The Ghost of John Brown

When my truly dear White-Alabama-Granny was spitting mad the worst she would hiss under her breath, with an emphatic foot stamp, was “John Brown!” She took his name deep into her throat, her eyes hot with rage as her toast erupted into flames, once or twice destroying the little oven on her worn used-to-be-white countertop. My Granny couldn’t cook at all, and toast turned carbon, covered over in scalded milk, was often our daily bread. It was given to us right before we were forgiven our trespasses. She served this with an eviscerated chicken and dull colored collard greens, glistening with pig fat, set upon a backdrop of faded cloth placement. “John Brown!” I probably thought, at age five, upon being served this putrid dinner. This was the meal, she told me, that my grandfather had called “Shit on a shingle.” She would whisper the word “shit” and tittle a bit in the telling. I think she must have loved the excuse to say something so naughty.

Granny raised me for a while after her second divorce, after her years in the trailer park and the living on grits and Orange Tang, after having moved in with her maiden first cousin, Anita — who had in turn — spent her whole life to that point being bullied by a widowed mother. Aunt Annie, Anita’s overbearing mother, after raising an entire sun room of African Violets, had finally died the year Granny was invited to live in their Montgomery home.

When I lost my house key, over and over again, like my own middle-schooler does now, it was “John Brown!” Bad news in the paper met with a sigh and a very delicate, almost calming version of the familiar curse, the vowels big and round and soft. “John Brown…”

A pre-ADD/ADHD/Aspergers era playmate of my cousins was named John Brown. Granny disliked him and said so. She felt his unruly behavior might have something to do with his accursed name. No drugs were going to take that name away, so he was incurable.

Granny sang of John Brown’s molding body, to the tune of the “Battlehymn of the Republic” and believed herself to be marching on, mocking the wretched, filthy people of the North, the “Yankees and Carpet Baggers” who had invaded us, first with their war and then with their re-education. They had hung our teenagers, boys and girls, from trees for fun and revenge during the first invasion and then they taught us to read and use electricity and indoor plumbing — and be ashamed — during the second. When I asked her about lynchings and violence against Blacks, about literacy and electricity and plumbing and pride and Southern Blacks, she demurred, changing the subject. I imagined us, later, all Southerners, like Adam and Eve, hurt by our nakedness for the first time, wandering away from the world we had just named, into the pain of childbirth and mortality, an angel standing over us with a sword saying, “Go!”. We were pushed out to discover, through our progeny, our power for creating death and they, our inheritors, to discover that yes, we were and are our brother’s keeper.

All I ever knew back then was that John Brown was a a killer, the premonition of further atrocity, a viking from the North, a bogey man of my grandmother’s childhood, and furthermore, as I saw in a history book, he had a really odd haircut. I had to respect such a haircut. Hair sticking about everywhere, unwashed.

My own hair was odd; it was short and filled with cowlicks; before puberty everyone thought I was a boy. An unkempt boy. I imagined John Brown, tired of people making fun of the way his caretakers cut his hair too. Maybe that’s why he killed folks. His eyes, I couldn’t help but think, actually looked like the intense blue eyes of my family in the thick, faded, and worn photos of our people, back in 1850, at home, down in Elba, Alabama. Elba: which, to this day, because of a bad dam, floods out every so often, killing people and destroying homes. Elba: the six generation long home of my family, proud DAR members who make great deviled eggs, the first people to own a car in the whole podunk county. Elba: also the home of Big Jim Folsom, the Huey Long of Alabama. He was a populist, a de-segregationist, an anti-poverty warrior, a brilliant cracker who grew up in a shack. Old Jim Folsom, my Granny called him. He was a political rival of her Papa’s, a state senator in the 1930s. Jim Folsom was to become Governor in 1946.

Folsom’s first wife and their little child died of some horrible epidemic down in waterlogged, red clay street, no public library, Elba — when he was poor — before he was anyone’s rival. And no one had worked all that hard to heal them. Not any of my relatives anyway. Mrs Folsom and her child now lay eternally beside my family’s giant spread of cadaver blue-white marble, so much small town bluster and pomp. We have a mausoleum. Mrs Folsom and her baby have a big stone now too because a while after they died Jim saw to it to give them that much. Those two victims of poverty sleep about 10 feet from my Granny’s headstone, my skeletal great-aunts and virgin cousin Anita beside them. Big Jim is buried elsewhere; he married a beautiful young woman and had another family after being elected Governor. His life story is a mix, some good and some bad, after his most noble start.

I wonder what they all talk about in heaven, the inhabitants of the Elba graveyard? Does Jim visit? Maybe my Granny speaks, blushing to be so put on the spot, of her childhood desire to have a library, about how she read every book in town, borrowing from relatives, until they all ran out. Maybe she talks about how she kept notebooks all her life about what she was reading, and that when she died, the son in charge of her estate, in preparation for its sale, sent someone out to her home to throw her thoughts away, along with her drawings and photographs, her favorite chair. All of these things smelled of homemade rose potpourri, coffee, burning toast and a hint of the mint that overtook her yard every summer. Maybe she talks about how she married a gay man, whom she knew to be gay, just to get out of her Papa’s house like a lady; how he married her to be treated like a man. How she earned a masters degree in Classical History after her first marriage and then became a secretary for the railroad before her second. How she married for love when she met my grandfather, a big Georgia redneck, and how, after three babies, he became a drunk who bashed her head into walls and wouldn’t let her see her family. How her beloved father, Big Jim’s enemy, died without her there. She might have a lot to say. Eternity might take away some inhibition. If she does talk like that, Mrs. Folsom must look at her, silently clutching her limp little child, and, in her wisdom, in her cold, still heart, cry real tears for the world. None of us are any better than my Granny, she might think. “What have I left the people I left behind? What did my life mean?” I wonder if Jim holds his wife in his long, strong arms and kisses her head and tells her it will be OK. Before he leaves her side again, that is.

But what does John Brown say, as he passes by this ghostly scene? Surely, my grandmother has called him out by now, as she sets off the smoke alarms of the sky.

October 16th marks the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s raid of Harpers Ferry, Virginia. This is important to some of us, I think, somewhat because we like round numbers. I’m not sure what we’ve learned of love, kindness, death, blood, and fight yet. I’m not picking on the South here. I mean all of us. I don’t think John would like my Granny much, even if she could give him the sort of haircut to which he had become accustomed in life and feed him some truly coarse food, coarse enough to make Jesus proud. Nor would he like many of us. And perhaps for good reason. And he might not even cry, not in his deepest heart, like Mrs. Folsom might.

I’ve been to Harpers Ferry. It’s a lovely place. They have a wax museum and a beautiful park. John Brown’s not the only story going on there. Expeditions came through and all sorts of things. The food is as awful as Granny’s milk toast, though it’s in the form of hamburgers and soft serve ice cream. The sweet little towns around there have good, robust, rural stuff to be had for cheap.

The Daughters of the Confederacy have erected an enormous, glassy granite monument to the Black freeman, a porter, who was shot by John Brown’s men as they entered the town. He is the only fatality the DOC has memorialized. The passive aggression is bigger than the stone. It’s at the center of a town that makes it’s living on history tourism, carefully laid out so as to not offend in any way that can be talked about. Not by anyone who wants to appear well-mannered, tolerant.

John was born in 1800, the same year as Nat Turner, though John died some time after Nat. I reflect on this, not just because 1800 is a round number, but because starting here says something about the tears that must be shed for us by those in heaven — shed for us because of our long confusion — just like Mrs. Folsom must cry when she chats with my Granny.

Compare these two men. I’ve been thinking for a long time about how activists today relate with the world and I’ve more recently been thinking about our spiritual, our intellectual ancestors. W.E.B. Du Bois inspired me. He said, in 1933, right when my grandmother was craving both her freedom and the safety of being perceived as “good”, that it is our neighbors who most influence us, and our closest neighbors are our ancestors, even those we never knew ourselves. It is, I recognized, the Propinquity Effect, that he is speaking of. Our ancestors, I believe, might be more than those who bore us. America is a culture of sub-cultures, of movement, of breaking away and new beginnings. I, for instance, White daughter of the South, am a socialist, among other upsetting titles. My unknown ancestors may not only be those who brought me into the world the first time. I might be born again.

With this in mind, on a trip to a large public library that my Granny must be salivating for, I found five biographies of John Brown and none for Nat Turner, though I looked. I wanted to understand more about those who came before me, who were driven in a similar way as me, by anger, even if they committed violence I would not. I looked for Nat Turner all over the stacks. Almost nothing. Dozens of available books reference John Brown’s raid, he is credited with fueling the abolitionist movement to a victory and, in a positive light, igniting the civil war.

