John Brown, by WEB DuBois *****

johnbrownThe class I took in college that featured John Brown as a small figure in American contemporary history dismissed him fairly quickly. He meant well, but was not stable, they said; in the end, he took extreme, hopeless measures that were destined for doom. He remained a hero to Black families (they admitted), South and North alike, as the first Caucasian man who was willing to die for the rights of Black people. Whereas many White folks (those with enough money for a fireplace and a portrait to go over it) featured a family ancestor or a painting of George Washington, Black homes often had a picture of John Brown.

The problem with that education is that no African-American scholars were included in this very central, pivotal part of the prelude to the American Civil War. I doubt anyone would doubt the credentials of this writer, whose urgent and compelling defense of Brown as a selfless but sane man with a perfectly good plan that went wrong due to a couple of the people in key positions of responsibility for the taking of Harper’s Ferry held my face close to the book (it is not the edition pictured; mine is so old, we’ve had it for so long, that the plastic lamination on the paperback has half peeled off, and it is not featured here!). The writer’s words forced me to read it, though I am no longer a student, with a pen in hand to underline and star key passages.

It’s tempting to leave it here, but I think I need to give you a couple of instances that may draw you, if you like history, care about the rights of Black people in the USA–because the oppression that started here is still not over (that’s me speaking; DuBois died in Ghana in 1963), if you are interested in the Civil War or Brown in particular, you have to read this book.

Tidbits that do not spoil, then: Harriet Tubman planned to be there with him. She became seriously ill and was confined to bed; otherwise, she meant to fight alongside him.

White writers have all assumed that his escape route was impossible. They have the WRONG escape route; DuBois explains the actual plan.

The Underground Railroad was run almost entirely by Black people, some of them wealthy, in the Northern US. DuBois points out that free Blacks owned over a million dollars worth of property, free and clear.
It was this same large body of free Blacks who provided the funding for Brown. He would have had more, if he had not become ill, and the loss of momentum removed most of his Canadian backers. Indeed, DuBois states that Brown most likely went to Harper’s Ferry physically ill and “racked with pain”, that he was very gaunt due to illness and poverty, but felt that to wait longer would be to lose his support and those he had gathered (a small group) for the initial attack.

To say might make you feel as if you have little reason to read this book. It is eloquently laid out as only a wordsmith such as DuBois is capable of doing. I am deeply sorry I waited so long to find time for it.