James McBride’s Reimagining of John Brown and His Legacy

James McBride’s Reimagining of John Brown and His Legacy

Below you will find the third review in our Civil War fiction roundtable, from Hilary Green, an associate professor at the University of Alabama. Previous and subsequent reviews in the series are available by following the links in the guest editor’s introduction.

The controversial figure of John Brown–and his connections to race relations, sectionalism, and the politics of memory–has influenced statues, songs, public murals, and even Jacob Lawrence’s “The Legend of John Brown” graphic series. For white Americans, John Brown is cast as either a fanatical zealot or a martyr for the abolitionist cause. African Americans have typically viewed him as a freedom fighter who used violence for equality and social change.[1] Scholars have yet to mine fully the surviving oral traditions and archival materials that hint at motivations and experiences of African Americans who supported and later actively remembered John Brown as a freedom fighter. Questions remain regarding why enslaved men, women, and children would follow a charismatic leader, even if meant possible death or retaliation against members of the African American community? Why would freeborn black Pennsylvanians open up their homes, churches, and pocketbooks to fund John Brown’s war against slavery? These are tough questions for scholars interested in recovering these historical voices. This is where literature can play a role.

Writers of historical fiction are able to erase the silences present in the archives and existing scholarship. James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird (2013) builds on the literary tradition seen in Charles Chestnut’s Marrow of Tradition (1901), William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) and David Bradley’s Chaneyville Incident (1981). McBride masterfully and imaginatively explores the above questions through the protagonist of Henry “Little Onion” Shackleford. Opening with the 1966 discovery of Shackleford’s slave narrative, the novel follows a young enslaved boy who navigates slavery and sectional politics from 1856 Kansas Territory to 1859 Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Organized in three parts, the protagonist’s journey is a plausible narrative delving into the interior lives of the enslaved and John Brown’s complicated legacy.

McBride introduces readers to Henry Shackleford by following genre conventions of the slave narrative. True to form, Shackleford opens the account by providing some of his life history, describing the enslaved community from which he emerged, and portraying the enslavers’ world in Kansas Territory. McBride, however, disrupts the familiar narrative in the first sentence – “I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years.”[2] When an altercation results in the death of his father, Henry becomes Henrietta (nicknamed “Little Onion”) in order to survive as a fugitive. Rather than correct the mistaken gender identity, Henry embraces the confusion, explaining to his readers: “Truth is, lying comes natural to all Negros during slave time.”[3] Afraid, without kin, and a witness to his father’s brutal death, he chose life and followed John Brown’s army until opportunity permitted a clearer path to freedom.

John Brown, abolitionist and freedom fighter. Courtesy of the National Parks Service.

That opportunity emerges during the Pottawatomie Creek massacre. McBride’s description of the post-massacre retribution against African Americans reads like a scene from Harriet Jacobs’ depiction of Edenton following Nat Turner’s rebellion.[4] The violent reality of John Brown’s army prompted Henry to flee. While in flight, he encounters Nigger Bob, an older African American who doubts “Henrietta’s” true identity but nevertheless assists the young protagonist. Henry’s life as a fugitive, this time from John Brown’s army is short lived, however. When captured by one of Brown’s sons, Henry laments in the chapter entitled “Prisoner Again” that “I was full-blow back in his army and the business of being a girl again.”[5] After the Battle of Osawatomie where his son Frederick is brutally murdered, John Brown departs for parts unknown to his followers. Before leaving for two years, the protagonist recalls him saying to Owen and his other sons present: “Bury Fred right. And take care of Little Onion.”[6]

Throughout the novel, McBride deftly weaves historical accounts of John Brown’s exploits and enslaved people’s experiences with his own literary imaginings. Readers are able to understand how a scared enslaved boy tries to reject the violent life associated with John Brown. After Osawatomie, Little Onion searches for replacement parents in Nigger Bob and Pie, a prostitute who plies her trade at a brothel that attracts ruffians of all political stripes. Ultimately, Little Onion finds his surrogate father in John Brown and his brothers among the white and black members of Brown’s army. Happenstance allows the protagonist not only to survive as a fugitive traveling with John Brown’s army, but also to meet Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman during Brown’s pre-Harpers Ferry’s recruitment tour of the eastern United States and Canada. By the final section, Little Onion’s inclusion in real historical events appears natural in the fictional Civil War era world crafted by McBride. Henry-Little Onion has fully embraced John Brown’s mission. He recruits for the Harpers Ferry attack among freeborn and fugitive African Americans. The chapter titled “Unleashing the Hive” sees the unfolding events of Harpers Ferry, Brown’s capture, and Henry-Little Onion’s escape so that he can “tell the stories” to future generations.[7] McBride returns to real historical events of the trial, hanging of Brown and his army, and early African American remembrances of Harpers Ferry in the concluding pages.

John Brown House (Ritner Boarding House) operated by the Franklin County Historical Society, Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Courtesy of the author.

Here, McBride taps into how African American collective memories of the American Civil War at the Pennsylvania-Maryland-West Virginia border allowed for the persistence of John Brown’s legacy as a freedom fighter. In the war’s aftermath, the nation strongly encouraged border African American residents to forget John Brown’s raid, the Civil War enslavement of freeborn African Americans, and the military experiences of those who either enlisted or were drafted. Remembrance became a political act essential to postwar African American border identity. These African Americans refused to accept the hegemonic Lost Cause and Reconciliationist impulses. Through oral traditions and postwar commemorations in segregated African American spaces, they developed and sustained a Civil War collective memory that empowered them to actively remember–while the nation purposefully forgot–well into the twentieth century. Thus, James McBride’s acknowledgement is as powerful as the opening prologue. He recognizes and celebrates the actions of ordinary African Americans “who, over the years kept the memory of John Brown alive.”[8]

The Good Lord Bird deepens our understandings of sectional debates over slavery, violence, and the diverse African American experience on the eve of the American Civil War. Moreover, it provides important insights into the role of memory, violence, and the intersectional contours of African American remembrance of the Civil War through Henry-Henrietta-Little Onion and those who sang “Blow ye trumpet blow” at the hanging of John Brown and in subsequent years.[9]


[1] See R. Blakeslee Giplin, John Brown Still Lives!: America’s Long Reckoning with Violence, Equality, and Change (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

[2] James McBride, The Good Lord Bird (New York: Riverhead Books, 2013), 3.

[3] McBride, 30.

[4] Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Written by Herself (Boston: 1861), 97-104, Documenting the American South, accessed October 15, 2018, https://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/jacobs/jacobs.html.

[5] McBride, 77.

[6] McBride, 123.

[7] McBride, 427.

[8] McBride, 459.

[9] McBride, 457.

Hilary N. Green

Hilary N. Green is the James B. Duke Professor of Africana Studies at Davidson College. She previously worked in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama where she developed the Hallowed Grounds Project. She earned her M.A. in History from Tufts University in 2003, and Ph.D. in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2010. Her research and teaching interests include the intersections of race, class, and gender in African American history, the American Civil War, Reconstruction, as well as Civil War memory, African American education, and the Black Atlantic. She is the author of Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (Fordham, 2016).

2 Replies to “James McBride’s Reimagining of John Brown and His Legacy”

  1. as a huge fan of james mcbride i read the good lord bird when it was published; and was both amused and bemused by mcbride’s posturing, buffoonish portrait of frederick douglass (arguably the dominant hero of black history). later, reading david blight’s admirable bio of douglass, images from mcbride’s book was for me a constant source of reference (and inner laughter). when mcbride appeared at the philadelphia free library i asked him why, while he portrayed brown heroically, his douglass appeared (very) not so much. he explained: while brown was willing to give up his life to fight slavery, douglass was so obviously not. agreed.

  2. as a huge fan of mcbride i read the good lord bird when it was published and loved it; and was both amused and bemused by mcbride’s buffoonish portrait of frederick douglass: arguably the dominant hero of black history. later, reading david blight’s admirable bio of douglass i kept visually referring to mcbride’s counter portrait. when mcbride appeared at the philadelphia free library i asked him why, while he portrayed brown heroically (though thoroughly
    insanely eccentric); his douglass non heroic, posturing. he replied brown was willing to die for the cause; douglass definitively not so much. agreed.

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