'Emphasize The Positive': James McBride On The Kindness That Shaped Him | Connecticut Public Radio
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'Emphasize The Positive': James McBride On The Kindness That Shaped Him

Mar 9, 2020
Originally published on March 10, 2020 1:06 pm

Growing up in a housing project in Red Hook, Brooklyn, writer James McBride felt a sense of community and freedom that was incomparable to anywhere else.

"It was the sense of being in a village, and a sense of us against the world," he says. "You know who everybody is, you know who not to mess with."

On the surface, McBride didn't quite fit in; his African American father died shortly before McBride was born, leaving him and his siblings to be raised by their white mother.

"My mother's story is unique because she was a white woman raising all these black kids," McBride says. But the neighborhood enveloped her: "The kindest people in her life were African American," he says.

McBride's new novel, Deacon King Kong, takes place in 1969, in a Brooklyn housing project similar to the one where he grew up. It's a character study of a community where hard drugs are starting to move in. The story centers on a 71-year-old church deacon, but a host of other neighborhood personalities get a turn in the spotlight, including church folk, bodega owners, small time crooks, mobsters and police officers. Ultimately, McBride says, his goal was to show the common humanity that exists among different people in a community.

"During the course of my career — and in the housing projects and outside of it — I've always felt I always defined my life, tried to dictate my life, by the fact that I believe we have more in common than we are different," he says. "At bottom, in this book and in this community, people generally love each other."


Interview Highlights

On how the introduction of heroin changed New York City in the '70s

I remember ... those who graduated from weed to booze to heroin, I remember that transition and how the edges of the community became sort of sharp-knives. There was a lack of trust. The younger kids coming up seemed harder and more concerned with money and ... with quick influence. You have to remember, Martin Luther King had died and the civil rights movement was dying down. It was dying slowly. It was dying a long, slow death because Malcolm [X] was dead and Martin was dead, and the communities began to change. ...

There was an innocence to that period. And the reason why I use that word was because when white people talk about the '60s and the Beatles, they always talk about the innocence as if innocence didn't exist in black America. But you could walk down the street in Brooklyn and go see Sonny Stitt for free.

On how his Jewish mother joined the African American community in Brooklyn

My mother loved Red Hook and she loved it in part because when my father died and she had seven kids and was pregnant with me, she came home from the hospital and ... the apartment was full of food and chickens and ham and people were so kind. She never forgot that. She made sure we never forgot it either. So that business of kindness in black American life was something that was stamped into my consciousness and into the consciousness of my siblings from the time we were little.

On being confused as a young child that his mother was white, and trying to ask about it

She didn't deal with that. It wasn't something that she liked to deal with. ... Probably because it was uncomfortable and probably because she didn't feel it was necessary. See, we were poor, and when you're poor, it's always about the next meal, the next pair of shoes ... So there wasn't any time to discuss these ... [feelings.] ... She'd say, "Look, you're a Negro. You're black. And that's what people see. So you better do good." She didn't want to hear that if you came home from school with bad grades, she did want to hear about the black or white thing.

On growing up with 11 siblings

You learn to fend for yourself. You learn to take care of the little bit that you have, your little shoes. You have your clothes in a little pile. You become self-sufficient very quickly and you learn how to be the center of attention if you need to be, because you know that if you're not, then someone else is. And so that factors into everything — food and clothing and who your allies are. ... We had a piano and we [had] various instruments, and so we play[ed] together, and music had a big influence in my family development.

On being educated in public schools

I watch what happens in these schools, especially when they take the arts away, take music and art away. I mean, that's just like robbing children of their futures. - James McBride

I believe in public school and public school education. I think public school teachers are excellent. Many of the teachers I had, white teachers and black ones, were excellent teachers. I think it did change my life. I watch what happens in these schools, especially when they take the arts away, take music and art away. I mean, that's just like robbing children of their futures. They rob them of their creativity. When you do that, they become cell phone users and computer users their entire life without any bit of creativity.

On why he chose to depict the white police officer in Deacon King Kong as a good man

I think the narrative that dehumanizes policemen is dangerous. And it puts them as people and us as a public in a bad place. I've had many experiences with police. Most ... [I've been] fortunate enough to walk away, not arrested. And it's just my nature to look to the good side of things. ...

Most cops are good people. They're not paid well enough. They're not respected enough. They're not treated well. ... But in general, you can't be a novelist, you can't be a creative person, if you are so cynical about the world that everything you say and write is negative. So I don't put the cloak of evil on policemen. ... You have to emphasize the positive, otherwise, why write about people at all?

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back from vacation, and I want to thank Dave Davies for hosting last week. My guest today, James McBride, first became known for his memoir, "The Color Of Water," about growing up in a Brooklyn housing project. He's the son of a white mother and an African American father who died shortly before McBride was born. When McBride was a teenager, he discovered his mother was Jewish, the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi. In 2016, President Obama presented McBride with the National Humanities Medal for, quote, "humanizing the complexities of discussing race in America."

