Reimagining the Harper's Ferry Revolt

— Ursula McTaggart

The Good Lord Bird
By James McBride
New York: Riverhead Books, 2013.

NOVELIST AND JAZZ saxophonist James McBride earned a National Book Award for his 2013 novel The Good Lord Bird, a farcical telling of John Brown’s 1859 anti-slavery battle at Harpers Ferry. The author is acclaimed for his earlier work The Color of Water, a tribute to the community that raised him, and a newly published study of the “Godfather of Soul” James Brown.

According to the novel’s conceit, a 1966 fire at a historically Black church uncovered notebooks containing “a wild slave narrative” penned by the fictional former slave Henry Shackleford. (1, page references will be to this text where not otherwise identified.) These imagined notebooks, which comprise the novel’s primary text, offer Shackleford’s first-person narrative of his rescue from slavery by John Brown and his subsequent adventures in abolitionist warfare.

Shackleford’s story begins in 1856, at Dutch Henry’s Tavern in Kansas, where he and his father are enslaved. John Brown and his men appear to demand that Dutch release his slaves. When the slaveholders fight back, Shackleford’s father is killed and Brown absconds with the boy, whom he mistakes for a girl and dubs “Little Onion” for consuming Brown’s good luck charm, a rotten onion.

Brown gives him a dress meant for one of his daughters, and from then on “Onion” assumes the identity of a girl. Although an unwilling member of Brown’s band at first, declaring that “my sympathies was with Dutch,” he joins Brown for battles in Kansas and eventually supports the Harpers Ferry project — against his better judgment.(14) McBride even assigns the fictional Onion responsibility for the raid’s failure: he forgets to deliver a password that would have brought hundreds of Black recruits to Brown’s side.

McBride’s version of John Brown is neither a heroic “mountain” of a man as Russell Banks suggests in the novel Cloudsplitter (1998) nor a “madman,” as many contemporaneous reporters insisted.(1) He is a comical and bumbling but noble Calvinist who gives lectures with bullets buzzing past and whose long prayers before meals leave his hungry, cold troops wishing for deliverance.

Onion, however, is the story’s center,(2) and McBride uses this character not to comment on transgender politics — which would have been appropriate for 2013 — but to illuminate the role of women in revolutionary abolitionism, including Harriet Tubman and Brown’s daughter Annie, and to reveal Brown’s own (ambiguous) gender politics.

While McBride appears insensitive to transgender politics despite his use of a gender non-conforming narrator, he does usefully illustrate the intersectionality of oppression and the socially constructed, though powerful, nature of race and gender. Moreover, the comedic depiction of Brown is ultimately a tribute to him as well as to the radical women around him: McBride encourages readers to forgive Brown’s imperfections, suggesting that his anti-slavery commitments outweighed his flaws.

John Brown and Gender Politics

McBride draws attention to the complexities of the historical Brown’s gender politics. Historian Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz dismisses Brown as patriarchal, while John Stauffer emphasizes his moments of feminist enlightenment.(3)

Unlike many of his fellow abolitionists, Brown did not actively campaign for women’s rights, and his personal life was conservative. Brown’s wives, first Dianthe and later Mary, raised children while Brown pursued enterprises including tanning and sheep farming.

The family’s adherence to traditional gender roles did not yield great benefits, however. Brown drove his family into debt while Dianthe and Mary suffered from the risks of motherhood in the 19th century.

Dianthe died in 1832 giving birth to her seventh child, which was stillborn. Mary delivered 13 children and watched many of them perish. Of Brown’s 20 children, 12 died before him: nine in infancy or childhood and three in abolitionist rebellions.(4) All of Brown’s then living sons participated in his abolitionist activism either in Kansas or at Harpers Ferry, and although Mary and his daughters supported the cause, they did not enter battle.

