LAKE PLACID — John Brown Day 2023 was an echo of John Brown Day 1999.
This year’s celebration was dedicated to the late Russell Banks, an award-winning author and doer of good works whose 1998 novel, “Cloudsplitter,” revived interest in Capt. John Brown and resurrected wreath laying on the abolitionist martyr’s grave first started a century ago by annual pilgrimages of Dr. J. Max Barber and Dr. T. Spotuas Burwell of Philadelphia, Pa.
Emcee and John Brown Lives! Board member Erica Blunt welcomed those who came from near and far.
“This day is dedicated to our dear friend Russell Banks,” Blunt said.
“So thank you. Thank you for coming and celebrating with us. This is mirroring the first pilgrimage to this site in 1922, over 100 years ago, and we continue to come together in the name of racial justice and human rights. It is my distinct honor to welcome you into this space. I am so grateful, and truly, truly appreciative and I’m glad to be a representation for the love that we have for the people that understand the mission and understand the purpose and believe in the work.”
Artist/activist Jerilea Zempel, a John Brown Lives! Board member, delivered the land acknowledgment, “Where We Gather.”
“Before we start the program today, I would like us all to consider for a moment that we are standing on the traditional homeland of the Mohawk Nation of the Haudenosaunee, also known as the Six Nations of the Iroquois. In 1779, George Washington turned his colonial war with England towards the Haudenosaunee, who were allied with the British. He sent his troops to burn their villages and destroy their crops before winter in an attempt to wipe them out. Then, he took the land of 40 villages and distributed it to his soldiers. From those violent acts, known as the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign, the Mohawk land that we are standing on today, was likely passed to the Brown family and to us. Washington’s attempt to destroy an Indigenous culture did not succeed. Today throughout New York state, there are vibrant Haudenosaunee communities working hard to repair what settler colonialism and the U.S. government tried to destroy 240 years ago.”
John Brown Lives! Board President Jeff Jones gave a brief report.
“I am really excited to tell you all that within the last 24 hours, we have officially signed a memorandum of agreement with New York State Parks Department making John Brown Lives!, in our official role as Friends of the John Brown Farm State Historic Site. It’s official. We signed a contract. For five more years, we are the friends group of John Brown Farm. It’s really exciting to travel around the state and realize to the extent to which people actually embrace our approach to historical preservation, which I will just repeat. We are uncovering the history that occurred here, but we are also an organization that is still engaged in making history.”
NAJ WIKOFF & MARTHA SWAN
The first remembrances of Banks were offered by Naj Wikoff and Martha Swan, executive director of John Brown Lives!
“So, we are here to honor, and thank Russell Banks,” Wikoff said.
“This is not a memorial to Russell Banks. I don’t think any of us would be here today if Russell Banks had not written “Cloudsplitter.” Following “Cloudsplitter,” he organized, re-brought back to life a tradition, that was all the time I was growing up, which was a celebration of the birth of John Brown.”
Swan recognized two very special guests.
“One I just learned, Richard Kagey, here, is a descendant of John Henry Kagi, who is one of the white men who joined John Brown and was killed in Harpers Ferry,” she said.
“And Lewis Sheridan Hughes is here with his family. Lewis is descended from Lewis Sheridan Leary, who was one of the young Black men who met up with John Brown Jr., I believe, in Oberlin and went to Harpers Ferry and did not come home. So Lewis is here and will be back in August for The Long Table Dinner, John and Mary Brown’s Dream, which will be here on this site. It won’t be windy.”
Amy Godine, author of The Black Woods: Pursuing Racial Justice on the Adirondack Frontier (Cornell, Nov/2023), and the curator of the Dreaming of Timbuctoo exhibit at the John Brown Farm Historic Site, said in her conclusion:
“This gathering is one good way to honor his achievement. Let me suggest another. Go home. Read the books. ‘Continental Drift.’ ‘The Sweet Hereafter.’ ‘Affliction.’ ‘Rule of the Bone.’ ‘The Angel on the Roof.’ Read them, see the world awhile through the clear eye of an artist who made the world, in all its disarray and cruelty, his friend, and feel your heart change a little. Not soften. Strengthen.
“No better way to thank our comrade, neighbor, friend.”
“My name is Gary Smith, a relative newcomer to Lake Placid and a relative recent acquaintance of Russell’s and now the chair of another of Russell’s other organizations, Adirondack Film,” he said.
“Although the time was short, I am honored that he received me as full-fledged member and maybe even a leader, of a segment of the now, deeply felt legacy of his arts and humanitarian contributions to the North Country and to the world.
“I stand before you proud to represent Adirondack Film as one of his lasting contributions to our way of life and our sensitivity to the world around us. I am proud to stand also among two of his other co-conceived institutions, John Brown Lives! and the Adirondack Center for Writing. They are truly fulfilling and continuing to build upon the noble work that he envisioned some 20 years ago. and Russell, finally, thank you for any part you may have had in bringing us this most beautiful day enveloping this most sacred of sites. Thanks to all you for sharing this time with us.”