McBride's novel "The Good Lord Bird," set just before the Civil War, is about a young boy who joins John Brown's abolitionist crusade. It won the 2013 National Book Award for fiction and has been adapted into a new series starring Ethan Hawke that's scheduled to premiere later this year on Showtime. Spike Lee adapted McBride's World War II novel, "Miracle At St. Anna," about a black soldier in Italy during World War II.

Now McBride has a new novel called "Deacon King Kong" that takes place in 1969 in a Brooklyn housing project similar to the one McBride grew up in. It's a character study of a community where hard drugs are starting to move in. The action begins when the 71-year-old church deacon, who lives in the projects, shoots the young man who's become the project's main drug dealer, and no one understands why.

James McBride, welcome to FRESH AIR. It is a pleasure to have you on the show.

JAMES MCBRIDE: Well, thank you. I'm delighted to be here.

GROSS: I want you to read the opening of the book. But before you do that, the book is set in 1969 in a housing project in Brooklyn. Tell us why you set it there and then.

MCBRIDE: Well, because I - you know, 'cause I was born in a housing project in Brooklyn, and I still - I'm still connected to my old housing project. And it seemed like 1969 was a good time because that was before crack. It was before neighborhoods began to fall apart in New York.

GROSS: OK. So read the opening paragraph for us.

MCBRIDE: (Reading) Deacon Cuffy Lambkin of Five Ends Baptist Church became a walking dead man on a cloudy September afternoon in 1969. That's the day the old deacon, known as Sportcoat to his friends, marched out to the plaza of the Causeway Housing Projects in South Brooklyn, stuck an ancient .38 Colt in the face of a 19-year-old drug dealer named Deems Clemens and pulled the trigger. There were a lot of theories floating around the projects as to why old Sportcoat - a wiry, laughing, brown-skinned man who had coughed, wheezed, hacked, guffawed and drank his way through the Cause houses for a good part of his 71 years - shot the most ruthless drug dealer the projects had ever seen. He had no enemies. He had coached the projects baseball team for 14 years. His late wife, Hettie, had been the Christmas Club treasurer of his church. He was a peaceful man, beloved by all.

So what happened? The morning after the shooting, the daily gathering of retired city workers, flophouse bums, bored housewives and ex-convicts who congregated in the middle of the projects at the park bench near the flagpole to sip free coffee and salute Old Glory as it was raised to the sky had all kinds of theories about why old Sportcoat did it.

GROSS: And that's a question we don't really find out until the end (laughter).

MCBRIDE: That's right.

GROSS: I mean, we don't find out the answer until the end. So you said that a lot of the characters in the book are based on people who you knew growing up in a housing project in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. So was Sportcoat based on somebody who you knew?

MCBRIDE: He's kind of an amalgam of characters that I knew over the course of my life. When I was 15, my mother sent me to Kentucky to live. And I hung out on a corner there, and there were some really interesting characters on that corner. Also, when I went to college - I went to Oberlin. But when I went to college, I came home to Philly. And my mother, you know - I lived in Philly, so there were a bunch - I mean, in the '70s, Philly was loaded with characters. So Sportcoat is an amalgam of the - you know, the old black man who drinks like a fish and, you know, dies at 20 and lives till he's 80 drinking.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Yeah. Were you - like, Sportcoat has a big heart, but he's drunk all the time. Were you able to see beneath the alcohol in the people like that who you knew?

MCBRIDE: Yeah. I've never been one of those who's had a really bad experience with alcoholism because nobody in my - drinking wasn't a big part of my life. So most of the times when I saw alcoholics, they were out. You know, whether - it was either, you know, after church or, you know, just out and about. So, I mean, I saw the dangers of it as a - you know, as a young man that's - you know, who got into trouble, and also as a musician, I could see what happened when people got drunk. But I thought there was always a charm to the old alcoholics who would say, you know, stay in school, you know...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MCBRIDE: Don't drink. You know? So I just - I've always thought there was a magic in that part of the culture.

GROSS: So as we mentioned, the novel's set in 1969. You were 12 in 1969. So was it an eventful year in your life or in the housing project where you grew up?

MCBRIDE: Well, that's a good point. When - I left the housing project when I was 7. I used to go back in the summer because my godparents lived there.

GROSS: Oh.

MCBRIDE: And so my - you know, my father died when I was - before I was born. And my stepfather was - raised - you know, raised me. He worked in the housing projects as well. So I had a long history of being in Red Hook during the summer. And so during those years, you know, there was just - there was a freedom to being in Red Hook that I didn't experience in Queens, where we lived, where we had moved to. The church was there. My godparents were - they were strict, but they were fun, and they were very religious.

GROSS: The church was in Red Hook.

MCBRIDE: Yeah. They lived in the projects. So there was just a freedom there that I didn't really feel anywhere else. And there also - there was also a sense of community in Red Hook that I felt, you know, that didn't exist elsewhere.

GROSS: When people think of housing projects, they think more of crime and danger. Maybe I'm talking about people who don't live in housing projects see it that way. They think of crime and danger and drug dealers. And that's part of what's in your book, too. So I'm interested in the fact that you sense a - felt a sense of freedom there.

MCBRIDE: Well, I mean, because you know who everybody is. You know who not to mess with. You know who, you know - this one, you don't fool with him. That one, you know, her son got in trouble, so she's not in a good mood. This one, you can trust her. And his mother better not do nothing bad when she's showing up 'cause she'll - you know, she'll light you up. So it was a sense of - the sense of being in a village and a sense of us against the world, a sense of, you know, the police not being there for you but rather looking over your shoulder or looking down on you.

There was always the sense that, you know, we are kind of together here. Now, granted, you know, it was kind of like - you have to kind of remember; you have to let people have their own space. So you just ignore things that you just don't want to see. And you'll see someone doing something wrong, or you'll see someone who's dating someone they shouldn't be dating, and you just kind of look past it because everyone deserves their own space. But there is a togetherness that comes with that. I'm in Red Hook all the time now because I run a, you know, program there at my church. And I'm there at all hour...

GROSS: You teach music.

MCBRIDE: I teach music. Yeah. I have 25 students in my church program and four teachers and so forth. I'm there all the time. I'm never afraid. Yeah, you always hear about someone getting shot or someone getting hurt, but most people are not - they're not there to hurt you. They're just trying to get through the day.

GROSS: You mentioned the police. There's a cop in the book who is - he's a good man. He's a white cop. He's a good man. And I'm interested in that character, too.

MCBRIDE: Well, I mean, I think the narrative that shows police - that dehumanizes policemen is dangerous. And it puts them as people and us as a public in a bad place. I've had many experiences with police. Most of them have been, you know - most have - I'm fortunate enough to, you know - to walk away not arrested. And it's just my nature to look to the good side of things.

My mother tells a story about when my sister was lost at the circus in New York. And it was just so many people around. She was just so panicked. And then out of the throngs of people, this cop stepped out holding her by the hand. And she never forgot that act of kindness.

And I think that during the course of my career - in the housing projects and outside of it, I've always defined my life - tried to dictate my life by the fact that I believe we have more in common than we are different and that most cops - for example, in terms of policemen, most cops are good people. They're not paid well enough. They're not respected enough. They're not treated well. And if you just - you know how to talk to them, most of the time, it'll be fine. Now sometimes, it's not your lucky day. Well, you're just going to have to eat that one. But in general, you just can't - you can't be a novelist - you can't be a creative person if you are so cynical about the world that everything you say and write is negative.

So I don't put the cloak of evil on policemen. You know, there's a good cop in my book. He's an Irishman, you know, lots of good Irishmen in New York, lots of good Irish cops - during that time and now. You have to emphasize the positive. Otherwise, why write about people at all?

GROSS: So in 1969, the year your novel's set in, you describe it as the year that drugs came to the projects. And one of the main characters, Deems, who's shot by the deacon, he is dealing heroin. And he's, like, the biggest dealer in the projects. Do you remember drugs coming to the projects?

MCBRIDE: No. I mean, you have to remember...

GROSS: Or drug dealers coming (laughter) to the projects.

MCBRIDE: Well, I remember when drugs started in New York in general. I remember when - you know, first it was reefer. You know, we called it weed. And then it sort of graduated to acid. And then it was a little - then it got deeper to heroin. In those days, guys who went to the Army would come back hooked - you know, hooked on drugs and messed up forever. So I remember when drugs...

GROSS: This coming back from Vietnam?

MCBRIDE: Yeah, came back from Vietnam - you know, those that came back. So I remember when those who graduated from weed to booze to heroin - I remember that transition and how the edges of the community became sort of sharp-knived. It became a different - there was a lack of trust. And the younger kids coming up seemed harder and more concerned with money and with - I won't say power but with quick influence. There was a - you have to remember Martin Luther King had died, and the civil rights movement was really going the other direction. It was dying down. It was dying slowly. It was dying a long, slow death because Malcolm was dead and Martin was dead. And the communities began to change.

And so yeah, I remember that. And I remember there was an innocence to that period. And the reason why I use that word because when white people talk about the '60s and The Beatles and - they always talked about the innocence, as if innocence didn't exist in black America. But you know, you could walk down the street in Brooklyn and go see Sonny Stitt for free, you know, for nothing.

GROSS: Where'd you see him for free?

MCBRIDE: Oh - so you know, a club. You know, you could see him in a jazz club. I mean, you didn't have to pay...

GROSS: Oh, oh, right.

MCBRIDE: ...Thirty dollars.

