“With all my heart I wished I was Black, or she was white, or we could stay here forever” — author John Michael Cummings
What would the immortal martyr and abolitionist John Brown, whose 160th birthday would be this spring, think of the white man who wrote the above words not long ago? What if John Brown, also white, learned that the ancestors of this writer were the farmers, shopkeepers, and local militia who fought against him and condemned him to death, which his spirit today defies? What of the greatest irony of all, that as John Brown’s neck snapped at the end of a hangman’s rope, in the crowd of gawkers were the eyes of America’s most infamous assassin, John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln’s killer and the above writer’s distant relative.
“Yes, I’m distantly related to him,” admits author John Michael Cummings, citing genealogical records compiled by a deceased aunt.
“Hush! Hush! Don’t tell anyone,” he laughed with contempt. “It’s our big family secret.”
One of Booth’s many prostitutes, he said, figures into his family line.
Then he sits up straight, and his expression becomes serious, so serious that, with his large brown eyes and strong jaw, no one would doubt him.
“Who cares? I’m no pedigree poodle,” he said. “I’m a crossbred, inbred human being of impure blood. Planet Earth is one big family reunion, right?”
Cummings is referring to the genetic wonder that, according to our chromosomes, we all share a common ancestor. Our family tree is really one global sequoia, and as computational biology bears proof, you have undoubtedly married your 30th cousin. Technically speaking, we all are entitled to argue for a share of Bill Gates’ fortune.
This revelation, however, is not exactly new, although it is germane here. John Brown would agree, though in his terms. We have one common creator — God. As a strict Calvinist, Brown believed slavery to be an abomination before God.
On May 9, John Brown will be a sesquicentennial and 10 years old. Today, awareness and respect for black culture in America is immense and unwavering. John Brown and John Michael Cummings, put together for the first time in this sentence, both contributed.
On a violent fiery October night in 1859, John Brown and his band of raiders attacked the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia (then Virginia), in an attempt to ignite an armed slave revolt. Harpers Ferry’s strategic location in a gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains offered Brown and his rebellion several routes of escape. Instead of arousing a slave uprising, he primed the Civil War that brought about an end to slavery.
A century later, as a mistreated white boy growing up in Harpers Ferry, Cummings would inherit John Brown’s legacy — a far better story than one of DNA testing to lay bare the descendancy of a presidential assassin.
Cummings, a sixth-generation native of the town, is the author of nationally acclaimed coming-of-age novel “The Night I Freed John Brown” (Penguin Group). His novel won The Paterson Prize for Young Readers and was selected by USA Today for Black History Month.
It tells of a young white boy growing up in the heart of the historic district of Harpers Ferry in the 1970s, in a small, run-down house ruled by a stern, bigoted father. To escape his father’s oppression, 13-year-old Josh adopts the defiant courage and passion of the town’s famous oppositionist. The novel, in production to be released as an audio book, is highly autobiographical.
Cummings, 56, recently Skyped with me in Kenya from Harpers Ferry to bring Black History Month to America from across the world.
As a Kenyan and African, Catholic, father, husband and brother, I know well that John Brown’s cry for racial freedom is heard around the world and, for this reason, Black History Month is every day of the year.
America and Kenya share elements of the same story. As the United States was disunited during the Civil War by the North and South, so Kenyan history has been held hostage by two families: the Kenyatta family and the Odinga family. These rival families have dragged communities and tribes to war. In my view, the antagonism of “we” versus “they” is a global virus infecting us with unnecessary hatred, competition, suspicion, mistrust and scorn that can span generations if unregulated.
Cummings’ fiction is the lens through which we can see history used as a narrative tool that teaches us that while the present has well begun to redeem the barbaric past of racism, unbelievable contradictions — the senseless and the unacceptable — still exist.
“The Night I Freed John Brown” demystifies the puzzle: why would a white man sacrifice his life to save Black men, women, and children from slavery. In a pivotal scene in the novel, the young hero Josh defies his stern, bigoted father not only by taking part in Harpers Ferry’s annual play reenacting John Brown’s famous treason trial but, worse, by relishing the role of one of John Brown’s loyal, loving sons.
Real life, though, doesn’t give anyone the privilege of exchanging bad dads for betters ones. The closest one can go, having decided to follow a higher road, is denying and denouncing your father. Cummings found himself here.
