John Brown’s Body, and the Specter of Political Violence in Public Memory

By Jeremy Mahr

John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in October, 1859 shocked and transformed a nation. Following his capture by General Robert E. Lee after attempting to take over the Harpers Ferry federal arsenal in Virginia and incite a slave rebellion, Brown was seen by his fellow Americans as a pariah and an extremist. Few outside his ideological circle defended his actions, and he was soon to be found guilty of treason and hanged by the end of the year. Yet, just a few years later, Brown’s memory had morphed from that of an unhinged terrorist to a martyr for the abolitionist cause, and finally to a symbol of Union solidarity. This final phase of his public memory is perhaps best reflected by the popular song sung by Union soldiers during Civil War campaigns: “John Brown’s Body.” Although his shift in public perception from a violent actor against the state to a Union martyr may seem strange, it could be explained by the interplay of several cultural and historical phenomena: namely, the political tensions brought about by slavery, the work of cultural and societal elites to redeem Brown’s image, and Brown’s ideas on shared pain becoming transferred from those of slaves to those of Union soldiers, creating a sense of communal identification with the American nation in wartime.  

john brown

Daguerreotype of John Brown. Image courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica.

 

John Brown’s assault on Harpers Ferry provoked strong reactions from all spectra of American society. While White Southern separatists used the attack as evidence of Northern treachery and urged the South to secede to protect its slave-holding interests, Northern abolitionists threw their support behind Brown through meetings, fundraising, and political organizing; most people simply thought that Brown was insane (Fine 234-235; Nudelman 650-651). However, the partisan-charged atmosphere caused by Brown’s violent direct action was a fertile atmosphere in which cultural elites within the abolitionist movement could manage Brown’s reputation and paint him, not as a violent criminal, but as a freedom fighter standing for justice.

Energized by Brown’s actions, and politically experienced with advocating for causes such as Free Soil, Liberian colonization, and resistance to Fugitive Slave Act enforcement, Brown’s allies in the abolitionist movement were instrumental in helping craft a different image for him. These included not only prominent activists such as William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Henry David Thoreau, but also his secret committee of supporters, the Secret Six: comprised of the wealthiest and most learned men of the era, they helped provide the financial backing and networking to help rehabilitate his image (Fine 236-237). Because political violence against established institutions are generally looked down upon without a convincing justification, his supporters appealed to notions such as higher law, social consensus, and historic justification to extol his actions, including the Motto of the state of Virginia itself (“So Be It Ever to Tyrants!”) (Fine 233). Furthermore, because Brown’s Southern critics made treasonous statements themselves in support of secession, they limited their rhetorical options and left the field wide open for pro-Brown narratives to emerge. Thus, Brown’s attack was no longer about attacking the federal government, but a struggle against the South and the institution of slavery (Fine 243). In this way, historical circumstances and Brown’s connections to the American elite allowed John Brown to have, if not a wholly positive public image, at least an opportunity to break free from the label of terrorism that would have plagued most violent actors.

Although Brown’s defense by elites helped contribute to the rehabilitation of his reputation, Brown himself actively contributed to his status as a martyr through his dialogues on suffering and empathy for enslaved blacks. Throughout his trial and sentencing, Brown theatrically cultivated his image with the knowledge that he was worth more to the abolitionist cause dead than alive. Speaking from his cell, the courtroom, and finally the scaffold, Brown used the symbol of blood to represent not only his shared humanity with enslaved persons and his willingness to do whatever it took to liberate the oppressed, but also to represent the nation’s collective guilt and the societal price to rid the institution of slavery (Nudelman 643, 659). By way of his rhetoric and growing status as an anti-slavery fighter, John Brown tactically used the power of compassion to form a bridge in which free, white Americans could feel the suffering of enslaved blacks, transforming individual experiences into collective visions. In doing so, he laid the emotional groundwork for future developments during the Civil War, in which shared experiences of loss and suffering would provide the basis for nationalist unity (Nudelman 660). Thus, “John Brown’s Body” took Brown’s best components– his outspokenness, commitment to “higher law,” and strong sense of justice– while ignoring his more problematic aspects, and then incorporated them into a Union Army song that allowed soldiers to negotiate their own mortality and remind them that they were dying for a higher cause (Nudelman 640).

