“So Let It Be Done!” Of John Brown and White Anti-Racism

White anti-racists love to celebrate John Brown, normally at the expense of celebrating Black abolitionists. But does this appreciation value Brown’s actual deeds and words, especially with regarding to abolishing his subject position? For the most part, no. For all the talk about positionality there is relatively little discussion of subject position. John Brown’s life and actions are well narrated by many already. Instead here I want to focus on Brown’s statements at his trial and what they can tell us about white anti-racism and ally politics. I’m not a John Brown scholar and do not assert he would share my entire analysis. What follows is a selective reading, not a contextualization. Further this is not a critique of Brown. Both thoughtful and trash critiques are widely available including by Brown’s contemporaries.

Brown made a few statements to the court during his trial. His November 2nd 1859 address is only six hundred thirty-eight words long but offers some tremendous lessons.

I have, may it please the court, a few words to say. In the first place, I deny everything but what I have all along admitted – the design on my part to free the slaves. I intended certainly to have made a clean thing of that matter, as I did last winter when I went into Missouri and there took slaves without the snapping of a gun on either side, moved them through the country, and finally left them in Canada. I designed to have done the same thing again on a larger scale. That was all I intended. I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection.

I have another objection; and that is, it is unjust that I should suffer such a penalty. Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved (for I admire the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case)–had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends – either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class – and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.

This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to “remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done – as I have always freely admitted I have done – in behalf of His despised poor was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments – I submit; so let it be done!

Let me say one word further.

I feel entirely satisfied with the treatment I have received on my trial. Considering all the circumstances it has been more generous than I expected. But I feel no consciousness of guilt. I have stated that from the first what was my intention and what was not. I never had any design against the life of any person, nor any disposition to commit treason, or excite slaves to rebel, or make any general insurrection. I never encouraged any man to do so, but always discouraged any idea of that kind.

Let me say also a word in regard to the statements made by some of those connected with me. I her it has been stated by some of them that I have induced them to join me. But the contrary is true. I do not say this to injure them, but as regretting their weakness. There is not one of them but joined me of his own accord, and the greater part of them at their own expense. A number of them I never saw, and never had a word of conversation with till the day they came to me; and that was for the purpose I have stated.

Now I have done.

Brown starts confessing to earlier crimes by directly intervening through participation in the Underground Railroad as he had done for nearly a decade after founding the League of Gileadites in Springfield, Massachusetts. Slavery was/is a social and legal institution, and as such freedom for the enslaved population was inherently criminalized. Actions against African Slavery were criminal acts and Brown embraces this criminality with both arms. Brown then critiques the master/capitalist class by noting if he had intervened through direct, armed action on any of their behalves he would be celebrated. Here Brown describes the misunderstanding that African Slavery imposes on the world. Systemic racism creates a discursive world where Black life can barely be conceived of, much less valued. The discursive break Brown offers is between one where only the freedom of the powerful matters and one where – how to put it – Black lives matter. That phrase is of course not Brown’s and Black revolutionaries have created diverse vocabularies, praxes and philosophies of resistance that long pre-date Brown and, in fact, inspired him to action towards Black liberation.

The most vital part of Brown’s insight comes when he utters, “I say I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done – as I have always freely admitted I have done – in behalf of His despised poor was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments – I submit; so let it be done!”

This statement is powerful poetry and inspiringly militant. He reframes what is – in the U.S. – wrong as right and right as wrong thereby inverting the relationship he describes in the prior section where the rich and powerful are the valued population. While I hold reservations about “on behalf of,” Brown’s “His despised poor” reorients the power of God through a Christian liberation theology that asserts, as in Matthew, that it is “easier for a camel to pass through a needle eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Brown’s focus is on the enslaved African and Black populations which is different than the working class vs. capitalist class but remains analogous to the Matthew verse. Brown’s key insight, however, offers a more fundamental break.

Assuming the Position

Inside of organizations of power like capitalism, settler colonialism, patriarchy and others, both individuals and status groups (“men”, “Blacks”, “natives”, “the rich”, etc.) are positioned on various axes. This is the subject position inside of power. One may hold a privileged subject position on one axis and a subordinate one on another which is a key insight of Black feminism’s intersectionality framework. For example, one may be working class vis-a-vis capitalism and thus in an oppressed position, while simultaneously being positioned as superior under white supremacy and patriarchy. This is the position of white, working class, cisgendered men for example. The class-oppressed and race- and gender-free positions are all equally true and not contradictory. The question of subject position is what separates Brown’s statements at his trial from white anti-racism.

White anti-racism is, with few exceptions, more “white” than anything else. The “white” subject position is formed by and predicated on an assumed superiority over “non-white”. The entire history of whiteness is produced towards this end. More specifically “white” was/is produced, originally, in counterposition to “Black” and “Native” providing the ethical basis for African Slavery and Indian Removal. Alternately put, white supremacy is inhered in whiteness and there is no articulation of whiteness that is not also an articulation of white supremacy. This is to say that whiteness is defined by its subject position, not cultural production; it is the product of the colonization of Turtle Island and enslavement of Africans rather than an accumulation of traditions and influences. Whiteness’ only real tradition is white supremacy.

This presents a problem with the concepts of “white anti-racist” and “white ally”. “Ally”, specifically although not exclusively in the context of white people, is predicated on maintaining a subject position apart from the subordinated status group. To be a White Ally is to position oneself inside white supremacy vis-a-vis Blackness/anti-Blackness (as do, if differently, other settler but non-white identities). Self-identified white anti-racists have in common with neo-nazis and ilk a practice of organizing sociality around whiteness, which is again indistinguishible from white supremacy. “Ally”, “white anti-racist” and neo-nazi embrace whiteness while helping define the boundaries of the subject position. They are all attempts to be the Best Kind of White Person.

John Brown is frequently positioned as an ally par excellence. This, in my read, is a dramatic mischaracterization. Brown says, “if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments – I submit; so let it be done!” Four years before the term “miscegenation” was coined by the nascent worldview of biological racism and Social Darwinism, Brown discussed ‘mingling his blood’ from a fundamentally different point of view. Brown asserts that the mixing of the blood is done through struggle against African Slavery.

His declaration, “So let it be done!” defines abolitionism in a way rarely discussed. For most abolitionism refers to the movement to end African Slavery’s regime of forced labor and bondage. If, in the name of the “furtherance of the ends of justice” it is necessary to forfeit all the protections that whiteness usually provides that is not calling simply for the abolition of the coerced labor and captivity, but also whiteness. It is his very subject position that is deemed both expendable and necessarily forfeited to achieve Black freedom. I read Brown’s statements as calls to abolish the fundamental construct of African Slavery, not simply the forced labor aspect thereof. This means abolishing the subject position of whiteness rather than affirming it.

Brown had “white anti-racist” contemporaries who, though abhorred by slavery and very often militantly opposed to it, never conceived of struggling against their subject position. Their ideological descendants dominate what passes for anti-racism among white people today. At best “white allies” seem committed to navigating positionality without abolishing it. It is not just the neoliberal, individualist framework it so often produces. Actions like, progressive stack during discussions, focusing on whose voices are missing and including them, representation, etc., are vital but insufficient by themselves. Some common White Ally slogans reflect the gap in understanding. “White silence is violence.” True. So is ‘white noise’. They are both true because, again, there is no articulation of whiteness that is not also an articulation of white supremacy. “White folk work.” Some Black, native and NBPOC both are good at and enjoy doing anti-racist work in white communities. Asserting something is “white folk work” is a way to preserve a white subject position. Were maintaining whiteness not central it would just be called “work”. Why not show up and do the work without centering our white settler identities?

