In 2012, 77 arsons plagued a small, rural community on Virginia's Eastern Shore. Over the span of five months, Accomack County residents and firefighters could not pin down the culprit, who was widely suspected to be a member of their community.
A surprise winner at this year’s National Book Award, James McBride’s latest novel takes on the story of abolitionist John Brown’s doomed raid on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. In this satirical tale, the young narrator is a boy mistaken for a girl and taken into Brown’s retinue. Onion, as he’s nicknamed, gets a front-seat view of history as Brown plans his raid, meeting Frederick Douglas, Harriet Beecher Stowe and other well-known historical figures. We speak with McBride about the novel, as well as the band he formed to play music that inspired Brown.
- James McBride Author, "The Good Lord Bird;" Distinguished Writer in Residence, New York University.
Read An Excerpt
From “The Good Lord Bird” by James McBride. Copyright © 2013 by James McBride. Reprinted by permission of Riverhead Hardcover.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Author James McBride is no stranger to success. His books have landed on the New York Times bestseller lists and stayed there. He adapted one of his novels into a screenplay for filmmaker Spike Lee, and his latest book, "The Good Lord Bird," just won one of the highest literary honors, The National Book Award.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe book tells the story of John Brown and his quest to end slavery, culminating in the failed raid on Harper's Ferry. But, in case you fear a book about slavery might be heavy, in James McBride's hands, it's fodder for satire. And his dark humor reveals truths that elude most history texts. James McBride joins us in studio. He's an author, screenwriter, and musician. His latest novel, as we mentioned, is "The Good Lord Bird," winner of this year's National Book Award for fiction.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe's a distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University, and author of the memoir, "The Color of Water." James McBride, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. JAMES MCBRIDEI'm delighted to be here. Thank you for having me.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments, would like to join the conversation, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Do you think satire can work for serious subjects like slavery? 800-433-8850. You can also send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. First of all, congratulations on The National Book Award.
MCBRIDEThank you. That was nice.
NNAMDIIt was quite a surprise. It was quite an esteemed list of finalists, including George Sanders and Jhumpa Lahiri. What was your reaction when you found out that you'd won?
MCBRIDEI was pretty surprised. I was getting ready to run out. My daughter was sitting next to me, and I said, hurry up and finish your dessert, you know? We're gonna cut out of here. I just had a mouth full of apple tart when they called out my name. You know, I was pretty shocked.
NNAMDIYou were a finalist, but you weren't expecting to be the winner?
MCBRIDENo, because there were some pretty heavy writers. And I was just happy to be a finalist. It was just one of those things, you know? I just didn't feel like it was gonna -- I just didn't feel like it was my day to win. It's just a terrible thing to be sitting there with people that you, you know, four others, all of whom you hope fail. And they're deeply talented. So, it was -- I just wanted to scram. I felt like I was just gonna get out when it was over.
NNAMDIAnd then they called your name. How did you decide to write about John Brown and the raid on Harper's Ferry?
MCBRIDEWell, I was down in Fredericksburg, Maryland at a historical society over there. And I was going through a diary, and there was some reference to Harper's Ferry. So I just drove down there to take a look, and it just seemed so delicious. It seemed like such a good story, and I just tried -- I had to figure out a way to tell it, but I fell in love with the story, and with the man.
NNAMDII was about to say, because the character of John Brown, himself, is such a fascinating one that I could kind of see how that pulled you in. Your previous novel, called "Song Yet Sung” was also a historical novel. It took place in essentially the same era as this book. What is it about this period that fascinates you so?
MCBRIDEWell, I mean, the web of relationships that existed between whites and blacks during slavery is something that most novelists don't really want to deal with, and most Americans, I think, don't understand. I mean, the stereotypical view of slavery is that, you know, whites and whips, and they whipped everybody. And, you know, it's kind of like "Roots." But it's a lot more complicated than that. And if you read a history book about slavery, and about that era, there's really a novel on every page.
MCBRIDEBecause there was a lot of subterfuge, a lot of sabotage, backstabbing. There was a lot that was going on because the slaves were always questing to be free. The planters were always fighting the abolitionists and the banks. And then, the majority of white Americans were increasingly, at least in this period, increasingly ambivalent about slavery for a number of different reasons. And so, all these pressures made society very interesting. So, it's just ripe for storytelling.
NNAMDIIn addition to being a writer, you're also an accomplished musician. You write music and you play the saxophone. You created a band for this novel, which you're touring with. Tell us a little bit about "The Good Lord Bird Band," and the music you play.
MCBRIDEWell, because John Brown was very religious, and I grew up in the Baptist Church myself, I was always mesmerized by the power of African American music, By the spiritual music that I heard in church. And I thought it would be good to play some of the music that inspired him while selling his story to people. So, I created a gospel, a spiritual band. And there's five of us. We sing, we play, you know, quartet, it's a quintet. And it's a lot of fun. You know, I come out of jazz. I played music for many years.
MCBRIDEI went to Oberlin and so forth, and played with Anita Baker.
NNAMDIPlayed with Jimmy Scott.
