Writers & Company·Special Podcast

James McBride on the complicated history of race in the United States

The bestselling author examines the racial tensions in national and personal narratives.
Novelist James McBride investigates Black history and politics through memoirs, screenwriting and historical fiction, like the award-winning novel The Good Lord Bird. (Chia Messina)

In 2013, James McBride was the surprise winner of the American National Book Award for his novel The Good Lord Bird, about the controversial abolitionist John Brown, who led a violent crusade against slavery. McBride's story was distinctive for its irreverent treatment of the popular subject, and for the comic, ironic voice of its narrator, a young black slave.

Previously, McBride was best known for his successful memoir, The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to his White Mother. In the book, McBride explores the life of his Polish Jewish mother and her complicated relationship with his African American father, as well as his own upbringing as one of 12 children in New York of the 1960s and 1970s. The Color of Water sold more than two million copies, remaining on the New York Times bestseller list for more than two years. 

James McBride talked to Eleanor Wachtel in 2014. In honour of Black History Month, we're featuring their conversation in a special podcast episode. Listen to it below. 

Crossing racial lines

"When I was a little boy, I used to ask my mother, 'What colour is God?' She would say, 'God is the colour of water.' It became more relevant later on. She never felt she was a wise person, but she believed that it really didn't matter what colour you are. Her life was evidence of that. When you are poor, you have so little control of what goes on, whatever your colour. My parents couldn't travel to the South because it was illegal to marry across racial lines in the 1940s. My father was the one who took the greatest risk because he would get killed — they couldn't do the things that any other married couple could do. My mother had seen the kind of racism and deep anti-Semitism that existed in the South. She understood what it was like to be ostracised for what you are and she didn't want her kids to have that prejudice." 

Historical gaps

"With The Good Lord Bird, I wanted to write a book that I would read. The name of John Brown was faintly familiar in my memory and I knew he was important, but I really didn't know what he had done until I investigated him as a writer. The fact that he had attacked the arsenal at Harpers Ferry with 19 others in an attempt to end slavery, he was a white guy who felt it was wrong and he was a devout Christian — I just couldn't believe what a great story it was! He took over America's biggest arsenal and held it for a day-and-a-half, but he was sitting there waiting for the black folks to show up and they just never came. Even though whites would exact a horrible punishment on the abolitionist John Brown, the black folks knew that if they were to get caught, the ones who would suffer the most would be them. I think people who don't have a voice are easily misunderstood by people who do have a voice." 

Race relations

"I am convinced that if I had lived during the time of John Brown, I wouldn't have run with him either. He was just too strong, too much of a revolutionary, too fearless. The 15 white men and four black men who rode with John Brown were unconsciously brave. It was a war and people were shooting back — they were fighting for a group of people that they saw suffering. The whole business of race has pushed and continues to push the United States and places all over the world in the most macabre of directions. We have enormous ways of hurting each other when it comes to land and money. We still do it. Race is just something that is used to divide us — being raised by a white mother, I see that clearly." 

James McBride's comments have been edited and condensed.

The surprise winner of the 2013 American National Book Award talked to Eleanor Wachtel about his prize-winning book, "The Good Lord Bird," which centres on the abolitionist John Brown; and about the lessons he learned from his Polish Jewish mother.