James McBride Blends Fact With Fiction in 'Song'

Note: This audio includes language that some listeners may find offensive.

James McBride

James McBride is the author of the award-winning bestseller, The Color of Water. He is a former staff writer for The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and People magazine. An accomplished musician, McBride has composed songs for Anita Baker and performed tenor saxophone with jazz legend Little Jimmy Scott. Sarah Leen hide caption

itoggle caption Sarah Leen

More from James McBride

Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

James McBride's new novel, Song Yet Sung, is a lyrical tale of this country's biggest drama: slavery. Set a decade before the Civil War on Maryland's Eastern Shore, it is the story of a runaway slave who has visions of the future and a Chesapeake Bay waterman who becomes a slave catcher because he needs the money. A tumult of fictional and historical characters and events, the book "is filled with ambiguity," the author says.

"Good people do bad things; bad people do good things. ... I felt that it was important to show people as I believe they really were, as opposed to the stereotypical view of slavery."

McBride first gained national prominence in 1996 with the publication of his memoir The Color of Water. That book told the story of his widowed, white, Jewish mother from Poland who wound up in Harlem, married a black man and raised 12 children in a Brooklyn housing project. It was on the New York Times bestseller list for more than two years. His 2003 novel The Miracle at St. Anna, about the black 92nd Infantry during World War II, is being made into a movie directed by Spike Lee.

With a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University, McBride worked as a staff writer at various publications, including the Washington Post, before trading his typewriter for a tenor sax at age 30. Besides nonfiction and fiction, he has composed music and lyrics for Anita Baker and Grover Washington Jr., among others. It was while traveling as a tenor saxophone sideman that he began work on his memoir.

Trolling for an idea for his third book, Song Yet Sung, McBride was inspired by a trip he took to Maryland, where he saw a marker for Harriet Tubman's birthplace. "It was and is a place where you can go a mile away from Dunkin' Donuts and look around and see pretty much what it was like 200 or 300 years ago."

Asked whether he considers himself to be an historian or a storyteller, McBride chooses the latter. "You have to forgive the past," he says. "I think only now am I at the age where I've forgiven the past enough to say, 'You know what? Slavery was there. Let's talk about it in ways that will help us face tomorrow.' " McBride adds, "Slavery really was a web of relationships. Seeing [it] from that perspective is what kind of propelled this book along."

This reading of Song Yet Sung took place in February 2008 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

Excerpt: 'Song Yet Sung'

'Song Yet Sung' Cover

On a grey morning in March 1850, a colored slave named Liz Spocott dreamed of the future. And it was not pleasant. She dreamed of Negroes driving horseless carriages on shiny rubber wheels with music booming throughout, and fat black children who smoked odd-smelling cigars and walked around with pistols in their pockets and murder in their eyes. She dreamed of Negro women appearing as flickering images in powerfully lighted boxes that could be seen in sitting rooms far distant, and colored men dressed in garish costumes like children, playing odd sporting games and bragging like drunkards — every bit of pride, decency, and morality squeezed clean out of them.

Liz had this dream in captivity, just as the flickering light of her own life was disappearing, and when she awoke from it realized with a gasp that it was some kind of apparition and she had to find its true meaning in this world before she died. This brought her more grief than her condition at the time, which was not pleasant, in that she'd been lying for three weeks, badly wounded, imprisoned in an attic on Maryland's eastern shore.

She had taken a musket ball to the head at Ewells Creek, just west of New Market. It was five a.m. when she was hit, running full stride on a brisk March morning behind three other slave women who had made a desperate dash for freedom after two days of keeping a hairsbreadth from two determined slave catchers who had chased them, ragged and exhausted, in a zigzag pattern through the foggy swamps and marshland that ran from Bishops Head Island up through Dorchester County. They were nearly caught twice, the last by inches, the four saved by a white farmer's wife who warned them at the last minute that a party with horses, dogs, and rifles awaited them nearby. They had thanked the woman profusely and then, inexplicably, she demanded a dime. They could not produce one, and she screamed at them, the noise attracting the slave catchers, who charged the front of the house while the women leaped out the back windows and sprinted for Ewells Creek.

Liz never even heard the shot, just felt a rush of air around her face, then felt the cool waters of the creek surrounding her and working their way down her throat. She tried to rise, could not, and was hastily dragged to shallow water by the other women, who took one look at the blood gushing out near her temple and said, Good-bye, chile, you free now. They gently laid her head on the bank of the muddy creek and ran on, the sound of barking dogs and splashing feet echoing into the empty forest, the treetops of which she could just make out as the fog lifted its hand over the dripping swamp and the sun began its long journey over the Maryland sky.

Not two minutes later the first dog arrived.

He was a small white and brown mongrel who ran up howling, his tail stiff, and ran right past her, then glanced at her and skidded to a stop, as if he'd stumbled upon her by accident. If Liz weren't shot and panicked, she would have remembered to laugh, but as it was, sitting in water up to her waist, she felt her face folding into the blank expression of nothingness she had spent the better part of her nineteen years shaping; that timeworn, empty Negro expression she had perfected over the years whereby everything, especially laughter, was halted and checked, double-checked for leaks, triple-checked for quality control, all haughtiness, arrogance, independence, sexuality excised, stamped out, and vanquished so that no human emotion could emerge. A closed face is how you survive, her uncle Hewitt told her. The heart can heal, but a closed face is a shield, he'd said. But he'd died badly too. Besides, what was the point? She was caught.

From Song Yet Sung by James McBride. Copyright © 2008 James McBride, Published by Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), all rights reserved.

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