What kind of white man puts his life on the line to fight slavery? James McBride's irreverent portrait of James Brown offers an answer.

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More Americans ought to know about John Brown.

We all want to believe that, if we lived under a tyranny, we’d have the courage to fight back against it. History teaches that few actually do. John Brown was one of the rare exceptions. In the era of slavery, John Brown was one of the few white people who pulled no punches in denouncing the evil of this institution—and who willingly shed his blood on behalf of the oppressed.

Bleeding Kansas

John Brown was forged in the 1850s in the crucible of “Bleeding Kansas”: a guerrilla war between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces to decide whether Kansas would enter the Union as a free or slave state. In the Pottawatomie Massacre, Brown and his raiders killed five pro-slavery settlers in retaliation for an attack on the free settlement of Lawrence.

However, Brown had grander ambitions. He conceived of a plan to raid a federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and use the weapons stored there to arm a slave uprising. In October 1859, he put this plan into motion.

Brown’s plan was audacious, but poorly executed. He and his followers bungled the raid, allowing themselves to be trapped and besieged. The anticipated slave rebellion never materialized, and federal troops broke down the doors and captured them. Brown was convicted of treason and sentenced to death.

But Brown achieved more in death than he did in life. While in prison awaiting execution, he wrote a blizzard of letters which inspired sympathy for him and his mission. He came to be seen as a martyr to the cause of abolition. His raid inspired panic among slaveholders, and his death stirred abolitionists to righteous fury. Perhaps more than any other single person, John Brown planted the seeds of the Civil War and the downfall of slavery. When Union troops marched into battle, they did so singing his name.

Holy warrior

Brown’s life and death are fictionalized in The Good Lord Bird, a 2013 novel by James McBride turned into a 2020 TV series on Showtime. The cryptic title refers to the ivory-billed woodpecker (a majestic bird now, sadly, presumed extinct), which Brown and his motley army treat as their totem and good-luck symbol.

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McBride’s portrayal of Brown walks the line between moral parable and dark satire. In line with the book, Ethan Hawke portrays him as a bearded, grizzled, wild-eyed figure, half fire-and-brimstone prophet and half madman of the woods. He believes with the certainty of a fanatic that God detests slavery and has chosen him as the instrument of its destruction.

Hawke’s Brown is a holy warrior in the truest sense. He’ll lie, steal and kill to wreak havoc on slaveholders, but he’s also the kind of man who’ll walk into the middle of a blazing gun battle to earnestly preach to his followers about avoiding temptation. The show mines this trait for black comedy, like in this clip [content note: brief gore]:

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It’s less clear how true to reality all of this is. As his descendant Marty Brown wrote, John Brown was deeply religious, but that wasn’t unusual for his time. The only unusual thing about him was the intensity of his opposition to slavery. The wild-man image was partly something he cultivated to make himself more fearsome, it’s true—but it was also something his adversaries concocted to argue that only an insane man would want to end slavery.

A Twain-esque narrator

McBride’s narrator, one of the few totally fictional characters in the story, is a young Black boy named Henry Shackleford (played by Joshua Caleb Johnson) whom Brown frees from slavery. Through a chain of humorous mixups, Brown mistakes Henry for a girl, gives him a dress and nicknames him Onion. Henry/Onion accompanies Brown on his adventures and becomes one of his companions and confidants. (A running gag of the show is that almost every Black person they meet immediately recognizes that Onion is a boy, whereas no white person ever does.)

Onion is a Twain-esque character, simple yet canny, innocent of the world but capable of wisdom beyond his years. At first, he distrusts Brown and views him as little different from the pro-slavery whites who also take it upon themselves to make decisions on behalf of Black people. (“Everybody got to make a speech about the Negro, except the Negro,” he muses.) But over time, he comes to admire Brown as a father figure and to appreciate his devotion to freedom.

We also meet historical figures who knew Brown, including Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. In contrast to deified portrayals of Douglass as a secular saint of equality, The Good Lord Bird brings him down to earth. He’s rich and comfortable, pompous, lecherous, in love with the sound of his own voice. Both the novel and the show depict him as a bit of a coward: he gives speeches to friendly audiences but shrinks from joining Brown’s direct action. For me, this was disconcerting, like a little splash of cold water—but it’s also an antidote to hagiography. It’s a reminder that even the greatest of us are still human.

The abolition spirit is undeniably atheistic

If I had just one criticism of the book or the show, it’s its habit of treating Brown as the only religious believer on either side of the debate. There’s one scene where an enslaved woman named Sibonia, who’s accused of planning a slave revolt, is interrogated by the town preacher. She’s defiant and unremorseful, quoting Bible verses about how God is no respecter of persons. This leaves him stunned and unable to reply.

Of course, in real life, the pro-slavery side appealed to God and quoted the Bible extensively. One famous pro-slavery sermon declared, “The abolition spirit is undeniably atheistic.” Given Ethan Hawke’s large-ham performance, it would have been entertaining to see him go toe-to-toe with an equally fervent Christian on the other side.

The show also leaves out some of the best and weirdest moments from Brown’s actual life. Like this one: Israel Greene, the soldier who captured Brown at Harpers Ferry, drew his sword and tried to stab him—but he’d only brought his light dress saber, and the blade bent rather than penetrate. Had that saber thrust killed Brown, history might have unfolded very differently. Even an atheist might wonder a little bit about that one!

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...