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Author James McBride Sees Hope In Recent Activism For Racial Justice


The bestselling author James McBride has a new book out this year. It's called "Deacon King Kong." The entire novel is set in New York in the late 1960s. NPR's Sam Sanders reports, in spite of that, "Deacon King Kong" has a lot to say about how America gets through 2020 and all the challenges this year holds.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: 2020 is one of those years that makes you look to history for any kind of comparison that could make sense of all this. James McBride, in his newest novel "Deacon King Kong," he asks us to look back to September of 1969 and a housing project in south Brooklyn for lessons.

JAMES MCBRIDE: "Deacon King Kong" is essentially a book about a deacon from a small Baptist church in the southwest corner of Brooklyn who gets drunk one morning, pulls out his old, ancient .38, walks up to the most dreadful drug dealer in the neighborhood and shoots him. That shooting sets off - it's like dropping a rock in a pond. It sets off a wave of activity.

SANDERS: From one botched shooting, a wave of activity comes to involve people of all races and backgrounds living in and around the Cause House projects, and it comes to include Puerto Rican neighbors and immigrants and Italian mobsters and Jewish shop owners and Irish police and on and on and on. In the book, everyone bumps up against each other, over and over and over again.

MCBRIDE: And as they deal with this issue, you see these different worlds coming together and how they come to know each other, to like each other, to tolerate each other, to respect each other and to even dislike each other.

SANDERS: And find a way forward together, with each other. It's a book that, in some ways, seems totally at odds with the reality we are all living through now, with coronavirus lockdowns and several weeks of protest and racial tension. And it's also different in another way. "Deacon King Kong," unlike a lot of conversations people are having about race or politics right now, it asks the reader to see all its characters with nuance and grace.

MCBRIDE: So, you know, I wanted to create people who are real, and that says the same thing for the Italian and the Irish characters in the book. You know what I mean? Not all Italians are, you know, Don Corleone, and not all Irishmen are cops, and not all Irish cops are kicking people in the head with, you know, blackjacks and so forth. People are a lot more sophisticated and complicated than that.

SANDERS: But you know no one wants to hear that right now.

MCBRIDE: I don't care.

SANDERS: And yet this book has resonated widely. "Deacon King Kong" was an immediate bestseller. The New York Public Library said this spring that it was one of their most checked-out e-books during lockdown. And just last week, Oprah gave it a big shoutout.


OPRAH WINFREY: And in naming "Deacon King Kong" my latest Oprah's Book Club selection, I'm hoping that readers will find in it what I did - sorrow, joy, resilience, humanity and...

SANDERS: When I spoke with James McBride, he kept going back to those ideas of joy and resilience and humanity. And against so much evidence in 2020 that might suggest otherwise, James McBride thinks all of us - right here, right now - can do the same. In part, it's in his biography. He grew up in projects a lot like the projects in his book. He's still active in his neighborhood church in Brooklyn. And McBride, he's Black, but his mother's white, and his work often explores how people of different races talk about race together.

McBride told me he trusts America will come together and find some solutions, just like the characters in "Deacon King Kong" - on this pandemic, on race, on all of it.

MCBRIDE: I think that what "Deacon King Kong" tries to show is that we're pretty much all the same.

SANDERS: And so, McBride says, those skeptical of people just waking up to issues others have been fighting for for decades, maybe they should be afforded some nuance and grace as well; in the same way, he offers that to the characters in his books.

MCBRIDE: Look - don't fight the feeling, you know. It doesn't matter if someone comes out and protests every day or protests for five minutes, they're opening their heart and their soul to whatever they can give. And for that, we should be grateful. They grew up in a society that told them every minute that they somehow were more privileged, and they're coming into the understanding that their privilege that was supposed to be theirs isn't theirs, either.

SANDERS: Delivered by someone else, this message could sound hollow, not strong enough for today. But when James McBride says it, you believe it.

MCBRIDE: Racism has been our Achilles heel for a long time. It's been the cancer that has just been killing us. And now we want to address the problem. I mean, you can't address the cancer until you know you have it. And these people are seeing the cancer. Now, not all of them are going to become surgeons, but a lot of them will, you know...

SANDERS: (Laughter) Yeah.

MCBRIDE: ...Enough that the conversation will change.

SANDERS: In 2020, having the chance to believe in something hopeful - maybe we need that more than we know.

Sam Sanders, NPR News.

GREENE: And you can hear more of Sam's interview with James McBride on Sam's podcast, It's Been A Minute from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUVAL TIMOTHY'S "WHALE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam Sanders
Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.