If, as white people committed to ending white supremacy in all its manifestations, we are serious, then we must consider our subject position forfeit. This is not the same as pretending positionality doesn’t exist and must not be carefully navigated. We must continue to undertake anti-oppression practices that somewhat mitigate our subject position’s power while doing the work to abolish it. Are we doing this while celebrating John Brown as an “ally”? Impactful opposition to white supremacy by white people has consequences for those doing the opposing. This is just as true in the cases of armed resistance like John Brown and Marilyn Buck as it is for the unarmed resistance of Charles T. Torrey. In these and other cases the cost included their freedom and health and lives as it so often does for Black and native people whether or not they are fighting the system. But being willing to pay white supremacy and anti-Blackness’ heavy costs daily born by Black people whether or not any specific person is rebelling is an important part of abolishing our subject position. The alternative is the maintenance of white supremacy.

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The Atlanteans and the Middle Passage

This essay was inspired Nijla Mu’Min’s extraordinary film Deluge. Thanks to Amrah Salomon for feedback on the draft.

 

Superheroes have celebrated origin stories. Gamma radiation gives rise to shapeshifting rage monsters. Extraterrestrial parentage provides biological powers. A magician’s curse or a nibble from a radioactive arachnid can turn one superpowered. The story of how one gets one’s powers is a defining part of superhero stories. It is, after all, the sine qua non of any superhero’s existence. But what about the universes in which the superheroes operate? Why don’t we look at their origin stories? And what can those origin stories tell us about the comics universes and popular discourse? What follows explores the origin stories of the DC and Marvel universes through their respective Atlantean populations, focusing on a missing narrative fundamental of the world in which virtually all stories in the DC and Marvel lines happen: African Slavery.

The Marvel and DC universes take place, with some exceptions, in the United States settler colony. The United States has two systemic structures without which it does not exist: African Slavery and Indian Removal (or at least it does not exist in anything remotely resembling its current form). These are the bedrocks of settler colonialism on the continent. The simultaneous destruction of the native world and construction of the anti-Black one define everything from many colloquialisms in White American English to property and land law to policing to the names of sports teams to holidays and comprise the preponderance of U.S. history, not to mention the entire physical geography.

Can this be less true in the Marvel and DC universes? They both have Black characters, albeit relatively few and poorly drawn – often in both senses of the term. Black as an identity (or, per anti-Blackness, a site of capital accumulation and location for gratuitous violence) is tied to the legacy of settler colonialism’s African Slavery. If there was African Slavery then there was transport of enslaved peoples from Africa to colonized Turtle Island (North America). So where were the Atlanteans of the respective DC and Marvel universes during the Middle Passage? Where were Aquaman’s and Namor’s ancestors when the first rebelling or newborn enslaved Africans were tossed overboard to drown, be eaten by sharks or drift slowly to the bottom of the Atlantic?

Exploring these ideas identifies dramatic narrative gaps in between the worlds where these stories purport to take place and the world in which they are told. That they are missing from the Marvel and DC universes exemplifies settler normativity, how the destruction of the native world and construction of the settlers’ anti-Black one is naturalized in and baselines politics and society. Settler colonialism is the organization of power that accomplishes this simultaneous destruction/construction. It is how native Turtle Island becomes the anti-Black North America for example.

It also creates a worldview for its inhabitants. In the same way that men struggle to see sexism, instead just seeing ‘normal’, settlers struggle to see settler colonialism. This settler normativity is one of our very frames of reference. It is basic to our understanding of the world. It is why when we hear about the 49ers we think about the football team or the miners of the gold rush, not the populist genocide the actual ‘fortyniners carried out, despite the depopulation of native California by far being their most enduring and impactful legacy. To question settler colonialism is to question the very world the settlers make. We don’t ask where Aquaman’s ancestors were during the Middle Passage because African Slavery is naturalized in society. It, like men not seeing sexism, is a level below the observable because it is the frame through which observations are made.

So where were Aquaman and Namor’s great-great-great grandparents when they first encountered African Slavery? What was their reaction? How would those reactions change the DC and Marvel universes? I explore some potential scenarios in the paragraphs that follow. Some of these fit inside the current DC and Marvel continuities, namely, the more horrible ones. Others disrupt the current continuities, including those that stop African Slavery in its infancy.

 

Scenario 1: Hotlantis

Those thrown overboard are rescued by Atlanteans and form an Afro-descendent Atlantean population or are assisted in returning home. This does not require significant adjustment of current continuities.

