James McBride on Art, Social Justice and “Deacon King Kong”

Award-winning author James McBride has built a career exploring American culture and identity through storytelling. His latest book “Deacon King Kong” looks at how communities pull together in the face of violence and trauma. He joins Michel Martin to discuss the work.

Read Transcript EXPAND

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: We turn now, though, to another creative heavyweight. Award-winning author James McBride has built a career exploring American culture and identity through his storytelling, starting back in 1996, with his memoir “The Color of Water” about his life as a biracial child growing up in Brooklyn. In 2015, he received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama for his lifelong work — quote — “humanizing the complexities of discussing race.” His next book, “Deacon King Kong,” looks at how communities pull together in the face of violence and trauma. And here he is speaking to our Michel Martin about it from Lambertville, New Jersey.

MICHEL MARTIN: Thanks, Christiane. James McBride, thank you so much for visiting with us.

JAMES MCBRIDE, AUTHOR, “DEACON KING KONG”: Nice to be here with you again.

MARTIN: Well, you switched up on us again. I mean, so, you are a musician, first of all, a very accomplished one. And then you wrote an acclaimed memoir. And then you have wrote a series of pieces based in history, sort of historical novels, as it were, and then short stories, now this wonderful novel about Deacon King Kong Without giving too much away, could you just briefly walk us through the premise of your latest book?

MCBRIDE: “Deacon King Kong” is about a deacon from — an old deacon from a Baptist church who one day gets real drunk, and he pulls out a gun and shoots the worst drug dealer in the neighborhood. He doesn’t kill him, but as a result of that shooting, there is a wave of activity that allows us to see the entire neighborhood in a sort of caricature — caricature or funny way.

MARTIN: And then things — a lot of things happen. And then there — police are involved. And, at some point, there’s a love story there. And it’s just a very interesting thing to sort of think about.

MCBRIDE: Well, the act of — one act of violence rings for decades and decades and decades. And so, in this case, this act of violence, it allows us to see the entire community’s reaction to that piece of business, because, ultimately, that piece of business, it hits all the levers and gets all the elevators started. And we get to watch him go up and down and see how the dynamics of this one act moves this whole community to act in concert, because, in those days in New York, a housing project was like a village. And, in some ways, they still are. They’re not quite as close now because people are texting, and they can talk — kids can talk to each other via text and so forth. But there’s still a communication that goes on. And there was a communication that went on amongst these people who were pretty normal people, who were seen as the poor, when, in fact, most of them worked. Most of them had jobs. A lot of them worked for transit. But, ultimately, I wrote this book because I wanted people to see the world that most people don’t see and to see people that most people only see in brief, behind the wheel of locked car or some brief news snippet or something like that, to humanize a part of the world that most people don’t know that well.

MARTIN: Do you remember the germ of this of this particular book?

MCBRIDE: It’s a very good question. No. But I run a program in my — in the housing projects in Red Hook, where I was born. And I meet with kids every weekend, and we teach them music. I have been doing it for seven years. And what I learned in that time is that there’s not that much that’s different. I mean, the people are different. There was more of an African-American and Puerto Rican and Dominican flavor to the projects back then. Now it’s a wider — wider range of raciality, the Chinese, Dominican, people from Africa and so forth, from — people from the so-called islands. But it’s the same thing, hardworking people who are misunderstood, who manage to get along, even though they’re quite different. And there’s some drinking and there’s some drugs. And even in my church, there’s a little bit of tipping. So, and it wasn’t a germ of an idea, but what I suppose what it was, one afternoon, I was with a student of mine from NYU, and he said, “Why are you here?” And I said to him: “Because I love it here. I’m happier here than I am, anywhere else.” And I wanted to show that in a way that people would, I suppose, appreciate.

MARTIN: I want to ask you to tell us a bit more about Deacon King Kong, which is a nickname on top of a nickname. And his other nickname is Sportcoat. If you wouldn’t mind just reading a little bit, and start with “Sportcoat was a walking genius.”

MCBRIDE: OK. “Sportcoat was a walking genius, a human disaster, a sod, a medical miracle and the greatest baseball umpire that the Cause Houses had ever seen. In addition to serving as coach and founder of the All-Cause Boys baseball team. He was a wondrous handyman to the residents of the Cause Houses, the guy you called when your cat took a dump and left a little piece of poop hooked in his duff, because Sportcoat was an old country man, and nothing would turn him away from God’s good purpose. “Similarly, if your visiting preacher had diabetes, and weighed 450 pounds, and gorged himself with too much fat back and chicken thighs at the church repast, and your congregation needed a man strong enough to help that tracker-trailer-sized wide body off the toilet seat and out onto the bus back to the Bronx, so somebody could lock up the dang church and go home, why, Sportcoat was your man.”

MARTIN: One of the things about this passage that I think infuses the whole book is that you’re very clear-eyed about everybody’s shortcomings. But it is also infused with so much love and appreciation for perhaps qualities that other people might not see. And your grace in this book does extend to some of the characters who are police. And one of the things that I noticed, particularly when you start introducing them at the very beginning, is, a lot of them — some of them are burned out. And some of them have seen a little too much, but some of them are still really proud of the work, and they really feel like they can make a difference. And I was just interested in that, especially in the book coming out, as it is, in the current moment, where a lot of people are very angry about the way the police function in this country and really want some massive changes. And so could you just talk a little bit about that?

MCBRIDE: Well, I mean, in general, in your art and in life, you have to give people a chance to say that I made a mistake. And then — and if you don’t do that, nothing’s going to happen, other than you forcing your will on them or their forcing their will on you. So, as a character, the police character in this book, for example, is an Irish American cop from New York. And, in a sense, this is a funny book. I mean, if you want funny people, you can’t — you don’t have to look any further than the Irish. Now, I don’t want to get Jewish people mad or black people mad, but Irish people are very funny. And this cop happens to be very funny and very dedicated. And people like him existed and do exist. So it’s easy to cite the negative, but it’s better and stronger and more forceful and it gives you a wider range of choices as a writer to work with the positive, because no cop wakes up — I mean, no real cop wakes up wanting to shoot somebody. No real cop wakes up saying, I’m going to kill a black person. And so the complexities that they have to deal with, the fact that they’re often not trained for and not prepared for, is that really their fault? I mean, I’m not — I’m not qualified to judge. But when you do judge, as a writer, there is no journey. So you can’t judge, when — because, when there’s no judgment, there’s no journey. Without the journey, there’s no story. That’s not absolving some of these crooked cops from the murders they — and the — I have had my issues with the police, like everyone else. But the truth is, we remember the bad stuff they do. We rarely remember the good stuff they do. And that’s — that goes for every group.

MARTIN: The tone is hilarious, though. It’s so funny, and the people are so funny. And I guess I just wonder, is that just — is that you? Is that how you sort of see the world? You…


MARTIN: You see something that other people might find terrible, and you think, well, that could be funny?

MCBRIDE: Well, yes. Yes, I guess I’m just — I like to laugh. But, in general, this is a community that does laugh a lot. And it’s because they laugh because they’re powerless to do anything about it, so they just chuckle about it. And there’s not — what else are we going to do? You just — you laugh and you keep moving. And I wanted to communicate the joy that exists in an area where — that is so often seen as neglected and poverty-stricken and pitiful and just slobbering off of ham and cheese — whatever the — I just wanted to show that there’s an enormous happiness that exists in this area. Now, I’m not saying that people wake up happy, but people know how to be happy. And that was at least experience I had when I was a young man.

MARTIN: From the book, it sounds a bit — a bit of an elegy for what has been lost, that sense of gratitude, that sense of pride and joy in seeing something literally grow from seed. And that is a larger metaphor for everything, a place in — your place in the world, writ large, and just growing that from nothing and repairing that which is broken with whatever you have. And you really get a sense from the book that there’s — you have a sense that that’s broken. So, tell me what your source of joy and optimism is about now.

MCBRIDE: Well, using — I mean, working with that very good, very profound piece of business that you just laid forth, our young people today have no seed to work with. We have given them nothing to work with. They have created the seed out of air. They have seen — I mean, many of them have never had the experiences that they’re having in these past few months. And their sense of justice, combined with their innocence, if you will, their — I mean, we’re watching the birth of a new generation that has done something extraordinary. They’re creating something out of nothing. I mean, that’s really the story. I think that’s the story of our time, because these kids are out here marching, and many of them are not black. And they are saying, we want real justice. And they are saying it in a way that — and all the people said, well, you can’t do that, because — they don’t want to hear it. And they’re suffering for it. And this will mark them for the rest of their lives. And they will have this as part of their — as part of their machinery, inner machinery. And that’s only going to make us a much better and much stronger place. I’m so proud of these kids. I can’t — I just — went all this started happening, I couldn’t believe it. And I felt that — I’m not criticizing the coverage of it, but I just feel very proud and very hopeful, seeing that these young people have taken the business of justice upon themselves to try to get things straight, because there are parts of this country that I never really noticed. I never really paid attention to those Confederate statues. They never bothered me. I walked by them just like I walk past a bird’s nest that had come off the ground. I wouldn’t even pay attention to it. I never — some of this stuff never — it never — quote, unquote — “bothered me.” But they are dismantling institutional racism. And that is a — that’s quite a task. That’s quite impressive. That’s nothing we were — we didn’t give them much to work with. They created this themselves. They’re creating their own song with their own instruments and their own music. And our best bet is to listen quietly, like a good audience, and clap at the end, and when they say — when they pass the bucket around, dig in our wallets, and take out as much as we can.


MARTIN: It’s just interesting that this book is based in 1969. It’s not like there was nothing going on back then, two years after the first series of big, big social unrest, big uprisings in the streets in ’67 and then ’68. And so ’69 was — people were still kind of like, whew, I think trying to figure out, like, what just happened and what’s going to happen next. And I wonder, like, how you see yourself in this current moment. Do you see yourself as having some specific role, particularly as an artist?


MARTIN: Yes, now.

MCBRIDE: I don’t — not really no. I never — that’s a really good question. I have kind of — I kind of stay out of that, because I — there’s so many people who talk about it. I’m not interested in talking about it. I’m only interested in doing something. I only care about solutions. I know what the problems are. I figured them out at Oberlin College back in 1975 to 2:00 in the morning. I mean, we just worked it all out. And then the next day I got up and racism smashed me in the face like a bottle, just like it did the day before. I mean, I have been through all that. I’m only interested in solutions. I’m only interested in doing things that help the community and that — the people who work there, I don’t want to hear someone speak about it. I don’t want to join a committee. I’m not interested in any of that stuff. Every Saturday morning, me and my son, we get up at 5:30, at 6:00. We’re out the door. We’re in Red Hook. We’re set up at 8:30, 8:00, and we work all day. And we do that — and we have done that consistently for the past seven years. That helps me sleep at night. Is that enough? No. But I do support the causes I — I financially support the causes I believe in. But, no, I’m not one of these writers, because I’m not interested in telling white people what they did wrong. Racism is not my problem. It’s their problem. I remember, Kurt Vonnegut, I did a reading with him once. And a lady raised her hand, and she said: “Why aren’t you writers stopping — writing against the war in Iraq? You are writers. You need to” — and he said something I’ll never forget. He said: “Miss, we’re not — that we’re not that powerful. If you don’t want to believe what we write, you’re just not going to believe it. So there’s only so much we can do.” And I feel that way as well.

MARTIN: Of course, for people who’ve read your memoir, “The Color of Water,” your — which is now a classic — I mean, it’s — I feel comfortable in saying it’s this incredible story. Your mother, who raised you in an African-American neighborhood — your dad died when, sadly, she was pregnant with you. She raised first seven children, then another five. And you later on understood that she is — is, was white. You didn’t really notice that at the time or think about it at the time. And for some reason, it just made me wonder — it just — for some reason, I’m just saying, when you brought her up, it — I was thinking about her myself. I’m not sure why that is. But do you ever wonder what she would have said about what’s going on right now?

MCBRIDE: Well, she would have said — if she was living, she’d say — she would say, make sure you stay out of it. That’s what she was…



MCBRIDE: Don’t you go and — but I think she would be pleased to see that some of the things that — see some of the things that I mentioned earlier. Am I surprised to see these Confederate statues coming down and this — so, this business of institutional racism being addressed. I think she would be pleased to see that happen. On the other hand, she always felt that the whole business of racism and white people’s racism would never change, because she had grown up in the South. And so she — that’s why she didn’t raise us as mixed children, she was pretty clear that you’re going to be seen as black. And you better — you better just get yourself together. There was no excuses of being — you came from school with bad grades, she didn’t want to hear that. It just wasn’t accepted. So I think she would be pleasantly surprised. And she went through her own metamorphosis as the book came out and she began to meet her family. She met her sister and so forth. So, she began to evolve into a fuller person, as she grew older. But I think she would be ultimately pleased. I mean, I — my life has unfolded so much in the last 10 years since she died, that I really — I have a hard time remembering her. Like, I sometimes think, this really didn’t happen? Did she — was that my mother? Because she seems so distant now. And some people have — like, my sisters dream about her. I very rarely — once in a while, I dream about her. But I will tell you this. When I walk into the church in Brooklyn every weekend, I feel her spirit fully, all in that little tiny building.

MARTIN: I have observed that many of the young people, maybe not just young people, but I feel that there’s a sense of despair right now in this in this country. I feel — well, first of all, people’s objective circumstances, many of them are very difficult right now. We have tens of millions of people who are unemployed at the moment. We have people who are very fearful of illness. They are — we are currently in the middle of this global pandemic. So, I guess what I’m just asking you is, as a person who meets the world in sort of an optimistic way, do you have some words of hope for people right now who are afraid?

MCBRIDE: Well, one of the things that you have to learn to do when you get older is, you have to learn to appreciate everybody where they are. Even if you don’t like them personally or politically, you have to try to appreciate them with where they are. So, I would urge people to remember that these war — these are the war stories you will tell when you’re an old man or an old woman or an old person. And you just have to just — don’t take it too seriously. It will change. Just have a good time as much as you can. as long as you’re not starving. I know some people are struggling now, but it will change, and you just have to stick in there. It’s all right. It’ll be — it will be all right. You just have to keep to the sunny side of the street a little bit and know that, just in a short time, things are going to get better.

MARTIN: James McBride, thank you so much for talking to us.

MCBRIDE: Well, thank you. Delighted to see you, finally.

About This Episode EXPAND

President Trump’s niece Mary Trump discusses her blistering new memoir Too Much and Never Enough. Edward Enninful, British Vogue’s editor-in-chief, discusses diversity and inclusion efforts. Award-winning author James McBride discusses his latest book “Deacon King Kong.”