Yet evidence suggests that Brown favored some increased gender equity. Frederick Douglass visited the Browns in 1847 and noted that both male and female family members served food and washed dishes.(5) Brown’s “Provisional Constitution,” developed in 1858 as an interim document for the United States after the presumed success of his revolution, encouraged women to take up arms in revolt and promised them suffrage and access to political office.(6)

During the planning of his raid, Brown attempted to recruit Harriet Tubman as a partner and requested the (non-violent) participation of his daughters and Mary. Mary refused but sent two 16-year-old girls to Harpers Ferry in her stead: her daughter Annie and her son Oliver’s teenage wife, Martha Brown.(7)

These two managed the farmhouse Brown had rented, cooking, cleaning (the men were also expected to clean), and acting as lookouts in the months before the raid.(8) They kept the band of men in the attic hidden and made the house appear occupied by a family.

During this time, Annie developed close relationships with Brown’s men and managed nosy neighbors by making up lies about the boxes of guns and pikes that littered the floor and the unusually large quantities of laundry on the clothes line.(9) She conversed with Brown’s mostly atheist men about religion and fought with her father about the wisdom of the raid.(10)

Because Annie and Martha returned home before the attack, their contributions are rarely given much attention (their stories are fully told, flaws and all, in Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz’s 2013 The Tie that Bound Us: The Women of John Brown’s Family and the Legacy of Radical Abolitionism). Owen Brown, by contrast, is always counted among his father’s “raiders” though he, too, avoided battle — he remained at the farmhouse to burn evidence and deliver weapons to allies who might come. Like Annie and Martha, he survived to old age while the brothers who went into battle perished.

Developing Political and Gender Identity

In The Good Lord Bird, McBride’s John Brown has a similar mix of contradictions regarding gender. He asks his male troops to do their own cleaning and mending rather than relying on the “female” Onion, and he praises Onion for participating in battle as a “girl.” He also teaches “her” skills that cross gender boundaries, insisting that both men and women should learn to read, shoot, weave baskets, and make sorghum syrup. (77-78)

While Brown believes he is freeing Onion from slavery and from some gender role limitations, he fails to acknowledge his own role in imposing a female, abolitionist identity on the child.

Onion, as a former slave, feels no right to correct Brown. Yet he strafes against the new gender identity, remarking that “I nearly choked calling myself a member of the opposite nature.” (28) He becomes a girl because a white man has deemed him one, and he feels little liberation in his new skin.

Onion’s growth into an abolitionist, like his transformation into a girl, occurs without his consent and with a sense of bodily disorientation. He doesn’t discuss politics with Brown or declare his support. At one point, Onion remarks that Brown simply “plopped me on his horse, and we sped down that alley, right past that cannon, out of Pikesville, and into legend.” (198)

Just as Brown asks no questions about Onion’s gender, he asks no questions about his politics — he makes assumptions, and Onion follows.

Throughout most of the novel, Onion accepts gender stereotypes. He associates masculinity with bravery and femininity with male pampering and protection. He chooses to remain a girl in part because he believes it protects him from violence. Yet he begins to see exceptions to his stereotypes that help him develop political perspectives on gender and on slavery.

In part, Onion learns about women’s oppression through sexual predation. He becomes separated from the Browns in Pikesville, Missouri, where he returns to slave status at a saloon and house of prostitution. As a young, light-skinned “girl,” he claims the privileged position of “house slave” while his friend Bob is relegated to a slave pen and threatened with sale down South.

Yet he finds that the cost of such a position is submission to prostitution or rape. Though Onion avoids both, he must constantly navigate the advances of drunken white men, and he feels sexual assault as an ever-present threat, even in the abolitionist movement. On the fundraising trail with Brown later in the novel, he is even accosted by a drunken Frederick Douglass.

Here, McBride plays fast and loose with history. There is evidence that Douglass had affairs while married, but I have not uncovered evidence that he was sexually predatory.(11) McBride is daring, however, in his willingness to make historical heroes into fallible humans, for good and for ill, and his Douglass scene illustrates the problems of sexual assault that women and girls still face even from supposed allies in radical movements.

Women as Revolutionists

In his time as a girl, Onion also receives schooling on women’s skills as revolutionaries in both violent and non-violent capacities. He meets revolutionary women who, unlike Brown, see his personal and gender complexities. These women, with their developed politics and their willingness to interact with Onion as a person, guide his ideological growth.

In Pikesville, he meets two women planning an armed rebellion who recruit Onion as a reading instructor. Meanwhile, Onion falls in love with a mixed-race prostitute, Pie, whose goal is simply survival. She mostly ignores him, but Sibonia interacts with him on a personal level, seeing his male identity, acknowledging his intelligence, and worrying about his injudicious openness about his literacy.

“This child is troubled,” Sibonia tells her sister, and counsels Onion about protecting himself and remaining loyal to the rebellion. (151) Onion admires Sibonia, but is not yet ready for her message. When he naively shares the insurrection plans with Pie, she alerts slaveholders, preventing the rebellion and sending the leaders to the gallows.

This is Onion’s introduction to the potential of women as combatants. He is impressed when she tells the judge that “I am the woman. I done it. And if I had the chance, I would do it again.” (163)

Sibonia emphasizes her gender, associating it with revolutionary commitment. Onion’s political perspective is not yet developed, however, either on the topic of slavery or gender. “It come to me,” he thinks, “that if Sibonia could stand up like a man and take it, even if she was a woman, well, by God, I could stand up like a man, even if I weren’t acting like one, and declare myself for the woman I loved.” (173)

At this point, Onion only sees Sibonia’s action as masculine — and he associates his own bravery with declaring love for Pie, not with committing himself politically. Moreover, Onion cannot fully reject Pie for betraying the rebellion: “I hated her guts but I still loved her.” (183)

Onion’s reaction to Sibonia, in which he reads her revolutionary status as masculine, is McBride’s retelling of the historical John Brown’s relationship to Harriet Tubman, who also appears in the novel. Brown respected Tubman and hoped she would be his partner at Harpers Ferry. She met with him twice and expressed support while remaining vague about participating.

Brown referred to Tubman as “the General” and employed a masculine pronoun for her. In a letter to his oldest son, he wrote (with characteristic misspellings and emphases) that “He Hariet is the most of a man naturally; that I ever met with.”(12) Like Onion in his description of Sibonia, Brown intended to convey respect by declaring Tubman a man but instead derided women by discounting her from their number.

Like the novel’s Sibonia, Tubman was proud of her female identity. She did not become involved in the women’s movement until after Brown’s execution, but biographer Jean McMahon Humez records a comment she made to abolitionist Franklin Sanborn around 1859 that he “should make a good woman, which she meant as a compliment.”(13)

Friend and white abolitionist Martha Coffin Wright likewise commented, when discussing an encounter between Tubman and a racist train conductor, that Tubman “was as proud of being a black woman as he was of being white.”(14)

Oddly, McBride gives this personality trait to Sibonia but not to Tubman. His Tubman, whom Onion and Brown encounter at a recruiting meeting for Brown, accuses a room full of men of “clucking like a bunch of hens” and criticizes her husband for being “something like a woman hisself. He was fearful.” (251-52)

I can’t explain McBride’s literary choice here. Perhaps he is illustrating the contradictions of political identity: if Onion struggles to understand who he is and wants to be, he is not alone — even the powerful Tubman struggles with the same issues. Yet McBride’s choice to contradict the historical Tubman’s feelings about gender is a bizarre hiccup in the text, as his depiction of Onion’s later transgender choices will be.

Guiding Onion’s Journey

Despite her contradictions about gender, McBride’s Tubman still exerts important influence over Onion. When she gives a speech asking the audience to follow Brown, she shouts “Who’s a man here? Be a man!” Onion feels this call deeply: “It hurt my heart to hear her talk that way, for I was wanting to be a man myself, but afraid of it, truth be told, ‘cause I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want to be hungry. I liked somebody taking care of me.”

In response, he shouts “I’ll follow the Captain to the ends of the earth! Count me in!” But he hardly knows he has volunteered: “It was several moments before I realized all that piping and squawking was my own voice, and I nearly wet myself.” (149) Onion feels no control of his body — he cannot guide its political or physical actions, as it volunteers his services and nearly lets loose its urine.

While thus far white men had given Onion his identities, he is now struggling to make his own decisions. He says he wants to be a boy, but he does not shed girls’ clothing. He says he wants to run away from Brown, but he stays. His gender stereotypes suggest that if he wants to become a man, he will have to be a warrior, but he is afraid to fight. As a former slave, he feels that he still lacks agency over his body.

