“A great unrest was on the land. It was not merely moral leadership from above—it was the push of mental and physical pain from beneath;—not simply the cry of the Abolitionist but the upstretching of the slave. The vision of the damned was stirring the western world and stirring black men as well as white. Something was forcing the issue—call it what you will, the Spirit of God or the spell of Africa. It came like some great grinding ground swell,—vast, indefinite, immeasurable but mighty […].”
—W. E. B. Du Bois, John Brown, Chapter V
“And if I make this Earth a metaphor I make a metaphor against the police”
—Miguel James, “Against the Police”
I spent a good part of the last year thinking about W. E. B. Du Bois and John Brown. It wasn’t meant to take a year, but then I’m slow. The prompt for the form of the thought was throat surgery, related to longstanding chronic health conditions, which two summers ago resulted in slight but lingering difficulties with speech and subtle changes to the sound of my voice. Looking for ways to work through those changes, I returned to an old interest in Librivox, where volunteers create recordings of texts in the public domain, and for my first solo project I chose the 1909 edition of Du Bois’s biography of Brown (sadly missing the communist revisions of 1962) because I’d had my eye on it for a while, and because I was surprised to find no one had read it yet.
(I also missed my old, fuller, sharper voice—though how noticeable the differences are to anyone else I don’t know—and so, mostly for that reason, I restored some of the few recordings of it that I had first put online and then, like many things I put online, made private. One of them was a YouTube video from November 2013 which doubles as a kind of awkward sequel to an older post on this blog. It responds to some comments left on a clip by Mary Eng which had in turn engaged with that first post. My video focuses on Eng, Chelsea Manning, and Slavoj Žižek—who, in April of this year, did the world the favor of clarifying a position: “Transgenderism—I’m opposed to it.” Whether the world has sufficiently acknowledged that favor is another question. Free Chelsea Manning.)
I soon realized that this slow experiment—reading sentences over and over for the right emphases, seeking out other online sources for pronunciation and background information, spending hours editing each file—was a perfect way for me to get close to Du Bois’s text, to fall in love with his sentences, and to sit with the words he quoted extensively from John Brown and his contemporaries. It was also a linguistic education in settler colonialism, as my concern for articulation led me to page after page full of other white Americans disagreeing over the names of the cities in which they lived.
I wasn’t surprised to find echoes of the crises of Brown’s time in 2015—that was why I had chosen the book. But for the specificity of some connections I was unprepared, and they’ve stayed with me. In June I was reading about Brown’s strategic debt to Denmark Vesey and his planned insurrection in South Carolina, days before Dylann Roof desecrated Vesey’s church and weeks before Bree Newsome removed the Confederate flag from the state capitol. (I want to come back to this later.) And flags were on my mind again in November. A few hours before I saw news of an attack in Paris, and a couple of days before Facebook was suggesting that I add a French flag to my profile picture and other users were eloquently addressing the colonial violence of that suggestion, I was reading about the 1858 Chatham convention, where John Brown and an assembly of black and white abolitionists from Canada and the U.S. drafted and debated the constitution for the “provisional government” they aimed to establish following the overthrow of slavery in the Southern states. Disagreements arose regarding the flag that this phantom government would adopt. Here, too, sympathetic intentions could not erase histories of violence. Du Bois quotes J.M. Jones’s observation that some black members of the convention, naturalized as Canadian subjects after fleeing slavery,
[…] said they would never think of fighting under the hated “Stars and Stripes.” Too many of them thought they carried their emblem on their backs. But Brown said the old flag was good enough for him; under it freedom had been won from the tyrants of the Old World, for white men; now he intended to make it do duty for the black men. He declared emphatically that he would not give up the Stars and Stripes. That settled the question.
I’m interested in the connection between this passage and another quotation from Jones at the convention, a few pages later, which ends on the same note and with the same verb:
A question as to the time for making the attack came up in the convention. Some advocated that we should wait until the United States became involved in war with some first-class power; that it would be next to madness to plunge into a strife for the abolition of slavery while the government was at peace with other nations. Mr. Brown listened to the argument for some time, then slowly arose to his full height, and said: “I would be the last one to take the advantage of my country in the face of a foreign foe.” He seemed to regard it as a great insult. That settled the matter in my mind that John Brown was not insane.
Du Bois makes no explicit comment on this discussion of flags, nations, and the borders of sanity. But one aspect of his book I value deeply is its consistent attention to the difficult interplay between moral leadership from above and pain from beneath: which entails an attention to the way John Brown’s position as a white man meant both a responsibility to unsettle some matters, and the unearned, almost unquestionable authority to settle others.
