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John Brown's Spirit: The Abolitionist Aesthetic of Emancipatory Martyrdom in Early Antilynching Protest Literature

  • ZOE TRODD
Abstract

Before his execution in 1859, the radical abolitionist John Brown wrote a series of prison letters that – along with his death itself – helped to cement the abolitionist aesthetic of emancipatory martyrdom. This article charts the adaptation of that aesthetic in antilynching protest literature during the decades that followed. It reveals Brown's own presence in antilynching speeches, sermons, articles, and fiction, and the endurance of the emancipatory martyr symbol that he helped to inaugurate. Between the 1880s and the 1920s, black and white writers imagined lynching's ritual violence as a crucifixion and drew upon the John Brown aesthetic of emancipatory martyrdom, including Frederick Douglass, Stephen Graham, James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, black Baptist ministers, and black educators and journalists. Fusing martyrdom and messianism, these antilynching writers made the black Christ of their texts an avenging liberatory angel. The testamentary body of this messianic martyr figure marks the nation for violent retribution. Turning the black Christ into a Brown-like prophetic sign of God's vengeful judgment, antilynching writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries warned of disaster, demanded a change of course, challenged white southern notions of redemption, and insisted that African Americans must reemancipate themselves and redeem the nation.

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This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives licence (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/), which permits noncommercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is unaltered and is properly cited. The written permission of Cambridge University Press must be obtained for commercial re-use or in order to create a derivative work.
References
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1 John Brown quoted in Du Bois, W. E. B., John Brown (Philadelphia: G. W. Jacobs, 1909), 308; Brown quoted in Villard, Oswald Garrison, John Brown, 1800–1859: A Biography Fifty Years After (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1910), 545; Du Bois, 365.

2 Frederick Douglass, “A Day for Poetry and Song,” Douglass' Monthly, Jan. 1863, 770; Douglass, “The Need for Continuing Anti-slavery Work,” 9 May 1865, in Foner, Philip S. (ed.), The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass (New York: International Publishers, 1950–55), Volume IV, 169.

3 “Report on the Commemorative Meeting of the American Anti-slavery Society, April 9,” National Anti-Slavery Standard, 16 April 1870, 1–3; Haven, Gilbert, “America's Past and Future” (26 Nov. 1868), in Haven, National Sermons (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1869), 603–20, 611, 618.

4 Douglass, “Speech on the Death of Garrison,” 2 June 1879, in the Frederick Douglass Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (hereafter FDP), Box 23, Reel 15; Douglass, “The Lessons of Emancipation to the New Generation,” 3 Aug. 1880, in Blassingame, John and McKivigan, John (eds.), The Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), Volume IV, 565; Douglass, “I Denounce the So-Called Emancipation as a Stupendous Fraud,” 16 April 1888, in Foner, Philip S. and Taylor, Yuval (eds.), Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1999), 712–24, 712, 713, 715. By the time of Douglass's 1888 speech, the Tuskegee Institute had begun gathering statistics on lynching. It recorded 4,743 lynchings between 1882 and 1968. Of these victims, it listed 3,446 as black men and women. There were a record 230 lynchings in 1892, then 97 in 1908 and 83 in 1919.

5 Brown, John, prison letters, in Stauffer, John and Trodd, Zoe (eds.), The Tribunal: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 69, 61, 71, 72, 59, 66.

6 Theodore Parker and Henry Ward Beecher in Stauffer and Trodd, 136, 104; Frederick Frothingham, “The Harpers Ferry Tragedy: A Discourse,” The Liberator, 30 Dec. 1859, 4; Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson in Stauffer and Trodd, 108, 109, 114.

7 Brown, prison letters, in Stauffer and Trodd, 60, 71, 57; Douglass and Osborne Anderson in Stauffer and Trodd, 119, 229.

8 Brown, prison letters, in Stauffer and Trodd, 67, 62, 71.

9 Wheelock, Edwin M. in Redpath, James, Echoes of Harper's Ferry (Boston: Thayer and Eldridge, 1860), 177–78, 179, 191; Fales Henry Newhall in Stauffer and Trodd, 168, 169; James Redpath, “Dedication” and “Preface” in Redpath, 4, 9; J. T. Powers, “Freedom, Dedicated to the Martyr Brown,” The Liberator, 13 April 1860, 4; Joseph A. Horner, “John Brown,” The Liberator, 13 April 1860, 4; Newell, Robert Henry, “Avenged!”, in Newell, The Orpheus C. Kerr Papers, Second Series (New York: Carleton, 1863), 241–46, 244; Benjamin H. Clark, “John Brown Avenged,” The Liberator, 27 June 1862, 4; F. B. Gage, “John Brown's Avenger,” The Liberator, 9 Jan. 1863, 4.

10 Brown, prison letters, in Stauffer and Trodd, 57, 73.

11 Wendell Phillips in Stauffer and Trodd, 175; “John Brown Commemoration Meeting,” The Liberator, 13 Jan. 1860, 4; Gilbert Haven and George Cheever in Redpath, 125, 129, 154, 161, 235.

12 Frederick Douglass, “Speech on the War,” Douglass' Monthly, Feb. 1862, 597; Douglass, “The Proclamation,” Douglass' Monthly, March 1863, 805; Douglass, “Men of Color, to Arms,” Douglass' Monthly, March 1863, 801.

13 Douglass, letter to Francis J. Grimké, 19 Jan. 1886, in Foner and Taylor, 695; Douglass in Stauffer and Trodd, 497.

14 Frederick Douglass, “Address to the People of the United States,” 25 Sept. 1883, in Douglass, Three Addresses on the Relations Subsisting between the White and Colored People of the United States (Washington, DC: Gibson Bros., 1886), 9, 8; Douglass, “Address Delivered on the Occasion of the Twenty-Fourth Anniversary of the Abolition of Slavery,” 16 April 1886, in Douglass, Three Addresses, 67; Douglass, introduction to The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition (Chicago: Ida B. Wells, 1893), 9, 11; Douglass, “Lynch Law in the South,” North American Review, July 1892, 19; Douglass, “A Defence of the Negro Race” (1894), FDP, Box 26, Reel 17; Douglass, The Lessons of the Hour (Baltimore: Press of Thomas & Evans, 1894), 32; Douglass, “Lynch Law in the South,” 22, 23.

15 Citizens of Americus, GA, in Douglass, Helen (ed.), In Memoriam: Frederick Douglass (Philadelphia: J. C. Yorston & Co., 1897), 125.

16 McGuinn, Robert A., The Race Problem in the Churches (Baltimore: J. F. Weishampel, 1890), 11, 59; Love, E. K., Emancipation Oration, 1 Jan. 1891 (Augusta: Georgia Baptist Print, 1891), 3, 13, 14; Love, A Sermon on Lynch Law and Raping (5 Nov. 1893) (Augusta: Georgia Baptist Print, 1894), 19.

17 Johnson, Harvey, The White Man's Failure in Government (Baltimore: Afro-American Publishing Company, 1900), 20, 14, 15, 16.

18 Terrell, Robert H., A Glance at the Past and Present of the Negro (Washington, DC: Press of R. L. Pendleton, 1903), 8, 6, 4, 13, 16.

19 Miller, Kelly, “An Appeal to Reason on the Race Problem” (1906), in Miller, Race Adjustment (New York: Neale Publishing Company, 1908), 57–87, 71, 82; Miller, “Race Discrimination in the District of Columbia,” New York Amsterdam News, 2 June 1926, 12; Miller, “The So-Called Negro Radicals,” New York Amsterdam News, 15 Sept. 1934, 8.

20 Robert L. Duffus, “The Grave of Ossawatomie,” The Nation, 14 Feb. 1920, 199; “Darrow and Moses in Big Debate on Negro Religion,” Pittsburgh Courier, 24 Jan. 1931, A10.

21 “Let Us Stand at Armageddon and Battle for the Lord,” Challenge, Oct. 1919, in Kerlin, Robert T. (ed.), The Voice of the Negro, 1919 (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1920), 19.

22 Graham, Stephen, Children of the Slaves (London: Macmillan, 1920), 247, 20.

23 Ibid., 170, 18, 259, 260, 304, 305.

24 Weldon Johnson, James, The Autobiography of an Ex-colored Man (1912), in Kathryn Wilson, Sondra (ed.), The Selected Writings of James Weldon Johnson, Volume II (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 273362, 346, 347, 349.

25 Ibid., 351, 352.

26 White, Walter, The Fire in the Flint (New York: Knopf, 1924), 38, 91, 48, 121, 122, 124, 127, 80, 90.

27 Ibid., 91, 145, 176, 179, 193, 233.

28 Ibid., 237, 246, 247, 258, 263, 272, 289–90, 292, 293.

29 Parker in Stauffer and Trodd, 135.

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Journal of American Studies
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