Good Lord Bird," James McBride’s 2013 novel about
a young boy in abolitionist John Brown’s ragtag army,
is probably the funniest book about slavery you will
1996 memoir, "The Color of Water," about his
mother’s difficult life — mistreated by her harsh
father, impoverished after her husband died — might be
the funniest book about abuse and poverty you will ever
just my nature," McBride said recently in a lengthy
just how I am. I just don’t see the point in sitting
around hollering the blues over things you have no
control over. It’s all in God’s hands. If you don’t
have humor, you’re not going to make it. You’re
going to be one of those people who walks around with
your head about to explode."
laughs easily, gently, a quiet chuckle more than a
guffaw, but this does not mean that he finds everything
funny. Humor, he notes, depends on context. He looks at
some of the things that pass as funny in mainstream
culture — such as Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon
stories — and he is left cold.
don’t come from Lake Wobegon, and that world is not
mine. It’s not that funny to me," he said.
"It’s funny to other people, and I’m not
judging it, but the world that I come from is not
considered funny by other people as well. There’s so
much pain in it."
57, has three children and lives in New Jersey and New
York, where he is Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at
New York University. His mother, Ruth, was the daughter
of Polish Jews who settled in Virginia. When Ruth moved
to New York and married a black man, a minister named
Dennis McBride, her parents said kaddish and sat shiva
for her; in their eyes, she was now dead.
was the eighth of her 12 children, and as a boy he
sometimes wished that his mother were a different color.
age 10, I was coming into my own feelings about myself
and my own impending manhood," he wrote in
"The Color of Water," "and going out with
Mommy, which had been a privilege and an honor at age 5,
had become a dreaded event. I had reached a point where
I was ashamed of her and didn’t want the world to see
my white mother. … I grew secretive, cautious,
passive, angry and fearful, always afraid that the
baddest cat on the block would call her a ‘honky,’
in which case I’d have to respond and get my ass
memoir is filled with paragraphs like that one —
painful truths written in a way that makes the reader
process pain differently," McBride said. "My
family, we were pretty humorous about things that went
on. It wasn’t like we went around morosely staggering
around trying to decide if we should eat matzoh balls or
fried chicken. It wasn’t like we were lollygaggin’
and sobbin’ and writin’ poems about how we were so
seen my mother suffer quite a few humiliations and
difficulties in her life. She was always pretty
nonchalant about it. As long as there was food to eat at
the next meal, there was always something good."
LAYERS OF ONION
Color of Water" spent more than two years on the
New York Times bestseller list. "The Good Lord
Bird" won the 2013 National Book Award for fiction,
beating books by Jhumpa Lahiri, Thomas Pynchon, George
Saunders and Rachel Kushner. McBride was so surprised by
the win that he took the podium wearing his porkpie hat,
his dinner napkin still clutched in his hand and no
told the audience that he would not have felt bad had
any of the other authors won. Then he smiled a slow,
dimpled smile, and added, "But it sure is nice to
award citation praised him for taking "a pivotal,
troubled sequence in American history — John Brown’s
abolitionist campaign" and telling it "in a
voice as comic and original as any we have heard since
voice comes from Onion, the young slave boy who narrates
the book, but it also comes from McBride’s childhood.
"I grew up in a house, in a community, in a church,
where everyone pretty much talked like that," he
said. "The adults were all from the South, and
these are the people that I really admired as a kid. My
stepfather, my godfather, my uncles — they were all
is naive, shrewd and self-serving. He’s not sure he
wants his freedom because he ate better before he joined
Brown’s army. He’s looking out for himself, not for
some larger cause, and his observations of Brown and the
world around him are keen and hilarious.
loved Onion," McBride said. "I loved what he
represented and tried to be, and even though he was a
manipulating, conniving, shriveled-up con artist, he was
also a person who had a good heart. I think that’s
what it boils down to — what’s in a person’s
character brings lightness to what could have been a
heavy book about violence, oppression, war and freedom.
"And it needs that lightness in order to
breathe," McBride said. "Otherwise, it becomes
one of those horribly depressing books. I think
sometimes when I walk through bookstores that America
must want to be depressed. There are a lot of good trees
wasted on some of these books."
brought a bit of brightness to McBride, too, while he
was writing the novel. "My mother died in January
2010. My niece died a couple of weeks later. And then my
marriage fell apart," he told the National Book
Award audience. "So it was always nice to have
somebody whose world I could just fall into and follow
around. And that was Onion Shackleford."
speaks softly, slowly, his thoughts seldom traveling in
a straight line. He riffs, he meanders — one idea
leads to another, which takes him in some other
direction, but give it time; he’ll bring it back
is, after all, a jazz musician; when he was on book tour
for "The Good Lord Bird," he brought his band
along — a drummer, bass player, pianist and guitarist,
with McBride on saxophone. (There are clips on YouTube,
or go to McBride’s website, ,
Good Lord Bird" is being made into a movie by Spike
Lee, starring Jaden Smith as Onion. While McBride is a
producer of the film, he’s not otherwise much
involved; instead, he’s working with historian Taylor
Branch, "Homicide" author David Simon and
others on "Parting the Waters," an HBO series
based on Branch’s trilogy about the history of the
American civil rights movement.
"is brilliant; I mean, he is brilliant,"
McBride said. "The more I read those books the more
glad I am that I don’t do historical nonfiction.
Taylor Branch is — there are certain people who are
just a cut above, they just have a certain touch. It’s
really a refreshing change for me, to be involved with
so many good writers."
BEFORE THE BIRDS
get everything done — McBride is still on book tour,
although it is winding down, and he just turned in a
nonfiction manuscript about the life of John Brown —
"I wake up at 4:30 every morning, including this
morning, and I get to it. I can write anywhere. I don’t
need birds twittering."
usually writes in longhand: "There’s a lot to be
said for an eraser," he said. "Also, pencil
and paper allows you to daydream.
think one of the most challenging things that exists for
writers is the ability to disconnect. That’s really,
really hard. Particularly for those of us who have
children. You always worry if you turn the cellphone off
they’ll be hanging off of Mount Rushmore by a
fingernail, trying to call you, and you turned off the