The media of his day, a friend of mine commented recently, created John Brown’s success as a messenger of Justice. In Thoreau’s famous essay in the aftermath of the raid, the writer created, among some of us, a persistent impression of John Brown as a Christlike freedom fighter who happened to kill some mean old nasty people. Sort of a former-day Che Guevara. The rest of the world, those who lacked John’s conviction, were, he said, truly “dead.” Without the media the Harper’s Ferry raid would have been the work of a madman. Frederick Douglass, for instance, didn’t want any part of it and told John so beforehand.

Years later though, upon reflection, after the reinterpretation of John’s work, the great orator said: “The true question is, Did John Brown draw his sword against slavery and thereby lose his life in vain? And to this I answer ten thousand times, No! No man fails, or can fail, who so grandly gives himself and all he has to a righteous cause. No man, who in his hour of extremest need, when on his way to meet an ignominious death, could so forget himself as to stop and kiss a little child, one of the hated race for whom he was about to die, could by any possibility fail.”

Blue eyed, wild John Brown, some photos survive him. Quotes attest to his bravery. I read today that he called Harriet Tubman a man and meant it as a compliment. He was saying she was brave, like him, I suppose. To call her an equal, which he thought remarkable, he had to call her a man. I wonder what she thought. I am reminded of Sojourner Truth being accused time and time again of being a man, until one day she took down her blouse and showed the male hecklers her breasts. She invited them to suckle as so many white children had before, their own mothers having refused them this basic loving nourishment — those mothers liberated, as it may have been, by wealth and possession — while Sojourner craved her babies back, enslaved to sorrow by their theft. How many of us were nourished by Sojourner Truth, but not of her choice? For whom is she a spiritual ancestor?

John Brown’s comment about Harriet reminded me, I thought later, of some employers I’ve had in the activist world. Folks with some power, helping out the rest of us. Yes, John Brown is a spiritual ancestor. Of many of us.

Little survives Nat but conjecture not unlike that which I offer up here, though it is sometimes better poetry. Nat, like John, listened to an avenging and violent God; slave though he was, he rose up in impassioned blood, organized fellow slaves, and, horrifically, hacked and beat to death 55 slave owning people, mostly young children, organizing and organizing other Black men along the way, in a well-planned strategy for terrorising the White population that had so terrorized him. He hoped he was cajoling them into allowing his children, and all black children, their own natural, inalienable right to freedom. Nat Turner didn’t begrudge America its freedom in this horrible bloodbath. He wanted his. He saw no other way. He didn’t run away to get his freedom or, as maybe John did, his pass into heaven; he organized.

Ultimately, he told his one quasi-biographer, his plan was to spare children, then women and the elderly, and then men who promised to repent for the sin of slavery. He passed by the home of a poor white family that held no slaves, touching no one inside. When cornered and caught by the organized White military, he was hung and skinned. More than 200 Black people, many again small children, were hacked and beat to death by White mobs organized to oppress in response to this rebellion’s break in the political order. Little heads, their eyes rolled up into their dead brains, were left, skin peeling away from flesh, on fenceposts across the countryside in a well-planned strategy for terrorising the Black population, still enslaved.

I wonder what happened to Nat’s family. I have not read of their fate. The question must not have occurred to the media of the day. I know that before John Brown was hung his wife held him in her arms and cried for him. He was buried with his skin on. The Brown children who died, Oliver and Watson, died in the raid, as adults. W.E.B. Du Bois, who inspired me to this train of thought in the first place, spoke in John Brown’s honor at the initiation of the NAACP.

“His soul goes marching on.”

Now then, what does Nat Turner say, sauntering about with just his red sinew on, as he passes this ghostly parade, perhaps while looking for his children and wife. He stumbles, perhaps, a few lost and badly maimed White and Black toddlers at his feet, together as the last people they each saw on this Earth, these our nameless ancestors. Sometimes he picks the babies up and holds them, he tenderly kisses their little hands, wanting so badly to feel his own sweet children again, his that were torn from him.

Love begets love, Granny used to always say when I asked her why she loved me so. Same begets same begets same. And here we are.

WINDY COOLER is a psychology student at Goddard College. A long-time organizer and former teenage-mother-welfare-queen, her study focuses on the emotional lives of activists. She has two sons and lives in suburban DC.