Of Savages and Humans Dave Davies of NPR interviewed H.W. Brands, White American Chairperson of the Department of History, University of Texas at Austin, on his new book, The Zealot and the Emancipator. This book compares the way Abraham Lincoln, on one side, and John Brown, on the other, addressed the elimination of the social system known as chattel slavery. This is the social system whereby West Africans (et al) were enslaved and, by British colonial/US law, regarded as non-human.
This interview brought into broad display one of the defining elements of what it means to be human. One of the basic requirements of achieving humanity is the ability to identify with other humans. This response to the NPR interview will focus not at all on Brands’ book which brings absolutely nothing new to the discussion of the slave system and its demise. His effort is wholly within the narrow bounds of, and fits right into the compendium of, apologies for slavery which constitute the sum and substance of White historiography on the subject. It, frankly, is not worth rehashing the extremely limited character of this viewpoint. In positing this, I am not including any of the vast array of revolutionary contributions made by otherwise White American historians, as these contributions transcend the bounds of the imperialist nation White America, and they situate these revolutionary authors as humans who have achieved the status of internationalism, in other words, they have gone beyond being merely White Americans (Baptiste, 2016; Blackmon, 2009; Loewen, 1995; Nelson, 2009).
It is the NPR interviewer Dave Davies who exemplifies the white supremacist disease: the total inability to identify with humans other than White Americans or those with Euro backgrounds.
In the interview the author, Brands, detailed his version of the guerrilla action taken by John Brown’s militia to defend formerly kidnapped Africans and non-slaving White Americans from the violence of the slavers in Kansas (May, 1856). This guerrilla warfare action included the successful killing of a number of the slavers, and the guerrillas took some of the slavers’ heads and placed them on top of pike staffs so that the other slavers would receive a graphic message: slaving was going to be costly to their lives (US History.org., 2019; Nelson, 1980). To this story, the interviewer, Davies, offered, “Pretty savage stuff.” (Davies, October 19, 2020).
Of Savages, Barbarians and Bourgeois This “analysis” by Davies promotes at once many strands of capitalist and white supremacist fantasy: (1) All genuine historians, no matter what the social system for which you are recording, know that the periods in human history today known as savagery and barbarism were periods in the development of indigenous, pre-class society. In the eras of both savagery and barbarism there was not private property (much less private property in humans), no states and therefore no social classes. The existence of systemic cruelty, far less systems of punishment and militarism, did not exist (Amaduime, 1995; Harris, 1986). Myths regarding “savages” (think of those created with regard to Native Americans being hedonist, wild, and maniacal) that they were these bloodthirsty, lawless creatures are fictions created by the slavers, by the European invaders, by the ideological representatives of the newly emerging, conquering slaving and bourgeois societies (Dunbar-Ortiz, 2015).
(2) Every elementary school child knows today that the fact that Native American nations did not have written laws does not mean they were wild. The wild ones were those with the written laws (such as those “treaties” which the US government signed with each of the Native Nations and then violated, broke each of them…), laws written by the Queen of England and leaders of the new ruling classes, laws which justified the annihilation of the indigenous peoples they encountered in their quest for empire.
(3) These newly emerging class societies — slavery, tributary systems (“feudalism”, et al), and capitalism — each had an interest in developing their “story” regarding the previous non-class societies they were conquering — the “savages” and “barbarians” (Amin, 1980). No, Mr. Davies, simply calling John Brown “savage,” besides exposing your inability to identify with enslaved Africans in America, also shows the extremely narrow limits of your understanding of the history of your own country.
Slavery is War Davies’ principal shortfall with regard to achieving genuine humanity lies in what stands as a hologram for his entire presentation — his inability to identify with the experience of enslaved Africans, his inability to even consider what we were going through: Mr. Davies, I have an iron yoke around my neck, steel shackles around my ankles. A man stands over me with a long whip, and he tells me what, how, for how long, and how quickly I am to perform extremely arduous manual labor tasks.
I have already seen what happens to others of my kidnapped comrades who fail to go along with this forced identity — “slave.” They have been shot in the head. Mr. Davies, when you fail to identify with us, you fail to understand that the system of chattel slavery is a war system. It is war committed by one people against another people. “Slave or die…;” that’s war. These enslaved Africans were not butlers, field hands, cooks or nannies first. First they were captured, kidnapped prisoners of war. Or are you believing the story that once captured, we actually took on your version of our new identity — as cooks, nannies, field hands, etc.? I’m sorry if I sound pedantic, Dave, but we were humans, captured, kidnapped prisoners of war, before we were field hands for your ancestors. If I sound pedantic, it’s because you are kind of …slow…
I saw him tie my Sister to the whipping post and whip her until she was dead. This act performed in front of us to etch into our consciousness what happens if one chooses not to be enslaved — you have just chosen death. This is a specific kind of war, in which you take no unruly prisoners.
I have stripes every which way across my back for my failure to comply with the overseers’ “how, what, how long and how quickly” regimen of orders.
