James McBride’s ‘Good Lord Bird’
Calling all comedy fans! The following scenes, set in the American slave era, were produced this year or last. Which is from a Hollywood blockbuster, which from a Comedy Central series, and which from a magnificent new novel by the best-selling author James McBride?
1) A throng of Ku Klux Klan members bicker, Abbott-and-Costello style, about those irksome white sheets. Who cut the eyeholes so darn ineptly?
2) A couple of slaves on the auction block, unable to garner bids, go on like snubbed kids at the basketball draft. “I’m fast, I got stamina, and I know magic!” one of them protests, all in a huff.
3) The notorious white abolitionist John Brown, who in 1859 led an unsuccessful raid on the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Va., charges clumsily into slave territory, ragtag army in tow. Freeing slaves who don’t much want to be freed, he proclaims: “I’m Captain John Brown! Now in the name of the Holy Redeemer, the King of Kings, the Man of Trinity, I hereby orders you to git. Git in His holy name! Git! For He is always on the right side of justice!”
The first is from Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained”; the second, from the acclaimed sketch series “Key and Peele.” The third is among countless uproarious moments in “The Good Lord Bird,” McBride’s brilliant romp of a novel about Brown, narrated by a freed slave boy who passes as a girl.
All three scenes signal a new way of talking — indeed, joking — about race in America today: it is officially O.K. to be boldly irreverent about not just the sacrosanct but also the catastrophic. Does this mark the triumph of irony, to the point where it has dulled our emotional response to history? Or does it denote progress: we’ve come so far from historical horrors that we freely jest about them? Either way, it’s a risky endeavor; maladroit jokes about slavery aren’t just bad, they’re hazardous. It’s a great relief, then, that McBride — with the same flair for historical mining, musicality of voice and outsize characterization that made his memoir, “The Color of Water,” an instant classic — pulls off his portrait masterfully, like a modern-day Mark Twain: evoking sheer glee with every page.
“The Good Lord Bird” is hardly the first literary rendering of John Brown; everyone from Herman Melville to Langston Hughes, from Russell Banks to the rock band Rancid, has written of the man who tired of talk and demanded action, undertaking a violent crusade against slavery the way Ahab went after his white whale. Henry David Thoreau called Brown “the most American of us all,” which partly explains his iconic appeal: zealotry, self-reliance, lone crusading — from the Puritans on down, this is true Americana. Brown’s racial cross-identification — “His zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine,” Frederick Douglass said; the scholar John Stauffer cites evidence he may have tried to darken his skin in photographs — makes him doubly relevant to hip-hop America; were he alive today, Brown might well be Eminem.
In McBride’s hands, though, he’s “prone to stop on his horse in the middle of the afternoon, cup his hand to his ear and say: ‘Shh. I’m getting messages from our Great Redeemer Who stoppeth time itself on our behalf.’ ” He’s part Crocodile Dundee, part backwoods preacher, part con man. When the “Old Man” smiles, our narrator tells us, “stretching them wrinkles horizontal gived the impression of him being plumb stark mad. Seemed like his peanut had poked out the shell all the way.”
Delicious zingers like this come by the paragraph, part of what makes the novel such a rollicking good time. Our narrator is the sort of fellow with whom you’d happily get soused at a hole-in-the-wall tavern, and even accompany from Kansas — where as a young boy he’s kidnapped by Brown, who takes him for a girl; “Henry” becomes “Henrietta” — along the Pottawatomie Creek, where Brown’s men kill five pro-slavery settlers, to Missouri, where Henry settles into life at a whorehouse. In Philadelphia, he marvels at free blacks, indifferent to slavery — “sporting pocket watches, walking canes, breast pins and finger rings just like white folks, they were right dandy” — and in Boston, he attends an abolitionist rally where “everybody got to make a speech about the Negro but the Negro.”
Henry’s peripatetic adventures “traveling incog-Negro” make Huck Finn’s seem tame. There’s plenty of whiskey involved; two starry-eyed adolescent crushes, thwarted by Henry’s inability to reveal his true gender identity; and a host of scenes that seem straight out of “Django”: Henry eludes redshirts by bursting into tears and saying, “I just don’t know where I belongs, being a tragic mulatto and all.” Frederick Douglass, who “walked about the house like a king in pantaloons and suspenders, practicing his orations, his mane of dark hair almost wide as the hallways,” scolds our narrator — “Why do you address me as Fred? Don’t you know you are not addressing a pork chop, but rather a fairly considerable and incorrigible piece of the American Negro diaspora?” — then drunkenly tries to seduce “her” via over-the-top orations. Maybe Tarantino is a good fit for the book’s potential movie version; after all, the director once deemed Brown “my favorite American who ever lived.”
But hold on: mighty Frederick Douglass reduced to a drunken, ostentatious hot mess?
Before proclaiming heresy, consider two things about “The Good Lord Bird” — and by extension, today’s saucy approach to race and history. First, for all his play, McBride studiously honors history, perhaps more than many previous portraits of Brown have done. Just as Tarantino labored to represent realities about slavery that get short shrift in traditional Hollywood fare, like class and color divisions among slaves, McBride painstakingly includes historical detail: a meeting with Harriet Tubman, Douglass’s eventual split with Brown, the influence of Caribbean maroons on the white man’s thinking. In disguising his light-skinned narrator as a girl, McBride taps into both the long legacy of racial passing and the race- and gender-bending tradition of American slave narratives, evoking one from 1860 — William and Ellen Craft’s “Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom,” in which Ellen passes as a white man and William her valet — in order to fashion a rich metaphor for racial identity. As Henry grows weary of hiding and disguising — of “fooling our white folks,” as Langston Hughes once described passing — he is really weary of being black in 19th-century America. “You can play one part in life, but you can’t be that thing. You just playing it. You’re not real. I was a Negro above all else, and Negroes plays their part, too: Hiding. Smiling. Pretending bondage is O.K. till they’re free, and then what? Free to do what? To be like the white man? Is he so right?”
Second, “The Good Lord Bird” is not, in the end, a roast of John Brown. Quite the contrary. As we reach the novel’s final pages, after we are reminded that his crusade was a key trigger for the Civil War, we meet Brown behind bars, fulminating and sermonizing to the bitter end. And suddenly we realize we’ve fallen hard for the man: a special breed, like the bird in the title — so rare and remarkable that when people laid eyes on it, all they could utter was “Good Lord!” McBride sanctifies by humanizing; a larger-than-life warrior lands — warts, foibles, absurdities and all — right here on earth, where he’s a far more accessible friend.
Used artfully, then, irreverence becomes not a lampooning of champions and calamities but a new kind of homage. For all the gratuitous violence and adolescent revenge fantasies in Tarantino’s film, it does succeed in resensitizing us to slavery’s horrors; his lurid, caricature-like portraits of slave owners and plantations ultimately repulse more than a tear-jerker could. McBride takes up these same irreverent tools and likewise innovates, though he comes not to repulse but to exalt. In his hands, John Brown is a wild and crazy old man — and more a hero than ever before.