GROSS: Right - got it.

MCBRIDE: ...And sit there.

GROSS: Got it.

MCBRIDE: You know, you go see jazz now, you know, the concert starts at 7. You pay 60 bucks. They play for three hours. You look at your watch? It's 7:15. And you're like - because they're not playing anything with melody. And it's just a whole different - it was just a different time.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is writer and musician James McBride. His new novel is called "Deacon King Kong." And his novel "The Good Lord Bird" has been adapted into a TV series that will be shown on Showtime sometime soon.

We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE'S "BUT NOT FOR ME")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is writer James McBride. His new book is a novel called "Deacon King Kong," which is set in 1969 in a housing project in Brooklyn. And he's also the author of the memoir "The Color Of Water" and the novel "The Good Lord Bird," which has been adapted into a TV series that is coming soon to Showtime.

So I want you to read a paragraph about Deems, the young man who's the biggest drug dealer in the projects. And just as a reference point, the projects - it's the Cause projects. So you'll hear a reference to the Cause in this.

MCBRIDE: (Reading) Deems Clemens was the new breed of colored in the Cause. Deems wasn't some poor, colored boy from down South or Puerto Rico or Barbados who arrived in New York with empty pockets and a Bible and a dream. He wasn't humbled by a life of slinging cotton in North Carolina or hauling sugar cane in San Juan. He didn't arrive in New York City from some poor place where kids ran around with no shoes and ate chicken bones and turtle soup, limping to New York with a dime in their pockets, overjoyed at the prospect of coming to New York to clean houses and empty toilets and dump garbage, hoping for a warm city job or maybe even an education care of good white people.

Deems didn't give a damn about white people or education or sugar cane or cotton or even baseball, which he had once been a whiz at. None of the old ways meant a penny to him. He was a child of the Cause - young, smart and making money hand over fist slinging dope at a level never before seen in the Cause Houses. He had high friends and high connections from East New York all the way to Far Rockaway, Queens, and any fool in the Cause stupid enough to open their mouth in his direction ended up hurt bad or buried in an urn in an alley someplace.

GROSS: Did you see a big generational divide between the older people who had migrated to New York from the South and the younger people who grew up in the projects?

MCBRIDE: Absolutely. Yeah, of course. That was really where the big break happened - because the old folks who grew up in the South, who understood how hard it was to pick tobacco and went to these schoolhouses where they had to stop at the eighth grade and had to walk, you know, five miles to school - they didn't understand what it was like to grow up in New York and to be part of that New York culture. And then the young people who were behind them didn't care about the old ways of the South. That happened in my house as well. So...

GROSS: Tell me more about how it expressed itself in your house.

MCBRIDE: Oh - because my mother was all about church, you know? It was all about church and school. And if you didn't take care of those things, it didn't matter what you did. And you know, she was old-fashioned, believed in spankings and all that stuff. You know? It was none of this, what are you feeling inside? And none of that, you know - no psychological care for you. You just dealt with it, you know? And if the teacher didn't like you, well, you just stayed in the class, you know, until you got to the next grade - so - because she came from that era where you just had to just deal with it.

GROSS: And she grew up in Virginia.

MCBRIDE: And she grew up in Virginia, yeah.

GROSS: Although, she immigrated to the U.S. from Poland when she was 2 with her family.

MCBRIDE: Yeah. Well, my mother's story is unique because she was a white woman raising all these black kids...

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

MCBRIDE: ...You know, she had 12 children. And there, you know, was not a lot to go around. But in terms of her psychological approach to raising us, she was pretty much just like the black mothers in the neighborhood. She didn't want to hear it, you know? Go to church, and that's it.

GROSS: That actually plays a big role in the book - the idea of what you do to keep somebody on the straight path. Do you punish them in a physical way that could be really physically harmful? And if you do that, is that a good thing? Are you protecting them? Or are you harming them? So I'm interested in your thoughts about that and what it was like for you to be spanked. I don't know if it was a little, you know, a pat on the tuchus. Or whether...

MCBRIDE: (Laughter) Well, my mother was...

GROSS: ...Whether it was like a real, like...

MCBRIDE: No. Well - (laughter).

GROSS: ...Take a stick and, like, whack them.

MCBRIDE: Well, no, my mother would wear us out. I mean, sometimes, you know, she'd get so mad, she'd start spanking you for something that happened, like, three weeks ago if she forgot to spank you - I mean, if she lost her temper.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.

MCBRIDE: And you know, she'd swing. And you know, you'd jump under the bed. You'd hang - you'd cling to the springs like a monkey, with your feet and toes on the bed springs while she swung underneath the bed (laughter). But I mean, we weren't spanked an extraordinary amount. It was the threat of spanking that kept us in line. Whether that's a good thing or not - I mean, look, a child can tell whether their parent loves them. And most of the time, there's no need for you to spank a child.