Through historical circumstances and robust support by fellow abolitionists and John Brown himself, Brown ironically became a martyr figure for the same government forces that he died opposing. Despite this, the life, death, and legacy of John Brown reveals not only the society and culture of the United States before and during the Civil War, but also the psychology of its everyday citizens.

Citations: 

Fine, G. A. (1999). John Brown’s body: elites, heroic embodiment, and the legitimation of political violence. Social Problems46(2), 225-249.

Nudelman, F. (2001). “The Blood of Millions”: John Brown’s Body, Public Violence, and Political Community. American Literary History13(4), 639-670.

[Gloria Jane]. (Sep 29,2009). John Brown’s Body [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bSSn3NddwFQ

 

 

Statue, Memory, and the Imagined Community

By Jeremy Mahr

On a sleepy summer night in mid-August, I watched in amazement from the comfort of my home the destruction of a Confederate memorial. On a streaming YouTube video, protesters in front of a Durham, North Carolina courthouse had curled rope around a Confederate soldier memorial, and proceeded to topple the statue to the ground. The impact of the fall split the statue down the torso, though angry protesters continued to stomp on the fragments for good measure. Opinions on the Internet comments section predictably ran wild. Aside from the usual racist, pro-fascist tirades from edgy teenagers that one would normally find in the gangrenous armpit that passes for online discourse these days, several particular sets of talking points seemed to crystallize. ‘What compelled these left-wing lunatics to commit these acts?’ people complained. ‘Can’t they see that they’re erasing history?’ bemoaned upstanding American citizens.

These accusations of re-writing history are hardly new, and are a familiar staple among pro-Confederate apologists and so-called fence-sitting moderates. Such a statement, however, presupposes that these statues were ever honest attempts at presenting a neutral historical viewpoint to begin with. However, as comedian John Oliver cogently explained in his well-articulated segment, this is far from the case. As Oliver’s sketch shows, not only were these statues erected long after Robert E. Lee’s 1865 surrender to Union troops at Appomattox, they were primarily built in two particular time periods: the 1900s-1920s and the 1950s-1960s. The fact that these two time periods overlapped with the nadir of American race relations, and the height of the Civil Rights movement, respectively, are hardly coincidental. Far from being good-faith representations of the Civil War or harmless symbols of Southern pride, these Confederate statues are, as a whole, heavily ideological assertions of dominance that arose from Southern attempts to address historical meaning from the death and destruction of the war, resulting in a mythical elevation of the Lost Cause and Southern unity that ignored the larger issues of race and class brought about by the conflict.

As the deadliest war in American memory, the Civil War reshaped not only the political and racial landscape, but also the ways in which Americans thought about death and memory. Raised on the concept of ars moriendi, or the Good Death, 19th century Americans believed in death as an art, with ritualized performances surrounding rites such as last words, family witnesses, and the peaceful transition to the afterlife (Faust 10). The ensuing brutality of the Civil War, however, soon came to shatter those basic assumptions about death. As more than 600,000 soldiers became casualties of the Civil War, many of them dying away from home and family, and denied an easy path for ars moriendi, soldiers and civilians alike struggled with appropriate ways of processing the tragedies unfolding around them. Although many civilians turned towards religion, as evidenced by the growing number of postwar Southern churches as well as the popularity of spiritualism, others, particularly in the South, found their faith faltering. They wondered in particular why God would subject the former Confederate citizens to the humiliation and anguish that followed the South’s defeat (Faust 193). Many wondered if the death and suffering ultimately had any meaning. It was in this atmosphere that the cult of the Lost Cause would come into play.

What made this notion of the Lost Cause so appealing was that it pushed back against the dehumanization that was suggested by the mass bloodshed of raw, modern industrial warfare. It asserted that the war was meaningful, that the soldiers who died had fought for a good and meaningful cause. As Faust explains,

“The Cult of the Lost Cause and the celebration of Confederate memory that emerged in the ensuing decades were in no small part an effort to affirm that the hundreds of thousands of young southern lives had not, in fact, been given in vain” (Faust 193).

By offering the notion of a noble South that has been brought low by treacherous Northern carpetbaggers and people of color, this vision united white southerners in solidarity, gave meaning to what seemed to be nothing else but chaotic carnage, and re-affirmed the imagined community that drove Confederate nationalism to begin with. The idea of preserving the “Southern way of life,” against the perceived threat of outside forces, would animate nostalgia for paternalistic Confederate values, the desire for renewal, and hostility against anybody who seemed to stand in its way. The building of Confederate statues as backlash against Reconstruction and the Civil Rights movement was just one manifestation of this imagined community, and the othering that it entailed.

This notion of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, however, was also fundamentally flawed. As suggested above, the imagined community of white Southerners relied on the simultaneous exclusion and marginalization of others, especially black Americans. Much of this treatment was along racial lines, and under further critical review, one would find the entire racial attitude to be contradictory. It required a disavowal that the Civil War had anything to do with slavery, while also embracing patently racist elements that tacitly or openly warned blacks to stay in their place.

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Confederate Soldier Sculpture, Durham, NC. Erected in 1924, the statue stood in front of the old Durham County Courthouse until it was forcibly taken down in August 2017 by protesters. Its construction at the height of nativism and the KKK, and its placement outside a court of law is emblematic of how Confederate memorials are as much about racial domination over public space as it was about Southern pride. Its removal following the Charlottesville demonstrations can be seen as a reclamation of that space by minority rights activists. Courtesy of CNN.

Over the course of postwar memory, the deaths and sacrifices of the war became increasingly fetishized, even as people stopped thinking about what exactly these soldiers were dying and sacrificing for. As Frederick Douglass would declare,

“death has no power to change moral qualities…. I shall never forget the difference between those who fought for liberty, and those who fought for slavery” (Faust 269).

Those who fought for liberty included runaway slaves who would end up joining the Union Army. Those black soldiers in many cases received the brunt of Confederate brutality through incidents such as the Fort Pillow Massacre, and so were denied the same ars moriendi that white Americans were incessantly preoccupied with. In putting up statues that celebrate Confederate soldiers and officers, Confederate apologists willfully ignore the institution of slavery over which the South fought for, and the promise of freedom that the war brought for enslaved blacks. In accusing others of re-writing history, supporters of the status quo forget that the Confederate statues have already done the same, effectively re-writing blacks out of their own history.

Nor were blacks the only group to suffer this treatment. In downplaying the slavery aspects of the Civil War, the Cult of the Lost Cause also ignored the class issues that plagued the Confederacy. Far from being a unified Southern bulwark against Northern aggression, the Confederate secessionists were plagued from the onset about the problem of convincing poor whites to fight against their economic interests, in favor of propping up a system of slavery that enriched the planter elite against the interests of the many. Although white supremacist propaganda worked to an extent, by the end of the war many working-class whites had come to reject Confederate ideology, under the belief that they were being taken advantage of by the slave-owning elites. Yeomen farmers may have constituted the bulk of the Confederate military, but they also made up the bulk of deserters and draft resisters as well (Zimmer). Pro-Union Southerners were also ruthlessly suppressed under the Confederacy. As Eric Foner states,

Throughout the upcountry, Unionists abandoned their homes to hide from conscription officers and Confederate sheriffs, who hunted them, as they had once hunted runaway slaves, with bloodhounds; some found refuge in the very mountain caves that had once sheltered fugitives from bondage” (Zimmer).

Clearly, these pro-Unionist Southerners defy the supposed solidarity among white Southerners that the Lost Cause demands. Because of their refusal to conform to elite demands, these white dissidents were marginalized from the Confederate imagined community, having also been written out of their own history alongside African Americans.

The Confederate statues, like all statues, do not exist to record history, but to celebrate it: to celebrate the Great Men, ideals, and mythos of the Conquered South. In doing so, they present a false, Disney-fied version of history in which a united South fought back against northern tyranny, while ignoring the race and class antagonisms that defined the Southern experiment in secession.

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Stone Mountain, the largest Confederate memorial in the United States, was built in 1972 on the birthplace of the second Ku Klux Klan. Presenting bas-relief sculptures of three Confederate leaders (President Jefferson David, General Robert E. Lee, and General Stonewall Jackson), the monument contributes to the sentiment of the Lost Cause via the hagiography of its leaders. It is also the centerpiece of a hilarious online petition. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

So what do we make of the statues, and the ideas of the Lost Cause that underpin them? Despite the protestations of Confederate apologists, opposition to Confederate statues and memorials is not an act of rewriting history, so much as it is a correction to a history that has become distorted in public memory due to years of nostalgia and a need to validate seemingly-senseless wartime violence. It is a reaction to an ideological system that presents an erroneous vision of a unified South, historically undergirded systems of white supremacy and elite domination, and sidelined the impact of blacks and dissident, working-class whites. Whether the correct course of action is to remove all Confederate statues, or to put up more statues celebrating black figures, or any combination of actions, I do not know, and I invite people who are more learned than me to offer solutions. All I ask is that fence-sitting centrists examine more closely these statues, and the historical baggage and revisionism that comes with them, and ask themselves this: ‘which side is really rewriting history?’    

References:

Faust, D.G. (2008). This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Oliver, J. [LastWeekTonight]. (Oct 8, 2017). Confederacy: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO) [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5b_-TZwQ0I&t

Zimmer, T. (Aug 16, 2017). Tear Down the Confederates’ Symbols. Jacobin. Retrieved from https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/08/confederate-statue-durham-flag-civil-war-slavery-planters-poor-whites

 

Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience

By Jeremy Mahr

thoreau

Photo of Henry David Thoreau. Image courtesy of Wikipedia. 

 

Written in 1848, Henry David Thoreau’s seminal essay “Civil Disobedience” articulates Thoreau’s political awakening as an anti-imperialist, anti-authoritarian dissident. Inspired by Thoreau’s brief stint in jail for refusing to pay a poll tax, as well as his disgust with the institution of slavery and the Mexican-American War, the moral and political arguments in “Civil Disobedience” have found renewed relevance generations after the essay’s original publication date. It has been cited as an inspiration by figures such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Tolstoy, as well as the activists of Tiananmen Square and the Vietnam War protest movement.

As an outgrowth of the contemporary Transcendentalist movement which critiqued American society and the conformity that it seemed to demand, “Civil Disobedience” reflected a uniquely American form of dissent that drew from Enlightenment ideas of liberty and self-autonomy and extended them to support radical ideas of individualist political action. Beginning his essay with the benign adage of “That government is best which governs least,” Thoreau uses his platform to excoriate governments as agents of ineptitude and corruption. Like prominent thinkers of his day, Thoreau agreed that governments derive legitimacy from the consent of the governed. However,

“government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient” (1).

As a result of their inefficiencies, governments typically do more harm than good and are thus unjustified. According to Thoreau, even democracy cannot be a cure for this; because democracies rely on the will of the majority, rather than what is wise or just, they will fall victim to the same ills.

Despite these views, Thoreau was not a pessimist, and generally agreed that democracy was a superior form of government. However, he simply believed that people could do better. As he stated,

“The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual. Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man?” (17).

Utilizing a framework of societal progress that many 19th Century Americans would have found familiar, Thoreau subverted mainstream expectations by arguing for a form beyond democracy, the U.S. Constitution, and possibly government itself. Because governments are illegitimate, Thoreau believed that decisions made by an individual’s conscience are not necessarily inferior to those made by government bodies. Therefore, respect for the law should always come secondary to respect for what is moral and right. In Thoreau’s eyes, because government upholds immoral causes such as slavery or the invasion of sovereign Mexican territory, people are not obligated to obey its laws. Thus, by using familiar themes of progress and freedom, Thoreau gives support for a radical, borderline anarchist vision of society in which individual will, not laws, dictates human action.

storming

This photo of the Mexican-American War, depicting the Storming of Chapeltepec, 1877, provides a contrast to Henry David Thoreau’s anti-war stance. Whereas Thoreau is stridently anti-nationalistic, this image shows a growing sense of American nationhood, as evidenced when the soldier places the American flag near the center of the image, emphasizing the association between national pride and military conquest. Throughout “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau tries to show the evils of government, and how soldiers, as the supposed unthinking enforcement arm of government, could be a threat to liberty. He presents what he perceives to be the irony of how soldiers trained to follow orders are hailed as heroes while men of true virtue and conviction were vilified as ungrateful and unpatriotic. The differing views of soldiers, either as imperialist drones or conquering heroes, mirrors contemporary debates about the legality of the Mexican-American War as well as modern debates about national pride and the role of the military in securing or infringing upon liberty. Image courtesy of Getty. 