In his short story “John Brown the Quaker” (Global City Review), another fictional treatment of the historic treason trial, the author cuts his prejudiced father off at the knees by putting brown makeup on his fictional self and playing the role of a slave child.
In yet another true-to-life work of fiction, “The Scratchboard Project” (The Iowa Review), which received an honorable mention in The Best American Short Stories series, Josh, now 15, commits the eighth deadly sin: he falls in love with a Black girl.
“It’s really a true story,” Cummings said. “I never imagined I could find love in a Black girl. Ironically, she had already love. Love from her mother, from her brothers. The most amazing thing happened: She gave me love. She freed me, a white boy, in Harpers Ferry, where Brown had come to free the slaves. History and the present — they’re head-spinning.”
In “Unsealing the Tomb” (Stickman Review), his young Black girlfriend, Shanice, returns to unshackle Josh from his fear of life after high school. She is feisty, and he timid. Their relationship thrives on her bravery and his attraction to it.
Cummings invites the reader into the inner worlds of his characters and shows us that love, talent, beauty, charm, humor, tenderness and greatness exist in all people. Each is in need of mercy and, above all, love.
In the world of nonfiction, however, Cummings’ young life lacked both mercy and love. His father was overbearing and highly critical of him and often erupted with a violent temper, slapping and kicking his children. As a boy, Cummings heard his father’s many racial slurs and, for this reason, believed that the menacing wax figure of John Brown in the window of the museum across the street would come to life and charge his house to continue his fight against racism.
The wax figure, near the museum’s entrance, captures Brown at his legendary most fierce, with fiery red eyes, gnashing teeth, wild, flung-back hair, and a long, graying beard. He lunges forward with the barrel of a musket, while a small-framed elderly Black man stands behind him in terrified helplessness at the revolt underway.
“Believe it or not, I saw my father in this wax figure,” Cummings said. “The same rage — and for reasons that were not entirely different.”
Cummings’ family history journeys back into the town to 1818, well before Brown and his cohorts burst into the Shenandoah Valley. His earliest ancestors were Irish immigrants who labored as diggers on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal that runs by the town. In succeeding generations, the Cummings contributed to the municipality of Harpers Ferry. His mother served as town clerk for 25 years. His father delivered mail for as long. So did an uncle. One relative fixed cars. Another ran a clothing store. Cummings’ grandmother on his mother’s side was a popular councilwoman. His grandfather, having taught school briefly, worked as a railroad brakeman on the local line. Later in life, he was elected town recorder. Cummings’ grandfather on his father’s side patrolled the streets as a constable in 1930s. The author’s great uncle was nicknamed “Mister Brunswick” for his efforts as mayor to pave the streets of an adjacent railroad town.
Prideful of his family’s heritage in Harpers Ferry, Cummings’ father resented attention on John Brown, which intensified in the 1970s soon after the town became a national historical park. John Brown, his father flatly believed, stole away the white Irish heritage that built the town.
To step back and look at the big picture, more than 100 years have passed since a half-million American brothers died and President Abraham Lincoln officially freed the slaves and outlawed slavery. But the freedom he proclaimed quickly bogged down. A century of racial discrimination followed.
The year of 1963 played a big role not only in African American but also in Kenyan history, as well as in Cummings’ life. In May of that year, Harpers Ferry officially became a national historical park. Two months later, Cummings was born. In August, the March on Washington energized and strengthened passage of civil rights legislation that would grant blacks the right to vote and force desegregation of schools and public places. In December, Kenya, rejecting its longtime status as a British colony, attained political independence as a republic.
Like Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, Cummings would grow up quickly. As as energetic boy in the summers, he defied his father and, like a tourist himself, freely explored the cobblestone streets of the historic district. Female park rangers, dressed in the antebellum era, wore Victorian hoop dresses and floral bonnets, and male personnel sported knee-length, gentlemanly frock coats and top hats. Some dressed in the blue uniforms of Union soldiers, others in the gray of Confederates, with both sides outfitted with ornate sabers and glossy black jackboots. Cummings roamed around the old-time blacksmith shop, peeked into the confectionery, the dry goods store, then warily eyed the provost marshal’s office. Simply put, he was growing up in an open-air museum of the Civil War.
He encountered tourists from as far away as Egypt. He met a Chicago White Sox second baseman and a sidewalk artist from Tuscany at an easel drawing portraits of tourists. In a crowd gathered for a dedication ceremony in front of John Brown’s fort, the firehouse where the abolitionist made his last stand for freedom, Cummings, 11, shook President Jimmy Carter’s hand.