In the case of my mother, she had so many kids, she couldn't keep track of all of us. She had to look at the big picture. And the big picture was if you're going to school and you're going to church, you're OK. Now, that didn't really work out, you know. For me and some of my siblings, we just did - we just jumped ship. But at bottom, we knew she loved us. And at bottom in this book and in this community, people generally love each other. They generally respect each other. And that goes a long way. It's not something you can easily quantify. But it goes an extremely long way.

GROSS: Church is central to your new novel. And one of the main characters, Sportcoat, is a deacon in the church. His wife was the Christmas Club treasurer. Your parents founded a church in New York before you were born. And your father died while your mother was pregnant. Tell us about that church. Did you go to that church?

MCBRIDE: Yeah, I went to the church as a kid. And even when we left Red Hook, I would go back and visit. My godfather was the minister - he was associate minister at the church. I got married in that church. All my big life events happened in that church. And so I - you know, I guess about five or six years ago, there was some issue about nobody's coming and they didn't have a Sunday school, and there were no kids. So I started a music program in that church. So I'm still there every weekend now.

GROSS: So you started the music program, in a way, to bring people back to the church?

MCBRIDE: To bring young people back into the church, yeah. I mean, I have a lot of issues with the Baptist church, really - I mean, you know, the death extravaganzas, you know, the homophobia, all of that. I just - I have enormous differences of opinion with that. But you know, you have to just - you've got to stay with the horse that got you into the gate. You got to just - you can't just say, I hate this, and I'm going to walk away. You have to work with something.

GROSS: So what are you doing to bring young people back into the church? What's the music program like?

MCBRIDE: Basically, all I do is I start - see, we didn't have an - the church didn't have an organ player. And they were trying to find these guys to play organ. And every time they'd find - look for the one - because I helped look for them - every time you get on the phone with this, you know, guy, he'd say, oh, I can't make it. Oh, I need a whole bunch of money. And then he'd close with this. He'd say, have a blessed day.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MCBRIDE: You know, when they say that, that means that you're talking to some jive cat, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

MCBRIDE: Have a blessed day - that means get lost. So I said, why are we trying to find organists all over? Let's just train our own. So we started a program to train organists. That's what this program is.

So we started this six years ago and just let the word be known around the projects that, you know, we were giving free music lessons. And so we started out with buckets and sticks, and then we got some pianos and stuff. And you know, just kept - I kept adding instruments to it. Now we have about maybe 10 or 12 pianists. We have four or five bassists, and the rest are drummers.

And we just, you know, we teach them basics of music - how to read and, you know, chord structure and all that stuff. And now our two oldest, one goes to LaGuardia Performing Arts High School. And the other one, he's not in high school yet. But they're just about ready now to learn how to play organ. So that's what it was. It was just to start - to get us an organ player. What has happened is that we have a program. We have people running through - we have young people in the church.

GROSS: My guest is James McBride. His new novel is called "Deacon King Kong." After we take a short break, he'll tell us how he learned that his mother, who never discussed her light skin, was the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi. And Ken Tucker will review a new album by the two-person band Best Coast. The new album explains why it's been five years since the band's previous album.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE'S "TUNJI")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with James McBride. His new novel, "Deacon King Kong," is set in 1969 in a Brooklyn housing project similar to the one McBride grew up in. In 2016, President Obama presented McBride with the National Humanities Medal for, quote, "humanizing the complexities of discussing race in America."

McBride won a 2013 National Book Award for his novel "The Good Lord Bird," which is being adapted into a Showtime series starring Ethan Hawke. It's expected to premiere later this year. McBride first became known for his bestselling 1995 memoir, "The Color Of Water," about being the son of an African American father and white mother and what it was like to grow up with 11 siblings. Earlier, we were talking about how his mother insisted that McBride and his siblings do well in school and go to church.

So getting back to the church, what was your mother's role in the church? And what was your stepfather's role in the church? Your father, who died before you were born, was the founding reverend of the church. But he was no longer there when you started going to church.

MCBRIDE: My mother basically was just a churchgoer after he passed away. And after he died, there was another minister who took over. My stepfather didn't go to church that much. He would go, like, for a baptism or a confirmation or a communion - something, you know, important. But he wasn't really a heavy churchgoing man.

But my mother was. But she wasn't - you know, she wasn't, like, the first lady - she wasn't - she didn't imbibe in the entire culture of the church, with the whole business of, I'm first lady, and now you must call me mother, Mother Ruth. And she didn't indulge in that. She just had a deep spirituality about her in terms of her feelings about God and what Jesus had done for her and what Jesus would do for you if you believed and so forth. And she also liked the order that church brought to the house on Sunday morning. You know, Palm Sunday, everyone gets dressed. Everyone had one pair of shoes - a good pair of shoes that you wore to church - a good, clean shirt. And you just had to do that.

