Note from the Editors: A few weeks ago, we ran an interview with Marty Brown, a descendant of one of John Brown’s children. We had come across Marty via a letter that she wrote to the New Yorker Magazine. She allowed us to interview her for Hard Crackers. The gist of Marty’s letter and her subsequent responses to our interview questions were about whether the novel “The Good Lord Bird” by James McBride and the more recent television show of the same name were accurate biographical portrayals of John Brown. Marty’s interview sparked a lot of reader interest and we want to broaden that discussion.
A Hard Crackers friend, Tom Bura, has responded about Marty’s interview via an email letter to one of our editors. He presents his take, primarily on the television miniseries, and we believe he too raises some interesting points. Tom is a longtime Brooklyn resident. His article “Ray” about his Uncle Ray, a Brooklyn, New York character and a bit of a desperado, was published in the first issue of Hard Crackers Magazine in the Spring of 2016.
Marty Brown is far more sophisticated and thoughtful than she lets on initially where she presents herself as being very humble. She has a lot to say and gives people a lot to chew on. This is really good.
I tend to agree with the section where she details a long list of specifics of John Brown’s character and her emphasis that he wasn’t a “madman.” I hate the use of that term; it’s too 19th century for me. Let’s just say he could have been diagnosed as schizophrenic or not, and I don’t see anything pointing to mental illness in Brown unless all revolutionaries and, for that matter, all soldiers in combat are clinically psychotic.
I think that she’s right in establishing that he was more like his 19th century peers than not. Being a man of the Good Book included sounding fanatical to us secular types, but everybody from Lincoln to the common man and woman quoted scripture. The Bible is the one book everyone could agree on. The extreme moral clarity John Brown got from the Book was one thing that made him different. Another was the line that he crossed, the actions and the violence that he chose to implement. I think she’s wrong in saying that that he wasn’t violent. He was, but it had purpose. One can disagree, but it wasn’t nuts. The television show early on does have a black slave character say he’s nuttier than a squirrel turd or something like that. It does play into the stereotype of the crazy Brown. The show flirts with that notion at various times and I thought that was a bad choice as far as educating people as to who the guy was.
The author seems throughout to want to contrast the view that black people have a more practical interpretation of their plight than even the best intentioned of white people by stressing how romantic and utopian white revolutionaries and abolitionists could be. People will debate this point, but I think that’s how the writer and the show see it. That said, the scene leading to Harpers Ferry seems to be saying so far at least (I haven’t finished the series), that, in spite of all criticisms, Brown offered something uniquely important to the moment and history. Frederick Douglass rejects Brown’s plea of participating at Harpers Ferry and that’s a great scene, but it’s consistent with a bit of ambivalence at some of Brown’s actions. Ultimately, it appears that the black characters are gradually finding enough inspiration in John Brown and his “crazy” ideas.
At other moments in the show, Brown is far more complicated. He’s crazy in the sense that he darts around emotionally and physically in a mercurial and very complex fashion, while many of the other abolitionists, black and white, are displaying confidence and stability in their choices to be sensible in their opposition to slavery. It’s actually Harriet Tubman in the show who inspires some black abolitionists to join the crusade leading to Harpers Ferry; Brown gives a speech supporting political violence but there are no takers until Tubman, who is presented as a figure of almost holy revolutionary motherhood to her people, jumps in and saves Brown, enabling him to recruit his army. There is nothing cartoonish about her in the show.
Frederick Douglass is controversially presented at times as buffoonish. I think that this is some saintly icon busting being done by the writer. Also, since he presents Tubman with such reverence and Douglass as a charismatic and brilliant fighter for the cause, but also as a buffoonish clown, the characterization almost seems as the next logical step of a trend…Once it has been determined that all white male historical figures are to be reduced to cartoonish caricatures, for evil or otherwise, it’s not too far of a step to present famous black men in history (like Douglass) in that way as well. I don’t think that this will go over well with everyone. I find that I am not completely comfortable with it, so in this regard this isn’t the best place to find accurate biographies. Yet, these scenes are very funny and entertaining, the other thing that the creators were going for.
The show has black characters punching holes in white perceptions, including those of white revolutionaries. For example, John Brown emotionally refers to slaves as being savagely beaten and starved by their masters. The young slave in voice-over narrative thinks to himself, “Gee I don’t know, Mr. So and So (his master) never beat me and he fed me real good.” I think the black author consistently goes after white pretensions and doesn’t want to let white revolutionaries off the hook when it comes to white ignorance of what black people think and feel. This comes up again in a powerful and funny scene when Brown is at dinner at the home of Frederick Douglass. Douglass digs into him for daring to think he understands Black people. Brown is chagrined and has a pretty good response, but still it is a part of a pattern that I see in the show. I think the writer is exploring a chasm between the world views that separate white and black people, regardless of their politics. For instance, John Brown insists in seeing the young boy slave as a girl, he can’t see the kid for who he really is.
The show is exciting and very funny, sometimes funny in a way that will piss off different factions. The tone of the show actually reminds me in some ways of Little Big Man. People will in fact learn something, and the show is simply excellent TV. It doesn’t give a very linear or steady political point of view that some folks would want. But it’s good art. I’m glued to the screen at all times and Ethan Hawke is magnificent.