Our Harpers Ferry Moment?
If I mention the name of John Brown my guess is that your reaction might be some vague recollection of a “madman” who attempted to lead a Slave Rebellion at the Federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia in 1859 --- one of the final sparks that led to the Civil War. Folks who fancy themselves “history buffs” will recall that Brown’s attempt at insurrection was put down by a Union Army complement led by one Robert E. Lee (which is true). What I would recommend is that you read James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me --- not only to gain a more realistic perspective on John Brown but on all of American History, since most people’s view of the subject comes from mass-produced high school textbooks which, as Loewen clearly elucidates, give a piss-poor rendition of their subject.
I won’t go off the rails here complaining about the textbook industry in this country but suffice it to say that when it comes to United States History, the goal of the publishers is to create a book which is the least offensive to the most buyers, and presents a “narrative” that attempts to be “multicultural” while still hewing to the basic white, male patriarchal narratives we all know. Sure, there are sidebars and inserts to “recognize the achievements” of Blacks, Native Americans, Asian-Americans, Latinx people, women, various immigrant groups and, now, the LGBTQ community --- but the driving narrative in textbooks is the story of the straight white men who “built” America. In examining the handling of John Brown, Loewen writes: “textbooks treat slavery without racism, they treat abolitionism without much idealism.” Loewen’s extensive review of U.S. History books notes: “From 1890 to 1970, John Brown was insane. Before 1890 he was perfectly sane, and after 1970 he has slowly been regaining his sanity.” This shifting narrative was always adjusted to fit a broader cultural goal. Nowhere in our textbooks do we find any mention of John Brown’s adherence to racial idealism --- a genuine and sincere belief that Blacks and Whites should be treated equally as children of God. Nowhere do we find him characterized heroically as a White Person who supported Black people and was willing to die to move American society toward its declared goal of “all men” being “created equal.” Nonetheless, John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry had an impact of seismic proportion and may well be the historical touchstone we should look to in 2020, as the George Floyd murder continues to bring protestors out in the street.
In 1859, after his capture, John Brown was asked about “race relations” in the United States. His response: “this question is still to be settled.” Indeed. As Loewen notes in Lies My Teacher Told Me:
Brown’s ideological influence in the month before his hanging, and continuing after his death, was immense. He moved the boundary of acceptable thoughts and deeds regarding slavery . . . In his 1859 trial he captured the attention of the nation like no other abolitionist or slave owner before or since. . . . Brown argued ‘Had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, it would have been all right. . . Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say, let it be done.’ Brown’s willingness to go to the gallows for what he thought was right had a moral force of its own. . . . Henry David Thoreau observed in a eulogy in Boston. ‘These men, in teaching us how to die, have at the same time, taught us how to live.’” (bold, mine)
Looking at this example, doesn’t it seem that George Floyd’s death is, indeed, our John Brown/Harpers Ferry moment? Floyd’s death has “moved the boundary of acceptable thoughts and deeds” to not only levels of protest we haven’t seen in a generation but also created a legitimate challenge to the white-privileged system we have never seen before. And it is here that I will bring our narrative back to Ignatiev’s and Garvey’s Race Traitor. In 1996 they said:
The existence of the white race depends on the willingness of those assigned to it to place their racial interests above class, gender, or any other interests they hold. The defection of enough of its members to make it unreliable as a determinant of behavior will set off tremors that will lead to its collapse. (p.10)
We are now seeing that increasing numbers of “defectors” may well be creating those “tremors” of change.
A quarter-century ago Ignatiev and Garvey also presciently predicted our current moment. Here’s what they wrote:
It is our faith --- and with those who do not share it we shall not argue --- that the majority of so-called whites in this country are neither deeply nor consciously committed to white supremacy; like most human beings in most times and places, they would do the right thing, if it were convenient. As did their counterparts before the Civil War, most go along with a system that disturbs them, because the consequences of challenging it are terrifying. They close their eyes to what is happening around them, because it is easier not to know.
At rare moments their nervous peace is shattered, their certainty is shaken, and they are compelled to question the common sense by which they normally live. One such moment was in the days immediately following the Rodney King verdict, when a majority of white Americans were willing to admit to polltakers that black people had good reasons to rebel, and some joined them. (bold, mine)
If we substitute “George Floyd” for “Rodney King” --- and consider how cell-phone videos have, time and again, shown everyone the violence Black (and other non-white Americans) are confronted with on a regular basis --- we can better understand the current moment. Again, as Race Traitor said in 1996:
The moments when the routine assumptions of race break down are the seismic promise that somewhere in the tectonic flow a new fault is building up pressure, a new Harpers Ferry is being prepared. Its nature and timing cannot be predicted but of its coming we have no doubt. When it comes it will set off a series of tremors that will lead to the disintegration of the white race. (bold, mine)
Black Lives Matter has lately gained majority acceptance and it makes the weak attempts at claiming “All Lives Matter” (a given, and a lame counterpoint) or “Blue Lives Matter” (were the police ever endangered?) all the more toothless. If we put what’s going on in more of a “Big Picture” context --- looking back to the 19th century --- George Floyd’s murder does seem to be our “Harpers Ferry” moment. Starting with 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education school de-segregation ruling, the first thread of white supremacy and white privilege was pulled. Over the next 66 years we have inexorably moved toward our current situation. Just as the Abolitionist movement began to gain serious momentum with William Lloyd Garrison’s publishing The Liberator in 1831, the path to racial justice takes a generation (or two) to move forward (All Northern states had abolished slavery by 1804). In the 19th century conflicts between North and South became more and more intense between 1831 and 1861 --- leading to the Compromise of 1850, “Bloody Kansas” and the Dred Scott decision (which ruled Blacks could never be citizens of the United States) and culminating with the raid on Harpers Ferry (1859) and the assault on Fort Sumter (1861), igniting the Civil War.
Since Brown v. Board of Education, we have watched Martin Luther King, Jr. issue his “I Have a Dream” speech, Lyndon Johnson commandeer passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts (gutted by the Roberts Court), and predictable, periodic “uprisings” demanding equal justice (like the Los Angeles riots in 1992, after the Rodney King/police verdict). We have watched police departments become more and more militarized in the last 30 years, with increased criminalization of Black and Brown people under the guise of a “war on drugs” or decreasing “gang” (thug) activity. The advent of smartphone video has revealed to all of America what Black people have been decrying for generations --- there is systemic police (and vigilante) violence wrought upon people-of-color. George Floyd’s brutal killing might finally be the straw that breaks the back of the white-privilege camel. We can only hope that these “tremors” (which Ignatiev and Garvey anticipated) are the beginning of a movement, not a “moment,” signaling the end of the “white race” and a move toward all of us joining a united Human Race.