There was something about the discipline of having to go to church every Sunday, even though you hated it or disliked it, that made it special. And also - and this is a big deal - is the music in the church was something that I always looked forward to.

GROSS: So was there a choir?

MCBRIDE: Yeah. It wasn't very good. I mean, I thought it was great, you know?

GROSS: (Laughter).

MCBRIDE: But, you know, it wasn't very good. But what I did experience was that Sister Helen Lee, who played the organ at New Brown, which is the church my father started, was a very fine organ player. I went to school with a guy named Fred Nelson, who was from - he became Aretha Franklin's conductor. In fact, when Aretha Franklin came to Philly, I contracted the local players for her in Philly and New York, her last gig in New York...

GROSS: Wow.

MCBRIDE: ...Because Fred contacted me, and I contacted a contract, and I said, get these guys, because Aretha was fussy about who she wanted, you know - but Fred was an organ player. And I went - when I was at Oberlin, I went home with Fred. He was from Chicago. And I went to his church, and his father played organ at the church.

And when I heard his father play, I said, I've only heard one other person play organ like that, Sister Lee from my old church in New York, in Brooklyn. And he said, yeah, they don't play like that anymore. She had a way of playing, like bah-bom, ba-dum, ba-dum, ga-dunk (ph). You know, there was a beat. There was a groove. You hear it some - you hear Joey DeFrancesco; he can do that a little bit. There's some - there's a deeper thud, and I think that comes from not playing with no drummers and also the importance of the left hand moving - playing really slow.

GROSS: Your first book was a memoir called "The Color Of Water." It was about discovering who your mother really was. You didn't find out that your mother was born in a Jewish family and converted to Christianity later in life, you know, when she was a young adult. You didn't find that out until - how old were you?

MCBRIDE: Probably - maybe 17. Well, probably a little earlier - maybe 15 or so 'cause it had to do with her last name. I had to get a passport.

GROSS: Oh, that's how you found out. So what was your reaction? Because - did you feel like it changed your identity to hear that?

MCBRIDE: No, no, not at all. I didn't know anything about it. I didn't know anything about it. I just thought it was, you know - I was - I wasn't even mildly interested. I just thought it was - you know, like, when you're 15, 16 years old, you don't care what your - you know, you don't care what your parents - I didn't realize how important it was until later.

GROSS: And when was that?

MCBRIDE: ...Until I was in my early 20s. I was at The Boston Globe. I was talking to an editor there, and he said - he mentioned - I said, my mother's Jewish. And he said, really? He was a Jewish guy. I can't remember his name. But he said, that - so I told him a little bit about her story. He said, that's a great story. You - he said, you should write a story about that. So my mother was living in Philly then. I went back - I came back to Philly. And I started to - I tried to interview her, and she was very resistant.

But I managed to get enough out of her to write a story. That was published in both The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Boston Globe on Mother's Day in 1981 or '82. And that's what started it. That's what started my - that's when I really started to understand a little bit that she had come a long distance. That - it was that - it was an editor at The Boston Globe who started the whole thing.

GROSS: Like, so your mother's father was an Orthodox rabbi, couldn't find work as a rabbi, ended up opening a store - like, a grocery?

MCBRIDE: Right. Yeah, in Suffolk, Va.

GROSS: In an African American neighborhood...

MCBRIDE: Right.

GROSS: ...Where apparently he overcharged people and sounds like he was kind of a racist.

MCBRIDE: Right.

GROSS: And I'm - it's just that - so interested in what it must have been like for your mother. I don't know if they lived in the African American neighborhood or just had their store there. But she worked in the store, so she was often in an African American neighborhood where there was probably a lot of tension between the customers and her parents. And she ends up leaving her family and moving to New York, moving to Harlem and marrying your father, who is African American, and then marrying your stepfather after your father died, who is also African American. It's like - it's such an interesting dynamic for her.

MCBRIDE: Well, I didn't appreciate that until much later. But you have to remember that when she was coming up in the '20s and the '30s, you know, the South was much - it was quite different.

GROSS: Well, it's segregated.

MCBRIDE: It was segregated. And even though their store was in the black side of town, they weren't welcome in town, either, you know, because they were Orthodox Jews. They were - you know, they were very religious Jews. And her father, although he was a - you know, he was a rascal, he was quite Jewish in his style and in his bearing and in his life, as was her mother. Apparently, the black people in the community really liked her, and they liked her mother. They...

GROSS: They liked your mother and her mother?

MCBRIDE: Yeah, they liked my mother, and they liked her mother, my grandmother, because they were kind people. They were isolated. You're talking about isolation upon isolation. They were isolated in the South. They were - there weren't that many Jews in Suffolk. It was a small synagogue. And the only place you could get a job was in a small town like that where they couldn't - they didn't have the pick of the litter in terms of...

GROSS: Oh, so he was a rabbi there?

MCBRIDE: Yeah, he was a rabbi there. Yeah.