Yet strangely, McBride reveals his nascent ideology — abolitionism and feminism — in his bodily actions, not his brain. He acts before he begins to believe. In part, Onion is being forced into new beliefs by Brown and his men; in part, he is gaining a political perspective by taking action.

McBride’s Tubman is worried about the risks of the former. Like Sibonia, she attempts to engage Onion intellectually. “’You done good to speak out,’ she said. ‘To make some of these fellers stand up as men. But the wind of change got to blow in your heart, too.’” (251) She urges him to make his commitments more mindfully, and to bolster his confidence, she gives him her distinctive shawl — a token to prove that he is affiliated with her. (253)

The shawl represents both anti-slavery politics, with its link to Tubman, and gender identity, as a woman’s garment that he can choose to wear or discard. She cares about not only his political actions but his agency over them. Tubman is one of a line of rebellious women in this novel who see Onion as an individual, while Brown and his men stare right through him.

The final revolutionary woman whom McBride introduces in this role is Annie Brown. When Onion joins Annie and Martha as a “girl” at Brown’s rented farmhouse near Harpers Ferry, Annie takes the time to learn about him, asking him what he wants to be as an adult and learning about his love of music. (280) They sing and discuss the Bible together, drawing out each other’s thoughts and feelings as they build a relationship.

Somehow, setting on the bench of that porch, conversating with her, watching the sun go down over the mountains above the Ferry, made me forget ‘bout what was covering me and the fact that the Old Man was aiming to get us all minced to pieces. I come to the understanding that maybe what was on the inside was more important, and that your outer covering didn’t count so much as folks thought it did, colored or white, man or woman. (318)

Though saccharine, this statement reflects Onion’s new sense of gender equality as the raid draws near. When it does occur, Onion lives up to these new, less stereotypical gendered ideas. The female-dressed Onion has recruited troops for Brown by using Tubman’s shawl and Brown’s name to make contacts in the Underground Railroad. In this work, he succeeds as a girl with the revolutionary recommendation of a woman as well as a man.

Later, when he realizes his error in forgetting to deliver the password to Brown’s men, he runs miles back to the Ferry, still dressed as a girl, to save the raid. He arrives seconds too late, leading to the death of a Black ally and the aborted arrival of reinforcements. Instead of fleeing, he chooses to enter the engine house, the site of battle.

As Brown’s prospects wane, however, Onion decides he does not want to die and asks to be released with the hostages rather than surrender with Brown’s men. When he exits, he goes in boy’s garb. His “female” self runs into battle, while his “male” self runs from it.

McBride presents both choices as acceptable — and he illustrates that Onion has changed his expectations of what it means to be a “man” and come to an abolitionist perspective that gives critical support to Brown’s raid. Moreover, Onion has learned that his gender and political choices are under his control. He can take them on and off like Tubman’s shawl.

We learn from McBride’s prologue, which describes the discovery of Onion’s narrative in a burned-down church, that this was not the end of Onion’s gender play. In his church, Onion/Shackleford had been known as a woman — until he was caught “scoundreling and funny-touching a fast li’l something named Peaches.” (3)

While Onion had maintained a distinction between his female self and his “true” self, the prologue suggests that there was nothing fundamentally “true” about Onion’s male identity. Instead, having played a girl extensively, experiencing women’s trials and rebellions, he embraced gender flexibility throughout his life.

Political Forgiveness

Appearing in 2013, a time when transgender rights had become a crucial component of the leftist project, McBride’s Onion is a puzzling character. Onion is not transgender by choice — at least not at the beginning — and both he and those who know about his gender identity stress that he must become his “true self” and a “real man.” (252, 332)

Harriet Tubman, for instance, suggests that something is wrong with his female gender performance when she declares that “Slavery done made a fool out of a lot of folks. Twisted ‘em in all kinds of ways.” (30, 251) Even Onion’s later decision to dress as a woman is marred by the suggestion that he does so to get sexually closer to women — a common stereotype against transgender women.

In such moments it feels as if McBride is using the old trope of “cross-dressing” to get laughs. Moreover, McBride’s political statements focus on women’s rights, not transgender rights.