Scenario 2: Successful Anti-Slavery Intervention

The Atlanteans intervene against the slavers and prevent the Middle Passage from happening. Scenario five can work in conjunction with this. This is, in the DC universe term, an Elseworld and is irreconcilable with the current continuities. Scenarios 3 and 4 show why it is irreconcilable.

Scenario 3: Post-Intervention A

Superman’s rocket lands in Pawnee country since there is no Kansas in which to crash without African Slavery. Superman is now a Pawnee hero. This is irreconcilable with the current continuities.

Scenario 4: Post-Intervention B

Without African Slavery there is no such place as Gotham in which Thomas and Martha Wayne are shot to later be patrolled by their son Batman. They remain British aristocrats. If Bruce Wayne grows up to be a billionaire vigilante he does so in the UK. This is irreconcilable with the current continuities.

Scenario 5: No Response

The Atlanteans first encounter African Slavery through the at sea disposal of newborns or rebelling Africans and either react only to the drowned bodies and not to the act of drowning or simply go about their business. Here the Atlanteans would be concerned with whaling ships more than slave ships (though the ecological damage of African Slavery is in fact substantial!), to the degree they’re concerned with surface dwellers at all. This does not require adjustment of continuities.

Scenario 6: Unsuccessful Intervention

The Atlanteans attempt to intervene and fail and the Middle Passage continues. This is the basis for the Atlantean distance from the surface dweller world for the next four hundred years until the eras of Aquaman and Namor. This does not require significant adjustment of continuities.

Scenario 7: Complicity

Both Atlantean worlds are monarchies of one kind or another which suggests regressive politics. It is thus entirely feasible that Aquaman and Namor’s ancestors were complicit in the Middle Passage in some way. Was a tribute or toll paid to those who control the seas? Thus Atlanteans owe reparations of some kind and direct action at the Justice League headquarters is in order. This does not require significant adjustment of continuities.

Scenario 8: Opportunistic/Humanitarian Intervention

The history of humanitarian intervention is dominated by the interveners integrating a crisis or oppressive system into their own politics rather than ending the crisis or oppression. Alternately put, humanitarian intervention is with few exceptions a tool of empire. Entirely plausible in an intervention scenario is Atlanteans taking over the slave trade rather ending it. This does not require significant adjustment of current continuities.

 

An honest account of U.S. history means dealing with the ugly truths of settler colonialism. Settler society cultural production helps avoid these ugly truths by producing myths. Not myths as in, superpowered beings in symbolic grand battles. But myths as in, the United States settler colony somehow being post-colonial. As it stands, the most implausible thing about comics is not that some beings can fly without apparent means of propulsion, but that they take place in a United States without Indian Removal and African Slavery. DC and Marvel comics are not imagining a utopia without colonialism even if they may think they are. Instead they imagine a world where colonialism doesn’t matter or doesn’t matter anymore, mountains of facts to the contrary be damned.

Comics can do better. Comics can narrate the colonial present and retcon their respective universes to where settler colonialism, including African Slavery and Indian Removal, happen and impact the universes accordingly. Elseworlds-style stories are one way of accomplishing this. For example there is the as-yet not made story Superman: Alien where the Man of Steel’s rocket is found by Mexican migrant workers on a Kansas farm. He then gets deported with his adoptive parents and grows up to be a Mexican superhero. That is at least as plausible as him being found by the white farm owners. This and the more tragic alternate visions offered above veer away from the current continuities in that they contextualize events as if they take place in the universes they purport to.

The question is one of decolonizing comics. Not as in, comics were colonized and must now be decolonized. That is silly. Nobody colonized comics books. To the contrary, comics in the United States are part of settler colonial cultural production. So in decolonizing comics we seek comics that are decolonizing acts; that are decolonizing narratives and, potentially, tools. Some indie comics and zines already explore this. Yet mainstream comics can too play a role in subverting settler normativity through dealing with the world settler colonialism made, the world in which the comics universes exist. One possible story to tell in this direction is the one that tells the story of the Atlanteans during the Middle Passage. Aquaman’s ancestors have some explaining to do.