The "Insanity" of John Brown
What we teach, and how we teach it, can go one of two ways: preserve the status quo, or throw it out.
Admission: I was VERY late to the Politically Re-Active podcast game.
When creators W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu launched their pod in 2016, it was ostensibly to unpack the presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. But the project became an exploration of the American political system as a whole. I wish I had tuned in when the show first launched, but alas, it was only when it came back on air during the 2020 presidential campaign that I got on board.
I caught the December 17th, 2020 episode featuring Daveed Diggs almost a month late, in the first week of January 2021. It was an excellent listen; I recommend it highly. From his personal thoughts as an Oakland native about VP Harris to memories of his childhood in the Bay Areas, from COVID-19 to badly behaved rich people, it’s an episode that gives you a more three-dimensional look at Diggs than media often grants celebrity-level creatives. But what particularly struck me about the episode was the discussion Diggs, Bell, and Kondabolu had about American history in K-12 classrooms. The experiences they had were very different than those that I had when it came to studying the Civil War era and abolition. Neither Diggs nor the hosts had ever learned about the white abolitionist John Brown during their pre-collegiate academic careers. But I, a public school student in Virginia from age eight to seventeen, definitely had. Brown had been a recurring figure in my history classrooms since fourth grade. So why…?
The trio went on (during the episode) to speculate that this absence of John Brown was likely because a true story of a white abolitionist ultimately sacrificing his life for the anti-slavery cause was not something the powers that be would want American children to learn about. This made sense to me, but also raised a question: how had my school system managed to teach us the story of Brown’s life and activism without incurring a tidal wave of conservative parent and administrative concerns? I paused the podcast and began metaphorically scrolling through what I remembered from my various Virginia-centric history classes. Fourth grade: the state mandated a focus on state history, so there must’ve been mention of Brown then. Seventh grade: he was a central figure in the pre-Civil War content we studied, and the whole grade even took a trip to Harper’s Ferry in order for us to fully immerse ourselves in the man’s heroic legacy. I remembered revisiting his exploits in the midwest and on the east coast as he advocated for abolition multiple times. What was I missing?
Then it hit me.
A few days later, I sent the following Facebook message to the show’s hosts:
Listening to your episode with Daveed Diggs got me thinking about the fourth grade history curriculum in the state of Virginia.
Here’s the thing: John Brown is a huge f*cking deal in Virginia, because Harper’s Ferry was in Virginia. I, as a former fourth grader in the state of Virginia, absolutely learned about John Brown in public school in fourth grade. (In Virginia, one learns about Virginia in fourth grade) Meanwhile, you two and Diggs spoke in the episode about how Brown’s story/ies were absent from your own K-12 educations. I stopped (in the middle of a sidewalk) and chewed this over.
John Brown was not a Virginia native, but played a significant role in abolition work in the state (as well as in others). His track record was sometimes extreme in terms of violence. He was an activist, he died for his beliefs, and was pitched to us as a state celebrity; behold, the anti-slavery activism. But you both and Diggs did not have this experience. You didn’t learn who the hell this man was, because it would’ve sent the wrong message to millions of little kids in American schools about resistance and white people doing ally work. So how did Virginia convince itself that teaching elementary schoolers about a white abolitionist’s radical actions was a good idea?
They taught us that the man was crazy.
I stood there, chewing on what I what I remembered from school: John Brown was an insane white man who believed he had a personal relationship with his christian god. He broadly interpreted his faith in that god, so that it might permit him to be militant, violent, and, ultimately, a criminal who was hanged for his sins. This man thought slavery should be abolished and did some wild stuff about it, for which Virginia can claim some fame but then promptly turn its back on, because Virginia was a slave state and would rather people don’t talk about that, thanks very much.
We were taught about this man, but only so far as his being unwell and therefore misguided in his actions. Slavery was in Virginia, and it was bad, and he wanted to do something about it but he was insane. What did we learn, then? Maybe that only insane white people defend Black people? Activism is criminal? The messaging has plenty of layers, and I’ll be prying them apart for awhile. But for now, I wanted to just share that some kids have heard about John Brown in school (in Virginia, but also I’m sure in Kansas, Missouri, and Connecticut, too) and that that may well have been a form of silencing history in order to control the present day, too.
Thank you for your show.
Hope you and your families are well and safe.
John Brown was A White Man and A Hero, according to the instructors, textbooks, in-class movies, and historic site tour guides I interacted with between grades three and twelve. But also according to all of these different educative resources, Brown was completely unhinged. He was reported to have had multiple religious visions, and to believe that he had a direct line of communication with his Christian god. We were taught both narratives in tandem, never one without the other. Was this just a means of making history textbooks less dry for some nine-year-olds? Did history teachers learn this in their training courses? The possibilities are myriad, but I keep coming back to what I wrote in my message to Politically Reactive: if you teach fourth graders that a white man— guided by his Christian faith— historically took aggressive action against:
1. pro-slavery politicians,
2. owners of enslaved people, and
3. ultimately (at Harper’s Ferry) the Confederacy,
it would certainly seem like you’re taking a swing at the American “post-racial” establishment. Such a narrative could even implicate Christianity as a belief system that supports anti-racist action. Or teaches new generations that white people have the potential to hold fellow whites accountable for their oppressive behavior (see also: the teachings of Jesus ((who was, in fact, geographically unable to be a white man)))! The story of John Brown’s life could well prove to a white twelve-year-old who is existentially adrift that they can enact social change and promote universal empowerment. So, yes, reworking that story a little bit would have, in past and present, behooved the Western education system and American society as a whole.
If you teach a roomful of students that there was once a white person who played a significant role in anti-slavery activism and getting the Civil War started because he was mentally unwell, you do a great job of heading off students’ anti-racism thoughts at the pass. Using this tactic, teachers preach that the anti-racist actions that Brown took— while historically admirable and important— are, in contemporary reality, dangerous (in addition to shaming and stigmatizing mental illness, neurodivergence, and students who are living with either or both). Students thus learn that if they do not want to be seen as unwell, they should NOT do such things as take disruptive action against societal wrongs. These pedagogical choices hammer home the argument that violence is always wrong, and that systemic change should be pursued through legal, acceptable channels. NOT by taking boundary-breaking action. NOT by disrupting the status quo.
In keeping Brown as firmly in the past as it does, the Virginia education system is able to have its cake and eat it too: claim a very famous white abolitionist as one of the state’s own, but also denude said abolitionist of his narrative and potential to inspire new generations of anti-racist change makers. Which, as scholar Zeus Leonardo points out in his book Race Frameworks, is one of whiteness’s favorite ways to preserve its supremacy: control the dissemination of narratives that support, or belong to, marginalized peoples. This control— how these narratives are shared, what elements are redacted, and which themes are emphasized— enables virtue signaling on the part of dominant society (“Look at us good white people! Look at us lauding the life and sacrifices of John Brown!), as well as suppression of any possible systemic change that might result from it (“Mentally ill people did this social change stuff; John Brown was an activist freak and look where it got him.”).
Daveed Diggs, W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu did not learn about John Brown in school. This was likely because they grew up in regions with no direct connection to the man. For places with such history, like Virginia, ignorance has been traded for a carefully warped fable that keeps the supremacy of whiteness intact, in classrooms and beyond. I do think, however, that these pedagogical tactics will hold less and less water in the coming years. How will this reworked “fable” about Brown and his “insanity” fare when brought into conversation with some of America’s newer histories? #BlackLivesMatter, perhaps? The nationwide efforts to protect the rights of undocumented residents, or the campaigns for Indigenous sovereignty? Speaking as an educator, I have generally found that in telling students to be quiet, the opposite occurs. In fact, the more you press them to pipe down, the more questions learners ask, and the more insistent they get with their demands for truth. Thus, we should all keep an eye out for the downfall of The Insanity of John Brown; it will likely come about in the very classrooms where it has been taught for so long.
With the help of TikTok and Instagram, knowledge is no longer controlled by what a school or district or state chooses to dole out. Students are increasingly able to interrogate what they are learning and why they are learning it. Or, why they have never learned it. Why, for example, they have never learned about John Brown: a white man who contributed to the fight to end slavery, died for his abolitionist beliefs, and played a key role in setting the Civil War in motion. Why they have never learned that those of us who are white in America must commit to taking discomfiting action against the racist, supremacist system we live in and benefit from every day. Why they have never learned that change is a long game, and that we must play it if we are ever going to make life better for the global majority.
Hey, white parents. Tell your kids.
Leonardo, Z. (2013). Whiteness Studies and Educational Supremacy: The Unbearable Whiteness of Schooling. Chapter 3 of Race Frameworks: A Multidimensional Theory of Racism and Education. New York. Teachers College Press.