MS. KATE ROUSMANIEREAnd Jimmy Scott. Yeah. I played in D.C. with Jimmy Scott several times.
NNAMDIHere in town.
MCBRIDEYeah. Blues Alley. Yeah.
NNAMDII'll never forget the first time I interviewed Natalie Wilson. I played some Jimmy Scott music, and the people who were techs thought that Nancy Wilson -- I mean, the people who were the techs thought it was Nancy Wilson that was singing.
MCBRIDEYeah, that's true. Well, you know, I asked Jimmy Scott where he got his sound from. He said Paul Robeson was his inspiration.
MCBRIDEYeah, I thought that was pretty interesting. You know, Jimmy's, for those that don't know, Jimmy's thyroid never developed, so he sounds like a woman when he sings.
NNAMDIPaul Robeson sounds just the opposite.
MCBRIDEHe does, but I think the stylistic approach to music was what he was referring to. Jimmy's a very, very fine musician.
NNAMDIWell, let's not get off the track of the book, because that would be very easy for us both to do at this situation. Let me go to Jeff in Alexandria, Virginia. Jeff, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
JEFFHey, glad to be able to call. I just wanted to mention that another National Book Award Winner, Alexie Sherman, uses a ton of satire in his books, and I really look forward to reading the book. I had read "The Color of Water," and it was a book that really moved me, and it made me very excited to hear that another book was coming out.
MCBRIDEWell, thank you. In the case of "The Good Lord Bird," it's a funny book. I satirize everybody. I make fun of everyone in the book.
MCBRIDEJohn Brown was a very serious guy, so he was easy to make fun of.
NNAMDIIs that why?
ROUSMANIEREThere were a lot of things that in, you know, Alexie Sherman's books, he's typically talking about Native American issues, but all the same, they're pretty serious issues. But a lot of satire really brings across points very well, so I look forward to it.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Jeff. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. If you have any questions for National Book Award winner James McBride, you can also send us a tweet at kojoshow. No one is spared in this book, including John Brown and Frederick Douglass. What made you consider satire on the subject of slavery?
MCBRIDEWell, slavery's so depressing. When you think about it, I don't think of it as slavery, first of all. I think of it as, this is how people lived at that time. And I just didn't want it to be -- I don't like depressing books. I don't want to read a book that tells me what I already know. So, I wanted to create a book that I would read myself, and that would give people something to smile about, and give them hope. But also inform them at the same time.
MCBRIDEAnd I also liked that character that tells this story. The character that tells this story is an old black man who's 111 years old, and he's telling this whopper to his fellow Sunday school teacher. I love people. I mean, I grew up in a, you know, my -- all the men in my life were like that. You walk around D.C. and throw a rock and hit four or five of them. Well, not as much as you used to, but, you know, the old...
NNAMDIGo to my barbershop every two weeks. You'll get that.
MCBRIDEWell, there it is.
NNAMDIYou'll get that. What response have you gotten for making fun of great historical figures like Frederick Douglass?
MCBRIDEWell, people don't mind me making fun of John Brown, but some people take umbrage to me poking fun at old Fred. I mean, you know, that is a, you know, that's one of the sacred cows of African American history.
NNAMDICan't be having Fred hitting on nobody.
MCBRIDEWell, Fred, you know, let's be honest, I mean Frederick Douglass had a black wife and he had a white mistress living in the same place. I mean, you can't do that in Brooklyn. I don't know how that goes in D.C. So that was, that was just ripe for satire.
NNAMDIA great deal of the novel's humor springs from the voice of the narrator. Can you read a little bit from the early part of the book and so we can hear the voice of Onion?
NNAMDIJames McBride, reading from "The Good Lord Bird."
MCBRIDE"I was born a colored man, and don't you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for 17 years. My pa was a full blooded Negro out of Osawatomie in Kansas territory, north of Fort Scott near Lawrence. Pa was a barber by trade, though that never gived him full satisfaction. Preaching the gospel was his main line. Pa didn't have a church like the type that don't allow nothing on bingo on Wednesday nights and women sitting around making paper doll cutouts. He saved souls one at a time, cutting hair at Dutch Henry's Tavern, which was tucked at a crossing on the California Trail that runs along the (word?) River in south Kansas territory.
MCBRIDEDutch Henry sat right near the Missouri border. It served as a kind of post office, courthouse, rumor mill and gin house for Missouri rebels who come across the Kansas line to drink, throw cards, tell lies, frequent whores and holler to the moon about coloreds taking over the world and the white man's Constitutional rights being throwed in the outhouse by the Yankees and so forth. I paid no attention to that talk. My aim in them days was to shine shoes while my pa cut hair and shove as much Johnny cake and ale down my little lane as possible.
MCBRIDEBut come spring, talking Dutch circled around a certain murderous, white scoundrel named old John Brown, a yank from back east who'd come to Kansas territory to stir up trouble with his gang of sons called the Potawatomi Rifles. To hear them tell it, old John Brown and his murderous sons planned to deaden every man, woman and child on the prairie. Old John Brown stole horses. Old John Brown burned homesteads. Old John Brown raped women and hacked off heads. Old John Brown done this and Old John Brown done that, and why, by God, by the time they was done with him, old John Brown sounded like the most onerous, murderous, low down son of a gun you ever saw.