I do not excuse McBride for rehearsing stereotypes of transgender women or using a seemingly transgender experience simply to celebrate the achievements of cisgender women. Yet his novel also makes positive contributions. He insists that gender identity is malleable rather than rooted in “truth,” he shows how gender non-conformity can reveal others’ experiences of oppression, and he illustrates the pain of having an identity forced upon you.

Moreover, one of McBride’s primary messages is that we should be generous with the political missteps of our allies in promoting social justice. In an interview after winning the National Book Award, McBride insisted that “Slavery is hard to talk about [...]. We have to find ways to discuss the past while giving each other room to breathe, make mistakes, and stumble forward despite our lack of wisdom and knowledge on that subject.”(15)

All of McBride’s characters “stumble forward” in their politics, not only Onion but Brown himself, and McBride urges us to accept this as normal. One of Brown’s fatal flaws, he suggests, was assuming that identity could determine behavior. He sent Onion to “hive the bees” — a phrase the historical John Brown also employed — or recruit slaves to the cause in Harpers Ferry.

This phrase suggests that African Americans were “worker bees” ready to follow a “Queen,” harboring built-in revolutionary sentiment that only needed to be directed. McBride counters that African-American perspectives on participating in an anti-slavery revolution were not so simple, yet he forgives and loves Brown even as he chastises him.

McBride imagines a scene during Brown’s final trip to visit Frederick Douglass, “disguised as a fisherman,” fishing for men to convert in Biblical imagery. His trip will be fruitless — Douglass refuses to support him. But “two or three dozen [African Americans] turned out in the dead middle of the night as we rolled in the wagon toward the rock quarry. They whispered greetings from the thickets on the side of the road, some held out blankets, boiled eggs, bread, and candles. They said ‘God bless you, Mr. Brown’ and ‘Evening, Mr. Brown’ and ‘I’m all for you, Mr. Brown. None said they was coming to fight at the Ferry though, and the Old Man didn’t ask it of ’em. But he seen how they held him.” (329)

Brown the fisherman failed to produce miracles, becoming neither a fisher of men nor a hiver of bees. McBride urges readers to simultaneously laugh at Brown’s ridiculous presumptions of greatness and revere him with those beside the road.

In moments like these, he replaces the seriousness of Brown’s Civil War song with a wink. McBride suggests that, even in the most weighty of political situations, we could take ourselves a little less seriously, leaving room to acknowledge our errors and forgive those of others — and march on.


  1. Trodd, Zoe and John Stauffer, eds. Meteor of War: The John Brown Story. Maplecrest, NY: Brandywine Press, 2004. Print, 10-12.
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  2. For simplicity, and because he is almost exclusively known by this name in the text, I will refer to the character throughout as “Onion.”
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  3. Laughlin-Schultz, Bonnie. The Tie that Bound Us: The Women of John Brown’s Family and the Legacy of Radical Abolitionism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2013. Print, 19.
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  4. Laughlin-Schultz, 15.
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  5. Op. cit., 17.
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  6. Trodd and Stauffer, eds., 109-20. Stauffer, John. The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race. 2004. Print, 232-34.
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  7. Laughlin-Schultz, 54.
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  8. Op. cit., 57; Stauffer, 232-34.
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  9. Laughlin-Schultz, 58, 61.
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  10. Op. cit., 62-63.
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  11. Diedrich, Maria. Love Across the Color Lines: Ottilie Assing and Frederick Douglass. New York: Hill and Wang, 1999. Print; Trotman, C. James. Frederick Douglass: A Biography. Santa Barbara: Greenwood Press, 2011. Print, 68.
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  12. Brown, John. Letter to John Brown, Jr. 8 Apr. 1858. John Brown/Boyd B. Stutler Collection Database. West Virginia Memory Project, West Virginia Division of Culture and History. Web. 1 Oct. 2015.
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  13. Humez, Jean McMahon. Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories. Madison: U of Wisconsin Press, 2003. E-book, 32.
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  14. Sernett, Milton C. Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007. Print, 93.
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  15. Lepucki, Edan. “Interview with James McBride, 2013 National Book Award Winer, Fiction.” National Book Foundation. Web. 7 Jan. 2016.
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July-August 2016, ATC 183