GROSS: He worked as a rabbi. Oh, OK.

MCBRIDE: Yeah. But eventually, they got rid of him because he - you know, he was running a store. But yeah, he was a rabbi there at the local synagogue. And so they, you know - her life - the kindest people in her life were African American. Her first boyfriend was an African American. And then she moved to New York, and she almost got hooked up into prostitution with some - you know, some rascal who was running around. And my father worked for her aunt. And she was working in her aunt's factory, and my father kind of got her out of that. And he straightened her out, and she ended up joining the church in Harlem. And then later on, they started a church in Brooklyn that was named after the Harlem minister that married them.

So, you know, she drove into the African American life because of an element that exists in African American life even today, and that is this whole business of kindness. Probably the most raw feelings I get when I think about the stereotype of African American life is that black people are mean - you know, this whole thing that you know we're hard. We - you know, we're kicking butt; we're taking names. You know, this whole - I can't stand that because that's just not true.

My mother loved Red Hook. And she loved it in part because when my father died - and she had seven kids and was pregnant with me - she came home from the hospital and there were - the - she said the apartment was full of food and chickens and ham and just - people just were so kind. She never forgot that, and she made sure we never forgot it, either. So that business of kindness in black American life is something that was stamped into my consciousness and into the consciousness of my siblings from the time we were little

GROSS: Did it confuse you growing up that your mother was white?

MCBRIDE: A little bit, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. When I was in kindergarten, first grade, yeah.

GROSS: Did you ask her about it when you were young?

MCBRIDE: Yeah. Yeah. She didn't care...

GROSS: How did she explain it to you?

MCBRIDE: What? (Laughter) She'd just ignore you, you know? Oh, yeah, whatever. You know, I'm light-skinned - and just change the subject. She didn't deal with that. It wasn't something that she liked to deal with.

GROSS: Why not?

MCBRIDE: That's a good question. Probably because it was uncomfortable, and probably because she didn't feel it was necessary. See - we were poor. And since you're - when you're poor, you know, it's always about the next meal, the next - you know, the next pair of shoes, the next - so there really wasn't any - there wasn't any time to discuss these - you know, what are you feeling inside? The deep feelings, you know. You're mixed. You know, there wasn't that.

She would basically - look - she'd say, look - you know, you're a Negro. You're black, and that's what people see. So you better do good. She didn't even want to hear that. If you came home from school with bad grades, she didn't want to hear about the black or white thing. It wasn't - it just didn't - don't bring that up. That just brought thunder in. That would pull her belt off the - she had a belt that she hung on the handle of the door, and she pulled that thing off, you know, thunder and lightning was coming. So you just kept...

(LAUGHTER)

MCBRIDE: You know, you just kept that quiet.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is writer and musician James McBride. His new novel is called "Deacon King Kong." We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE'S "BLUES TO ELVIN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is writer James McBride. His new book is a novel called "Deacon King Kong." And he's also the author of the memoir "The Color Of Water" and the novel "The Good Lord Bird," which has been adapted into a TV series that is coming soon to Showtime.

Your mother wanted her children to go to good schools, and so you and, I think, most of your siblings were bused to schools outside the neighborhood. Where were you sent? Where did you go?

MCBRIDE: I went - I ended up going to school in Rosedale, Queens, which was a pretty good - it was a all-white school. And...

GROSS: Was that the neighborhood you were living in? Or you were...

MCBRIDE: No, I was living at the time in Hollis, like Hollis-St. Albans area. And that - in the Rosedale - they were not that welcoming to black students. They were - you know, looking back, they were pretty nasty. But there were always one or two good teachers. And then from there, I went to another school called 231, which was another school I was bused to. And then Cardozo High School, which is in Bayside. These were all pretty decent schools.

See - my mother really knew how to work the public school system in New York. And the parents in my program in Red Hook, they knew how to work the system. They know where you have to show up. You have to do this. You have to do - it's a giant bureaucracy, and you have to stay on it. So she was just very, very insistent that we - she was always very dedicated to - you know, like, the little flyers and the little information that would come home, she would read it; she would figure out ways to get us into these programs, into these schools.

GROSS: Do you think that the education that you got changed your life?

MCBRIDE: Absolutely. There's no question about it.

GROSS: What was it like to grow up with 11 siblings? It's like growing up in a small class.

MCBRIDE: Well, I hate them. You know, I'm sick of them. No.

(LAUGHTER)

MCBRIDE: Well, you know, you learn to fend for yourself. You learn to take care of what - the little bit that you have, you know, your little shoes, your little - you have your clothes in a little pile. You don't - you learn to take - you become self-sufficient very quickly. And you learn how to be the center of attention if you need to be.

GROSS: Your mother went to college when she was 65...

MCBRIDE: Yeah, she went to Temple. Yeah.

GROSS: ...And got her degree in social work.

