A new exhibit on the white anti-slavery activist John Brown opens today at the New-York Historical society, 150 years (minus a month and a day) after he tried to start a slave uprising at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Brown was executed in December 1859 for his role in that raid, but his actions — at Harper’s Ferry and before — helped to spark the Civil War.
I’ve got a photo on my bookshelf, in a carved wooden frame I bought at a rummage sale. The photo is actually a postcard, though it’s been trimmed down and you can’t really tell.
It’s this photo. John Brown, swearing an oath.
John Brown was an abolitionist, of course, and that’s part of why I like him. But I’ve never really been explicit about why I like him so much, why I’m drawn to him as opposed to any other white abolitionist. I think I just figured it out, though.
In 1856 John Brown went to Kansas, where pro-slavery and anti-slavery whites were fighting. He wanted to intervene on the side of righteousness, and he did. He went to Kansas and he killed a bunch of white people. He killed white people who were standing in the way of racial justice.
Three years later, with the Civil War looming, he acted again. This time he raided a federal arsenal to try to liberate weapons for a slave uprising. He was caught, and hanged.
The photo I have is of the John Brown of 1856. (By 1859 he had a huge flowing beard.) The Brown in my photo was the Brown who saw racism and went to Kansas.
Now, I’m not big on killing people. Not at all. Not even in my most ludicrous fantasies of radical action am I big on killing people. It’s never particularly been the killing people part that attracted me to Brown.
It’s more, I think, that he went into the white community first. It sounds weird, phrased like that, since his work with white people consisted of murdering them, but that’s what he did. He took his whiteness and he used it in the service of racial justice, used it to do what a black person couldn’t have done, used it in his own community.
When I look at that photo in that frame, I’m reminded that I’m white. I’m reminded that whiteness is an identity, one among many. I’m reminded that whiteness is specific, not generic. And I’m reminded that as a white man, I’ve got important work to do.