Are We Ready for John Brown’s Truth at Last?

Photograph Source: Augustus Washington – Public Domain

…metaphysical ignorance…. greases the cogs for the culture of sadism and social murder.

– Chris Hedges,  American Sadism

Why was this sense of guilt so seemingly innate, so easy to come by…?  It seemed that when one felt this guilt one was but retracing in one’s living a faint pattern designed long before… almost forgotten by the conscious mind…

– Richard Wright, The Man Who Lived Underground

…all of my childhood I had lived among people who believed…that God, though invisible, actively regulated the most concrete and commonplace happenings of life. I think it is but natural that I should have become excited over the question of how it would feel to stand outside of life and look at life.

–Richard Wright, “Memories of My Grandmother”

Whereto can people look today to hear thrilling denunciations of wickedness, as could anti-slavery folks in pre-Civil War days, listening to weird old John Brown?   I’ve long been fascinated by Brown, his body a-moulderin’ in his grave not far from where I live, by Lake Placid, NY,  because of the dual and opposite images he bears in historic memory, depending on your race.  And so I was eager to watch the miniseries The Good Lord Bird (2020), based on the novel by James McBride, which I signed out from the library last week, putting my confidence in Ethan Hawke, (who plays Brown, and co-created, co-produced the series). Feeling increasingly desperate as liberal society around me, holding its breath under the at-least-he’s-not-Trump cloak of Biden,  degrades further into divisiveness, “sadism and social murder,” I  wanted to be reminded of JB’s avenging-angel type moral clarity.

The DVD cover promised  humor, causing me initially to fear the story of the apocalyptically serious John Brown being turned into an inoffensive romp,  yet another surrender to marketing “wisdom.”  As seen through the eyes of the narrator, the  fictional “Onion,” Brown – with his quirkiness, his zeal, and his over-the-top fury – is portrayed in a nearly Shakespearean way, comically entertaining, not to mention the film’s gender play with Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson) dressed as a girl throughout the series. But the humor, though silly in places, was not offensive (to me); its license was derived not in spite of, but from, and in deference to,  the obvious moral authority of its subject.  Brown’s incontestable deeds  remain stunningly relevant to the systemic inequalities addressed by BLM.   In facing the outstanding moral issue of his society, (as horrifying as  JB’s use of  violence is) which the vast majority of the “best folks”  to some degree denied,  standing for something, when most of us do not, has left his historic memory a layered “onion” which must be peeled down to reveal its truth.

(In contrast, the film’s portrayal of ex-slave, leading abolitionist Frederick Douglass (Daveed Diggs), was more comically unnuanced  than that of Brown.  It suggests the great abolitionist was responsible for the failure of Brown’s outrageous plan, by his refusal to throw his prestige and support behind it.  Douglass appears to represent the bourgeois black man, former slave or no, who no longer identifies with those enslaved and on the bottom, but vainly, with his own status and prestige among white people. )

Bernie Sanders may be as close as we get to Brown-like denunciation, calling “morally obscene” the wealth of retiring Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos (who  makes “nearly 3x more in one second than the median worker in this country makes in an entire week).  Agreed.   But Bernie’s answer,“tax the billionaires,”  avoids the greater moral obscenity, the system of capitalism in which Bezos is merely smartest of the smart.  Bridling its “excesses” might help, if the tax monies gained were used for peoples’ needs,  but a system based upon turning human beings into discardable machines, upon inequality and exploitation, upon wars and bombing, cannot be made morally justifiable by regulation.

I ask, is wickedness different from, or the same as, just being smart?  But who among us could denounce the stupefyingly,  successful Amazon practices as “wicked,” and mean it,  in the way JB took his absolutist anti-slavery stand against the evil of slavery, all the way to the scaffold? Who among us has not fallen prey to the allure (and the necessity, during the pandemic, and as material goods become less available locally) of online shopping and thus, in this way as in so many others,  added to our burden of moral compromise,  forfeited moral ground?

It is, we know,  much easier to forfeit moral ground than to occupy it.  Although Brown’s pre-Civil-War era in many ways can’t be compared with our own, it was then, as now, easy to “relativize” the “Golden Rule.”   The scene (fictionalized?) in “The Good Lord Bird” in which Harriet Tubman (Zainab Jah) makes an appearance dramatizes the “needle’s eye” demand of morality.  She addresses the Canadian audience gathered to hear John Brown, who’s come north to enlist volunteers for the (not yet divulged) Harper’s Ferry plan.  So far, he has gotten much enthusiasm but no volunteers.  Harriet makes the case (I paraphrase):  Though these former slaves have achieved freedom for their individual bodies, the work of freeing their souls – by whose truth  they’re one with all the brothers and sisters still in slavery –  is still ahead of them.  To accomplish their full manhood, they must go back down into the jaws of the beast (to serve John Brown’s cause).

An awful sacrifice, one that could only be asked by one with the moral authority to ask it!  Perhaps white Americans, in post-George Floyd America, at last are able to see the triumph of Harper’s Ferry, not, as presented in our white supremacist history books, its misguidedness and failure?  The fact that we know the outcome  doesn’t change the fact we now can read it differently.  The outcome can’t affect the rightness of the deed, the standard for which isn’t set by society but by the individual quality of adhering to the truth – walking the talk – prefigured in the personal soul in common with all souls. Moreover, who’s to say what is the historical timing of “the arc of the moral universe?”

Is now the time for white liberal Americans, long complacently, individually “free,” to see that the freeing of our souls, of becoming men and women assuming proper responsibility for the communal whole, not only for our individual lives, still lies ahead of us?  And, that extreme times and conditions call for extreme measures, and for – if not the sword – sacrifice amounting to sacrifice of our lives the way we’re reduced to living them as obedient consumers and employees?   Who or what made Jeff Bezos and the other tech entrepreneurs obscenely wealthy? The answer may partly be deregulation, but the rest of it is us, not only in buying the products but in being addicted to them.  That means, must have ’em even though the “need” is manufactured!

And while we’re buying their products, increasing the fortunes of Silicon Valley tycoons- which derive from exploitation of the earth, communities and people –  local businesses bite the dust, the bonds of local communities become ever more tenuous and temporized, consumer “choices” transform into “necessary” conveniences.   Should not we consider sacrificing some conveniences before they become necessities? Are we powerless to turn back the clock, reclaim material lives based in mutuality and locality, not in speed and virtuality, relearn the social arts of living in boring real time, in order to minimize our support of and participation in exploitation and plunder?

Might we not more effectively support causes that matter –  Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter, abolition of prisons and the death penalty, justice for poor people, cleaning up our soils from glyphosate and our rivers, streams and oceans from plastic and  herbicides by withdrawing from the evil system  and the choices it tempts us with, and building the alternative, standing where we are?  Giving money for the causes is laudable, but, as  Brown realizes in a crisis moment after a scoundrel makes off with a large sum he’s collected, what’s really needed are men and women, not money, and not the establishment of more non-profit charitable institutions requiring salaried professionals to lead them!  Brotherhood may be more effectively rebuilt through the refusal to be recipients of the crumbs from the master’s table, by, as cunningly as possible, refusing the tempting bribe.

To do so is surely complicated, dependent as we are upon the corporate for-profit system for our healthcare, our transportation, our educations, our income, etc., and  upon NPR and MSNBC for the content of our conversations!   But the real obstacle to taking an unambiguous stand against the outstanding evil in our time, is not our dependency upon the system; it’s that there’s no absolute,  no “god-like” perspective from which to judge the context of “sadism and social murder,” no God.

Reading Richard Wright’s long-unpublished novel, The Man Who Lived Underground (2020), and the accompanying essay “Memories of my Grandmother,”  I see Wright confronting exactly this dilemma: a society that cannot make moral sense without the perspective of a (religious) absolute. In the essay, he admits his own deep ambivalence towards black peoples’  religion, the church of his grandmother.  In “The Man,” protagonist Fred Daniels is trapped in the constricting logic of “aboveground” society wherein an innocent man walking to his home after work can be stopped and detained, beaten and tortured, forced to sign a confession by three policemen who appear exempt from any reference to a moral universe.  Escaping to the sewers of the city, in the surreality of underground, Daniels is freed from that logic.

After the sounds of a gospel choir reach his ears, Daniels comes to his realization of universal guilt (epigram). Soon after,  from his underground  “perch,” he  observes a police officer beating  a boy for a crime the boy did not commit.  Daniels speaks internally to the boy (“Yeah, tell him you stole the radio, even if you didn’t.  Tell ‘im you’re guilty…Don’t you know you’re guilty?”) And then,  to the policeman, he says (internally) “Sure, you’re guilty too.  Why do you want to beat this innocent boy?”

That the universal guilt Daniels discovered is “forgotten by the conscious mind,”  means that for whatever reason our “aboveground” minds do not demand  awareness of it.  One could say it’s there, biologically, in the awareness that life comes at the inescapable cost of death for some other, that is, life feeds on life.  Most of the time, because we lack consciousness of it, we carry guilt as if it were inevitable, but also as if we dare not know anything beyond the aboveground reality of social institutions we’re given.  We behave as if it were normal for “good people,” people who’ve done most or all of the “right things,” to be constantly seeking to escape the noose of judgment upon ourselves.

We cling to the notion that exercising moral judgement is too “black and white,” too moralistic, that there must be shades of gray so the hand of judgment on ourselves can be relaxed, i.e., we’re not bad people if we eat meat, drive an SUV, own a cell phone, order from Amazon Prime, drink too much alcohol, don’t exercise as we should, etc.  What is this abject need not to feel impugned as a “bad person”  but an effective ploy to keep ourselves off the hook of moral discernment, the while remaining secretly convinced that one is in truth bad?  This secret badness, unexamined,  has an important moral consequence: it makes a hiding place from both existential guilt and redemption.  Daily fending off the unwanted badness, distracted and busy, we’re powerless to judge the real  badness, harm, hurt, pain, inflicted on our souls, much less upon others’ bodies, in a society that serves Moloch, not “the Lord of love.”

In this way we fail to rise to the challenge of functioning as  moral adults looking out for the common good; these matters are obscured for us in a never-never-land reality walled against the real demand upon us of the  immaterial, the irrational, the metaphysical.  We are not initiated into adult reality and we are not meant to be initiated.

However, though  materialist society prohibits initiation, initiation is still possible. That long line of poets and prophets we consider moral exemplars, the geniuses and saints, (Martin Luther King, Jr.,  Harriet Tubman, H.D.Thoreau, etc. ),  intimidating in their willingness to face scorn and rejection,  imprisonment or death, are individuals who took on their own initiations.  Their gift for transformation, that allows a more inclusive moral authority to speak through them and be visible in them, may be greater than yours or mine, but it is not unique to them.  Less easily seen in the prophets,  plainer to see in musicians or singers, is the joy (at-oneness) inherent in being inside that reality in which those who keep in contact with the creative soul can act.  They act, then, not out of hate for the evil of systemic racism and war-making, but because they are free by virtue of “the gift from above”  to act on the heart’s behalf. They know, as liberal society does not,  being “good” is a vanity, insufficient to keep oneself out of despair, anxiety, the paralysis of fear, or out of wickedness, and that to act for the Inclusive Good depends upon a capacity for repentance that, to liberal reality, is intolerable

For modern people, the concept of repentance belongs to a superstitious past we’re so over.   Through ceaseless prayer/repentance,  JB kept himself standing outside society’s equivocation and bargaining, “outside of life” looking in.  We stand in the reality made by liberal institutions in capitalist society that require moral equivocation.  In that reality, authoritatively informed by the NYTimes and NPR, we must qualify and temper our response to evil, as the lunatic Brown did not.  Whether or not we can follow him all the way to Harper’s Ferry,  we can stop qualifying.  We can repent our choices to be “institutionalized” instead of being free., to assume we’re good instead of knowing we’re not. “Deinstitutionalized,” we’ll be lunatics for sure, but no longer wicked.

Kim C. Domenico, reside in Utica, New York, co-owner of Cafe Domenico (a coffee shop and community space),  and administrator of the small nonprofit independent art space, The Other Side.  Seminary trained and ordained,  but independently religious. She can be reached at: