John Brown, a live one
To the editor:
Having attended many of the events commemorating the execution of John Brown, I was impressed how the “faithful” – those devoted to the cause John Brown fought for – pay their respects very quietly, for personal reasons, without much notice from the larger world. While there was fanfare and attention to the marking of 150 years, the small number who make this pilgrimage feels like a select crowd. Obviously we haven’t reached a consensus of his historical relevance, worthy of a broader appeal to our population – even from the safe distance of 150 years.
This historic importance of what Brown accomplished and stood for appeals to me as a creative person who identifies with underdogs, radicals and revolutionaries. Brown transcends the ordinary domain of bookish historians and – I think – would appeal to our local independent thinkers, especially in the context of a predominately white North Country demographic, and in stark contrast to the template of tourism and sports infrastructure of Lake Placid.
These events did “diversify” our neighborhood, yet briefly. We heard from Maria Suarez, who was enslaved in America in our lifetime, who afterward was wrongly imprisoned in the U.S. for more than two decades. One attendee reminded us of our local imprisoned population who are easily forgotten.
Through scholarly presentation, theatrical and literary presentation, spiritually inspired musical performance and solemn ceremony, we experienced a rich expression of how one life can touch many.
Excellent tribute to a great martyr
Adirondack Daily Enterprise 12.14.09
In my earliest memory I see myself as a very small boy, looking upward with
awe at the green, bearded giant with his arm over the shoulder of a Negro
boy. I wanted to be that boy, to be that loved.
I grew up next to John Brown’s grave; I bought a California home beside
Mary’s grave, lived there a decade, returned to live now where I started, on
Great Lot 94 in North Elba next to John Brown’s Lot 95. My father, like his
father, was born in John Brown’s house; he told endless tales of the place,
relayed by Lyman Epps Jr. and others who lived and died in the magnetic aura
of John Brown. Figure out John Brown, and you’ll have figured out America.
North Elba and the world owe a debt of gratitude to Naj Wikoff, organizer of
this past week’s John Brown Coming Home festival, which took place exactly
150 years after John Brown was dropped to his death on the gallows at
Charles Town, Va. (now part of West Virginia) and the ensuing week as his
widow Mary Ann Day Brown brought him home and laid him in repose beneath the
huge Labradorite in their front yard. (See this paper, prior editions, for
the coverage of all events.)
The great abolitionist’s great-great-great-granddaughter was a remakable
presence throughout the festival. In Tuesday’s snow, Alice Keesey Mecoy,
descendant via Annie Brown, and I went to the graves of the first Ellen
Brown, who died here in 1849, and Martha Brewster Brown, Oliver’s widow.
Martha died soon after childbirth, within days of her child’s death, in the
dead of 1860’s winter at John Brown’s farm – “collateral damage.” She was
with Annie near Harpers Ferry the previous summer.
Russell Banks gave a powerful reading from his novel “Cloudsplitter” at the
Heritage House in Westport Sunday last. Setting up Owen Brown’s attitude
about race, he read, in Owen’s voice, “A black person made me constantly
conscious of my whiteness.” He went on, “Whenever I was aware of my
whiteness, I was ashamed. Race consciousness is wrong like sex
consciousness.” Owen proceeds to describe the “cure” for this condition – to
adopt “a permanent feeling of separation from his tribe,” meaning from white
folks. This is exactly my case, diagnosed in better words than I would ever
have come up with. Persons sensitive to our racial dilemma and our polyglot
heritage often feel “outside”; witness Ishmael, the narrator of “Moby Dick,”
as a stereotype.
Pulitzer nominee Kevin Bales reminded us of the vast extent to which slavery
has persisted through the 20th century to now. Mr. Bales’ plea for abolition
was followed by the testimony of Maria Suarez, who, as a legal immigrant
seeking honest employment, was swept up by an employer who turned
sex-enslaving monster – a monster soon murdered by another. She was charged
as an accessory, given a huge sentence in prison and supposed to be finally
deported. Her salvation was an absolute and rare miracle, as the USA today
relies more on angels than on justice.
Saturday evening’s St. Eustace ceremonies included some of the finest
oratory and music ever heard in these parts. “Ironweed” author William
Kennedy gave us a hagiographic and ribald account of Russell Banks’ life of
literature and always sticking up for the down. He told how Banks arrived in
Cuba too late to help Fidel kick Batista, too late to become Hemingway’s
doppelganger, but not too late to endure six-hour rants by Castro on the
merits of revolution. And how, accidentally, Banks failed to become a Che
but succeeded in becoming huge in American literature and a composer of
sweeping, whooping, transcendental essays such as “Dreaming up America.”
Sunday, the meaty academic core of the festival was capped by Don Papson’s
historical documentation that after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, many
fugitives from slavery were moved through the Adirondacks: on Gerrit Smith’s
lands, in North Elba, in Wilmington and at other points well off the main
line of the subterranean passage. Papson’s huge work has put to death the
canard that no fugitives from slavery were extant at Timbuctoo, thus
validating the plot, the central and obvious assumption that a leopard
cannot shed his spots, upon which Banks built Owen Brown’s tale, as told in
“Cloudsplitter.” So-called historians who heretofore claimed there were no
slaves in Lake Placid are now debunked. Papson has worked in the trenches
that they ought to have excavated rather than presuming lack of evidence was
evidence of lacking.
Sunday evening’s moving performance was a synchronized speaking of text
blended with folk music by Magpie, exulting in the fates of the various
heroes of Harpers Ferry. Monday afternoon, a team of grand Belgian horses
brought John Brown’s casket finally home. That evening, Magpie – Greg and
Terry by now – gave the finest two-person play of the last days of John
Brown as he awaited his Dec. 2 deadline. Greg and Terry transmigrated their
obvious love to the hyper-affectionate last days as Mary descended from this
“icebox” into the warm, open arms of her soon-to-be martyr, Old Osawatomie
of the Kansas free state. Magpie’s new CD on John Brown will tear your heart
with sweet passion.
Fittingly, John Brown’s present-day fanatics wrapped up his 150th year of
immortality at Heaven Hill. It reminded me how the Transcendentalist words
of Ralph Waldo Emerson and David Henry Thoreau (like Naj, he inverted his
name, to Henry David) launched John Brown like a meteor from the shameful
gallows of Charles Town into the forefront of American political symbology
(using Dan Brown’s coinage) and our national monomyth (using Joseph
Campbell’s term) of always being saved by the hero acting in the name and
place of divine providence.
That day, with Jim McKenna’s assistance, I identified a photo from the local
historical society which shows the homestead of Henry and Ruth Brown
Thompson. This house, not previously identified, is presumed the place where
John Brown was feted as he disembarked for his date with destiny at Harpers
Ferry. Also, some say that a young boy, Thomas Peacock, had walked a mile
east from his home to attend the party. This house, extant until about 1960,
was sited at the apex of Uihlein’s potato fields, about one-fourth of a mile
due east from Bear Cub’s 90-degree bend. These 160 acres were purchased from
Gerrit Smith in 1857 by Amos Lawrence of the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid
Society for $1,000 as security for Mary when John returned to Kansas. He
wrote Mary to give half to Henry and Ruth, to repay Henry for building the
cabin near John Brown’s Labradorite. I found the deed for this half recorded
Anthony G. Lawrence lives in Lake Placid.