Choosing Violence: On Allyship and the Legacy of John Brown

A photograph from the 1800's of John Brown. He has pale skin and black hair cropped short. He's wearing a black jacket and tie. He has very sharp features and deep lines in his face. He has only the faintest smile while looking at the camera.

Something that hasn’t been explored a lot on this blog is historical figures in the social justice world. There is a lot to be learned in the accomplishments of activists of the past, as well as in the present day reactions to these activists’ legacy. Denny Upkins is back with a look at the historical figure John Brown and the importance of facing oppression head-on, without compromise. 

CN: Detailed discussion of racial violence and discrimination, slavery, and the civil war

“For I, John Brown am confident that the crimes of this guilty land can never be atoned for except with blood.”   —John Brown

They say school prepares you for life. In terms of Spartan training to survive in a world of antiblackness, I found this to be true in regard to my time in Catholic school. At eight years old I quickly learned the best way to best racist white students and teachers was to be stronger, faster, smarter, wiser, tougher, more ruthless, and to know how to throw a vicious right hook and a spin kick. Suffice it to say my tenure was reminiscent of the 1992 film School Ties, Marvel’s Daredevil, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I knew how to channel a fellow Catholic, young Matthew Murdock, when half a dozen bullies tried to jump me at recess. Keyword: TRIED. 

Catholic school also taught me war is as much mental as it is physical. In spite of the endless heckles and verbal harassment, in spite of the nearly daily barrage of racist heckling I weathered, I would fire back verbally or silently by proudly brandishing Black History books as my ammunition of choice to their dismay and rage. 

Perhaps the wisest counsel I received was from older Blacks like Nanna who warned me to beware of white friends and allies. When it’s just you and them, most of them will swear undying loyalty but in the event they have to stand with you against other whites, they will turn on you  quicker than Judas and Peter betrayed Jesus. 

February also proved to be a complicated month for this Aquarius. Not only do I share a birthday with Langston Hughes, but being the only Black student in my class, I received extra unwarranted scrutiny throughout Black Excellence Month. Many of my classmates and teachers made it known they resented me for being forced to learn about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. 

Catholic school proved the old adage to be true. Pressure crushes but it also creates diamonds. For this Altar Boy, this ordeal would be the origin of my lifelong edict: #BeYourOwnSuperhero. Yes, Catholic School was the school of hard knocks. It taught me many lessons that would serve me well throughout life. But there was one lesson that eluded me until adulthood. Periodically there were vague references to a white historical figure who triggered as much vitriol from my white classmates’ teachers as King, Parks, or even me: A madman by the name of John Brown.

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The Origins of John Brown

Born on May 9, 1800, in Torrington Connecticut, Brown was the fourth of eight children to Owen Brown and Ruth Mills. In 1805 the family relocated to Hudson, Ohio which was at the time the most anti-slavery region in the country. And yet, despite that, Brown’s father was a prominent abolitionist. In a story he shared with his family, Brown revealed that when he was 12, he worked for a man who brutally beat a young Black boy with an iron shovel. The reason? The child was a slave. Brown shared that witnessing the horrific event galvanized him to dedicate his life to aiding African Americans. Needless to say Brown embraced the family legacy. 

A firebrand Evangelical, Brown knew the Bible from cover to cover and never used tobacco, or drank tea or alcohol. Brown aided the Underground Railroad in getting thousands of escaped slaves safely to Canada. But Brown wasn’t without his faults. For a time he had a problematic mindset that too many white progressives possess; victim-blaming Blacks for our own oppression and paternalistically believing that Blacks could eradicate said oppression simply by not being lazy. 

There is always this societal narrative when it comes to the killing or persecution of Black people that we somehow did something to deserve it.

 —Janaya Khan

A bronze statue of Frederick Douglass, in Central Park in New York City. There are many windows of apartment buildings behind the statue.

However, it was meeting and befriending the likes of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth that aided Brown in evolving past that failed mindset. To Brown’s credit, he bestowed a few lessons of his own. As someone who didn’t hesitate to take up arms, particularly after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, Brown understood that freedom isn’t free, especially in a world built on antiblackness. 

From the night spent with John Brown in Springfield, Mass. in 1847 while I continued to write and speak against slavery I became all the same less hopeful for its peaceful abolition. My utterances became more and more tinged by the color of this man’s strong impressions.

Frederick Douglass

The Raid on Harpers Ferry

In many respects, this development made the 1859 raid at Harpers Ferry an inevitability. The plan? To hijack the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and initiate an uprising by arming slaves. Like many activists of faith, Brown viewed himself as an instrument of God. For him, antislavery was his ministry. Somewhere along the way, Brown went off track and slavery became his obsession, so much so it was the Moby Dick to Brown’s Ahab. The abolitionist envisioned himself as a heavenly prophet who would at the opportune moment and situation strike a definitive blow to slavery and systemic injustice. Point of fact, Brown got his affairs in order over a decade prior to the raid and his subsequent death. Both Tubman and Douglass were asked by Brown to join him in the assault. Tubman was unable to participate due to illness and Douglass declined, deeming it a suicide mission. Brown wouldn’t be deterred from his white whale. As Douglass stated, “His own statement, that [Brown] had been contemplating a bold strike for the freedom of the slaves for ten years, proves that he had resolved upon his present course long before he, or his sons, ever set foot in Kansas.”

The raid was unsuccessful and Brown and his surviving soldiers were captured and put on trial.  Brown was found guilty and was executed on December 2, 1859. Brown lost and failed to fulfill his heavenly mission.

