In two separate interviews, James McBride discusses his books Song Yet Sung and The Miracle at St. Anna.|
James McBride discusses 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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Conversation with James McBride,
Author of Miracle at St. Anna
How do you describe this story?
Miracle at St. Anna is the story of a Negro soldier in Italy during
World War IIa member of the 92nd Infantry (Buffalo) Divisionwho befriends
a young Italian kid he finds on a battlefield. As a result of their meeting he
ends up in a small village in the mountains of Tuscany with three other men from
his squad. There they encounter a miracle. Like my first book, what it's really
about is the commonality of the human experience. The Color of Water
explored that commonality through the real-life story of my mother and my
siblings and how we came to fruition as successful adults through her
persistence and faith in God. Miracle at St. Anna explores the same
subject through the journey of two human beings who, on the face of things, have
nothing in common: an illiterate black soldier from the American southa
colossus of a manand a six-year-old Italian boy who has lost his memory after
witnessing a horrible atrocity. In fact they are both innocents. And they are
Do you classify this as a "war story?"
I do not. The war simply serves as a backdrop for the human drama that takes
place in the relationships among these four Negro soldiers, the six-year-old
boy, a group of Italian partisans, and the Italian villagers. Italy was a
fascinating place during that time. The Italians suffered terribly during the
war. The ramifications of those years still reverberate throughout the country
One of the heroic characters in Miracle at St. Anna is a German
soldier. How did this part of the story evolve?
The book was inspired by a true event that happened in the area where the
92nd Division foughtspecifically, a village called St. Anna di Stazzema. St.
Anna was the site of a massacre of more than 500 Italian civilians by members of
a German SS unit. What I discovered, in researching that incident, was that
there were several German soldiers found among the Italian dead, apparently shot
by their own comrades when they refused to participate in the mass killing. That
hit me very hard. Given what the German army was, and what the SS was, and given
the level of cultural indoctrination that existed in Germany at the time, it had
to have taken an enormous amount of courage for these men to discard their
entire history as soldiers and Germans and face death rather than participate in
an atrocity. These real-life events underscored one of the key themes of this
story. Namely that in war we're all victimssoldiers and civilians
alikeregardless of nationality.
In what way did you draw inspiration for this story from your childhood?
Several of my family members were veterans of WWII including my uncle Henry,
who fought in Italy and France, and my cousin, Herbert Hinson, who also served
in the 92nd. When I was a kid I used to hear them, and other family friends who
were veterans, swap war stories. Uncle Henry would talk about the Italians and
the French and how much they loved the American soldiers. He used to say we were
kings over there. I don't remember much of what they spoke about because as kids
we'd just tune it out. And of course I never saw anything about black soldiers
in the war mythology of television and film that I worshiped as a kid.
Nevertheless the subject still interested me when I became a professional
Did discovering your Jewish background add to your interest in the
In coming to terms with my own "being" as a person of Jewish
heritage I found myself much more sensitized to the events of World War II than
ever before. I also learned that my mother had two or three cousins who died in
the holocaust. My initial aim was to write a novel about a group of black
soldiers who liberate a concentration camp in Eastern Europe. I read lots of
books and spent a lot of time researching the subject but soon came to the
realization that I'm not qualified to write about the holocaust. It's too much.
It's too great. Even if you were to bite off the smallest bit of it, the poison
within is so mighty that you can't absorb it because it's simply not absorbable.
That's when I began to come to grips with the fact that I was trying to write
much more than a war storyI was trying to write about pain and suffering and
liberation. In other words I was seeking to write about the commonality of the
human experience that existed in Europe at that time. That's when I thought back
to the war stories I had heard as a kid about the 92nd Division.
How did you research this book?
I started the research process in 1996 right after The Color of Water
was published. I just sucked up whatever information I could find. I was like a
sponge. I read roughly 25 books about the war in Italy. I interviewed dozens of
92nd Division vets from all across the country. I even traveled to Italy with
some of them when they went back for a reunion. I studied Italian at the New
School in Manhattan and then spent about eight months in Italy, including a
five-month stint with my entire family. While there I interviewed just about
anyone I could find including civilians who had survived the war, survivors of
massacres, former soldiers, fascists, and partisans including the sons and
daughters of men and women who had died during the war and wanted to tell their
parents' stories. Of all the people I interviewed they were the most
Why were they the most interesting?
Because they were just children at the time. Basically they took up arms
against the Germans because they could no longer stand to see their parents
suffer and their fellow villagers starve. They were not the equivalent of the
hip people in Soho who wear black and cry crocodile tears on Martin Luther
King's birthday. They had everything to lose and nothing to gain except their
freedom, which is not a small thing. They basically fought the German army with
toothpicks and a resolve of spirit that's almost impossible to imagine. They
hiked into the mountains where they lived in caves or outdoors for days and
weeks at a time while trying to sabotage the German forces that had invaded
their country. It's easy now to say "I would have joined up too," but
anyone who's seen those mountains in Italy at night, like I have, would think
twice about leaving the comforts of home, however much of a shambles that home
may have been, to go out and fight an enemy who had repeatedly demonstrated a
willingness to kill you and your entire family should you resist.
