Whether he’s writing about John Brown, the fiery abolitionist and protagonist of “The Good Lord Bird,” legendary soul man James Brown, Black soldiers who fought in World War II or Sportcoat, the alcoholic dreamer at the center of his latest novel, “Deacon King Kong,” McBride informs us of the countless ways that Black Americans have shaped the culture, the music and the politics of this country.
I met McBride in 1979, in a reporting and writing class at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He wasn’t only an aspiring journalist but also a serious musician who has played with jazz greats and had written songs for, among others, Anita Baker and the late Grover Washington Jr. Our J-school Class of ’80 clique lovingly dubbed McBride “McJive.”
In his journalism — including a stint at The Washington Post — his music, screenplays and books, McBride elevates supposedly inconsequential people, ones from his own life, and others that he plucks from the pages of history, to their rightful places as the bricks and mortar of Black American life, and American life more broadly.
He’s now on the hunt for a subject for a new book. “I’m interested in New York around the turn of the century, and I’ve been reading history books all around that time, but I haven’t really found any characters,” McBride told me when we caught up recently. “I stumble into stories by reading history books. That’s how I came upon John Brown.”
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
“The Good Lord Bird,” which won a National Book Award in 2013, is a reimagining of the abolitionist who led the raid on Harpers Ferry. I asked McBride for his take on John Brown, after having spent so much time researching and writing about him. Was Brown a maniac?
I think he was a great American. Calvinists believe that they are predestined to do something, and I think John Brown was a real Calvinist in the sense that he felt destined to lead the fight against American slavery, and because of that, he was called crazy. John Brown was a person who saw our humanity. There’s this scene in the [Showtime series] that is very profound that’s delivered by the actor Hubert Point-Du Jour, I think. He says, ‘He ain’t gonna live long son. He’s calling Black folks Mr., Miss and Mrs. He’s crazy.’ So anyone who treats us like we’re human beings is crazy. The truth is that John Brown was just so far ahead of his time that people couldn’t accept that. And he was violent, and that made him really dangerous.
Did McBride think about other contemporary figures when he was writing about John Brown?
I didn’t think of any contemporaries. I didn’t know anybody like him. What I enjoyed learning about him is that he really understood this community that I love so well. He understood that humans existed within that community. Anyone who has walked behind the boarded-up windows of Black America knows that there is a thriving, thoughtful world within, and you can’t contain that world no matter what you do.
The spirit of good is greater and it lasts longer. That’s why we’re still talking about John Brown. My point is that he sipped from the same well that W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and all the rest would sip from … [but] you have to be careful to take just enough to sustain you so that it keeps you fresh and buoyant and not bitter and cynical. You know for all their difficulties: John Brown and Martin Luther King were not cynical people. They may have been bitter about certain things, but they were not cynical. When you are spiritual, it’s impossible to be cynical, because you know that there’s a greater power at work, and so you do what limited work you can in that way toward the good and leave the rest to someone or something that’s far greater than you.
His most recent novel, “Deacon King Kong,” is a multilayered, tragic-comedic homage to the church and the Brooklyn neighborhood of his youth. It evidences McBride’s sensitivity to the love, hopes, wisdom and fears of people who live behind the “boarded-up windows” he referenced.
That book really just happened. I’d always wanted to do a book about the people I knew as a child and because so many of them were dying. Every time I walk into that church, I am reminded of so many people I knew as a boy. They were funny, and I didn’t realize how unique they were until I became grown. So I created characters that were part and parcel of my childhood. What I learned at New Brown Memorial Baptist Church is that Black people are very kind and that we’re forgiving of one another because we know that we have a lot of bad stuff going on ourselves. I mean, as small-minded and ignorant — and I mean that in a good way — as the people were in my church, they loved me unconditionally. A lot of those people were oppressed and yet they managed to laugh. They didn’t all have the same amount of fight in them, but you know we range in our responses to racism and classism.
McBride believes that the political and social turmoil of the recent days and years have stirred some White people to deeper self-reflection and to become proactive in questioning the racism, classism and inequalities in American society.
These young Black Lives Matter people of all races, I never thought I would live long enough to see that kind of unity. Honestly, I’ve been inspired by it, and I’ll tell you why I think it’s happening. Look, every Black person over 50 has lived a life where the rules change. They shift the goal posts and move the laws around to keep us from getting to where we need to go. They just say: ‘You can’t do that. We used to do it that way, now but we don’t. We used to go left, now we go right.’ They change the rules so they can hold on to power and keep us on the bottom rung. So in these past four years, White people have had a full dosage of what it feels like to be Black, and they don’t like it. This is God talking. When you get a taste of this kind of injustice, it stays on your tongue for a long time, and how you respond to it really determines the quality of your life.
In conversation and in his books and films, such as the 2012 movie “Red Hook Summer,” which he co-wrote with movie director Spike Lee, McBride, 63, reveals himself still to be the church boy that his parents raised him to be.
New Brown Memorial Baptist is a tiny little church at 609 Clinton Street, right across the street from the Red Hook Houses. On Sundays, we’d be lucky if there’s 20 people there. The church has been there since 1954. My parents were the founders, but there were five or six other families that got together and created it.
Faith is my wheelhouse. The old neighborhood is my wheelhouse. That’s where I’m always accepted. No matter what I do, it makes me strong and impervious to criticism. I’m not one of those guys who goes to literary meetings and worries about who is the hottest and who reads the hippest magazines. I don’t care about that stuff because it’s not part of the world that created me. I’m the creation of a world that made me strong and healthy, and so I’m standing where it’s safe. I’m standing in a place where I’m always welcomed and that welcomes me. Our power is in our history. That’s true for any group, but certainly for African Americans. Yes, there is a tremendous amount of hypocrisy in the Black church, but you have to make a choice. Either you get in the jalopy that took you there, or you get out and walk, or you jump into the brand new Tesla that’s going down the road. I just prefer to stay with the jalopy that got me here because for all it’s faults, and there are many, it’s still the place you can turn to, and that’s certainly been the experience in my life. … At some point you realize that history makes you better and you realize the gift. Someone was giving you vegetables when you were starving for ice cream and cake. At some point you become smart enough to realize what’s special.
There is no shortage of stories to be unearthed and shared. McBride’s books, screenplays and music are influenced by famous and lesser-known people who’ve made their marks. They are people who “understand the entire journey and inspire me because they are free,” he said. His examples included fabled saxophonists Sonny Rollins and Lester Young; Bernice Reagon, a founder of SNCC’s [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s] Freedom Singers and, later, the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock; and Olympian Tommie Smith, who, along with John Carlos, became famous for their raised-fist Black power salute at the 1968 Olympics.
These are the kinds of people that young people should know about, and that we are responsible to carry along, because if we don’t tell their stories, who will? And so, going back to “Deacon King Kong” and John Brown, if we don’t carry those stories forward in a way that the public can absorb, who will do it? As writers, it’s our job to tell their stories. The reason we went to journalism school is we wanted to affect the world in some way. And we realize that we can’t make the kind of changes that we thought we could make in a week. But at least you can put your little chink in the mountain and your little graffiti on there because after a while enough chinks will create the kind of crack and the fissure that someone will put their foot in and climb up to the top. That’s why Barack Obama meant so much to us. And not to get too political about it, but someone else will come along. In fact, they’re coming now.