A Conversation with James McBride, author of Song Yet Sung
Readers may be surprised to learn that the conductors of the underground railroad, or the gospel train, as it's called in your book, were prepared to kill anyone who betrayed the secrets of The Code, including other slaves. This is another instance in which the lines of moral responsibility in your story are not always clear. To what extent are all the characters in the story victims of circumstance, or prisoners of history if you will? At what point does individual responsibility begin?
First of all, ambiguity is everything. The female driver who cuts you off in traffic and curses you out as she roars away might be the schoolteacher who saves a kid's life the next day. We are all capable of everything. The outrage that African Americans felt—and to some extent still feel—for the Uncle Tom character is something most whites underestimate. Most African Americans feel under such siege, that they're not willing to say anything to whites to jeopardize their already precarious existence—or what they perceive as a precarious existence. But when African Americans talk among themselves, it's a different story. That being said, for someone to betray The Code during slavery must have been unthinkable. Frederick Douglass expressed outrage in his autobiography about slaves who made it to freedom and then wrote best selling books about their method of escape, like Henry “Box” Brown, who wrote about how he'd shipped himself north in a box. Douglass, in his own work swore he would never disclose the exact method by which he obtained his freedom. To my knowledge, he never did. Neither, by and large, did Harriet Tubman. Freedom was EVERYTHING. It makes complete sense that it was worth dying for, or killing for, especially if your children were involved.
Your story starts with the lines, “On a grey morning in March 1850, a colored slave named Liz Spocott dreamed of the future. And it was not pleasant.” It's evident to us that Liz's disturbing dreams are about the current state of African-American culture, at least certain aspects of it like hip-hop music, the prevalence of violence in some communities, sexual license, materialism, and so on. In fact, Liz's vision of the future “brought her more grief than her condition at the time,” you write, and that was when she had been lying badly wounded for three weeks in a slave catcher's attic. “Ain't no freedom” in that kind of future, she says. This is a very strong charge against contemporary black culture. Why do you feel so passionately about this?
This is partly how the book got started. A few years ago, I heard a story about the introduction of some new video game, and how customers were stampeding the store, having lined up at 5 in the morning, to get into the store to buy this new game. This happened down south somewhere, it might have been Richmond. When I looked at the picture of the people fighting to get into the store and saw that the majority of them were black, it broke my heart. I said to myself. “Is this why slaves risked their lives and broke for freedom?” Like most sensible people, I've had enough of the beastiality, the women bashing, the homophobia, the violence, all of which lives under the heading of the music and culture known as “hip hop.” I don't consider it hip hop. It's recording industry manipulation made to sell CD's, soda pop, beer, cars, cognac and tennis shoes. Most of the true hip hop pioneers have gone underground, or moved on to middle age, like Public Enemy, The Last Poets, Afrika Baambatta, etc. I don't know what the answer is. I am certain however, that part of the answer lies in African Americans doing it themselves, taking responsibility for their own actions, and in their own communities. Fathers taking care of their own kids, mothers laying off going to the clubs and getting a good night's sleep, and dropping aspects of this commercial culture that teaches our kids to be lazy slobs who talk a lot of jive and do nothing. And it should be said a lot of that happens now, and it has always happened. But it feels critical now. I don't know if that's a real feeling or not, because everything feels critical in this so called “terrorism” age. But it's worrisome to me. I want our young people, black and white, to grow up whole. I feel like we're raising a generation of lazy kids who aren't made to feel responsible for their actions, who don't know how to work. Or is it just me? I can't tell anymore.
Yet Liz also has a positive and uplifting vision of the future, which will also be recognizable to contemporary readers. Which vision will win out?
America has always had an uncanny ability to recover and move to the good. If we got over the civil war, we'll get over our current malaise. It always seems like the end of the world, every day, but to God, it's just another morning and time to get out of bed and gather souls for their final ride to glory.
Once again you are exploring the themes of race and identity and transforming love, as you've done in your first two books, even though they were very different from one another. Does it surprise you as you move along with your writing career how strongly these themes grip you?
It's better than writing the same book over and over again. I don't want to be depressed when I read a book. I create books that have a piece of me in them, and with that comes the element of race and class that other writers choose to ignore. For me, identity is everything. It powers everything in the world: I am a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, an American, an Arab… what do these words mean?
The main characters in your new book seem to be seeking love as well as freedom. Is love as or more important than freedom?
Love is freedom. If you can love someone, then you have a chance to be free. Love is liberation. That's why slave owners always wanted their slaves to marry. A better chance to keep them at home.
Were you at all intimidated by the fact that other distinguished fiction writers have taken on the subject of slavery, starting with Toni Morrison?
Obviously, I deeply admire Toni Morrison. In fact The Bluest Eye changed my life in many ways. But as a musician, you learn to play your song. Just play your instrument. There are always going to be other cats who can play better than you. To change this world, we need a Big Band of Toni Morrison's, a Duke Ellington-sized band of Toni Morrisons. I'd be happy to be the guy who carts their instruments into the room.
Spike Lee has recently optioned the film rights of your first novel, Miracle at St. Anna, which is about the friendship between a black American soldier and an orphaned Italian boy in Italy during World War II. How closely will you be involved in the making of the film?
I wrote the script for it. I worked with Spike closely for about a year. I did a tremendous amount of rewriting on that script. Spike is brilliant. Demanding. He works harder than anyone I've ever worked with. I used to brag to friends that “no one can work harder than me,” but I have to concede that Spike's got me beat there. That's one reason why he's so successful, I suppose, his talent notwithstanding. They guy goes at it hard.
What is the “song yet sung” referred to in the title of your novel?
Simple: It's the second verse to the Negro spiritual Free At Last. Don't give that away or you'll spoil it for the reader.
Was the musical reference in any way an acknowledgment of your dual professional life as a writer and a musician?
Not really. Music and writing are so different, it's not funny. It always amuses me when I hear writers saying “I have a melody in my head, and somehow it arrives on the page…” C'mon! When Stephen Schwartz (composer of Wicked) has a melody in his head, I buy it. When Wynton Marsalis, or Terence Blanchard, have melodies in their head, they know the difference between a melody and a group of assembled notes. Music and writing basically make slaves of those of us who are stupid enough to try to make them our mistresses. You can love one or the other, but you can't make love to both at the same time.
Are you working on a new book yet?
Just started a new novel. I'm researching it now, but I'm afraid to say what it's about. I don't want to jinx it. But it's not a historical novel.
What do you hope readers take away from Song Yet Sung?
Things are not what they seem. We are all human. We are all raised to follow a certain set of rules and mores, and in order to live a full life, we have to challenge those rules and mores from time to time or our lives will not be full, our children will be complacent, and we will not be doing God's work.
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: