On October 18, the third episode of SHOWTIME’s television adaptation of the book The Good Lord Bird aired what may be the most provocative episode in the series about Christian abolitionist John Brown.
In the episode titled “Mister Fred,” Ethan Hawke’s John Brown, accompanied by his young Black companion, Onion (played by Joshua Caleb Johnson), travel to see Frederick Douglass at his home in Rochester, New York. The episode features some sympathetic moments between Brown and Onion as they travel by train to western New York, but the story is centered solidly upon Douglass, an old friend who has access to deep pockets—access that Brown wants to gain in support of his intended raid in Virginia.
In the episode, however, it is clear that Douglass is irritated by Brown, thinking him both an ally and a “lunatic.” Douglass is played by Daveed Diggs in satirical fashion as a kind of self-made aristocrat, easily insulted when he is not addressed appropriately by Onion, and somewhat whining and petulant too. When Brown and Onion enter the Douglass household, tensions immediately arise between Douglass, who is put off by Brown’s violence in Kansas, and who clearly finds Brown’s intentions unacceptable. To complicate the story, Douglass’s wife Anna (played by Tamberla Perry) is pro-Brown, while his European female associate, Ottilie (played by Lex King), is anti-Brown and openly calls Brown insane at the dinner table. The episode ends with Brown and Onion leaving Douglass’s home without knowing if the “King of the Negroes” will help him.
At first glance, the story is irreverent if not silly. It is more than hinted that Douglass is sleeping under the same roof with both his wife Anna and his German friend, Ottilie. Meanwhile, Hawke’s John Brown—wide-eyed and somewhat out of place in a formal setting, sits at the dinner table and combs his mustache with his fork. Afterward, frustrated by having to make a decision about helping Brown, Douglass whines and gets into a drinking binge with Onion, who watches as Ottilie and Anna take turns trying to ply their charms to persuade him.
This satire is not without some basis in history, although it is disrespectful and grossly exaggerated. Douglass had close relationships with two European women who were very helpful to his abolition work. Julia Griffiths, an Englishwoman, actually lived with the Douglass family, but there is no reason to think that she and Douglass were sexually involved. But the character Ottilie was a real woman in Douglass’ life. Ottilie Assing was a Jewish woman of German nationality, a journalist who fell head over heels for the handsome orator and devoted her life to advancing his career. Assing was very helpful in exposing Douglass to literary and political figures in her home in Hoboken, New Jersey. It seems quite likely that she and Douglass had an affair, although Douglass was not willing to pursue their romantic connection and kept Ottilie at arm’s length while continuing for years to draw upon her literary expertise and social connections. Assing tried to turn Douglass into an atheist and probably hoped to replace his wife too, but he never took the bait. Sadly, in later years she proved a forlorn suicide.
However, the irreverence and daring of “Mister Fred,” written by playwright Jeff Augustin and actor-writer Erika Johnson, both Black, is not the gist of the episode. Reviewer Pathikrit Sanyal thus observes that Augustin and Johnson want to remind us that “despite his admirable intentions, Brown suffered from a savior complex that needed checks every now and then.”
As a biographer of Brown with a good sense of how the Black community has viewed him over the years, it seems to me that “The Good Lord Bird” tends to reflect a contemporary Black cynicism without historical precedent. Suspicion of Brown’s motivations, either as an icon or as an historical figure, has become more familiar in our time. For instance, portrayals of Brown by the artist Kara Walker are iconoclastic in comparison to the admiring work of early-to-mid-twentieth century artists like Horace Pippin and Jacob Lawrence. In her book, A Curse Upon the Nation, historian Kay Wright Lewis conveys disdain toward Brown, viewing him as a paternalistic racist whose plans were more important to him than the lives of Black people who would suffer the backlash of his efforts. In the “Mister Fred” episode, Augustin and Johnson make the same charge: either Brown is a “lunatic” or he is a “White savior” that needs to be put in his place—and maybe both.