MCBRIDEAnd I resolved that if I was ever to run across him, why, by God, I would do him in myself, just on account of what he'd done, was gonna do to the good white people I knowed."
NNAMDIJames McBride, reading from "The Good Lord Bird," with the narrator, the character Onion. You earlier said that you just liked this character, but you created this character.
MCBRIDEYes, I did. I wanted it to be -- I wanted the character to be a girl, but I didn't really feel strong enough to write from the girl's perspective. And when I decided to make it a boy playing as a girl, because when John Brown swipes him and kidnaps him...
NNAMDIJohn Brown thinks he's a girl.
MCBRIDEJohn Brown thinks he's a girl. And the kid is so scared, he figures this white fellow's crazy, so I'm just gonna go with it. And so he goes through the whole book pretending to be a girl, and it just creates wonderful comical situations.
NNAMDISo, you like the character. Do you also like -- do you find that you write characters that you don't like? Cause I like John Brown, too. The way he comes across.
MCBRIDEWell, that's a good question. I mean, no. I like all my characters, even the bad guys. Because I see them as fully dimensional people. And I think you have to see them that way in order to like -- in order to present them with some sort of realistic tinge to them.
NNAMDIIt seems that irreverent humor around the topic of slavery might once have been taboo, but perhaps no longer. New York Times review of your review points out that Quentin Tarantino does it in "Django Unchained," and we recently had a young woman named Azie Dungey on this broadcast, talking about her web series, "Ask a Slave." What does humor allow you to do that a straight narrative cannot, apart from not making us just very depressed about the whole thing?
MCBRIDEWell, I mean, I think humor allows us to say things we would not normally be able to say. For example, blacks ran from John Brown when he showed up. I mean, that's probably true. I'd run from him too. I mean, he was trouble. And if you're around him, you know whatever pain he was gonna get, yours was gonna be triple. So, I don't know. I think "The Good Lord Bird" is quite different from "Django." "Django's" a movie of extreme -- I mean, first of all, even a movie that's funny has to be believable.
MCBRIDEI mean, most of this book is believable. I mean, any time a black guy will pull out a gun and point it -- dropped a hammer on a white fellow during Django's time, he'd be dead five minutes past breakfast.
MCBRIDESo that -- Django was kind of like a fantasy of Quentin Tarantino's view of slavery. I don't know what ask -- I wouldn’t be able to come up with -- I don't know what "Ask a Slave" is about. I think there are ways to discuss these things that are funny without really insulting anybody. But using the humor to kind of let people see what it was so that they can go back and understand who these people are. Because most people don't know who John Brown is really. They know the name and they kind of associate him with Harpers Ferry, but they don't know really what he was all about.
NNAMDIThe aspect of John Brown that you latched onto quite tenaciously, you just mentioned earlier, was his religious zeal. Because that apparently struck a responsive chord with you because that's something you know about in your upbringing.
MCBRIDEOh yeah. I still go to church. I mean, you know, I still work in the church that -- I just started a music program in the church that my parents founded 56 years ago. And I love to make fun of the church. I mean, I -- but I need the church and I need God but I make fun of the church the way I make fun of my brother Ritchie, you know.
MCBRIDESo, you know, John Brown is somebody who's really funny because he would pray all the time. And, you know, he said God spoke to him personally and told him to, you know, free the slaves. And he actually did it, or he tried, you know.
NNAMDIAnd the music of the church has obviously been a big part of your life. I should've mentioned earlier that when you do speaking engagements related to this book, The Good Lord Bird Band plays with you.
MCBRIDEThat's right. I read from the book and then we -- you know, I read from the book and then we play a spiritual selection and then I read some more and we play another spiritual selection. It goes like that.
NNAMDIUnfortunately the band couldn't be with you today but how does -- what's the relationship between -- if any, between your music and your writing? They're obviously both artistic enterprises.
MCBRIDEWell, they both involve some kind of -- some level of improvisation. You know your story has dramatic points and you know you have to hit those dramatic points. But you might not have to hit them in sequence. You know, you know that you have to get there. And in music it's the same thing. You're all playing the same song. Everyone plays, you know, all the things you are in jazz. But how are you going to play? How are you going to peak it? How are you going to, you know, compose your music to make it sound different?
MCBRIDEAnd you have to think of those dramatic points. And when you see those dramatic points coming musically, you have to figure out ways to get to them that are hip and different. So there's an improvisational element involved.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join the conversation. We're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll resume the conversation with James McBride. We're talking about his latest novel. It's called "The Good Lord Bird." You can also send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. What do you find interesting about John Brown and the raid on Harper's Ferry, 800-433-8850? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with James McBride. He is an author, screenwriter and musician. His latest novel is called "The Good Lord Bird," winner of this year's National Book Award for fiction. He's a distinguished writer in residence at New York University and author of the memoir "The Color of Water." We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Jonathan. "I usually enjoy biographies and history but it sounds like I'd like this novel. How did Mr. McBride research his subject?"
