified with the Proud Boys was spraying bear mace at protestors when he was shot in the heart and killed by a man who identified as Antifa.
When dreams finally explode and people defend themselves against systemic violence, it’s an easy trick to flip the narrative and show that those victims of violence are perpetrators of violence. In 2020, the overwhelming majority of violent attacks on U.S. soil were planned or committed by white nationalists on the far right. There is no statistical equivalence between the violence on the right and the violence on the left, but it only takes one incident for the counter-narrative to thrive, as Salmon Brown might have explained to his daughter, leaning on his hoe, a stone’s throw away from 82nd Avenue.
I enjoyed reading The Good Lord Bird. James McBride did some research and clearly had affection for the characters he wrote. I didn’t once confuse those characters with my ancestors. McBride’s John Brown is just as absurdly distorted as the Warner Brothers version but he’s good-crazy instead of evil-crazy. I read the book as a parody, a send-up of all the ridiculous fictions about John Brown, from “Santa Fe Trail” to God’s Angry Man. It was only when my bookish friends started talking about it that I worried. Some of them thought that the plot was grounded in history. It’s a parody! I wanted to shout. I was frustrated—not by the book but by its readers.
Whatever ties to the truth McBride started out with, he cut them loose because that’s what novelists do. Some of his inventions annoyed me more than others, but The Good Lord Bird gave me a perspective I didn’t have before on the Black experience of the John Brown myth. I read it, and then I forgot about it, and then I saw the trailer for the miniseries, and felt vaguely sick.
By now I’m resigned that millions of viewers will be left with the impression that John Brown was a bible-thumping maniac who looked like Ethan Hawke and was “nuttier than a squirrel turd,” to quote the trailer. I’m not happy about this. The comic, quixotic character of James McBride’s invention is sympathetic and endearing. His zany zealotry makes the humor work. I have a sense of humor. But the myth of John Brown’s madness took root and flourished in the fertile soil of Jim Crow propaganda, and I’m weary of seeing it perpetuated, however affectionately, however well-intentioned, especially at this particular moment in America, when the air around me is crackling with words and phrases like “abolition” and “racial justice.”
For his earnest, life-long effort to end slavery in America and force his fellow whites to recognize the full humanity of Black people, John Brown has been vilified, hanged by the neck until dead, occasionally glorified, regularly demonized, widely and wildly misrepresented, co-opted by violent fringe extremists of all stripes, accused of self-serving white paternalism, and marginalized by mainstream history. Maybe it’s an upgrade to be parodied on Showtime.
Langston Hughes’s grandmother was briefly married to Lewis Sheridan Leary, who was among the Harpers Ferry raiders, so Harpers Ferry was his family’s story too. John Brown’s story belongs to all Americans, as the judge assigned to Nellie Groves’s case ruled when dismissing it without a trial. He’s a historical figure, fair game for all confabulators. But why is it so hard for us to tell his story straight and true?
I don’t mean that he’s been miscast in our cultural story as a minor character with an off-screen role, though I think that’s also true. I mean that he’s not a character at all. He’s a polarizing force to be invoked, a symbol of what divides us, a convenient object for our displaced aspirations, shame, and fear. Southern propagandists made him a cartoon villain, and northern propagandists made him a cartoon saint, and Ethan Hawke finally makes him a cartoon.
I cringed with embarrassment at Hawke’s performance in “The Good Lord Bird,” but I’m coming around to thinking that maybe it will serve as a necessary corrective to “Santa Fe Trail.” Maybe somewhere between these grotesque extremes the real John Brown will come back into focus like one of those antique stereoscopes and Americans will see him in 3D—not as a wild-eyed terrorist or a glorious martyr or a pistol-packing idiot-savant, but as a poor white man from Ohio who felt his common humanity and stood up for racial justice before that was even a thing. He set out to staunch the mass bloodletting that was slavery, not compound it. He failed spectacularly, and he also succeeded beyond all expectations, which might just as well describe the lurching progress of American democracy to date.
For me, the most important lesson of my most notorious ancestor at this deeply divided moment in our history isn’t that violence should be met with violence or that Black people need white saviors. It’s that history is written by the losers too, and lies are just as durable as truth. Despite the best efforts of biographers to set the record straight, the tired trope of John Brown’s insanity still underpins the stories we make up about him. McBride’s parody was friendly and implied that John Brown was saner than the world in which he lived, but film is a blunter instrument than prose, and parody, like irony and satire, has lost a lot of its edge since Donald Trump was actually elected to the Presidency.
I signed up for a free one-month Showtime trial just so I could watch “The Good Lord Bird” and I’m satisfied that I got what I paid for. For a while I tried to teach myself appreciation for the series by reading the onslaught of adulatory media reviews, but then I gave up. This was around the same time that Black community leaders in Portland began making loud and public pleas for the black-clad and mostly white-skinned youth of Portland to please stop smashing the windows of Black-owned businesses struggling to survive pandemic shutdowns.
Many reviewers have pointed out that “The Good Lord Bird” lampoons Frederick Douglass and makes crazy old John Brown sympathetic by comparison. The series offers plenty of irreverence to go around. Irreverence can be really funny, especially when it’s directed at someone who’s revered.
I’m all for artistic license, but I’m not sure even artists always know when they’re using it as cover for expediency or incuriosity. Wikipedia knows that John Brown’s eldest sons, John Jr. and Jason, weren’t present at Harpers Ferry and didn’t die there. It was Watson and Oliver who fought by the side of their father and gave their lives. Maybe some higher artistic purpose is served when screenwriters attribute their heroes’ deaths to their half-brothers, who were in Ohio at the time and deeply opposed to the raid, but I don’t see it. I realize that the series wasn’t produced to honor the memories of John Brown’s sons, and there’s no particular reason why it should. I’m only surprised to find myself surprised by the casual disregard it shows them.
Facts may be stubborn things, but they’re not very good at changing human minds or rousing our collective human conscience into action. For that we need anthems and stories. We need polemics and myths with heroes and villains, which can only ever be forged from distortions of truth. It’s necessary, delicate, difficult work to bend the truth for a higher purpose, whether we do it for Art or a righteous cause, but truth only stretches so far. Truth is only elastic until it’s irrelevant, and that’s where tyranny starts.
I tried to watch “The Good Lord Bird” with an open mind but I wasn’t able to enjoy it. It barely even registers on the list of things I wasn’t able to enjoy in 2020. At least it gave me a convenient object on which to displace my rage and fear. I’m glad for Nellie Groves’s sake that she never lived to see it.
 John Brown Manuscript collection at the Hudson Historical Society & Library, Hudson, Ohio