MCBRIDE: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: I'm interested in why she wanted to, like, pursue more learning at...

MCBRIDE: Well - at that age?

GROSS: I think it's a beautiful thing. Yeah.

MCBRIDE: Well, first of all, she liked to be active. She liked to learn. She did get hired at Planned Parenthood in Trenton.

GROSS: It's interesting that she got a job at Planned Parenthood. She's the mother of 12.

(LAUGHTER)

MCBRIDE: Yeah.

GROSS: Planned Parenthood, which is famous for contraception.

MCBRIDE: Well, that's true. Look - we're all walking contradictions.

GROSS: I'm not totally comfortable asking you this, but do you think she had 12 children because she really wanted 12 children or because she didn't want to use birth control?

MCBRIDE: (Laughter).

GROSS: Is that OK to ask you that?

MCBRIDE: (Laughter) Yeah. Yeah. Well, she just said, you know, after a while, they just dropped like eggs. I mean, Mommy really liked having kids. She loved having children. She used to say, I never get weary of watching the miracle of a child growing up. It was just - it was really where she belonged. So I don't think that she worried about birth control. I think she worried about feeding the kids when they got older.

And I don't think she thought that far ahead, you know. She wasn't of the generation where she worried about her - you know, her pension and all that business. You know, she worked for Dime Savings Bank, and they gave her a little check every week, and that was it. And she would cash it and - so I think she just - I don't think she worried about birth control. You have to remember, that generation, they didn't - they - we lived from week to week, you know? We just - we lived from one week to the next.

GROSS: What was it like for you each time a new baby entered the picture?

MCBRIDE: I got - I was - less for me, you know? I mean, geez. Can we cut that out please? No, I mean, you know...

(LAUGHTER)

MCBRIDE: It was less for me. But my siblings and I, we loved each other, and we were very close. And we had some differences, but we were a very busy house. It was - you know, this one was dressed up in - with football helmets, and he was clogging out the door with cleats, and this one - there was always a lot going on, and I miss that. I miss that.

GROSS: So when all the kids were grown up, did that change your relationship with your mother? Because she no longer had to be taking care of 12 children.

MCBRIDE: Yeah, I think so. She was more curious, and she had more time to do the things that she liked to do. She was always afraid that she wouldn't be able to get out. So, you know, always kept a nice car. You know, she...

GROSS: Get outside?

MCBRIDE: Get outside to do things. She always wanted to run. Even when she was a girl, she always liked to be outdoors and moving around. So till the end of her life, she was driving around and going - she saw "Avatar" the week she died. I mean, she - you know, "Avatar" the film. She just was not a person who liked to stay stationary.

So it did change my relationship with her also in the sense that I got to know her as a human being, you know, as a person, which is quite different than knowing someone as your mother. And I just loved her. I mean, she was so interesting. I used to look at her - when she got sick, I said, you know what? People are not going to believe she was my mother, even though I had written the book already. People just won't believe that someone so interesting was my mother. And I don't believe it. You know, her death hit me pretty hard, but - I mean, I was prepared, but it - my life changed really quickly.

GROSS: Did writing the book about her - your memoir, "The Color Of Water" - change your relationship with her? And were you able to ask her things for the book in a kind of interview context that you couldn't have asked her about in just a regular, you know, mother-son relationship?

MCBRIDE: Absolutely. Well, first of all, she didn't want to cooperate. And the only reason why she cooperated - because I reported around her. I did the reporter thing; I reported around her. And I'd say, you know, the courthouse was - you know, was blue, and it had shutters. And she said, no, it didn't. It was not blue. It didn't have shutters. It was on such and such - you know, she would correct me.

But yeah, it changed my relationship with her because there were things that she couldn't really talk about, and so she would write it on a piece of paper. And, you know, when she talked about being molested, she just wrote it on a piece of paper and put it on the table. And then I kind of worked around that. And then sometimes she would talk in the car, and then she would get out the car and she would wander off. She would be so blown away by the remembrances of what had happened, what she talked about - because she never talked about it - that she would just wander in the wrong direction.

GROSS: She had a lot of things she had to keep secret...

MCBRIDE: Secret...

GROSS: ...Or she decided to keep secret.

MCBRIDE: Well, she didn't have a lot of choices. You know, she didn't - my mother was a young Jewish girl in the South in the '30s and '40s. And people forget that anti-Semitism was a - was and remains a huge piece of business in this country and in this world. So a lot of her secrets were self-preservation. She had to keep secrets because if you open your mouth in the wrong direction, bad things would happen to you.

GROSS: James McBride, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

MCBRIDE: Well, thank you for having me.

GROSS: James McBride's new novel is called "Deacon King Kong." After we take a short break, rock critic Ken Tucker will review the new album by the two-person band Best Coast. The new album helps explain a mystery about the band. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MCCOY TYNER'S "DUKE'S PLACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.