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Russell Banks, historian on
opposing views of John Brown

Russell Banks BANKS: I think the reason white people think he was mad is because he was a white man and he was willing to sacrifice his life in order to liberate Black Americans. I think it's as simple as that. Black people don't think he's crazy, generally -- very few African Americans regard Brown as insane. If you go out onto the street today, whether you are speaking to a school kid or an elderly woman or a college professor, if it's an African American person you're talking to about John Brown, they are going start right out with the assumption that he was a hero because he was willing to sacrifice his life -- a white man -- in order to liberate Black Americans. If you speak to a white American, probably the same proportion of them will say he was a madman. And it's for the same reason, because he was a white man who was willing to sacrifice his life to liberate Black Americans. The very thing that makes him seem mad to white Americans is what makes him seem heroic to Black Americans. And that paradox, to me, goes to the heart of the racial divide in American culture. He stands astride in the most fascinating and revealing way, I think. The two largest racially definable segments of our population view the same figure, the same set of facts, with completely opposing points of view.

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