A Requiem for John Brown: road map for 21st Century Abolition

“I, John Brown, am now quite certain, that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood.” – John Brown


Saturday marked the 158th anniversary of John Brown’s execution. The passionate and dedicated abolitionist believed that logic and moral arguments would not end the practice of slavery, that only war would do that. Two years after his death the Civil War began.

The Civil War provides a sort of mythical absolution in our collective consciousness, one that becomes fully realized with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the deathblow for the Confederate South. It represents our first steps as a country towards true equality and justice. And that gives lots of us the warm and fuzzies. Abraham Lincoln is enshrined as “The Great Emancipator,” and the North revels in it’s supposed moral superiority and status as the “good guys.”  That’s the story we are all told. It’s the national mythology which gets replayed time and time again in classrooms, at dinner tables, on the silver screen, and in the halls of Congress. Sadly, John Brown would not have recognized any of his righteous indignation in the conflict.330px-Lincoln_Memorial.jpg The moral underpinnings of John Brown’s abhorrence of slavery were absent from the justifications for the conflict. Instead of fighting a war for freedom, and the eradication of racism the North was fighting to keep the union in tact. Lincoln himself declared this as his sole purpose: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”  And we are still paying the price for that moral failure.

Because we can’t tell the truth about our country’s foundation of white supremacy we have yet to admit to the “crimes of this guilty land,” and therefore remain incapable of repairing the harm, or repaying the debt. It also means that Brown’s prophetic words are incomplete. While slavery may have required a war to meet it’s end as a recognized institution something more is required to end the ideology that gave it life. Otherwise the cycle of racial violence inflicted by this country on communities of color will never come to an end. We need to root out the ideology of whiteness from our consciousness, and purge it’s trauma’s from our bodies. Those of us considered white need to take the lead.

For far too long those of us who have whiteness prescribed onto us have been content letting people of color take the lead in the fight to end white supremacy. As a matter of fact, many use the rhetoric of stepping back to support people of color as a way to mask their own unwillingness to confront whiteness. Of course people of color are going to be fighting against white supremacy, and leading others in the fight, they’ve been doing that since the first colonizers stepped foot on the land. The problem is there have not been enough parallel movements by those of us perceived as white. The result: white folks inject themselves in spaces that are meant for people of color and end up acting an ass. We need to work our own stuff out, with our own people. Then and only then will we be able to be in genuine relationship and authentic community with people of color, something, in the age of Trump, our country our planet urgently needs.

That can be an uncomfortable reality for those of us with white skin to come to terms with. I’ll never forget the first time I heard it, nor how I felt about it. It was 2010 and Rosa Clemente had just finished her keynote address for the “Vices to Verses” conference at the University of Minnesota. I happened to be part of a group sitting at the table with her and Dereca Blackmon. I forget exactly how it came up but Rosa said something like “there needs to be a white support group.” I remember nodding and then retreating into myself for the rest of the night.  It took me awhile to really understand what I was feeling in that moment, and the countless moments since when I have wrestled with the idea. I understand it now, it’s responsibility. Not the kind we normally think of. It’s not the “don’t forget to do the dishes” or “take out the garbage” kind of responsibility. It’s not even the “you need to pay your rent or you are going to be lose your spot” kind. It’s an “oh shit, I’m fully human” kind of responsibility. That’s a responsibility that we have been running from for far too long.

Slavery so offended John Brown’s sense of humanity that he risked his life on multiple occasions to end it. Slavery was the most obvious and urgent manifestation of white supremacy during John Brown’s life. Still, slavery was only a symptom of the larger worldview.donald_trump_mouth_1088x725-700x470 That worldview has never been rooted out of our national psyche. Today, Donald Trump and Trumpism are the most obvious and urgent manifestations of white supremacy. Trump’s positions and policies run the gamut of investing in whiteness, from his Klan member father, housing discrimination complaints, and condemnation of the Central Park 5, to his spearheading of birtherism, supporting DAPL, appointing Bannon, pardoning Joe Arpaio and everything in between he is the prototype white supremacist. His antics have forced millions of white folks to consider what whiteness truly means.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates argued Donald Trump is the first white president. He is the first president that will be governing to return things to a status quo that is, for the first time, named as white, not just assumed. As Nell Irvin Painter said “what it means to see yourself as white has fundamentally changed, from unmarked default to racially marked, a change now widely visible…” Trump has laid the truth bare, whiteness is division and hatred. It is the demonization of anything “other.” It is narcissism and overwhelming mediocrity. It is poison. It will destroy us. That is all it knows how to do.  Only those of us who have been given access can get close enough to destroy it. And we must.

At the White Privilege  Conference last year Glenn Singleton gave a keynote where he called out the absurdity of white people being “allies” as opposed to leaders in the fight to dismantle white supremacy. He called for a paradigm shift. He said white folks need to be leading and creating the space for people of color to be allies. I felt the energy in the room spike. White folks and people of color were ready. I remembered the conversation seven years earlier when Rosa Clemente called on white folks to step up, and I remembered the words of Malcolm X who said:

Where the really sincere white people have got to do their “proving” of themselves is not among the black victims, but out on the battle lines of where America’s racism really is—and that’s in their own home communities; America’s racism is among their own fellow whites. That’s where sincere whites who really mean to accomplish something have got to work…I tell sincere white people, ‘Work in conjunction with us—each of us working among our own kind.’ Let sincere white individuals find all other white people they can who feel as they do—and let them form their own all-white groups, to work trying to convert other white people who are thinking and acting so racist.

White people created race and racism, it’s dismantling is our responsibility.

I don’t want John Brown to be right. I don’t want my grandchildren to study the 2nd Civil War. I don’t want to take life, and I don’t want to lose my own. I want to live in peace, and I want others to as well. And I know that is not happening. I know the violence of white supremacy. I know what it does to white people, and I see what it is doing to communities of color. I believe the people responsible for ending that violence are people who look like me, people labeled white. We can’t hide from that responsibility any longer. Doing so puts lives at risk. We must organize our people along side the organizing that is already happening in communities of color. A truly democratic future awaits us. A future built on a platform of truth-telling, reconciliation, reparations, and redistribution. Let us take our positions on the front-lines and truly show up for humanity.

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