MCBRIDEI just read a lot of books and went to Harper's Ferry maybe ten or twelve times. Went to Kansas a couple times, read a lot of slave narratives, read a lot of narratives of Southerners and Southern planters, aristocrats and, you know, people who -- people like Mary Chestnut. And I just read a lot of books so I could get an idea of what that era was like. And I also tried to approach it with a sense of openness and not a sense of prejudice about who I was writing about.
NNAMDIWe should've mentioned, in this novel John Brown meets a young slave boy Henry Shackleford who John Brown mistakes for a girl and nicknames Onion. Onion is the aforementioned narrator of the story. How'd you come up with that character? You say you didn't want to write in a girl's voice so you came up with a boy who was dressed as a girl. But how does this boy/girl manage to get a front row seat to history?
MCBRIDEI don't know. I just thought it was -- because this is a book of mistakes and flubs. Everything that John Brown did was a mistake. I mean, he went to Harper's Ferry a week early. You know, he had hired a general from this -- hired this commander in New York to help him train his army. The guy fleeced him out of dough. He expected Frederick Douglass to go on this crazy suicide mission and Douglass adamantly refused and said, you're gonna kill yourself.
NNAMDIHat wouldn't go either, Harriet Tubman.
MCBRIDEHarriet wouldn't go either. I mean, nobody -- all these people like John Brown, but they don't like him that much. So everything he did because of his religious fervor and because of the personality, it happened, but it never happened in the right way at the right time. So him, thinking that this boy is a girl, seemed perfect...
NNAMDI...was entirely consistent.
NNAMDIWhat is a Good Lord Bird?
MCBRIDEA Good Lord Bird is an ivory-billed woodpecker that's said to be extinct or nearly extinct. And they're huge birds, mostly seen in Missouri really more than in Kansas territory. And it's a symbol -- it's just used as a symbol throughout the book, the Good Lord Bird feather, which is an identifying marker that is kind of a metaphor and also identifying market for each of the John Brown people to know each other, you know, if they have that Good Lord Bird feather.
NNAMDIIt's clear that despite the satirical tone, that you respect the people that you write about, and you respect the history too. How much of this narrative is based on historical fact?
MCBRIDEMost of it. Most of it. John Brown was clearly treated very poorly in his life. He was clearly way ahead of his time. People thought he was crazy. The pro-slavers were -- many of them were poor. Many of them did not understand the biggest story. Many of them were used. There were lots of abuses on both sides in the Kansas-Missouri territory fights. African Americans were very clever about this situation, both in Kansas and at Harper's Ferry, and were very clever about their lives during slavery.
MCBRIDEFree blacks had enormous influence on the underground railroad. There was a lot-- a lot of it's -- you know, for example, the rail man was a free black. And he was -- I mean, there's -- pretty much it's theorized that one of the things that didn't happen with John Brown was that some of the blacks that were coming to help him were coming from the D.C., Baltimore area. But when the conductor -- when the porter was killed, he didn't give them the signal.
NNAMDIRail man signal mixed up.
MCBRIDEYeah, got it screwed up so they just turned and fled because the signal -- they didn't get the signal.
NNAMDIYou mentioned Harriet Tubman earlier. Can you talk about a meeting in Canada where she plays a role?
MCBRIDEYeah, well there was a real meeting in Chatham, Canada where all of the militant black leaders met with John Brown. And they declared a provisional government and they declared their war against slavery. And this really happened. John Brown went up there with 12 or 13 of his men. Met with some of the big militants of that time, martin Delaney and many others. And many of them declared they were going to come to Harper's Ferry but did not come for several -- for reasons that are not determined and several who just got the dates wrong because he has to move a week early.
NNAMDIOne of the fascinating things about this novel is that those of us who are interested in reading about John Brown and Harper's Ferry didn't know a great deal about what he was doing in the years before the raid on Harper's Ferry. Talk a little bit about that. Where was he and what was he doing?
MCBRIDEWell, in Kansas territory, when Kansas was opened up as a territory for Americans to go out there, the big war erupted because Missourians who were pro-slavers wanted Kansas territory to be a free state. The Yanks were moving there from D.C. and New York and Philadelphia and Boston and so forth, where abolitionists, or who wanted Kansas to be a free state and Missourians wanted it basically to be a salve state.
MCBRIDEJohn Brown's son's went out there first and they were getting beat up and shot at by the Yankees and so forth. So they asked their pa to come out. And he came out with a wagon full of guns and some broad swords and stuff and he got busy. And by the time he was done, you know, Kansas was pretty much -- the slavery question was pretty much settled. And then he moved east to Harper's Ferry.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones. Glad you talked a little bit about the -- maybe you might want to talk a little bit more about the various factions that were at work in Kansas and Missouri and what John Brown was up against there.
MCBRIDEWell, the pro-slavery faction was pretty strong and they were pretty violent. And they were pretty much beating the Yankees back and sending them back east. And the Yankees had not -- the Yanks who arrived did not have a person or persons who were strong enough to organize and put them altogether until John Brown showed up. When John Brown showed up, he committed an atrocious attack on three pro-slavers. Beheaded one of the guys and killed the other two guys. I think that's what happened. And then his reputation was made.
