RACE TRAITOR - treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity
 

Comment
Regarding John Brown: A Response to Tamara Nopper's "An Open Letter to 'White Anti-Racists'"
By Louis A. DeCaro Jr., author of Fire From the Mideast of You: A Religious Life of John Brown (NYU, 2002).

While I, like the editor of Race Traitor, also agree with Tamara Nopper’s views, her paragraph regarding John Brown merits extensive criticism. First, on a somewhat academic note, she writes that W.E.B. Du Bois’s John Brown (1909) was “less of a biography and more of an interpretation.” It should be pointed out to her that all biography is interpretation--so there is nothing “more or less” about it.

Secondly, as to Brown himself, there is no doubt that he approached the struggle with flaws both personal and ideological. He certainly imposed his own political ideas about the strategy of struggle upon black Canadian expatriates, for instance, some of whom resented the idea of fighting under the banner of the US as Brown insisted. “Upper case” Black intellectuals sometimes isolate and identify this tendency in Brown as an aspect of white supremacist thinking. But from this biographer’s perspective, I doubt it. John Brown was (to both his credit and his fault) generally insistent that his word be the first and last in any effort, whether in family, business, or in struggle against slavery. His own brother chided him from childhood concerning this “imperious” tendency, and he himself acknowledged it. So it is arguably improper, or at least inexact, for Nopper and other stringent critics like herself to racialize Brown’s tendency in this case.

Nopper also says that Brown had “fucked-up views that Blacks were still enslaved because they were too ‘servile.’” To borrow from her own phrasing, this is interpretation more than biography. Brown indeed held strong opinions about the lack of militance in some quarters of the black community, especially among those living in the racist North. We may debate both the legitimacy of those opinions, or (as I suspect is the case with Nopper) whether he even had the right to hold opinions about blacks. Brown was apparently not sophisticated enough to realize that holding opinions about blacks made him a white supremacist, and that it was the epitome of “white” hubris for him to interact and collaborate with blacks from the standpoint of leadership. Of course, had he waited to be led by his famous black colleagues, it is doubtful that any of his militant pursuits would even have taken place.

Furthermore, Brown hardly held that the enslaved “were too ‘servile.’” Indeed, he assumed that the enslaved would rise up when appropriately armed, and then sought to do so. He had not only studied the record of enslaved peoples in world history, but had paid special attention to the record of historic and contemporary militant black efforts, including the Haitian triumph under Toussaint L’Ouverture. Indeed, Brown assumed and expected that enslaved black men and women would fight.

Nopper’s analysis and criticism are profound and justifiably exacting in many respects. But her judgmental remarks about John Brown (and by implication the other “white” men who died with him in the effort) are inexact and “historically speaking,” perfidious. Of course, I am not suggesting that Nopper owes her “gratitude” to Brown, or that she must otherwise pat him on the back in retrospect. (And I doubt that Brown himself would desire that.) But clearly, in her ideological world, “whites” are to be seen and not heard, and not speak unless spoken to. They are not even allowed to hold opinions and should accordingly “fuck off” if they do. Hers is a world where even John Brown is offensive.

Indeed, contrary to what even appears to be a concession on her part, Brown did far more than illustrate the impotency of “moral persuasion” (known as “moral suasion” in his own time) as an antislavery weapon. In life he modeled a caring, principled ethos to which his entire lifestyle and family were committed, and for which they materially and socially sacrificed a great deal. Ultimately, Brown and three sons gave up literally everything including their lives in an attempt to both oppose chattel slavery and uplift the humanity of blacks in a unabashedly racist society. They did so based on the best intentions that any humans could muster, including their own personal spiritualities. If that is not good enough for critics like Nopper, then I suspect nothing will be.

In the struggle for justice, leadership and vision are neither color--nor politically--bounded. Notwithstanding the truth of Nopper’s somewhat vulgar jeremiad, in the long run, revolutions are first won in the hearts of the principled people who rise up first--often alone and imperfectly--to fight and lead. Paternalistic white activists and resentful upper-case Black critics notwithstanding, one good John Brown is worth an army of righteously indignant commentators.

Louis A. DeCaro, Jr.