While the overseer is whipping me or threatening to whip me, massa has ordered the mother of my children to take off her clothes so that he can satisfy his sick pleasures. Doing this in front of me is part of the training I am receiving to understand myself as a thing with no feelings, no morals, no principles to live by. I merely allow the mother of my children to be raped in front of me — this is OK, this is part of my belief system as a “slave”: it’s OK for massa to rape the mother of my children in front of me.
Our Closest Friend Then Harriet Tubman and her guerrillas come along. John Brown and his band Kumbaya, come by here. (Our liberals have turned the song which images the cheering of the enslaved when the guerrillas come by to chop off massa’s head and set us free into a type of “All we are saying, is give peace a chance,” while we sway back and forth and dream of a brighter future. No, Kumbaya is a spiritual which celebrates the arrival of the guerrillas, and massa’s head being chopped off…)
This is why Africans in America regard the John Browns of the White American nation to be our closest friends. In fact, John Brown transcended the identity of White American and became fully human (Du Bois, 2014). Mr. Davies, when you call John Brown “a savage,” you’re letting us all know that if your wife was being raped in front of you, not as merely a personal sexual assault, but as a military tactic committed by an oppressor nation against you and your people, you would call someone who wants to chop off the head of the representative of the oppressor nation — the rapist — you would call this liberator of your wife “a savage,” and instead of supporting your wife’s liberator, you would commence to singing “All we are saying is give peace a chance…”
The Cesspool of Liberalism African Americans… and others, have long been trying to teach White liberals that we are not fooled by your liberalism. Your liberalism has, in the expanse of US history, ever been the flip side of the coin of the outright slavers. The slavers could not exist without your liberalism. In the masthead of the online NPR print version of the interview, the editors offer: “In The Zealot and the Emancipator, historian H.W. Brands reflects on two 19th century leaders who fought the institution of slavery in different ways: one radical and the other reformist.” And, Dave, you took it from there. Problem, all elementary school children know that (1) when one social system is overcome by a new one the social movement which facilitates this transition is called a revolution. NPR wants to distinguish John Brown from Lincoln by calling Brown a radical — he was; he was a revolutionary who participated in the dismantling of one social system, chattel slavery, and the birth of a new social system, capitalist democracy. You want to distinguish him from Lincoln by calling Lincoln a reformer. Problem: Every school child knows that Lincoln was the President of the United States who presided over what White people call “the Civil War.” Another characteristic of the transformation of one social system into a whole new system is that of revolutionary violence. Over 560,000 soldiers from both sides were killed in the “the Civil War.” Which “reforms” have you ever heard of resulted in the death of 560,000 combatants? The Civil War was not a reform, it was the overthrow of a social system. No pretty words can cover over the fact that this was a social revolution.
On Being Human This historiographical note you have just read was written for the purpose of re-establishing what we’ve always known: We are humans. To be fully human you must have the ability to identify with other human beings. So, when Columbus and his band of murderers arrived on the shore, Native Americans greeted them with gifts. These humans, the Native peoples of the Americans, could identify — even though these European invaders with their guns looked strange, they still thought they were humans and welcomed them.
The Dave Davies in our midst cannot imagine their wives being raped in front of them — they are too consumed with trying to blather over such acts being committed right in front of their eyes today, by White America against its subjects. They are too consumed with this liberal task to notice that the fascists are coming for them too. Please take note that while Davies calls John Brown a savage, at no time does he place any equivalent moniker on the slave system. At no time does he call the slavers “savages…” Hmmm, this lets us know what Davies calls the freedom fighters of today. And the fascists who are rolling around, what moniker does he save for them?
We have always been human, and we will continue to afford the Dave Davies of the world the opportunity that a Power Greater than ourselves has always afforded each of us: the ability to overcome the disease of sub-humanity, whether it comes in the form of “slave,” “White,” or “manly” — to achieve genuine humanity.
Amaduime, Ifi. (1995). African Matriarchal Foundations. Lawrenceville, N.J.: Red Sea Press.
Amin, Samir. (1980). Class and Nation: Historically and in the Current Crisis. Monthly Review Press.
Baptiste, Edward. (2016). The Half has Never been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. Basic books.
Blackmon, Douglass. (2009). Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. Anchor.
Brands, H.W. (2020). The Zealot and the Emancipator. Doubleday.
Davies, Dave. (2020). “John Brown and Abraham Lincoln: Divergent Paths in the Fight to End Slavery.” NPR. https://www.npr.org/2020/10/19/925362418/john-brown-and-abraham-lincoln-divergent-paths-in-the-fight-to-end-slavery
Du Bois, WEB. (2014). John Brown. International Publishers.
Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. (2015). An Indigenous People’s History of the United States. Beacon Press.
Harris, Marvin. (1986). Our Kind: Who We Are, Where We Came From, Where We Are Going. New York: Harper Perennial.
Loewen, James. (1995). Lies my Teacher Told Me. The New Press.
Nelson, Truman. (2009). The Old Man: John Brown at Harper’s Ferry. Haymarket Books.
US History.org. (2019). “The Pottawatomie Creek Massacre.” https://www.ushistory.org/us/31d.asp