Musings on slavery, abolitionist John Brown, and Hollywood’s clumsy embrace of human bondage

News stories continue to highlight the growth of human trafficking in the United StatesEurope, and especially Asia. One estimate puts the number of persons in captivity, either for forced bondage or sex trafficking and prostitution, at 12 million to 27 million. An increasing number of victims are young girls 18 and younger, who become infected with sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDs.

Slavery seems to bring out the worst of humanity, and perhaps is a manifestation of our inglorious inhumanity. Sadly it is, well, about as American as the U.S. Constitution that not only enshrined it, but gave Southern states extra voting power–the notorious 3/5ths clause–for its slaves in the census allotment of Congressional seats.

I still remember when I visited the Philippines in 2003. Male and female pimps repeatedly accosted me within seconds of exiting taxis in front of my hotels in Cebu City and Manila, where I was working on a photo-documentary project. I was sure their workers were sex slaves. When I told them to go away, they mocked me and even offered me young children. It was sobering to realize that I represented a market, a lucrative market, that eagerly comes to countries like the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos to exploit women, even young boys and girls. Though aware of the problem, and having seen evidence of its freewheeling nature in Asia, the unrelenting media coverage of sex slavery has become overwhelming.

Time Magazine reported on slavery in Embassy Row in the nation's capital three years ago, but it can happen anywhere in the United States.

Time Magazine reported on slavery in Embassy Row in the nation’s capital three years ago, but it can happen anywhere in the United States.

In April 2013, European Union Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström lamented: “It is difficult to imagine that in our free and democratic EU countries tens of thousands of human beings can be deprived of their liberty and exploited, traded as commodities for profit.” The United Nations estimates human trafficking nets $32 billion annually—a major transnational business. The United States fares no better. There are slaves being trafficked and sold in my home city of Seattle right now. A local KIRO News story recently reported: “Child sex trafficking – as easy in Seattle as ordering a pizza.”

Visiting Osawatomie, and its place in U.S. history

So slavery was on my mind when I drove across the country in late May from St. Louis to Seattle. I wanted to take a road less traveled and see some out of the way places, including in Kansas. Most of my friends practically laughed at me when I described sight-seeing there. So, I pulled out my atlas and found Osawatomie on the map, about an hour southwest of Kansas City, along state Highway 169

Osawatomie is home to one of the most important battles of the violent pre-Civil War era known as Bleeding Kansas, which claimed 56 lives.

Specifically, it is where America’s most famous abolitionist and violent revolutionary, John Brown (1800-1859), fought pro-slavery forces to prevent the then Kansas Territory from becoming a slave state.  All told 30-45 free state defenders, known as Jayhawkers (the University of Kansas’ namesake) fought nearly 250 proslavery militia along the banks of the Marais de Cygnes River on Aug. 30, 1856. Brown’s son Frederick and others died. Many say the war actually began in this small Kansas town that pro-slavers burnt to the ground during the attack.

Entrance to John Brown Memorial Park in Ossawatomie, Kan.

Entrance to John Brown Memorial Park in Osawatomie, Kan.

In May of that year,  Missouri ruffians, numbering 800, had sacked Lawrence, Kan., and burned a hotel, killing one abolitionist. Their strategic goal was to keep an entire race of persons in human bondage and treated as nothing more than property, and expand the inhumane practice and trade into territories recently “ethnically cleansed” of its Indian population by the U.S. Army, based at Ft. Leavenworth.

On May 24 and 25, 1856, at the so-called Pottawatomie Massacre, Brown responded in kind, by murdering five pro-slavery settlers with a sword. The mass murder by Brown and his sons was inspired by Brown’s deep Christian faith that he had been called to undertake a divine mission to end slavery and contest its brutality and those of its violent supporters with force.

The repeated and well-publicized examples of slavery’s inhumanity in the United States enraged Brown to the point where he dedicated his life to crushing it and freeing the slaves. (Unlike most of his day, Brown also believed in the equality of races, including Indians, and of the sexes.)

Just two years earlier in 1854, a divided Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, ending the fragile 24-year-old Missouri Compromise allowing a balance of pro-slave and free states to join the Union. With the 1854 act, settlers themselves would determine if that “peculiar institution” of slavery, which held in bondage an estimated 4 million persons, or 13% of all residents in the young country, would be allowed. Pro-slavery voters won, but the constitution was disavowed, the bogus legislature tossed out, and Kansas entered a free state in 1861.