MCBRIDENow, his attacks were retributions or reprisals for several pro-slavery attacks by Missouri rebels. So you have to remember too that, you know, some of these Missouri rebels and some of this -- some of these Missouri rebels had moved on into legend. You know, Captain Pate and Jesse James was at the end of that. These were pro-slavers and they were ruthless. So John Brown was the Yankee's answer to the pro-slavery attack.
NNAMDIUnless people get mistaken, even though you do make fun of John Brown, you have a great deal of regard for John Brown as a great American.
MCBRIDEOh, there's no question. I mean, that's why I wrote the book. I wrote the book so that he would be thrust into -- so the American -- into this kind of American mythology where Jesse James lives, for example. So that people would -- if they want to know the facts about him, there are plenty of books written about him that can tell them the actual historical facts.
NNAMDIOnto Steve in Greenbelt, Md. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEVEWell, thank you. I had read a few years back a book by George McDonald Fraser entitled "Flashman and the Angel of the Lord," which is a real good satire about the same incident and the same back period of people. I recommend if you haven't read it that it's worth reading. Course I like the whole Flashman series.
NNAMDII don't know -- are you familiar with that at all?
MCBRIDENo, but I'd like to read it. What's it called?
STEVEIt's by an author named George McDonald Fraser. He's English. I think at the time he wrote it he was like 85 years old or something. And it's called "Flashman and the Angel of the Lord." There's a whole series of Flashman books where this -- he's an English officer who seems to have gotten involved in every major figure of the 19th century. He fought for the Confederacy and he fought for the Union.
STEVEIsn't that (word?) ?
STEVEBut he was with John Brown at the raid.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call, Steve.
STEVEI recommend it.
NNAMDIOn to Sharritt in Mount Rainier, Md. Sharritt, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SHARRITTHi. I'm a really big fan. I saw you on the Roland Martin Show today and you also mentioned there as well about playing your saxophone...
NNAMDII wasn't on the Roland Martin -- oh, you mean James. Oh, I'm sorry. Go ahead.
SHARRITTYeah, yeah, playing music when you're giving your -- when you're talking about your book. And I was just wondering, do you do that with all of your books and how does it enhance the audience experience in terms of when you present your books?
MCBRIDENo, I don't do it with all my books. I did it a little with "Color of Water" but I do it more with this book because it helps -- because of the religious element and also because I love spiritual music and I love gospel music. And I love the old stuff. I don't like the new stuff at all. It enhances the story I think because it allows people to see one of the wells that John Brown dipped in when he needed strength to conduct his war against slavery and essentially against America.
MCBRIDEAnd it also brings people to the book who normally don't -- maybe don't come to books or come to readings.
NNAMDISharritt, thank you very much for your call. What do you mean when you say you don't like the new stuff at all?
MCBRIDEWell, you know, I mean, some of the new gospel is just, you know -- I mean, it's just so -- it's bad. They don't even listen to the old spiritual stuff. I mean, you know, I like Kirk Franklin. I'm sure he's a great guy but how many times are you going to hear this, you know, and a hundred people singing. You can't understand a word they're saying. You know, the Davis Sisters with five women from Philadelphia on Savoy Records, whatever the label is, you can understand every word they say. And the music comes from a deep place.
MCBRIDEAnd a lot of today's gospel music comes from Billboard Magazine. I mean, it just feels like it's -- someone's writing a song with Jesus in it so they can sell some records. It doesn't feel real to me.
NNAMDIBack to John Brown. He's referred to in this book as the old man but he managed pretty much singlehandedly with just a few men and his ragtag group to strike fear across the whole region. Can you talk about that?
MCBRIDEWell, I mean, they took over Harper's Ferry. I mean, he was -- John Brown, as crazy as he was, he was a master tactician. He had been planning this raid on Harpers Ferry for a long time. Now this was -- they had 100,000 guns at that armory. And they took it over in a matter of hours. And they had it for, like, a day-and-a-half. And they -- he could've gotten away but he was sitting there waiting for the black folks to show up. Well, that's like me waiting for the drummer in my band to come to rehearsal. I mean, you know, he might come, he might not. My car broke down.
MCBRIDEBut, you know, I mean, the guy was -- he was brilliant in that he took -- he had control of all these weapons. And, in fact, for the first few hours when they were at Harper's Ferry, the white folks down there didn't believe that he -- they just didn't believe him. You know, he took -- people came to work. They came to work in the factories there and he took them hostage. And after a while somebody'd come up and say, you know where's John? He'd say, he's here and my name's John Brown and I'm here to free the slaves. And then someone else, where's Willie? Willie was supposed to be here and he'd say, I'm John Brown. I'm here to free the slaves and I'm not letting them go.