In the John Brown community of scholars and artists, perhaps we have all been somewhat distracted by the way “The Good Lord Bird” portrays Brown as unhinged. But what I am increasingly finding as a point of interest is the unabashed manner in which the Black characters in the series respond to Brown with cynicism and even contempt. Indeed, the voiceover by Onion at the beginning of the series states that some Black people “hated” Brown because he thought of himself as some kind of White savior—a claim that has no basis in the historical record. Thus, in “Mister Fred,” Douglass lashes out at dinner when Brown expresses his belief that enslaved Blacks will support his effort. Douglass scolds Brown, effectively telling him that he, Frederick Douglass, not Brown, has the right to speak to what the slaves think.
What underlies the contemporary cynicism toward John Brown among some Black artists and writers? Perhaps it reflects the fatigue and disgust with how Whites have for so long narrated Black history to Black people. Furthermore, the pushback (with the support of Trump) against “The 1619 Project” is part of a larger problem—how far should White people go sticking their noses in Black people’s business, historical or otherwise? Perhaps, too, tongue-lashing John Brown is a reflection of the necessary pushback represented by the Black Lives Matter movement, including the literal iconoclasm of rebel monuments and statues of other pro-slavery Whites. But Brown was an antislavery hero. Why is he resented?
This past summer, at the Vermont Law School, a group of students called for a series of murals celebrating the underground railroad to be removed. The murals, painted in the early 1990s, are arguably positive and fairly conventional representations of White antislavery figures as well as scenes of Black enslavement. But students were offended by the images. “The white people painted in an abolitionist role have white skin,” writes a local reporter. The students thus complained that the mural, painted by a White man, “perpetuates white supremacy, superiority, and the white savior complex.” The group’s demand, which the school has chosen to honor, is to remove the murals and have new murals completed by a Black artist. John Brown was in the original murals, but his image may either be relegated to a marginal place or omitted altogether.
The artistic and historical cynicism of some Blacks toward Brown is unpleasant to his admirers, but it may be necessary in order to engage questions that are historical as well as contemporary. Did John Brown actually have a “savior complex?” Biographically speaking, he was a Christian who was convinced that he was “called” by God to work for the destruction of slavery. Is this the same as having a “white savior complex?” Perhaps, but it should be remembered that the plight of Blacks in the antebellum era left little room for a Black savior of any kind.
Frederick Douglass was perhaps the closest and he chose oratory over militancy. Not only did the real Douglass not call Brown a “lunatic” or accuse him of getting out of line, but he wrote in a published letter that Brown, “though a white gentleman. . . is in sympathy a black man, and as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery.” If Douglass thought Brown had a “white savior complex,” he never said so on the record, during or after Brown’s time. In fact, no narrator more respected and reverenced John Brown than Frederick Douglass. Historically speaking, the record of Black contemporaries, as well as historians and activists over 161 years, is overwhelmingly admiring of Brown, at least as a grand exception.
Still, “The Good Lord Bird” may be a reminder that for almost any White person whoever put him/herself in a place of “helping,” “supporting,” or “fighting for” Blacks, there are risks and considerations. Certainly, there is a long history of white paternalism and the “white savior” syndrome, from politics to Christian ministry. Black people have good reason to feel cynical toward White do-gooders, including “racial reconciliation” storm troopers who are convinced they are on a mission from God. This is why I typically suggest that it is Whites, not Blacks, who need to pay the most attention to John Brown.
Contrary to the conventional notions of many White historians, it was his devotion to Black liberation that may yet provide the best model for authentic allies today. “I could live for the slave,” Frederick Douglass declared in an 1881 speech. “But [John Brown] could die for him. The crown of martyrdom is high . . . and yet happily no special greatness or superior moral excellence is necessary to discern and . . . appreciate a truly great soul.” A great soul is hard to come by in any skin. In the struggle against racism, then, may God grant us more great souls.
Editor’s note: Dr. Louis DeCaro Jr. has served as an advisor to Faithfully Magazine.