James McBride’s memoir, The Color of Water, has become a modern classic, and an adaptation of his WWII novel, The Miracle at St. Anna, is being filmed by Spike Lee. McBride’s latest novel, Song Yet Sung, takes readers back to America’s dark history.
What inspired you to go back to the pre—Civil War era and runaway slaves?
I like the mythology of the Wild, Wild West—the glory, the characters that seem to move from place to place with ease and dignity in heroic ways. And I’m a big history buff. I was casting around for what to do; slavery was the great moral question with lots of adventurous business ripe for exploration. At the age of 50, I was able to divorce myself from some of the hardship of it.
How much of the “code” that the slaves use to communicate is historical, and how much did you take liberties with?
I’d heard and read about the black codes of the underground for years. Whether they really existed, that is a matter of historical debate. That’s what compelled me to write the novel. As a musician, having grown up playing many of these songs that pointed the way to freedom, it was something that was very intrinsic in my own soul.
You gave your character Denwood Long a very humane treatment considering the fact that he’s a slave catcher. Did you plan that from the outset?
It’s something I intended. People are victims of the times they live in. We know that slavery still exists, but does that make us bad people if we don’t stop it? You do an injustice to history and to the art when you paint characters as one-dimensional. Denwood Long is in many ways admirable, but he does something terrible.
Liz, the book’s character with second sight, has a bleak vision of America’s future, which is our present.
I was watching a movie where a prince from the Shakespearean era showed up now, and I thought, what would a slave who was transported to New York tomorrow think? That inspired her “dreams of tomorrow.” We’ve become the people we’ve dreaded, a consumer society. There used to be lines of people at church and now that happens in Kmart, Costco, Wal-Mart—and I’m as much a consumer as the next person. That’s why Denwood Long is important, because he realizes we’re all slaves to something. He is all of us, then and now.