One historic political outcome from the four years of fighting in the territory was the rise of a young Illinois politician of the nascent Republican Party, who noted in his political speeches, “Look at the magnitude of this subject! … about one-sixth of the whole population of the United States are slaves!” Abraham Lincoln emerged from the turbulence of the era as the standard bearer of his party in the divisive 1860 election that set in motion the war to address what Lincoln accurately noted was the “the all absorbing topic of the day.”

As for Brown after Osawatomie, he travelled in and out of Kansas the next two years of violence before returning East to plan his failed Oct. 16, 1859, raid on the federal armory in Harper’s Ferry, Va.  The raid, with 21 men to trigger a Southern slave uprising, failed miserably.

A statue of the abolitionist and revolutionary John Brown stands guard at a park with his namesake in Osawatomie, Kan.

A statue of the abolitionist and revolutionary John Brown stands guard at a park with his namesake in Osawatomie, Kan.

Brown was captured, tried in Charlestown, Va., and sentenced to hang to death on Dec. 2, 1859. During his trial he told the court, “Now, if it be deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children, and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit: so let it be done.”

Southern politicians were terrified by Brown’s decisive and violent insurrection against the U.S. government and their “cherished traditions.” Their paranoia of either a slave uprising or further such “meddling”  precipitated their rebellion against the union.

All of that history seemed overblown and forgotten in modern-day Osawatomie (pop. 4,447). The memorial to Brown and the battle is the John Brown Museum State Historical site. It includes a cabin of a local minister and his wife used as an Underground Railroad station. The cabin survived the battle. The park features a bronze statue of Brown and historic battle markers. It looked a little shabby and unappreciated, like any small-town park without money for upkeep, except it has happened to have two presidential visitors who delivered policy speeches, by Teddy Roosevelt in 1910 and Barack Obama in 2011.

Hollywood, Slavery, and the Battle for Kansas

For many of us, however, our perception of slavery is shaped by popular culture. One of two most recent Hollywood treatments of the subject was the scholarly costume epic Lincoln, by Stephen Spielberg. The film did not hide the brutality of slavery; in fact, the film opens with a vicious hand-to-hand battle pitting likely former slave Union soldiers locked in deadly embrace with their white Confederate adversaries. The film is basically a procedural drama how Lincoln’s administration passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, to end slavery “forever” in United States, while the nation’s most violent war rages outside of Washington.

The more controversial rendering of slavery is the 2012 Quentin Tarantino blood and gore pre-Civil War spectacle, Django Unchained.  This shoot-‘em up racks up a huge body count in a gratuitously violent revenge fantasy that follows the actions of a former slave, Django, played by Jamie Foxx. He kills perhaps nearly two dozen Southerners, blows up plantation mansions, and frees his true love. Unlike Lincoln, this film was heatedly debated. One review noted, “No single Hollywood film in the last decade has sparked the kind of controversy and wide-ranging response as Quentin Tarantino’s latest.”

The film triggered unrest not because of its brutal violence (nothing new for Hollywood splatter fests), but because of its rival view of history. “The most important thing about Django Unchained is that it’s a reaction against, or corrective of, movies like Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind. At every turn, it subverts or inverts the racist tropes that have defined Hollywood’s–and our culture’s–treatment of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction,” according to Jamelle Bouie.

I have black friends who had a distinctly more positive personal reaction to the violent tale than did my white counterparts. While the film’s violence seems designed only thrill audiences, the violence of slavery and of efforts to expand it by pro-slavery bushwhackers in Kansas before and during the Civil War was every bit if not more cruel, if historical records are accurate. Reality actually trumps anything Tarantino could dream up.

The magazine Harper's printed an illustration of the 1863 raid by Southern bushwhackers of Lawrence, Kan, which killed 180 people.

The magazine Harper’s printed an illustration of the 1863 raid by Southern bushwhackers of Lawrence, Kan, which killed 180 people.

According to one account, a bushwhackers’ raid during the Civil War on Lawrence, Kan., is considered one of the worst cases of mass murder by the pro-Slavery forces.

On Aug. 21, 1863, 450 pro-Confederates Led by Bill Quantrill staged an early-warning raid and mostly showed no mercy, slaughtering about 180 men and boys as young as 14. Most of the victims were unarmed and still in their beds when the killing began. Another famous bushwhacker in the region, a psychopath named “Bloody” Bill Anderson, reportedly scalped victims before he was tracked and killed, and then beheaded as an example.

The official Hollywood rendering of “bleeding Kansas” and John Brown’s efforts to end slavery remains Michael Curtiz’s unsavory pro-slavery 1940 Western called the Sante Fe Trail (you can see the whole film here). The movie stars Errol Flynn as future Confederate General Jeb Stuart, then-actor Ronald Reagan as future Indian-killing General George Custer, and Olivia de Havilland as their mutual romantic interest. The film  renders a staggering historic whitewash of not only slavery and pre-Civil War America, but of John Brown’s actions in Kansas to contest the bushwhackers during the mid- to late 1850s.

Brown is portrayed by Raymond Massey as a bug-eyed, villainous psychopath bent on murder and revolution to end slavery, while Southern gentlemen like Flynn’s Stuart are true Americans who claim the South can work out slavery on their own terms.  There is no portrayal of slavery’s base cruelty, only abolitionist violence in Kansas and at Harper’s Ferry.

Raymond Massey portraying John Brown on his hanging day on Dec. 2, 1859--an event that sped the nation faster to Civil War.

Raymond Massey portraying John Brown on his hanging day on Dec. 2, 1859–an event that sped the nation faster to Civil War.

In an even more bizarre twist, future Confederate President Jefferson Davis is rendered as moral voice of wisdom, telling the graduating cadets: “”You men have but one duty alone, America.” This was the same Davis who owned slaves and dedicated himself to ensuring slavery’s survival as head of the pro-slave states doing everything they could to break away from that country.

The pro-slavery 1940 film Sante Fel Trail featured escaped slaves as subservient, pro-slavery fools who desired to return to plantation life rather than chase freedom with John Brown.

The pro-slavery 1940 film Sante Fe Trail featured escaped slaves as subservient, pro-slavery fools who desired to return to plantation life rather than chase freedom with John Brown.

The only “black folk” seen in this disingenuous Dixie-cratic rendering of reality are powerless, witless slaves who cannot think for themselves. After a firefight that sent Brown fleeing, a husband and wife slave couple from Texas caught up in Brown’s violence reveal themselves to Stuart as misguided lovers of the white slaveholding class: “Well, old John Brown said he gonna give us freedom but, shuckin’, if this here Kansas is freedom then I ain’t got no use for it, no sir,” drawled the wife. Her husband added, “Me neither. I just want to get back home to Texas and set till kingdom come.” I suppose that means he’d get a good whipping if he fessed up for trying to win his freedom.

As one film commentator noted: “In the years before 1960 most portrayals of slavery in cinema were like it was in Gone with the Wind and Jezebel. The slaves were happy and contented and too simple to live on their own. The Civil War was unnecessary and brought on by a handful of fanatics in the North.” The film’s final scenes show Brown before he is hung in 1859, followed by a happy kiss of the newlyweds, Flynn and de Havilland, all two years before the entire country entered its greatest conflagration that claimed more than half a million lives, finally “ending” slavery as a legal institution in the United States.

Former Klansman becomes part of Hollywood whitewash of Southern bushwhacking

The other noteworthy and historically inaccurate portrayal of Kansas-related bushwhacking violence is Clint Eastwood’s disturbing 1976 revisionist film The Outlaw Josey Wales. While supposedly based on a true Southern fighter, the film rewrites the script of historic events. Instead of violent Confederate bushwhackers who murdered indiscriminately, as they did in Lawrence, Southerners are portrayed as victims of murderous Jayhawkers and Union soldiers, who kill innocent women and slaughter surrendering prisoners, and hound Wales to Texas. The film was based on a novel, Gone to Texas, by Asa Carter, also author of a popular kid’s book called the Education of Little Tree.

At the time the film was made in 1976, it was unknown that Carter had reinvented himself. Instead of being a Cherokee Indian as he claimed, Carter was in fact a former Alabama Klansman, avowed racist, and speechwriter for Alabama’s segregationist Governor George Wallace. The books served as a clever reinvention for a man preaching against “government intrusion,” as Carter did for Wallace with racist hate language. Even his supposed Cherokee words were fiction. As for Josey Wales, the film helped to reinforce Southern stereotypes of Northern aggression and Southern innocence (despite its holding 4 million in captivity), while boosting Eastwood’s maverick filmmaking career.

In 2013, in an era when slavery seems to be as thriving an enterprise globally as it was in the antebellum South, perhaps it is time reexamine on the big screen the complex events in Kansas and Virginia and that fanatical revolutionary who committed his life to ending the institution forever. I just do not want the filmmaker to be Eastwood, Tarantino, or even Spielberg, nor a vampire camp production. Time to let someone else tell a tale that still needs to be told. Love or hate him, Brown was right about slavery’s stain on the nation. Brown’s enemies “could kill him,” wrote freed slave and fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass, “but they could not answer him.”

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