More than any other white man of his time, Brown recognized the responsibility. He knew that few things would disturb the slaveholders of the South more than a white American willing to die and to kill for abolition; he came to feel that his own death was necessary, as Du Bois again quotes Jones as saying, “to awaken the people from the deep sleep that had settled upon the minds of the whites of the North.” And Du Bois closes the book’s stunning final chapter with words that situate Brown as an abiding prophet of a great un/settlement to come—in 1859, in 1909, in 1962, and in 2016: “You may dispose of me very easily—I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is still to be settled—this Negro question, I mean. The end of that is not yet.” Nevertheless, as the passages from Chatham and others attest, Brown also exploited the authority. He dismissed the voices of black men who hated the Stars and Stripes, who recognized those stripes as running parallel to the wounds on their backs. In the midst of planning what he knew would be understood—inevitably and not inaccurately—as an assault on the government that had authorized those wounds, Brown overrode their objections and insisted on flying the same government’s flag.
“Racism is decisive,” Sara Ahmed wrote in November: “It decides to whom we have an affinity (and to whom we do not).” The dissenters at Chatham knew that to define such affinities and distinctions, to make them material and to mark out which lives matter, is often a flag’s work. On occasion, even in the most radically aspirant settings, the established affinity can look like sanity, so that it is an affirmation of allegiance to a flag, or to the republic for which it stands, which can tether radical thought to the realm of the rational or the sensible. Flags can settle such matters, especially when flown, as the American and French flags were and are, by settlers.
Most sources quote John Brown’s final words approaching the scaffold as some version of a sentence that can be seen to uphold a settlement: “This is a beautiful country.” Du Bois’s biography is to my knowledge the only text that has Brown say, instead, “This is a beautiful land.” And it’s true that the two sentences are nearly identical—considering that Brown wrote of “the crimes of this guilty land,” famously crimes to be “purged away with blood,” when he could have written “this guilty country.” Still, I suspect a wishful and affirmative gesture here on Du Bois’s part. “This is a beautiful country” is exquisite, of course, in the cruel optimism of its patriotic self-sacrifice. At the same time it lends itself to the merely optimistic recuperative efforts of, say, Richard Nixon—who closed a 1971 speech marking “the beginning of the Bicentennial Era” with a nod to Brown’s death: “[S]peaking to no one in particular, he said, ‘This is a beautiful country.’ If John Brown, with his own death imminent, just before the tragic War Between the States, could say that, then even more we today can truly say: America is a beautiful country…”
For Nixon to be able to employ these words in such a way, it’s surely important to believe both that Brown was “speaking to no one in particular,” and that his speech unambiguously referred and deferred to the authority of the state that was about to kill him. In this vision, John Brown’s life comes to an appropriate end while the beauty of the state goes marching on—a tragic beauty, perhaps, but also a self-evident one, and all-consuming. Du Bois, in contrast, pushes Brown’s words out beyond the state and onto the land, and shows him speaking, very particularly, to a history and a future of resistance against the state unfolding across that land:
John Brown rode out into the morning. ‘This is a beautiful land,’ he said. It was beautiful. Wide, glistening, rolling fields flickered in the sunlight. Beyond, the Shenandoah went rolling northward, and still afar rose the mighty masses of the Blue Ridge, where Nat Turner had fought and died, where Gabriel had looked for refuge and where John Brown had builded his awful dream.
Du Bois’s critical “beyond,” his refusal to let Brown’s words end with the state, and his orchestration of an echo of shared struggle across the land are consistent with a biographical approach which continually foregrounds the importance of the natural world in the development of Brown’s life and thought. And which returns several times to Brown’s belief—in no way a figurative or a rhetorically exaggerated one—that God had intended the Allegheny Mountains, “from the foundation of the world,” to serve as a refuge for those fleeing slavery. There’s something here that feels strikingly like Manifest Destiny in reverse: a land imbued at once with guilt and with the seeds of an unsettling absolution.
Du Bois also quotes William A. Phillips’s report that Brown, on one night spent under a Kansas sky in the summer of 1856, “condemned the sale of land as a chattel.” Another historian suggests that an error in transcription substituted “land” for “man,” but I’m not so sure. In any case, I would suggest that in amplifying Brown’s respect for the land and its emancipatory possibility over and against the state, Du Bois’s text—though it has little to say directly about the genocide of indigenous populations—sketches a drive for abolition that leaves crucial space open for the work of decolonization and climate justice. Such an openness quietly expresses itself in the difference between “a beautiful land” and “a beautiful country”; which might be compared to the difference between a sentence like “Give us back our land” and a sentence like “We want our country back.”
On June 11 of this year, Donald Trump was at a rally in Tampa, Florida, where his supporters began to chant “Build that wall” with such passion that he was prevented from continuing his speech. Faced with an enthusiasm for containment that had become temporarily uncontainable, Trump stepped back, gave the crowd a quiet thumbs-up, clapped along with their chant as he walked away from the podium, and hugged one of three American flags displayed behind it. This wordless embrace brought the crowd’s noise to a crest and then took it down. It was generally recognized for a moment that a flag meant a wall. Trump returned in triumph to the podium and summed up the moment: “Folks. Ready? America first. Very simple. America first.” That settled the question.
Hours after Trump hugged a flag in Tampa, a hundred miles away, forty-nine people were dead and another fifty-three wounded at the hands of one would-be police officer and a team of authorized police. The victims overwhelmingly looked like those whom Trump’s supporters demand to see on the other side of a wall (and whom President Obama has been putting there); and, as Che Gossett writes, their deaths were inseparable from “a context and cartography of U.S. colonial power in relation to Puerto Rico.”
Two days later it was Flag Day. On social media and offline there was an awful overdetermination in the air, with the specifically Latinx and LGBT context of the shooting stifled by echoes of Paris and Brussels and the extra resonance of the centennial of a lesser-known national holiday. George W. Bush, standing for the political establishment supposedly worlds away from Trump’s nativism, took the opportunity to post four sentences on Facebook in which he found his own way of putting America first, or his own way of saying that America is a beautiful country. The victims of the Pulse shooting literally figure here as “others.” The words “Latina,” “Latino,” “gay,” and “homophobia” are absent, but the word “freedom” appears four times, once in each sentence. (Now, I would suggest that the late revelation of Omar Mateen’s targeting for entrapment by a voracious post-2001 FBI means that George W. Bush bears a degree of personal responsibility for the Pulse massacre that might not have been anticipated. Even if that weren’t the case, though, there would be violence in this erasure.) Trump, meanwhile, merely repeated “AMERICA FIRST” on Flag Day, because he’s a machine built to repeat it. But his fans were circulating the same fact that his butler loves to recite: it was his birthday.
I wholeheartedly accept and endorse the symbolic conjunction of Donald Trump’s birthday with Flag Day. And, in the middle of a month when I’ve walked around a segregated Michigan city and seen flags lingering at half-mast and it’s become impossible for me to disentangle the Orlando deaths thereby commemorated from the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, and millions of others, I want to take a moment to revisit some thoughts from six months ago. In the aftermath of an encounter with a white supremacist Trump had placated at another rally, struggling to process what had been an overwhelming experience, I wrote a post which, in retrospect, came closer than I intended to painting Trump as an exception. It approached exactly the claim I had hoped to avoid, namely that “society must be defended” against Donald Trump, when—for whatever it’s worth, and however difficult it might remain for me to absorb it and keep thinking with it—some of the intellectual work that has meant the most to me over the last two years has been work uncovering a constitutive antiblackness in American (and global) civil society, and a concomitant need for that society, as such, to end. And when every new day seems to uncover more.
So I would maintain that a good word for what burns through at moments like the rally in Tampa—a fine label, if not for the personal beliefs of a New York billionaire, then for the forces he has so effectively mobilized—is “fascism.” But I would set alongside that label the claim (commonly attributed to Walter Benjamin by way of Žižek, although the exact provenance is unclear) that every fascism indexes a failed revolution. And alongside the image of Trump hugging the Stars and Stripes in Florida in 2016, I would be inclined to set the image of John Brown in Chatham in 1858, on the verge of sparking a war between the states to be fought in many ways under his name, “declar[ing] emphatically that he would not give up the Stars and Stripes.” I want to hold two ideas here simultaneously, which Du Bois helps me to remember. First, in thinking through my own life as a beneficiary of white supremacy, John Brown is an ideal and a guiding light. Second, the violence that built and sustains the world I inhabit, from the Civil War through Reconstruction to Jim Crow to COINTELPRO to “superpredators” to President Trump and beyond, is the long index of a failed revolution. And the failure that might be flagged here is in an attempt at abolition which put America first, which was unready to abandon, even in martyrdom, the image of the beautiful country.
This is why I know I still have so much to learn from Bree Newsome’s action in South Carolina a year ago, from the way she responded to mass death not by raising one American flag but by grounding another. I remember the magnificence of the negative space where the Stars and Bars had lately hung, the pole then supporting only a June sky. And I remember getting into online arguments last summer, pointless arguments with Confederate apologists who seemed to find one trolling tactic more and more appealing as the summer went on. Wasn’t it absurd, they would ask, to get so worked up over that flag and not the Stars and Stripes? When they both stood for the histories they stood for? When one had flown over a secessionary movement for only five years, and the other had flown over a slaveholding nation for a century and more?
As if that were an irresistible argument for leaving all the flags up, rather than for taking them all down. As if an unspoken universal faith in the Stars and Stripes settled everything. Of course a refusal to admit any reason why the Confederate battle flag might have represented a more urgent strategic target in South Carolina in 2015 is a refusal of the obvious; but there’s no need to go as far back as the Chatham Convention to find radical voices explaining why the American flag, too, stands for terror. That can be heard from Newsome herself. There is no Law of Conservation of Political Energy here: the removal of one racist banner is not the de facto raising of another (just as opposition to one politician is not necessarily the endorsement of another, is not the endorsement of anyone).
And if John Brown, with his own death imminent, could say so, then even more we today can truly say: This is a beautiful land, and America is not a beautiful country. And if John Brown believed that “the old flag was good enough for him,” then I think one of the achievements of Du Bois’s biography—a book I would recommend to anyone in 2016—is to establish so thoroughly the broad sense in which “John Brown was right” that his wrongness on that point becomes all the clearer.