CLIFF OLIVER MEALY
Mealy, a Greenwich based photographer, shared what Banks told him about writing a fictional account of Brown’s life.
“Words are not my forte, but John Brown is,” he said.
“I’ve been a John Brown follower ever since I was introduced to Black history. There are over 150 books written about John Brown, and I daresay, I’ve probably read most of them. I couldn’t help but read “Cloudsplitter.”
“I knew Russell through his books, but I never read them because I only read nonfiction. I’m a photographer. But I had read “Cloudsplitter” because it was about John Brown. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I was feeling guilty because it was fiction. I was reading fiction, and I liked it.”
At a previous John Brown Day, Mealy encountered Banks at the farm.
“I said I got to ask this guy why did he do this?” he said.
“I did. I damn near assaulted him. There is so much great nonfiction about this guy, why did you write fiction? Russell wouldn’t know me from anybody, but he spent an afternoon with me, walking these grounds, explaining why he did fiction. and I got to tell you, it was one of the best days of my life. He took the time and effort to educate me on why he made his nonfiction guy fiction. It was enlightening. It was wonderful. I say words are not my forte, but I will never forget that day. I will never forget him.”
Former John Brown Lives! Board member, Dr. J. W. Wiley read from several sections from “Cloudsplitter,” but, he digressed.
“On Amazon, YouTube and Apple TV, there’s a film (“How Does It Feel To Be A Problem?” by Thomas Edward Keith & J.W. Wiley) that I had the honor of co-writing and co-producing, inspired by a book I wrote, ‘The Nigger in You,’” Wiley said.
“That book talked a lot about social justice and allies, and in the book, I named John Brown as the ultimate ally.”
“Mark Twain’s Aria” from “Harmony,” for which Banks was librettist and composer Robert Carl, was inspired by the romance of composer Charles Ives and Harmony Twichell, the great aunt of Chase Twichell, Banks’ wife.
Darren Woods, artistic director for the Seagle Festival, gave the opera’s backstory that was performed by Timothy Lupia, tenor, and Thomas Odell, piano.
“Thank you Darren for having given Russell and me this opportunity because I first contacted Russell Banks about 25 years ago,” Carl said.
“I had an idea for an opera about the meeting of Charles Ives and Mark Twain that actually happened because Harmony Twichell was the goddaughter of Mark Twain, and he had to approve the union as sort of a family tradition.”
Snail mail was exchanged. Banks thought the project was interesting.
“Then, he told me about Chase and his relationship,” Carl said.
“From that, we met. We began working on it. We did have an excerpt that was done in New York. and then, yes. Nothing. A typical story for operas.
“But strange things sort of come around, and, of course, there’s Darren’s connection, and then, we met.
“As soon as it was a done deal, I started to get libretto coming into my email box from Russell that was fabulous and that was so well-crafted, so beautifully written as a certain sort of elevated poetry that had a sense of the 19th century about it, that I couldn’t help. It set itself. So, I was a vessel for his words.”
NELL IRVIN PAINTER
Dr. Nell Irvin Painter, who was a Princeton University colleague and a friend of 30 years, shared her essay on Banks.
“I’m deeply honored to celebrate Russell today as a great writer and as a force for the good in American life,” she said.
“But in addition, I want to thank him for bringing us to the Adirondacks and making us feel at home here among friends, Black and white, who share our values as citizen. You are precious to us even now, or especially now that Russell has left us and while our regional and national political environments can feel so alienating. Here with you and with the memory of Russell Banks, we feel completely at home, a feeling we can never take for granted in our native land but for which we remain in his debt.”
Founding Recovery Lounge artistic director Scott Renderer presented a recording of Banks reading from “The Fisherman” with accompaniment by Monsterbuck.
“Anyone who has ever found themselves face to face with one of their idols know the tremendous effect that adrenaline can have on their body chemistry,” Renderer said.
“Thirty years ago, I found myself face to face with Russell Banks, my literary hero, and I was unable to contain myself. We were in a small New York theater, and I literally ambushed him. I ran across the room. I was wearing a pleated skirt and these bobby socks because I was in a play.
“I wrapped my arms around Russell, and I shouted, ‘I love you Russell! I love you man! I f—–g love you!’
“Russell, of course, was totally cool. He chuckled his all-knowing chuckle and muffled something about the touchy-feely nature and behavior of theater folk. Clearly not his favorite tribe. A few years later, I moved to the Adirondacks to Upper Jay, and Russell and I became buddies.”
In 2007, Banks gave Renderer permission to write a stage adaptation of “The Fisherman” from his short-story collection, “Trailer Park.”
“In the case of life imitating art, when Russell agreed to star in my production of The Fisherman reading the narrator every night onstage at the Recovery Lounge, it wasn’t me who won the lottery.
“It was the whole community. Such an extraordinary gift that he gave of himself in that performance. I will never forget the night that I came into rehearsal and I announced to the cast, ‘We won the lottery folks. Russell Banks is going to be in our play.’
“I love you Russell! I love you man!”
LAKE PLACID — John Brown Day 2023 was an echo of John Brown Day 1999.