|Lewis Sheridan Leary|
For his attack on Harper's Ferry, in 1859, John Brown had assembled a dozen assailants to undertake, with him, a muddled pipe dream of an attack meant to incite a rebellion that would arise like a righteous wind from Virginia and throughout the South, meant to end the heinous sin of slavery. Several of his accomplices were African-American. One of them was this man, Lewis Sheridan Leary.
Leary's devotion to the cause of abolition is evident simply on the basis of his having left his wife and six-month-old child to take up arms with Brown and his men. Leary had been born to a freedman, the son an Irish father and a mom who was white and black and red.
Like so many others of his time, Leary took up the cause of abolition with a vengeance from his schooling at Oberlin College. It's difficult to imagine today what it must have been like to be at Oberlin in the 1850s, when the cause of abolition was carried on high, when men and women, whites and blacks united under the banner of freedom--and at almost any price.
At the very end of Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War, a marvelous biography of fierce old Calvinist, Tony Horwitz tells an incredible story about Lewis Leary that enlarges a tale already at the heart of the American experience. After her husband's death, Mary Patterson Leary, herself an Oberlin grad, was nobly given a few hundred dollars for support and in anticipation of her children's education. Someone also gave Mary Leary a bullet-ridden shawl her husband had worn on the raid. Because of the wounds he'd sustained in the assault, Lewis Leary died a week or so after the raid, Brown's plan having failed in logistics but not failed to the many whose "eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."
Mary Patterson Leary remarried after her husband's death, her second husband chosen, like her first, from the Oberlin abolitionists. Charles Henry Langston, the man she we, had given a powerful speech at the trial of accused Oberlin insurrectionists who had taken on a U. S. Marshall in a runaway slave rescue. Some say Langston's speech in their defense was so moving the judge handed out very light sentences.
Charles Langston and Mary Patterson Langston eventually moved to yet another abolitionist stronghold, Lawrence, Kansas, a town slavery advocates had tried to destroy during the period known as "Bloody Kansas," when slavers and abolitionists fought for control of the brand new state. In 1872, Charles and Mary had a daughter they named Carolin Mercer Langston.
Here's the precious story. Carolin Mercer Langston, once she married, had a boy she nursed while he was wrapped in her grandfather's Harper's Ferry shawl. That boy would eventually become one of America's foremost poets, Langston Hughes. who wrote, among a host of others, this famous poem:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
I'm guessing that, as a teacher, I used that poem in class a thousand times. Once upon a time, when I was the only white guy in a graduate class in African-American lit, we talked about "Harlem" for most of an hour. I've always been struck by the way all those lined-up similes end with a metaphor that threatens to be much more than poetic flourish. The italics are his, not mine.
Today, thinking about that Kansas baby wrapped in a ripped-up shawl that belonged to Lewis Leary, the child's own great-grandpa, I can't help but think that the dire reflection of that very famous poem somehow makes even more sense, or so it seems to me.