MCBRIDEAnd then after a while they started drinking and the militia came over and more drinks were drunk. And after a while they started to realize this guy was serious. And then a couple shots were fired and then the train got stopped and then the porter was killed. And then it really -- by the next morning, the third day -- I believe it was the third morning -- the thing had gotten -- it had gotten serious then. And they spent all night drinking at the tavern across the road and they were -- you know, the militias had been beaten off. And then it got serious and they started firing on the thing for real.
NNAMDIBut what you underscore here is the complicated relationship between blacks and whites. Again, not that it's uncomplicated now but complicated in such a way that people who are listening right now might be saying, why would black people not want to join up with John Brown? He met resistance not just from slave owners but occasionally from slaves themselves. You mentioned Onion tries on several occasions to run away from his presumed liberator. You wanted to show slavery or the relationship as a lot more complicated than we often understand it.
MCBRIDESure. I mean, you had to be crazy if you were black to run with John Brown. You had to be off your rocker. I mean, if the guy walked in the room I'd run out of the room too. I mean, this is a guy who had openly said, I'm going to fight slavery. Now, you have to remember, slaves had relations with their masters. They had children, they had husbands and wives...
NNAMDIThat's what Onion makes clear at the very beginning, yeah.
MCBRIDEYou know, his master -- they had -- they were tied together. And financially -- I mean, if a master had two slaves and sold one, he might lose the farm. Or if he had to sell one, he'd lose the farm. There were really complicated relationships that existed so this guy would come -- I mean, the only -- the best analogy I could say is if I want to steal your car because I'm against global warming, you'd say, well I'm against -- well, yeah, you're going to jail...
NNAMDI...but leave my car at home.
MCBRIDERight. And so it was just -- it was too much. It was too much.
NNAMDIOn now to Maryann in Woodbridge, Va. Maryann, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARYANNHi. I just -- I'm dying to get your book. I've always considered John Brown to be more of a hero than anything else. And I've never understood sort of why he wasn't viewed that way. And the other thing was another hero of mine has always been Paul Robeson, who I think was a brilliant great American. I met his son...
NNAMDIOnly because he was a brilliant great American.
MARYANN...a couple years ago.
NNAMDIBut go ahead, please.
MCBRIDEYeah. And I just wanted to comment on that, that I think that both of them are sort of not recognized for the great people that they really were.
MCBRIDEI happen to agree. I think you're right about both of them. I think John Brown was a great American, way, way ahead of his time, and I also think Paul Robeson was -- was truly a great artist on many levels, and extraordinary. If he were alive now, he'd be a multi -- multi -- I mean, he'd probably be different, but I think of all the African-Americans I can think of, other than James Baldwin, I'd say Paul Robeson is one of the most underappreciated Americans that I can think of.
NNAMDINot to mention vilified. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation with James McBride. His latest novel is called "The Good Lord Bird." You can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you like irreverent historical fiction? Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is James McBride. He is an author, screenwriter, and musician. His latest novel is called "The Good Lord Bird." It's the winner of this year's National Book Award for fiction. James McBride is a distinguished writer-in-residence at New York University, and author of the memoir "The Color of Water." We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850, or you can send email to email@example.com.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Mary who says, "I was upset at the degrading statements about African-Americans. How does Mr. McBride justify that?" Unfortunately, Mary did not specify what she considered to be the degrading statements, but I suspect she probably thinks that making fun of African-Americans who were either slaves or, in the case of Frederick Douglass, leaders, was not okay.
MCBRIDEWell, you know, I'm sorry she feels that way. I mean, I'm not sure that -- I'm not sure she's read the book. I think if she read the book she would probably feel a little differently. The book doesn't poke fun at -- the book pokes fun at everybody, but it doesn't do it in a, you know, if you want to find people who make degrading statements about African-Americans, turn on some of those comedy channels and hear some of those African-American comedians, you know, where they talk about women and so forth. I just think that she -- if she read the book she'd probably feel a little bit differently.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Paula who said, "What is the next topic era following "The Good Lord Bird"? Does James McBride have another historical figure or time he also finds fascinating?"
MCBRIDEMy next book is about James Brown. I'm just working through the Bs, you know. John, James, you know.
NNAMDISo you're going to do a book on James Brown?
MCBRIDEYeah. I'm almost done with it actually. I've been working on it quite a bit, and it's almost done, but it's not a typical, you know, typical biography. It's just a -- it's a kind of critical look at James Brown and what he really meant and how he lived and, you know, and how died. And from a kind of musicians point of view.
NNAMDIOh, that's going to be fascinating. In the run up to the raid on Harper's Ferry, the narrator, Onion, is given the task of quote unquote "hiving the bees." Can you talk about that and what that was or is?
MCBRIDEWell, John Brown's notion was that once blacks in Harpers Ferry found out about his plan to attack slavery, that they would hive like bees to him. And so he gives Onion the job of going around Harper's Ferry to, you know, get all the blacks together to hive the bees, you know, getting together basically. And so he goes to these people, I mean, he's an 12-year-old kid now, you know, a boy posing as a girl, and he's trying to make -- convince them to join John Brown's crusade.
MCBRIDEOf course, black women, they know what they're looking at, and so they just basically tell him to get lost, you know. So he's just -- he's a miserable failure in that regard.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Anthony in Arlington, Va. Anthony, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANTHONYHello. Hey Kojo and author, I've called in -- you know me as Tony from Arlington also, but it's Anthony today because that was my -- I got that from my mother's maiden name which was Anthony, and she's a grand-niece of Susan B. Anthony but we descended from Merritt Anthony and Daniel Anthony, one of whom was the Governor of Kansas during the Bloody Kansas era, and the other one, his son, rode with John Brown's Army and was a member of it, and got his eye shot out three weeks before Harpers Ferry.
ANTHONYSo he was recuperating, and that's the only reason I'm here today. So this is very interesting to me. I'll think I'll have to read the book. But do you know anything about this, or have you heard anything?
MCBRIDEYour great-great-great grandfather was one of the -- one of John Brown's men in Kansas?
ANTHONYRight. And that man's father was the Governor of Bloody Kansas at that time.
MCBRIDEOh. Well, you know, I can't recall the specific history. I do know that, you know, those who rode with John Brown in Kansas were pretty stout fellows. The usually were -- but I don't really -- I can't recall the specific names of -- their specific names. I also know that once he moved east, the wars in Kansas didn't actually end. I mean, skirmishes kept breaking out all the way up through basically the civil war, but the main body of it, the main thrust of it kind of died out by the time he'd headed east. I think it was in 1858 maybe. Don't quote me on that.
NNAMDIBut Anthony, you talked about how that person died. James McBride, John Brown has been described by some as America's first terrorist for his attempt at armed rebellion to free the slaves. Of course, he was on the right side of history, but his methods were often violent, and a lot of blood is shed in this novel as it was in real life. It was a very violent time.
MCBRIDEIt was. It should be said though that while John Brown shed blood and a lot of blood was shed in his direction as well, before he was hung -- and he's not hung in this book, but he's hung in real life. Before he was hung, he was in prison for six weeks. And during that time, he wrote letters to the editor and wrote letters to friends and wrote columns and so forth, and he did more in that six weeks against slavery than he ever did with a gun or a knife.
MCBRIDEAnd I think those who rode with him like the caller's ancestors were unconsciously brave people driven by a kind of moral spirit that we really could use a lot more of today. Because they really had nothing to gain. Any -- no one who rode with John Brown was a rich person. I think one person came from a rich family. He was kind of an offbeat guy, but most of these guys were farmers and just moralists, teachers.
MCBRIDESome of them were actually newspaper correspondents who just came to John Brown's side. But they were not rich, you know, rich, fat people living off the fat of the land. They just had this drive to see that slavery would end.
NNAMDIHere is Sriram (sp?) in Chevy Chase, Md. Sriram, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SRIRAMThank you, Kojo. It’s a great show as always, and congratulations, James McBride, on the award.
SRIRAMI wanted to ask briefly -- I called to ask about this. Jesse James, you touched on him and then went off. Yes, he was a legend. But when I was a school boy in India, we used to read his comics. We used to see the movies that Hollywood made of him. They never showed him as anti-abolitionist or anything of that kind, and the comics all glorified his bravery, his this and that the other. So I wonder if you could tell us a little more, but I do look forward to reading the book.
MCBRIDEWell, I mean, that's...
SRIRAMI had one more small thought, aside. The gentleman called about Harry Flashman. Harry Flashman, as far as I know, is an imaginary character made up by George McDonald Fraser. I read all the series. He's supposed to be the only Brit who got off alive when the Brits escaped from Kabul through the Khyber Pass and every man, woman, and child was picked off by the Afghans sitting on the mountainside in the Khyber Pass.
SRIRAMBut Harry Flashman, according to McDonald Fraser got off and he's everywhere. He's in Greece one day, he's with the confederates another, but as far as I know, he's imaginary, but a series that's fun to read.
NNAMDIHe's another version of Zelig. But here is James McBride.
MCBRIDEThe Brits, they just...
SRIRAMAnyway, Jesse James.
MCBRIDEThe Brits, they just got it together, don't they? Well, Jesse James was a slave owner. Him and his gang shot and killed an 11-year-old kid during the course of one their robberies. But he was just someone who was basically the American mythology -- the American mythology machine just created Jesse James as a kind of, you know, rob from the rich and give to the poor kind of fellow. And that's one reason why I wrote this book, because if we're gonna have that kind of discourse, let's shove someone in there who really has something to sell, and has something that we can discuss.
MCBRIDEYou may not agree with John Brown's approach because you could label him a terrorist, and he did some terrible things, but he didn't do it for money. I mean, Jesse James robbed banks for money. He wasn't giving out money. If he was alive now, he'd be on "America's Most Wanted." But that just shows you how powerful the Hollywood myth making machinery is, and I'm glad that you called in to make those points.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Sriram. Here is Byron in Chantilly, Va. Byron, your turn.
BYRONGood, afternoon. And I want to thank you, Kojo, and Mr. McBride, for such a wonderful topic this afternoon.
BYRONThank you. My observation or -- I would like to just shed a little light on Mr. McBride. He's doing such a wonderful job of, you know, bringing (word?) and heroes to the forefront that would have otherwise have been forgotten in the annals of history, and I wanted to see if he was going to do anything about some of the great heroes like Jack Johnson, and then maybe if he could throw a little light on some of the proclamations and the emancipation...
NNAMDIYou're essentially charting James McBride's writing career over the next decade or so. First James Brown, then Jack Johnson. Who else are you looking for, Byron?
BYRONWell, Jack Johnson actually is responsible for boxing in the world as we see it today. He was one of the true legends. Back then they fought without gloves, without mouth guards, and...
NNAMDIOkay. Allow me to have James McBride respond because we're running out of time.
MCBRIDEWell, I mean, I don't like boxing that much, but I certainly plan to read up on Jack Johnson. I did cover Mohammad Ali when I was a reporter many years ago when he was still boxing, and it was really something to see, and I remember what he meant to us as kids, and listening to his Frazier-Ali fights, you know, during the -- the three bouts he had with Frazier and so forth. You know, I'd have to feel that one with Jack Johnson. He was a great man, and he was a great boxer and he did a lot for sports.
MCBRIDEI guess the short answer is, I'm not sure if I'd want to take that on, partly because when you spend this kind of time on a novel, or nonfiction book, you have to really, really love the subject, and I don't really know enough about Jack Johnson to know if I could do it, you know, do him for, like, two or three years. But thank you very much.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Byron. As most people know for their history books, the actual raid on Harpers Ferry failed. John Brown and his men were caught. What happened to John Brown and his men after the raid on Harpers Ferry?
MCBRIDEWell, John Brown and several of them were hung. Most of them were killed during the raid. One black guy did get away as in "The Good Lord Bird" Onion gets away. One of his sons who was there survived, but two did not. One of the black guys there, Dangerfield Newby, was killed terribly. His body was -- he was killed and then his body was fed to pigs. It was some of the -- they did some horrible stuff to John Brown's Raiders. He was eventually -- they tried to kill him when he was at Harper's Ferry and they -- but what happened was the Lieutenant who stabbed him was in such a rush to leave the house that he took his dress sword instead of his real sword.
MCBRIDESo when he ran it into John Brown's head, it just didn't do the job. So he ended up living for six weeks longer. And really, that six week period really is what started the Civil War. Because in that six week time, after that raid on Harpers Ferry took place, America went into a state of utter panic, and people were listening to the slavery question, and it galvanized the north and terrorized the south. And then therein I really believe the Civil War began.
NNAMDIWhat becomes of Henry Shackleford, or Onion as he's known in the novel, and how is his life story preserved?
MCBRIDEWell, he, you know, he gets away. He reveals himself as a boy and gets away and he remains at large. He may be amongst us right now.
NNAMDIHe lived for a very, very, very long time.
MCBRIDEHe lived for a very long time, and he ended up as a Sunday school teacher in Wilmington, De., where he was eventually outed for funny touching a fast little something named Peaches.
NNAMDIWhat is your writing process? It's my understanding that you have changed or refined it over the years.
MCBRIDEWell, I get up at, you know, 4:30, 5:00 in the morning and write until about 9:00 or 10:00. Then I quit for a little while, and I fool around. You know, I don't know what I do. And then I go back at it at night after -- about after seven o'clock because I have, you know, I have a son. I have more than one kid, but my 12 year old, I have to get him from school and all that.
MCBRIDESo I do all my writing most of the time when people are asleep or about to go to sleep.
NNAMDIAnd you live in New York, Hell's Kitchen?
MCBRIDEI live in Hell's Kitchen. I also have a home in New Jersey, about an hour from New York. I've been on 43rd and10th Street for a long time -- 43rd and 10th Avenue for a long time. I've seen the whole neighborhood change.
NNAMDIAnd that's where you do most of your writing?
MCBRIDEYeah. That's where I do most of my writing, yeah. And I've seen that neighborhood go from -- I used to stare at prostitutes and pimps and drug addicts, and now I look down and it's just people with poodles and pooper scoopers, and those little bikes that you can get on and ride around now. It's a different New York.
NNAMDIA lot of people may not know this about you. You're also a former journalist. You wrote for the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, your work has appeared in a number of publications including the New York Times, Rolling Stone, National Geographic. What do you think your journalism background brings to your writing in 30 seconds or less.
MCBRIDEOh, it's done enormous work for me. It's, you know, the whole business of researching and interviewing, getting details, finding the right details to tell the right story. Journalism has done, you know, journalism is a great breeding ground for the fiction writer.
NNAMDIJames McBride. He's an author, screenwriter, and musician. His latest novel, "The Good Lord Bird," winner of this year's National Book Award for fiction. He's a distinguished writer-in-residence at New York University, and author of the memoir, "The Color of Water." Thank you for joining us.
MCBRIDEThank you for having me.
NNAMDIJames McBride will be at Politics and Prose, that's tonight, December 2, Monday at 7:00 p.m. to read from his new novel, "The Good Lord Bird." He'll also have on hand "The Good Lord Bird" band to play the music that inspired John Brown. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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