His early summers were mind-opening, and influences were enchanting. But when Cummings reached his mid-teens, the local culture around Harpers Ferry threatened to undo all John Brown and the National Park Service had taught him from the deep reaches of the mid-19th century. Nine months of the year, he spent his days in a new consolidated high school located well outside town, where farm boys in dungarees and hill kids in flannel shirt bullied smaller town kids.
Slight for his age, Cummings, soft-spoken and gentle, was an easy target. He was teased in particular for the shape of his head, which he describes as oblong.
“Kids said I had extra brain.” He laughs painfully. “They said it as if it were a bad thing.”
Depressed, unfocused, self-conscious, expelled from school for fighting, he barely graduated high school. He further lost himself in the county life by failing out of the local college and taking jobs washing dishes.
Cummings’ latest novel, “Don’t Forget Me, Bro” (Stephen F. Austin State University Press), exposes his father’s damage to his self-esteem in his 20s. The novel has been widely excerpted in the Chicago Tribune. The novel also shares how Cummings righted his life.
In the past 20 years, the author has published more than one hundred short stories. His short story collection, “Ugly To Start With” (West Virginia University Press) was a finalist for the Foreword INDIES Book of Year award.
“House of My Father” was a finalist in the Miami University Novella Contest and semifinalist in the Winnow Press First Book Award for Fiction. His short fiction has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize.
Cummings taught English at Seminole State College of Florida. He has written business news for the Fairfax Times, essays for Richmond Free Press and The Providence Journal, and alternative news for the Utne Reader. He holds a BA in studio arts and graphic design from George Mason University and an MFA in creative writing from University of Central Florida.
No good story is without a strange contradiction. In 1944, when Harpers Ferry achieved status as a national monument, restoration focused on 19th-century industries in the town, including a sawmill, flour mill, machine shop, two cotton mills, tannery and iron foundry. Tourism was contained to a few lower streets. The Cummings home, located farther uphill in town, stood well beyond tourist traffic.
During this time, Cummings’ father opened a souvenir shop called The Sutler directly across the street from the family residence. But its location remained out of range of tourists who preferred not to venture up the steep hill into the local community. The shop soon failed.
In the 1960s, under the authority of eminent domain, the National Park Service acquired old houses and structures around the Cummings’ home, and the family watched their longtime residence overrun by a bonanza of Civil War history and the hooey commercialism it attracted. Souvenir shops, restaurants and park-owned buildings pressed against the walls of their house. His father’s old souvenir shop, taken over by another owner, thrived.
“Dad was bitter. He opened a shop in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Cummings said.
Tourists, numbering hundreds of thousands each year, filled the historic streets on the hillside town. Whenever weary from climbing the steep streets, they plopped down on narrow front steps of the Cummings home and littered them with soda cups and ice cream cone wrappers.
“We were one of three private residences located within the park itself,” Cummings said. “Sometimes I’d hear tourists say whenever I came out the front door, ‘Oh, people live here?’”
Today, a mystery remains: Why did the National Park Service spare acquisition of the Cummings’ home? As a 250-year-old stone structure built to house an armory worker, by all accounts, it exhibits the same historical significance of adjacent structures.
Today, this house on High Street, the long inclined main street, is The Town’s Inn. A window in the author’s childhood bedroom, now slept in by tourists the world over for a hundred bucks a night, still holds the stained glass his grandfather, a church sexton, salvaged from the basement of the nearby landmark St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, the only church in town to survive the Civil War.
“I am this town,” Cummings said. “A thousand bones of my family are buried here. John Brown and I have to some talking to do someday.”
What do Kenyans think of John Brown? Today, the older generation would treat him like a hero, as they do the Mau Mau fighters, a militant secret society that operated in colonial Kenya during the 1950s. Novelist Tom Wolfe first used “mau-mau” in print to mean “intimidate.” Kenyan youths, however, would surely reject the murderous methods of John Brown, although, to be fair, the abolitionist lived in the savage age in early America.
Finally, if this reporter could sit down with John Brown, I’d throw him a curveball question: “Mr. Brown, if you had the choice, would you like to have been born Black or white?”
But I will step aside and say: What better birthday present could John Brown ask for this May 9 than a sit-down with the author of “The Night I Freed John Brown?”