How has history treated the African American soldier of World War II? And
what's the biggest misconception people have about black servicemen from that
The biggest misconception is that they weren't as patriotic as whites and that
they didn't serve in any great number. Clearly that's not the case. The 92nd
Division alone was made up of roughly fifteen thousand men. Many people also
think that blacks only served as cooks, quartermasters, truck drivers, orderlies
and the like. Anyone who thinks that should read about soldiers like John Fox,
who was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for calling down
artillery fire on his own position to stop an enemy advance, or Vernon Baker,
who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Both men served in Italy with
I think history has done a disservice to African American GI's in failing to
fully recognize not only that they fought as soldiers but that their humanity
and love of this country was, in some respects, greater than that of their white
counterparts. You have to remember America at that time was treating German POWs
held in the U.S. better than it was treating black Americansin or out of
uniform. Blacks willingly went overseas to fight for their country but when the
war was over they came home to ingratitude, unemployment, racial violence, and
continued treatment as second-class citizensnot to mention the possibility of
being lynched for tipping their caps and winking at white women. Their former
foes, on the other hand, were allowed to come into this country, get good jobs,
and buy homes in areas where they were not allowed to settle. In short, they
fought for a country that treated "the enemy" better than they were
treated. In my opinion that's patriotism of the highest order. These men were
smart enough to realize that some day their patriotism would be justified and
that they'd win their place in history. I have the greatest respect for anyone
who fought in World War II but I hope this bookdespite being a novelhelps
advance that cause. I think we need to add to the myth of the black GI so that
people will see beyond what they normally see when they read books or watch
programs about World War II.
How did the Italians treat the black soldiers?
If you had a cup of coffee to share you could be president of Italy. And the
Italians hadn't learned our particular brand of racism. They treated the Negro
soldiers as men, with respect. They dropped flowers on the blacks as they
marched by and mourned them when they died. The Negro soldiers charmed them. The
Italians thought they were exotic. And similarly, the black soldiers of the 92nd
loved the Italians because the Italians didn't care about race. They treated
them as human beings. That's part of what the book deals with as it explores the
bond that develops between this soldier and the young Italian boy. Initially the
soldier rejects the kid because he's whitefrom a different "tribe."
Then he begins to see him as a human being just like himself. In coming to see
the humanity in this child, he and his squad-mates rediscover their own
You've also said the Italians were seeing a different kind of black man
back then. What do you mean by that?
My father and stepfather were from that generation. They were solid
working-class guys who could just take it and remain lighthearted. Under the
most difficult circumstances they worried about the right things. They tried to
do right. They didn't make excuses. And they were raised in an environment where
no excuses were tolerated. They were raised in an environment where you didn't
say "I beat someone up because I didn't get Twinkies when I was ten years
old." It's perhaps a dangerous thing to say but I believe they were a
different kind of black manthe kind that doesn't exist today. I'm not one
either. They knew what was important and they were rooted in the earth. It was
not just a question of values or principlesthe moral bar was not as low as it
is now among black men. The soldiers that the Italians met were some of the
finest representatives of black American culture.
Are you concerned that the story of race here will overshadow the wider
One of the challenges here will be getting people to see that this is not
really about black soldiers but about human beings and how they relate to one
another while trapped within the confines of human suffering. I hope I've made
this story interesting enough for people to want to read it regardless of
whether the issue of race is in it or not.
How is the challenge of writing fiction different from that of non-fiction
With non-fiction you're dealing with a set of facts and events that are
intractable. You have to describe them in a way that makes people want to read
to the end but the events are basically in place. With fiction you create a set
of characters that eventually come to life and start reacting and doing things
you haven't necessarily planned. You have to be enough of a craftsman to then
follow the characters and create the connective tissue that holds your story,
your plots, and your characters together. Contrary to what you might think, this
makes fiction a lot more restrictive for writers than non-fiction. For example,
you can't just kill off a character. I hear writers talk about killing off
characters all the time but it doesn't really work that way because they take on
a life of their own. I created the character Ludovico Salducchi simply as a
means of getting my four main characters into the village so they could meet the
partisans and become embroiled in the mystery of what's in the young Italian
boy's mind. Once he was created, however, he began to develop and move in his
own direction. He led me to Ettora, the woman he loved. In a sense you, as the
writer, become a spectator to the story, the history, that's being created by
the characters. As you stay true to them the story moves in unexpected
directions and you just go along for the ride.
Your first book was a phenomenal worldwide success. It sold millions of
copies in numerous languages, won awards, and earned you great accolades. What
sort of pressures did you feel as a result of that success?
A: The immediate pressure was to do another Color of WaterColor of Water
Part IIand I just didn't want to do that. I'd already mined my own
history. I'm not one of those writers who can write a four-volume autobiography.
What's the point? What am I showing people? I'm just not that interesting.
Considering my background I guess I could have come up with a sure-fire hit if I
had written "Blacks and Jews in America" or " Blacks and Whites
in America" but that's been done before and I have nothing more to say on
the subject. There are others who are much more qualified than I to write that
kind of book. While Miracle at St. Anna touches on the issues of race
that faced these black soldiers, it's a much bigger story than that. It also
touches on Mussolini and the conflict between the Italian fascists and the
partisans; the history and mythology of the region; Italy's role as a doormat
for the world's armies; the way the past continues to impact the present; the
confusion of war; and much more. I didn't write this book to prove anything to
anyone but I hope it shows that I can write about wider subjects.
What exactly is the miracle you're referring to in the book's title?
There are several miracles in this story. The main miracle is that this young
Italian boy comes back to life. His transformation, his finding himself, after
witnessing a horrible atrocity, is a miracle. The way he and the four soldiers
connect is something of a miracle. The way Bishop gives the boy life is also a
miracle. Bishop is like a little devil. He hates white people. He's a womanizer,
a liar, and a phony preacher. In the last moments of his own lifeas he
breathes new life into the boy (another miracle)he realizes everything he's
done wrong and why he's done it and that there is a God. That's a miracle too.
And of course the story takes place in a predominantly Catholic country where
people believe in miracles as a matter of everyday life.
What do you want readers to get out of this book?
I hope they'll come away from this book with a deeper understanding that
we're all a lot more the same than we are different; that our humanity
intractably binds us, and that there's no getting out of it. If the
grandchildren of slaves can go to Italy and bond and love the descendants of
peasants, kings and court jesters, anything is possible.