The historical portrayal of him for so long was dismissive and ableist-- he had to have been wild and "crazy"-- what white man would risk all that for black people? It pissed me off badly. I adored John Brown when I heard of him in my history classes. In fact, while working on my M.A., I took on the haters in a paper entitled "John Brown: Crazy like a Fox." If I had known then what I know now, it might have actually been a good paper. :-)
Thinking of how he has been "written" reminds me of several things:
1) The people who dismiss slavery as the most significant factor leading to Civil War (again, the idea that this nation would've torn itself up over an issue that had black people at the heart of it? Impossible!)
2) Tim Wise's observation that so many people, when made aware of his anti-racist work, ask, "What happened to you?!" Hard to imagine that people would actually work to disinvest in whiteness--which shows how much we need to re-think the ideas that whiteness and related privilege are largely invisible*
3) H. Rap Brown's (Jamil Abdullah al-Amin) assertion that "violence is as American as cherry pie." It's been a primary tool of this nation-state; why are we surprised that citizens of any political position engage in it? And relatedly...
4) ...The absolute dissonance that allowed southern sympathizers to write about the Klan, for the longest time, as an honorable organization, that still allows my students to be taken aback by my use of "terrorism" when I describe Redemption, but permits the vilification of John Brown.
5) Another John Brown quote:
I want you to understand that I respect the rights of the poorest and weakest of colored people, oppressed by the slave system, just as much as I do those of the most wealthy and powerful. That is the idea that has moved me, and that alonewhich often makes me wonder how his position on class** also contributed to the portrayal of him.
* And people are doing this work. Beyond the writings I've seen, a few weeks ago, I saw one of Jane Elliott's older films in which she asked an audience full of white people how many of them would like to be treated like PoC in this country. Not a single hand was raised.
** Respect for the poor and "weak" is derided now--imagine how it must've been 150 years ago.