Thoreau’s identification of social change through the power of individuals rather than institutions sometimes led him to support violent causes, such as his admiration of radical abolitionist John Brown. As Donohue writes,

“Thoreau’s reaction to Brown, then, is not a break from his individualistic political views, but an identification of such values in the figure of Brown” (Donohue, 2007, pg 5). 

In John Brown, Thoreau saw the idea manifested of a man who was willing to, in the words of Donohue, attack

“the roots of the slavery problem, and despite the violent measures used in this attack, it was the effort made—by an individual man of superior moral conscience against an unjust government….” (Donohue, 2007, pg 263).

Thoreau’s support for a man who advocated extra-parliamentary means for revolutionary change places him among a line of radical Americans who advocated for direct action, rather than the ballot, by any means necessary.

To treat “Civil Disobedience” as merely as anti-establishment screed, however, would not do it justice. A key insight in “Civil Disobedience” that elevates the essay beyond merely advocating for social change is its argument for the complicity of all citizens in enabling injustice. In doing so, it raises questions about the societal privileges that people all enjoy, including those of the self-styled dissidents themselves.

In the central episode of the essay, Thoreau confronts his neighbor, a taxgatherer, and refuses to pay the tax:

“I meet this American government, or its representative the State government, directly, and face to face, once a year, no more, in the person of its taxgatherer; this is the only mode in which a man situated as I am necessarily meets it; and it then says distinctly, Recognize me; and the simplest, the most effectual, and, in the present posture of affairs, the indispensablest mode of treating with it on this head, of expressing your little satisfaction with and love for it, is to deny it then. My civil neighbor, the taxgatherer, is the very man I have to deal with,—for it is, after all, with men and not with parchment that I quarrel,—and he has voluntarily chosen to be an agent of the government. How shall he ever know well what he is and does as an officer of the government, or as a man, until he is obliged to consider whether he shall treat me, his neighbor, for whom he has respect, as a neighbor and well-disposed man, or as a maniac and disturber of the peace…” (8).

As an act of civil disobedience, Thoreau’s refusal to pay his taxes represented more than just a dissident who disagrees with his tax dollars going to a war he does not support. Rather, it seeks to criticize all citizens who seek to use the facelessness of society to pretend that their hands are clean of the sins that government commit in their names (Carton, 1998).

The conflicting interests of the Thoreau’s neighbor illustrates this point: as a civilian, he would probably wish to treat Thoreau in an honorable manner. Yet, as a tax collector and an employee of the state, the neighbor has no choice but to condemn Thoreau as a criminal and send him to prison. When the facelessness disappears, when the walls are removed, and the artificial distances that separate people from the effects of their actions, the complicity of people in maintaining and perpetuating an unjust system is laid bare for all to see. The money you pay in taxes can be used to support an immoral war against a foreign land. The new sneakers you buy today were made possible by slave-like sweatshop conditions. Nobody truly is innocent, and the moral weight can be overwhelming. Yet, as Thoreau insists, if a person is not devoted to the cause of eradicating injustice, then the least that person can do is

“to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support” (6). 

The themes echoed in “Civil Disobedience” do more than just voice support for opposing government institutions. It also forces us to question our fundamental beliefs. If revolutionary change by individual conscience is more effective than gradual institutional change, then to what extent should we respect the laws of government in our march towards a better society? Furthermore, if personal conscience is the primary justification for change, to what extent ought we guide our decisions by our own universal moral standards if they deviate from larger society? One may perhaps find justification for Thoreau’s ideas in not just the mainstream accounts of nonviolent marches of Dr. King, but also the militant actions of John Brown, and in modern times, the violent tactics of so-called anti-fascists who seek to disrupt far-right demonstrations in cities such as Charlottesville and Berkeley. In other words, those who seek to redress what they consider to be injustice, by any means necessary. Lastly, by bringing up the example of the tax collector, Thoreau reminds the reader that, like it or not, everybody is complicit in supporting a corrupt system, until the day we suddenly decide not to. Drawing from familiar American ideas, Henry David Thoreau emerges as a distinct American voice that is influenced by, and in turn influences, radical ideas of dissent and resistance. Despite these lingering moral questions, one fact remains clear: Thoreau’s ideas are not going anywhere.

Citations: 

Carton, E. (1998). The Price of Privilege: “Civil Disobedience” at 50. American Scholar, Vol. 67 (4), p105-112

Donohue, J.J. (2007). Hardly the Voice of the Same Man: ‘Civil Disobedience’ and Thoreau’s Response to John Brown. The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 48 (2), p247-265

Thoreau, H.D. (1848). Resistance to Civil Government.

Resistance and Repression in the Antebellum South

By Jeremy Mahr

From the founding of the Thirteen Colonies, to the close of the American Civil War, slavery remained as a fixture of American society, driving the economy while leaving deep divisions between anti-slavery abolitionists and pro-slavery advocates. Under the institution of slavery, enslaved blacks were systematically marginalized from society, forced to survive and work under some of the most brutal conditions known to mankind. Yet, it would be a mistake to claim that enslaved persons were simply passive victims to the whims of their masters. Although their means were limited, enslaved persons had the agency to choose to resist the horrors of slavery through various means. This is reflected by Jacob D. Green’s account of his life as an enslaved African-American, in his autobiography “Narration of the Life of J.D. Green, a Runaway Slave.” Presented as a transcription of various lectures spoken to abolitionist audiences, the narrative presents Green as emblematic of many enslaved blacks who, without legal or social recourse to openly fight back, still found ways of resisting the injustices of the system. This was accomplished through direct means, such as his repeated attempts to run away as a fugitive slave, as well as indirect means, such as Green’s clever uses of trickery to get what he wanted and avoid punishment from his master.

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Title page of Green’s autobiography. Image courtesy of docsouth.unc.edu.

Green’s autobiography begins by describing his early life on the plantation of Judge Charles Earle in Queen Anne’s County, Maryland. From the start, his life is marked by tragedy: his mother is sold to another master in Woodfork, never to be seen by him again. The theme of family breakup is repeated through the entirety of the piece. Not only does Green lose his mother, but over the course of his life, he also loses his wife and children to slave purchasers, and witnesses the families of other enslaved persons being torn apart as family members are sold to different traders.

The sense of powerlessness among enslaved black families was especially magnified in black women, who are described by Green as being often victims of the lecherousness of their white masters. When Green’s wife, Jane, gives birth five months after their marriage to a light-skinned child, she informs him that the child is not his, but the master’s. In spite of this revelation, Green settles into his family life, and notes

notwithstanding this we lived happily together, and I felt happy and comfortable” (22). 

It is only when his wife is sold, without his knowledge, by the master’s jealous wife, that Green harbors thoughts of fleeing slavery. In one especially gruesome moment, an enslaved woman named Mary is raped in a barn by William, the young son of her master, and is saved by the intervention of her lover, Dan, who accidentally kills William in the process. Following the incident, Mary commits suicide out of fright and shame. After the master’s sons catch Dan, Green graphically describes Dan’s punishment at the hands of their master: being chained to a large tree and getting burned alive.

These terrible scenes are described in vivid detail, yet Green manages to keep his tone matter-of-fact and nonchalant throughout. During Dan’s painful demise, for example, Green writes:

The unearthly sounds that came from the blazing pile, as poor Dan writhed in the agonies of death, it is beyond the power of my pen to describe. After a while all was silent, except the cracking of the pine wood as the fire gradually devoured it with the prize that it contained. Poor Dan had ceased to struggle–he was at rest” (21).

The neutral tone, coupled with the graphic imagery, captures not only the brutality of the institution, but also how slavery normalized violence against the enslaved: under slavery, barbaric acts such as burning people alive became accepted as mere punishments towards rebellious enslaved persons, instead of as the gross abuses of human rights that people would rightly see it as today. It also served the purpose of the genre by highlighting the inherent contradictions and injustices in American society. While elites stressed the values of liberty and Christian morality, Green dismantled such pretensions by showing how those same values– God, family, and liberty– were undermined by the practice of slavery. Dan was not free to save his lover from rape and sexual assault. Green’s mother, while deeply religious and loving, found that her family was doomed to be split apart, regardless of her piety. Green remarks upon the unfairness of the system, especially in how blacks often faced harsher punishment than whites for the same misdeed. In one particular incident, J.D. Green catches a white boy in the act of stealing Green’s marbles and toys. Mr. Burmey, one of the overseers on the plantation, catches Green and the boy mid-fight. Almost immediately, Burmey takes the side of the white boy and attempts to punish Green for physically striking a white person. 

“[Mr. Burmey] kicked me away from the white boy, saying if I belonged to him he would cut off my hands for daring to strike a white boy; this without asking the cause of the quarrel, or ascertaining who was to blame” (7).

In spite of these troubles, Green found subtle ways of fighting back against the system. Throughout the text, Green presents himself as a trickster figure, of sorts. Striving to get his revenge on Mr. Burmey, Green realizes that Burmey, and another man named Roger, were both secret lovers of the master’s wife. Knowing Burmey to be a voracious smoker, he fills Burmey’s pipe with gunpowder, causing the pipe to explode and disfigure Mr. Burmey. Although Burmey ends up suing Roger in open court, Green himself is never suspected of the act. At times, Green’s scheming comes at the expense of other slaves, but he always finds new and ingenious methods of insulating himself against the injustices of slavery. In many respects, Green’s actions could be read as practical resistance and rebellion, against an oppressive system that otherwise robs him of few other options and opportunities. Despite threats of harsh punishments, Green also makes the choice to escape, not once, but three times, at times taking him all the way north to places such as Utica and Philadelphia before he finally prevails and lives the rest of his life as a free man in Toronto, Canada. These scenes show Green as someone who, in spite of personal tragedies, gives himself the agency to rebel and forge his own path any way he could.

henrybibb

Reward poster for Henry Bibb, a fugitive slave. Escaping slave plantations for safe haven in Canada or the Northern states was a relatively common, though risky, tactic for many enslaved persons including Green. Image courtesy of docsouth.unc.edu.

This sense of rebellion is particularly important to Green, because it marks his growing development as an independent agent. Through his entire life, Green is taught to be powerless and submissive: his family life is forever insecure and threatened by the possibility of separation, and he does not expect to receive equal treatment in society. Even his Christian faith is carefully selected by his master to emphasize the superiority of slavery. According to Mr. Cobb, the minister of Green’s church:

“when we were in our native country Africa, we were destitute of Bible light, worshipping idols of sticks and stones, ones, and barbarously murdering one another, God put it into the hearts of these good slaveholders to venture across the bosom of the hazardous Atlantic to Africa, and snatch us poor negroes as brands from the eternal burning, and bring us where we might sit under the droppings of his sanctuary, and learn the ways of industry and the way to God” (6).

In other words, the elites of Southern society, mediated by the power structures of the Church and the Plantation, argued that blacks were the beneficiaries and not the victims of slavery, because enslaved blacks were far too ignorant and uncivilized to strike out on their own. Green’s attempts at resistance, first through tricking his masters and later through running away from slavery, serve as attempts to establish his own destiny, away from the domineering influences of the larger society.

The presentation of the narrative as a series of transcribed lectures also furthers the idea of resistance, becoming an act of rebellion in its own right. Because he was speaking to a friendly audience, Green probably had the privilege of being candid about his experiences, showing both the good and the bad sides of his character without fear of backlash. Furthermore, Green’s accounts of the injustices, murders, and rapes that occurred under slavery would have shocked the audience, whose abolitionist ideas were usually guided by Christian impulses, and who also would have bristled at these violent accounts under slavery, and the Southern Christian ministers who helped enable them. Beyond simply deconstructing the idea of slavery, Green’s later career as a successful lecturer for the abolitionist cause was another rebuke to the Southern slaveholders, showing that blacks could still rise to excellence without the guiding hands of masters.

The autobiography of J.D. Green, although relatively short, is useful in the insights that Green permits into the everyday workings of slavery, and the actions that some slaves took to fight back in big or small ways. Slavery as an institution fundamentally contradicted the language of liberty and freedom that defined American society, but that did not mean that enslaved blacks passively gave in to their lot.