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‘The Good Lord Bird’ and Why Christian Abolitionist John Brown Matters

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SHOWTIME’s seven-part series, “The Good Lord Bird,” presents a quasi-historical version of the story of abolitionist John Brown (starring Ethan Hawke as Brown), Daveed Diggs (as abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass), and Joshua Caleb Johnson as Henry “Onion” Shackleford, a fictional young man who provides the narrative voice. SHOWTIME presents the series as “a humorous, dramatic and historical tapestry of Antebellum America,” following the book upon which it is based, the award-winning fiction, The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride (2013).

SHOWTIME has introduced the series as “an adventure [that’s] equal parts absurd and tragic,” but Hawke, the driving force that brought McBride’s story to television, has higher aspirations for “The Good Lord Bird.” In a number of interviews, Hawke holds forth the belief that humor is a better vehicle to convey the drama because the story of slavery in the United States is so challenging. In an interview with Jimmy Fallon this past May, Hawke referred to the series as “hysterically funny,” as if “Richard Pryor and Red Foxx got together and told you the story of John Brown.” Actually, Hawke is only following the lead of McBride, who wrote The Good Lord Bird. “I hate books that tell me what I should know and tell me how to feel,” McBride told an NPR interviewer in 2013. Hawke brought the same philosophy to his television adaptation. “I’m not playing some library version of John Brown,” he said in a SHOWTIME behind-the-television interview. Still, Hawke clearly admires Brown and wants viewers to know his antislavery story. “There’s something about John Brown,” Hawke says, “who was fervent with the truth.”

As a biographer and student of John Brown’s life and letters, I have devoted many years to this work, including my own extended account of his last days as a prisoner in Virginia. One will understand, then, why Hawke’s project strikes me as the proverbial glass half-full. Yes, humor can be a powerful means to convey truth. The problem is that John Brown is an historical figure who is still recovering from a long history of misrepresentation and prejudice on the part of writers in the 20th century, especially the portrayal of him as being insane or a terrorist. The McBride-Hawke perspective on Brown is a rejoinder to the biases of older anti-Brown narratives. Yet, the humorous approach translated for television is that Brown was goofy, a kind of American Don Quixote. In one SHOWTIME trailer, “Onion,” a young Black man in disguise as a girl, says that Brown is “nuttier than squirrel turd.”

Historically, Brown’s alleged insanity was first a strategy on the part of allies to get his death sentence commuted in Virginia, an unsuccessful ploy that he despised. In the 20th century, Civil War historians and Lincoln adulators renewed the “crazy” notion without evidence. In more recent years, some writers have attempted to render Brown as emotionally unstable, but in fact he was even-tempered and by all accounts reflected a solace of the soul that should typify the Christian life. It was only slavery and racism that made him rage—and rage he did. However, I hardly think this makes him crazy.

The Good Lord Bird Hawke Faithfully Magazine
(L-R) Jasmine Shea as Temperance Lee, Vince Eisenson as Deacon Lee, and Ethan Hawke as John Brown in “The Good Lord Bird.” Photo: William Gray/SHOWTIME)

John Brown was a devout Reformed evangelical, an expert in fine sheep and wool, and a devoted family man. His difficulties with business have usually been taken out of the context of the difficult economic landscape that ruined so many people in the antebellum era. Likewise, his resort to violence in the Kansas territory, including Brown’s role in killing five proslavery thugs in 1856, has typically been portrayed as if to criminalize him, although in reality his was a desperate response to the reigning proslavery terrorism that had invaded the territory. Indeed, Brown was a counterterrorist, forced to strike out because he and his family had no recourse to protection from the law.

Brown’s objective was to destabilize and paralyze slavery until he had broken the economic backbone of the South.

In 1859, Brown seized the armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (today West Virginia), one of only two federal armories in the nation. He took slaveholders as fugitives in order to exchange them for enslaved men, and then planned to retreat to the nearby mountains. It was his intention to start a movement by attracting enslaved people throughout the South and throwing the operations of slavery into confusion, fighting only when necessary. However, his tactical errors and extended delay in town resulted in his defeat. Although charged with “insurrection” by the State of Virginia, evidence defies the term as Brown himself did in court. Insurrection by definition is servile war, the goal of which is to wipe out slaveholders. Brown’s objective was to destabilize and paralyze slavery until he had broken the economic backbone of the South. Before he went to the gallows in 1859, Brown wrote that he had overestimated his hope that slavery could be ended with “very little bloodshed,” as his plan had entailed.

This is the John Brown of history, the man that I know from the record. The problem with “The Good Lord Bird” is that, not only is Hawke spoofing history, but he is also spoofing a questionable caricature of Brown that McBride failed to evaluate. Certainly, there often has been a wide rift between the ways that White and Black writers have narrated Brown’s story. In this regard, at least McBride bequeathed a more sympathetic view to Hawke than might have come from other writers. Likewise, to Hawke’s credit, he is himself a very thoughtful student of the culture of the United States. “Most people are not taught very much John Brown,” Hawke has observed, “because if you teach John Brown, then you are teaching that the Civil War was over slavery.”

We are not at the place as a nation—certainly not in the current digression of the Trump era—where we can laugh our way to better understanding our nation’s past.

This is all well and good, but one must question whether a tragicomedy about Brown can possibly do justice to his story, not to mention that of Frederick Douglass, who also is spoofed, being portrayed irreverently as petulant, even calling Brown a “lunatic” under his breath, something Douglass would never have done. Nor is the “The Good Lord Bird” the first to use satire to questionable effect in addressing slavery. In the 1971 movie, “Skin Game,” the story of a White and Black con duo operating in the Slave South also used a comedic “buddy” story, likewise featuring a vignette of a crazy-dangerous John Brown. But do such portrayals really serve the best interests of history and society?

The truth is that chattel slavery is a travesty of our nation’s history and the foundation of racial injustice and white supremacy today. We are not at the place as a nation—certainly not in the current digression of the Trump era—where we can laugh our way to better understanding our nation’s past. Furthermore, one wonders if taking such a blithe approach is itself indicative of depreciating the crime against Black people in a way that would never be done in the case of other monstrous injustices. Imagine, for instance, if one were to use the McBride-Hawke approach to Nazi Germany and the plight of the Jews. Quentin Tarantino has done so in his fictional “Inglorious Basterds”, but his Nazi-killing protagonist, Lt. Aldo Raine, is more fun than funny, and certainly not crazy. After all, everyone knows that killing Nazis is perfectly sane. But when it comes to fighting the slaveholding ancestors of Whites in the United States, the most zealous freedom fighter must also be “nutty.”

The Good Lord Bird Douglass Faithfully Magazine
Daveed Diggs as Frederick Douglass and Tamberla Perry as Anna Douglass in “The Good Lord Bird.” (Photo: William Gray/SHOWTIME)

The idea that we can chuckle down the hard pill of historical truth relating to John Brown and slavery is disconcerting to me, not only because it smacks of the elevation of amusement above education, but also because this nation has never had a proper understanding of Brown, nor has it ever officially apologized for what it did to millions of African people. Certainly, those of us working in this field have known it to be an uphill battle to the very present hour because of the prejudice and misinformation that permeates popular and academic thinking about Brown.

This is particularly frustrating to me as a Christian biographer, knowing that John Brown was neither insane nor unstable, and that as a Christian, he was one of a small number of evangelicals in that era whose devotion to Black equality and abolition outstrips notable evangelical heroes like slaveholding Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. Even when evangelicals celebrate human rights heroes, they always skip over Brown, preferring to celebrate William Wilberforce in England or Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany. In the U.S., the evangelical opinion of Brown is largely negative or nonexistent. (It would be interesting, for instance, to discern how many of the conservative evangelical leaders supporting Trump are themselves the direct descendants of slaveholders.)

Certainly, Brown represents a clear voice of dissent from the status quo of White Evangelical Christianity prior to the Civil War. Before his execution in Virginia, Brown thus wrote to an associate: “These ministers who profess to be Christian, and hold slaves or advocate slavery, I cannot abide them. My knees will not bend in prayer with them while their hands are stained with the blood of souls.”

John Brown Abolitionist Faithfully Magazine
John Brown (Credit: Library of Congress/Augustus Washington, created between 1846 and 1847)

I intend to watch every episode of “The Good Lord Bird,” and despite my appreciation of the best intentions of Ethan Hawke, the following points will remain relevant to both my criticisms and my apprehensions about this series:

  • Brown was a decent man who represents whatever good may be found in the history of the United States. While not without faults, Brown exemplified the idea of the good neighbor, the proverbial Good Samaritan, and a man who invested his life in community, education, church, and nation. There was not a selfish bone in his body by all accounts.
  • Brown is one of a minority of White people who does not conform to the normative White supremacist history of this nation. While his ideas about resolving slavery changed toward militancy over the arc of his life, he was always an advocate of Black and native equality and had contempt for racial prejudice and racism as he observed them in his time.
  • Brown was an evangelical Christian man, and so I count him a brother in Christ and, according to my theological and spiritual beliefs, expect to meet him in the regeneration to come (Mat. 19). Since he is part of what we Christians call the body of Christ, I am jealous for his inclusion in the history of Christianity, and I am suing for his place in the narrative of Christianity in the United States, since he has been deprived of it by standard White church historians and theologians.
  • On the basis of the first three points, I believe I have a vocational obligation to provide a historical and biographical argument in Brown’s defense. I am not engaged in saint-making or hero worship. I’m not interested in proving he was “the greatest” or was without sin. But given that he has been diminished consistently and even slandered by historians in the academy and by rightwing Christian romancers of the South, the work of reflecting upon John Brown is replete with controversy in a way that does not challenge most biographers and historians.
  • Brown had a deeply embedded, life-long commitment to the struggle for justice. He was a “holistic theology” guy in that he reacted against any expression of injustice. He fought for economic justice for poor settlers and wool growers against powerful men in high places; he assisted the Fox and Sauk Nation in the Kansas territory by driving out White squatters from their lands; and he was completely taken up with trying to assist and support Black people. The suicide of his White privilege ultimately cost his life and the lives of three sons, and exacted a great cost from his widow and family.
  • Brown’s legacy is so closely bound up with the Black struggle that every Black writer and orator well into the twentieth century included him as an ally. Black Nationalists Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X tipped their hats to Brown, as did James Baldwin and John O. Killens, the most blunt-speaking critics of White society. Consequently, the assault and diminishment of Brown by Whites often was reflective of the successive periods in which Blacks were betrayed, terrorized, segregated, and disenfranchised by White society. Today, some of the most harsh critics of “The 1619 Project” are prone to disdain and depreciate John Brown.
  • Thus, the argument for John Brown’s meaning and legacy is the argument that all justice-loving people are once more fighting with the forces of racist repression and top-down economic domination. To appreciate what Brown believed and tried to accomplish is to reject President Donald Trump’s “MAGA”slogan and the attempts on the part of Trump and Betsy DeVos to force the teaching of our nation’s history to conform to their white supremacist narrative. I’d almost say that if you don’t “get” John Brown, you don’t know the real history of the United States either.

In the closing lines of my book, John Brown Speaks: Letters and Statements from Charlestown, I make this concluding argument: “[After John Brown,] it would not be until Martin Luther King Jr. that the United States would once more hear a patently Christian voice challenge racial oppression with such power and clarity amidst great controversy, nor witness a man whose last breath virtually bespoke the poor and the oppressed.”

To be sure, Hawke “gets” the significance of John Brown and how his story inevitably reveals the problem of the foundations of the United States. “It’s upsetting to realize,” Hawke says, “that this country that you love has been built on really damning crimes.” But given the gravity of this realization, then, can the people of this nation afford to go laughing down the lane of burlesqued history, especially when we have yet to substantially reevaluate the hackneyed “official” narrative conveyed by conventional writers?

Over the past two decades, a number of efforts were initiated to make a John Brown movie, including Martin Scorcese’s intention of doing an adaptation of Cloudsplitter (1998) for HBO, another award-winning John Brown fiction by Russell Banks. While that project never materialized, the success of “The Good Lord Bird” demonstrates our dependence on the fiction-to-television curriculum. As Neil Postman warned a generation ago in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), television has increasingly overtaken public communication, distorting everything from politics to faith. It has certainly distorted John Brown.

Perhaps some will argue that at least “The Good Lord Bird” replaces “bad crazy” Brown with a “good crazy” Brown—the bothersome misanthrope on the right side of history. But this is hardly satisfactory. “The Good Lord Bird” does not provide the Brown that I have come to know as his biographer. It does not even portray Brown as he was understood by W.E.B. DuBois and James Baldwin and Black people generally for generations—quite in contrast to the cynical attitudes that Blacks show toward Brown in the series.

Of course, I am going to watch “The Good Lord Bird,” and will do so with a good dose of John Brown’s optimism. Like him, I will hope for the best. But I’ll also follow his advice and “keep my powder dry,” just in case the story goes south (no pun intended). I owe Old Brown at least that much.

Editor’s note: Dr. Louis DeCaro Jr. has served as an advisor to Faithfully Magazine.

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Louis DeCaro Jr.
Louis DeCaro Jr.
Louis DeCaro, Jr., Ph.D., is professor of Christian history and theology at Alliance Theological Seminary in New York City, and is the author of a number of religiously-oriented biographies of abolitionist John Brown and human rights activist Malcolm X (NYU Press). His latest effort, released this month by NYU Press, is The Untold Story of Shields Green: The Life and Death of a Harper’s Ferry Raider. DeCaro blogs on all things John Brown at “John Brown the Abolitionist: A Biographer’s Blog.” DeCaro is also an Advisor at Faithfully Magazine.


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