History, Research, and Current Themes

"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Saturday, November 07, 2015

Serenading a Historical Double Standard

Award winning author and
musician, James McBride
According to Brian McElhiney of the Bend Bulletin, Bend Oregon, the talented and award winning musician and author, James McBride, will bring his band to that city for a performance tomorrow (Nov. 8)— a performance that interestingly blends readings from his John Brown novel, The Good Lord Bird, with music by a kind of concept band, The Good Lord Gospel Band. As McBride describes it, this band plays neither jazz nor R&B, but rather an eclectic offering of gospel and spirituals in order to highlight readings from The Good Lord Bird, which won the National Book Award in 2013.  “[W]hen I bring the band with me,” McBride said, “I use the music to contrast the words, to color the words, to highlight the dramatic points in the story. So I would expect that’s what people can expect. Sometimes I go off-book, so to speak, and do impromptu remarks regarding this, that, usually the writing experience or something like that. Generally I try to contain my remarks to what’s pertinent with the music, the music sort of element of 'The Good Lord Bird' story and whatever we can learn from it, if that makes any sense.”

Laughing at History

McBride describes his motivation for The Good Lord Bird as essentially to have fun with—and make fun of—history.  The story is centered on a young enslaved black boy named Henry Shackleford, who ends up following John Brown—except that he does so most of the time wearing a dress, leading the abolitionist to mistake him for a girl. Although McBride’s intentions clearly are not malicious, it does seem he makes the whole story of Brown and other leading figures in the antislavery movement into something of a historical burlesque.  I’ve not read the book myself—I don’t generally read fiction about Brown, but my impression is that the figure who gets the worst of the deal in The Good Lord Bird is the abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

McBride told his interviewer that “some people didn’t like” his treatment of Douglass, which I’m told involves portraying the brilliant orator as a lecher. Douglass certainly was something of a lady’s man in his prime, but it does seem gratuitously abusive to portray him as attempting to seduce a young slave girl, especially one who actually is a boy.  Still, the whole point for McBride is fun.  “I’m a funny guy. I enjoy humor,” he told McElhiney. “I enjoy laughing, I enjoy making people laugh. And also, I think people who have suffered tremendously who have the ability to laugh at it, it makes them stronger and makes them live longer, and it helps to absorb difficult truths.”
Douglass--The Brunt of the
joke in The Good Lord Bird

History and Fiction

Obviously, McBride has a point.  Historical figures are not deities, and there is plenty of room in history for satire and fun—if one does it correctly, I suppose.  However, it seems to me that the best approach to historical fiction is to construct fictive characters that move around and interact within a reasonably sound historical narrative.  It certainly demands more of the novelist to do this because it means grounding one's self in evidence and research, and then constructing a fictional narrative.  In so doing,  the characters service the novel while still respecting a defensible reading of historical times and people.  With such a commitment to history the writer will be more inclined to respect the lives and stories of real persons without distortion.

In this so-called “postmodern” era, however, it seems more likely that novelists will disregard facts, going far beyond the idea of creating fictional characters that are interwoven into the facts of history. Since at least radical postmoderns seem to claim there is no fixed meaning in either history or text, it is more likely that writers will feel comfortable rewriting real stories to suit their imaginations and prejudices.   While McBride has done this somewhat,  I doubt any scholar of Brown or Douglass would consider his work the worst case.

Quite in contrast, Bruce Olds produced an atrocious work of postmodern historical slander in his John Brown novel, Raising Holy Hell (1996).  If I recall from hearing Olds defend his magnum odious shortly after its publication, he appealed to postmodernity for his license to do what he did to Brown--which was to skew and malign him.  Fortunately, Olds’ malignant fiction was quite overshadowed by the success of Russell Banks' novel, Cloudsplitter (1998).  While I’m hardly a big fan of Cloudsplitter, at least Banks is far more appreciative of the historical record (although he too misrepresents real historical figures for the sake of his fictional mandate, especially Brown’s son Owen).

A Religious Man

Of course, there’s no reason to think that McBride had any ill intent. Certainly, with regard to Brown, he clearly appreciates the Old Man’s religiosity, something needed in many sections of this so called “secular” culture. McBride thus told his interviewer that John Brown
was a very reflective, Judeo-Christian person, and it seemed to me that a lot of what he represented or tried to represent was, in addition to being very religious in nature, it was also very deep in that he was driven by this deep sense of religious purpose that really was probably too deep. But I understand that having grown up in the church. I want people to understand the power of religion when they hear John Brown’s story, because otherwise, he comes off as a kind of a fanatic, and he’s been treated that way historically as well. I think if people understand a little bit the power of religion — and a lot of that is communicated in the music — it helps to explain his religious zealotry.
This is a very thoughtful observation on McBride’s part, and it is something that he further connects to issues of race.  In recounting Brown’s story, he says, one is really talking about race.  In turn, ”when you boil it down, it’s really about humanity. But it’s hard to get people to accept that and look beyond their boundaries, but if you can make them laugh, it’s a little easier to push past the boundaries when laughter’s involved, and irony, which is laughter’s cousin.”

So What?

McBride evidently thinks that because there are many books about John Brown, Frederick Douglass, and racism, the use of humor serves as a better means of addressing the issue, and doesn’t care if The Good Lord Bird offends some readers.  “Look, so what?” he told his interviewer. “If you’re gonna be offended by it, it’s not the book for you to read. I’ve kind of had my fill of these ‘you better take your medicine’ type books. I don’t think they really push the discourse in the direction that it needs to go on a wider level.”  As far as books on Brown goes, McBride concludes that there are already a lot of books on Brown, and even the inaccurate ones “are very well written.”
Should Distortions of Brown
Be Taken So Lightly?

Even taking for granted that artists sometimes take their work too seriously, this is not where lies my biggest gripe with McBride, if I can said to have one.  To me, it is not merely that he wrote a novel about Brown, or  even that he made sport of the Old Man, going beyond the record of history.  Certainly if someone is going to play with Brown’s image in history, I would rather have someone like McBride doing so.

What bothers me is what comes out toward the end of the interview.  McBride knows enough to acknowledge that despite the various historical readings of Brown (including the bad ones that are well written), “still few people really understand who [Brown] was or even who he was.”   These are his words.  He knows that John Brown widely misunderstood in our culture, and that many others know nothing about him. But if this is true, why then does he take the art of representing the abolitionist so lightly?  Should anyone who ostensibly cares about the struggle for justice take distortions of John Brown so lightly?

A Tale of Two Browns

This becomes more pointed at the end of the same interview, when McBride reveals that he is putting finishing touches on a non-fiction work about R&B giant James Brown, which is due out in April 2016.  “It’s not like the John Brown book,” McBride stated.  “The James Brown book just dropped into my lap, and it came at a time when I was available and thought that I could help straighten out some of the history in his life in terms of how he’s perceived publicly. And in many ways, his life is a metaphor for where we are today in terms of how we see each other.”

When it comes to writing about a soul singer, has McBride now become the historian with a burden for truth and clarity?

When I read these words, I said to myself, “Wow.”  In McBride's first book about a man named Brown, he poked fun and used humor supposedly in order to get people to think differently about the much misrepresented abolitionist.    Yet when it comes to writing about a soul singer, has McBride now become the historian with a burden for truth and clarity?   Apparently, for McBride, it is James--not John--Brown who merits the “straightening out” of the record, and the balancing of public perception.  It is James Brown who is McBride’s “metaphor for where we are today in terms of how we see each other.”

I wonder why McBride did not just write a novel about James Brown too.  Would this not make the legendary soul singer more understandable?  By creating a humorous, fictional narrative of James Brown, would this not also make his “metaphor” come alive for the reader?  As one who has labored for years to “straighten out some of the history” in John Brown’s life “in terms of how he’s perceived publicly,” I would have preferred that McBride would have had the same regard for him as he now apparently does for James Brown.—LD

Source: Brian McElhiney, “James McBride: Joking About John Brown, Serious About James Brown.” The Bend Bulletin [Bend, Or.] online, 7 Nov. 2015

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