James McBride's Song Yet Sung

A Conversation with James McBride, author of Song Yet Sung

How would you describe this story?

It's a story about an escaped female slave and the slave catcher bent on catching her. On a deeper level, it's about the web of relationships that existed during slavery.

How closely are the events in Song Yet Sung based on actual history?

The two main women characters Liz Spocott and Patty Cannon, are based on real figures who hail from the eastern shore of Maryland, albeit at different times. Harriet Tubman, the great abolitionist, who was born in Bucktown, MD, and for many years prior to the civil war, she moved up and down Dorchester County like a ghost, leading, at least by some accounts, as many as 300 African Americans to freedom. Historians have yet to agree out how Tubman moved so many people without being caught. She suffered from narcolepsy as a result of having been struck in the head as a child, and she dreamed frequently. She said her dreams often warned her of impending danger. Patty Cannon, of nearby Caroline County, bordering Delaware, was one of the most celebrated women criminals in the history of Maryland and southern Delaware. She and her gang, which was said to number as many as 30 men at times, kidnapped African Americans, slave or free, and sold them south. Cannon was described as an attractive, handsome woman, physically strong, charming, gypsy-like in appearance, and dangerous to be around when any money was to be made. Cannon died in 1829 in prison. She committed suicide. Tubman was born in 1820 and lived till 1913. Both were well known to blacks and whites at the height of their prowess, and feared for different reasons.

How did you research this book?

The usual torture. First off, slave narratives are not hard to find, though they can make for difficult reading, emotionally. Secondly, I drowned myself in the culture and history of Dorchester County and the eastern shore. I spent a lot of time in Cambridge, MD, in its library, and on its back roads, traveling the roads and trails that Ms. Tubman supposedly used to lead her charges to freedom. Apparently much of Ms. Tubman's underground railroad was via the water, with the help of watermen, black and some white as well, who ferried her charges along the many creeks and rivers that line the eastern shore. This posed a challenge for yours truly as I'm afraid of deep water. I nearly drowned in Europe while researching Miracle At St. Anna. So I wrote this entire book without having once gone out on the Chesapeake. I'm terrified of open water.

Your main character in Song Yet Sung is a young woman, and there are other strong female characters as well, including the slave catcher who is perhaps the most evil figure in the book. The main characters in your previous novel, Miracle at St. Anna, were men, but your mother was the dominant personality in your bestselling memoir, The Color of Water. Was any of this the result of conscious choice, or did it just arise organically from the story at hand?

I just went with the story at hand. I'm not afraid of strong women characters. I was raised by one. I confess, however, that getting into the head of a female character to check her thought processes is little different than taking a male character's pulse. Women characters tend to be deep, and very hip to the emotional complexities that are the pitfalls which most male characters either bumble past drunkenly, or stumble into face first.

How much is your ability to write strong female characters rooted in your relationship to your mother or other women?

Probably a good amount. The only thing worse than discovering there's no Santa Claus is finding out that Mister Santa ain't a Mister after all. Having a strong mother allows you to see the kind of deep muscle feminine characters have to work with.

What was “the Code” that Liz learns? How was it actually used?

I'd heard of Black Codes of the underground for years. When I studied African American music under a professor named Wendell Logan in the Oberlin Conservatory, I learned that the songs I sang in church as a child were full lyric references to freedom, like Wade In The Water, Steal Away, Come Here Jesus If You Please. It's just the tip of the iceberg. The entire plethora of black culture, musically at least, is bent towards freedom. There is no doubt in my mind about that. Most historians look for concrete, empirical evidence of The Code, economics, letters, broken plates, etc. How can you quantify a people's desire to be free? It's like describing John Lennon's song “Imagine” as a “Verse, chorus, verse, 16-bar musical statement in the key of G that expresses a young man's hope for the future.” Right. Black people have always wanted to be free. Any insect, even God's tiniest creature, always moves to protect itself. That's what music, and to some extent, The Code, did for African American slaves.

Denwood Long, the white slave catcher who comes out of retirement to pursue Liz, is in many ways a sympathetic character. He even identifies powerfully with the slaves. How is this possible?

He identifies with them the way a cop identifies with the people on his beat. They are an economic means that has provided for him, and also a group he has come to admire and respect, the same way a beef provider admires cows or a worker at an animal shelter that euthanizes dogs loves dogs. I don't think that's necessarily bad. This is the world we live in. If you become too judgmental, you can't be a writer. You become simply a proponent of an idea. Long was a poor man born into a system that pressed poor whites into a kind of slavery. His eventual identification with slaves is a realization of his understanding of that system and his appreciation for the slave's means of dealing with it.

Your story is set in a very particular landscape, Maryland's eastern shore, which is shrouded in myth and superstition. Why there?

The eastern shore is like the deep south, yet it's just 80 miles to Philadelphia, which was the promised land during slavery. If a slave from the deep south fleeing north reached the eastern shore, there were scores of free blacks and slaves who operated a kind of loose network of freedom riders: abolitionists: watermen, farmers, ministers, slaves. This area produced two of America's greatest abolitionist, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, who lived during the same era and were raised less than 25 miles apart. It gives you an idea on how focused that area was on abolitionism.

The eastern shore is populated in part by the watermen, simple fishermen who take in oysters from the Chesapeake Bay. What was their attitude toward slavery, and what role do they play in the story?

Their attitude toward slavery was as complicated as white people's attitudes towards blacks is today. Watermen lived difficult lives. They were poor, tough, independent, and religious. Many were Methodist, which took an early stance against slavery. Yet some fought for the south during the civil war.

In an act of resistance, some of the slaves in your story kill one of their captors, a black man who works for a white slave catcher. But they feel like murderers instead of liberators. Why?

Killing him robbed them of their humanity. Their humanity was something they cherished, and something most human beings cherish. Also, in the real world, killing is not an easy thing to do, even if you feel it's “justified.”

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Read an excerpt from the first Chapter of Song Yet Sung here»

View the Reading Group Guide for Song Yet Sung here»

Check out some more books written by James McBride: