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CR: The New Centennial Review 3.1 (2003) 179-195

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The Souls of an Ex-White Man:
W. E. B. Du Bois and the Biography of John Brown

Nahum D. Chandler
Johns Hopkins University

For Herbert and Fay Aptheker 1

DEATH ALWAYS COMES AT LEAST TWICE TO ONE WHOSE LIFE IS MARKED BY greatness, once in life and again in biography. And, more radically, if death is always at least double, then it most assuredly is never only double. One death always begets more death. If death, however, is understood first of all or only as loss, then the rich drama, the generosity, of this incessant doubling will most assuredly remain closed up and withdrawn. The difficulty of tracking some of the modalities of this irruptive doubling of death always shows itself in the scene of biography.

There is perhaps no better example of this generosity of the double, of the excessive giving that arises within the space of absence, than the narrative of the death or deaths, or lives, of John Brown. It is this enigma that sets the stage or scene of W. E. B. Du Bois's telling of this tragic and beautiful story. 2

It is this second death, of course, that must occupy our attention, for it is within its unfolding that the first is named, maintained, and given meaning or a kind of livelihood. John Brown, at least, will always lead a double life within the space of this second death, the death of biography: once as a [End Page 179] friend of the Negro in life, and again as their martyr in death. Both stories are wont to be told enough. For the telling of the story of Brown's friendship with the Negro is also the story of the death of a "White" man. And the telling of the story of the martyrdom of John Brown is also the story of his life as icon of the possibility of a new beginning, the story of a social being formed within the idea of belonging simply and purely to a "White" race who yet came to recognize himself as configured within the movement of an unsettled question, one that he, perhaps strategically, continued to call by the name of the "Negro question." This latter movement, of course, would be one in which neither reference, "White" or "Negro," could be easily set aside. For this reason, the story of John Brown can only be a story with a double reference. For this reason, it is enigmatic and difficult of telling.

Yet, of the many biographers of John Brown and of the incessant and ceaseless re-telling of his life's story in almost every genre of literature, including song, we and ensuing generations have W. E. B. Du Bois to thank for bequeathing to us the story or narrative of the double soul or souls of John Brown.

What we know is that John Brown was a "White" man who died to achieve the freedom of the Negro. What we do not yet realize, or really know, is the extent to which he already lives again, through death, as some historical being that is yet to come. Of course, he survives as an icon or as an ideal—a monumental, even if oft-denigrated, figure who stands as an appeal for the future. Also, however, he survives within the risk and loss of living as a flesh-and-blood man, configured within the very limits and frame of the world into which he was born. He survives, that is, as an example of a flesh-and-blood man whose character acquires its peculiar force only in and through the limits of his being, rather than because he transcended them. This survival is, thus, not absolute; rather, it is always at stake in the struggle toward another liberty or liberation; it is always at risk of giving up or reproducing that which it seeks to overthrow, perhaps due to the very force with...


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