Or did he?

While the Harpers Ferry attack didn’t elicit a favorable outcome, ironically the failure was instrumental in dismantling slavery. The raid, the trial, and Brown himself garnered national notoriety in the press. Above the Mason-Dixon Line, Brown was viewed as a champion and a martyr. However, Southerners deemed Brown the worst possible threat, fearing that others would pick up where Brown left off and arm slaves and incite other revolts. Blacks armed with purpose, righteous rage, and a fully loaded Smith & Weston were too much for the Confederates to process. The raid escalated the South’s timeline and resulted in the South seceding from the Union in 1860, subsequently setting off the Civil War. The rest, as they say, is history. The South was decisively defeated and slavery was abolished, more or less. It can be argued that even in defeat Brown was victorious and fulfilled his destiny.

Look at God. Won’t she do it?

Brown’s Lessons

So what is the final verdict on Brown? Was he a madman, zealot, prophet, martyr, monomaniacal extremist, hero?  To a certain extent, he was likely all of the above. So, why do bigots abhor Brown to the extent they do? Shortly after I graduated from art school, the answer was shared on an online forum that was discussing this abolitionist: 

Brown chose violence. 

More than that, he made the ultimate sacrifice for Black people. The white man isn’t supposed to die for Black people. At most, he’s supposed to tell us what he thinks we want to hear. He’s never supposed to put himself on the line for the greater good. That’s not how it’s supposed to work. That’s the equivalent of defying the laws of thermodynamics. 

A small group of BLM protestors walk down a city street with bandanas over their faces and their hands up in the air. There are both black and white people in the crowd.

When it comes to allyship and measuring allies, Brown is immortalized as the platinum standard that I strive to meet. It’s also the standard by which I measure potential allies.

If you’re not going hard for Black trans girls like Charlize Theron, miss us with the performative pageantry.

If you’re not standing tall for Black co-stars like Jessica Chastain, miss us with the performative spectacle.

If you’re not reminding the world why Black Lives Matter like Father Michael Pfleger, miss us with the performative theatrics.

If you’re not defending Black actresses like Anson Mount, miss us with the performative grandstanding.

If you are not standing up for Black victims like this four-year-old crimefighter, miss us with the performative wokeness. 

Ya can’t reason with evil. Evil wants what it wants and won’t stop until it’s won or ya kill it. The way to kill it is to be meaner than evil. 

—John Dutton, Yellowstone

John Brown is even the platinum by which I judge white characters in the media. If there is one trope more cliche than the Black death, it’s the trope of white protagonists having every excuse in the world not to get justice for their fallen Black comrade, which is why I make note of some of the rare exceptions when they occur: If the British super spy isn’t choosing violence like James Bond did when he avenged his brother Felix Leiter in No Time To Die, miss us with the mediocrity. If the space captain isn’t getting vengeance for her deceased Black female crewmate like Two did in Syfy’s Dark Matter when she slayed the treacherous Mizaki with her own poisoned knife in memory of crewmate and friend Nyx, miss us with the mediocrity. If the super soldier isn’t shedding blood, avenging the murder of his Black best friend, and hunting down the evil forces of Pippi Longstockings as John Walker did in Marvel’s Falcon & The Winter Soldier, miss us with the mediocrity.  

Deceive not yourselves by thinking that another John Brown will not arise. He done more in dying, than 100 men would in living.

— Harriet Tubman

A mural of Harriet Tubman in Cambridge, Maryland, painted by Artist Michael Rosato. Tuban appears to be stepping through the brick wall, extending her hand to you, as if you to pull you to the other side where there is a boat in the river waiting for you.

On another personal note (and to bring this full circle) one can imagine my surprise and joy upon recently learning that one of my oldest and dearest loved ones, Thom, is a direct descendant of the legendary abolitionist. Thom is a gift in his own right and this is too much of a coincidence not to be a heavenly sign of some sort. Providence? Likely. Awesome?  Without question. Life doesn’t lack for harsh lessons. On rare occasions, however, it bestows a rare sign and gift.

The takeaway from all of this?

We need allies who are going to help us achieve a victory, not allies who are going to tell us to be nonviolent. If a white man wants to be your ally, what does he think of John Brown? You know what John Brown did? He went to war. He was a white man who went to war against white people to help free slaves. He wasn’t nonviolent. White people call John Brown a nut. Go read the history, go read what all of them say about John Brown. They’re trying to make it look like he was a nut, a fanatic. They made a movie on it, I saw a movie on the screen one night. Why, I would be afraid to get near John Brown if I go by what other white folks say about him.

But they depict him in this image because he was willing to shed blood to free the slaves. And any white man who is ready and willing to shed blood for your freedom—in the sight of other whites, he’s nuts. As long as he wants to come up with some nonviolent action, they go for that, if he’s liberal, a nonviolent liberal, a love-everybody liberal. But when it comes time for making the same kind of contribution for your and my freedom that was necessary for them to make for their own freedom, they back out of the situation. So, when you want to know good white folks in history where black people are concerned, go read the history of John Brown. That was what I call a white liberal. But those other kind, they are questionable.

So if we need white allies in this country, we don’t need those kind who compromise. We don’t need those kind who encourage us to be polite, responsible, you know. We don’t need those kind who give us that kind of advice. We don’t need those kind who tell us how to be patient. No, if we want some white allies, we need the kind that John Brown was, or we don’t need you. And the only way to get those kind is to turn in a new direction.

― The Original X-Man, First Class, Brother Malcolm 

Choose violence.

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