White abolitionist John Brown was born 120 years ago yesterday. His was a life of many failures: fur trader, business man, and – most notoriously – leader of the failed raid on a federal armory in Harpers Ferry, WV. Historians understand him as an abolitionist, no doubt. But also as a madman, revolutionary, terrorist, and fringe constitutionalist.
Here is a tour through some John Brown art.
The Tragic Prelude mural by John Steuart Curry is perhaps the most common depiction of John Brown. A large print hangs in the final room of the cramped John Brown Museum in Harpers Ferry. A renowned artist before this piece, Curry accepted the invitation to paint an historical mural for the Kansas statehouse under certain conditions: the content of the piece would be up to him, and nobody would have outside influence. The finished product is one of dichotomies. On the left: tornado, union flag, union soldiers. On the right: fire ablaze, confederate flag, confederate soldiers.
An oversized Brown stands between the dichotomy and holds one of his own: gun in one hand, bible in the other.
In Rethinking Regionalism: John Steuart Curry and the Kansas Mural Controversy, M. Sue Kendall shares that Curry would never see his mural hung in the Kansas state capital. The commissioners and lawmakers thought the piece depicted Kansas as dangerous and fanatical. Why would they hang it in public? It wasn’t until after Curry’s death in 1946 the piece went up.
For me, this depiction of Brown has always been a bit too bombastic: the oversized figure acting alone, tearing the country apart. Like any effective white activist, Brown never acted alone as a white savior.
My favorite work is The Legend of John Brown series by painter Jacob Lawrence. Originally made as gouache paintings in 1941, he redid them into 22 screen prints in the 1970s. I believe the series is the only depiction of Brown by an African American artist. A rather lengthy description accompanies each piece. My favorite is the first one below. The dichotomy in Curry’s piece is at work here too. On the left: guns and ammo. On the right: a cross and bible. Brown hunkers over the map, planning.
John Brown, after long meditation, planned to fortify himself somewhere in the mountains of Virginia or Tennessee and there make raids on surrounding plantations, freeing slaves.
These pieces capture that Brown neither planned nor acted alone. He consulted with many abolitionists – including Frederick Douglass – some of whom tried to persuade him not to go through with raids in Kansas and Virginia. The gentleman on the right – with hands on his head – might be one of them. I hear his reaction as, “Oh my god! I cannot believe what he is planning!”
To the people he found worthy of trust, he communicated his plans.
And finally, John Brown’s execution.
John Brown was found “Guilty of treason and murder in the 1st degree” and was hanged in Charles Town, Virginia on December 2, 1859
More recently is Post-Apocalypse John Brown by John Osborne (2013), which extends the bible X gun imagery of Curry’s mural with some Walking Dead horror aesthetics. John Brown as Rick Grimes certainly works on many levels: leader, tactician, hunter. But it also puts before us something else I think horror scholars have explored: zombies as metaphor for white supremacists.
And from 2017 is John Brown Selfie by another Kansas artist, Nell King. It looks like you can get this one on a shirt, mug, or print. I’m all for John Brown with a hipster beard and some swollen forearms, but the piece carries a certain critique of white virtue signaling in the online selfie era. History suggests to us that JB would not be posting selfies with a BLM shirt. He’d likely be hugging the bottom of the metal flagpole like James Tyson to prevent Bree Newson from getting electrocuted by police tasers while she takes down a confederate flag.
Since fonts and typesets are also art, this one counts too. John Brown wrote a provisional constitution that was to take effect after his successful raid. Who would do such a thing? Some historians (and even his lawyer) interpreted this document to suggest that Brown was delusional or straight up insane. The sharpest account of John Brown I know is David S. Reynolds’s John Brown: Abolitionist. John Brown wasn’t insane, Reynolds argues. His whole life, he was a man of sterling conviction and idealism – which most certainly led to his failures and the provisional constitution. Anyway, here is the first page of it, which, according to Article 1, sets everybody, essentially, free:
All persons of mature age, whether proscribed, oppressed, and enslaved citizens, or of the proscribed and oppressed races of the United States, who shall agree to sustain and enforce the Provisional Constitution and Ordinances of this organization, together with all minor children of such persons, shall be held to be fully entitled to protection under the same.
Reading: Still working through Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy – a brutal read in itself, made even more brutal this week by the murder committed by Gregory and Travis McMichael.
Writing: An array of small things as the semester is almost done: letters of recommendation, internal reports, etc.
Listening: Digging into the incredible work of Kahil El’Zabar.
Making: Found a bit of time to make another beat and put come cuts on it. Working to get proper bass lines in order.