Wishbone of The Good Lord BirdRoundup
tags: abolition, John Brown, television
Mark Lause is a Professor of History at the University of Cincinnati. Author of 10 books, including most recently Free Labor: The Civil War and the Making of an American Working Class, published in 2015 by the University of Illinois Press and Free Spirits: Spiritualism, Republicanism, Radicalism published in 2016 by University of Illinois Press.
Showtime’s The Good Lord Bird uses the events around John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry to weave a fictional tale incorporating some basic insights and arguments about the nature of race in America. It did its most impressive work in presenting the wide spectrum of diverse African American responses to slavery and, in the process, offering a better sense of their humanity. It does so most clearly in the last part of this seven-part series.
The series is narrated from the perspective of the entirely fictional Henry Shackleford (Joshua Caleb Johnson), a fifteen-year old African-American boy. The story opens in Kansas, where he encounters John Brown (Ethan Hawke) improbably sitting alone in a denizen of pro-slavery thugs, culminating in a shootout in which Henry’s father is killed, and Brown escapes with the boy. Mishearing his name as Henrietta, Brown tries to console the boy by giving him a dress he had gotten for his daughter. Explaining that slaves do not dispute the understanding of whites, Henry accepts this and passes as a girl through most of the series. In turn, the underfed Henry mistakenly assumes that when Brown shows him a little onion that he’s being offered food and hungrily consumes it, winning the nickname “Little Onion.” Of course, these emphasize the grounds for misunderstanding across the barriers of race.
The death of Henry’s father hints at something deeper. Henry remains oddly ambivalent about the risks of being a runaway, and clearly wonders whether abolitionists were making things worse for some blacks. In a particularly cringe-worthy sequence, he describes two snakes “one points south, the other points north,” both poised against blacks. The preoccupation with issues of violence seems anachronistic. To exaggerate the point, the fictionalized Brown explicitly declares his intention to detonate a civil war that would take its toll on every family in the country.
Violence had nothing to do with theological preferences.
The miniseries itself sought to tell a story and portray characters rather than convey history. It begins with a shootout worthy of Silverado and has an ending that recalled Butch and Sundance charging into the courtyard against the army. It passes over much that is necessary to a historical understanding of the subject—that long struggle against slavery, Kansas, and the antislavery electoral insurgency across the nonslaveholding states. The basic demands of self-defense put arms in the hands of antislavery militants, who not only faced extralegal proslavery forces, but the national authorities and the U.S. Army.
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