"Tragic Prelude," a mural at the Kansas State Capitol, depicts John Brown surrounded by abolitionist vs. pro-slavery fighting.

"Tragic Prelude," a mural at the Kansas State Capitol, depicts John Brown surrounded by abolitionist vs. pro-slavery fighting.

In October 1859, abolitionist John Brown led a failed raid on the armory at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Brown had hoped the long-planned assault would start a massive uprising against slavery, but instead it led to his execution. Much has been written about Harpers Ferry and its role in the lead up to the Civil War, but in his 2013 novel “The Good Lord Bird,” author James McBride brings us a new imagining of john Brown’s crusade. An enslaved boy who gets caught up with Brown’s mission is our narrator in this often comic look at a grim moment in American history. For this month’s Readers’ Review, a discussion of “The Good Lord Bird.”


  • Ayana Mathis Author, "The Twelve Tribes of Hattie"; professor of creative writing, Iowa Writers' Workshop
  • Adam Rothman Associate professor of history, Georgetown University; expert in U.S. history from the Revolution to the Civil War, and in the history of slavery and abolition in the Atlantic world
  • Dana Williams Professor of African American literature; chair of the English department at Howard University


  • 11:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The line between historical fact and fiction can be blurry in James McBride's novel "The Good Lord Bird." It follows a young black enslaved boy named Henry who gets involved with abolitionist, John Brown's mission and must disguise himself as a girl to survive. Through Henry's eyes, the book re-imagines the buildup to John Brown's failed raid at Harper's Ferry in 1859.

  • 11:07:27

    MS. DIANE REHMThroughout, author McBride finds humor in this dark period of U.S. history, something that has appealed to many readers, but not to all. Joining me for our Reader's Review of "The Good Lord Bird," novelist and professor at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, Ayana Mathis, Adam Rothman, associate professor of history at Georgetown University and Dana Williams, chair of the English department at Howard University.

  • 11:07:58

    MS. DIANE REHMI hope those of you who've read it will join us with your questions and comments. Even if you have not, feel free to join us, 800-433-8850. Send an email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Welcome to all of you.

  • 11:08:20

    MS. AYANA MATHISThank you so much for having us.

  • 11:08:22

    MR. ADAM ROTHMANGreat to be here.

  • 11:08:23

    MS. DANA WILLIAMSIt's wonderful to be here, Diane.

  • 11:08:24

    REHMGood to see you. Ayana, I'll start with you. Talk about how the book is framed. Talk about how it begins to let us in on this story.

  • 11:08:39

    MATHISWell, it's an interesting thing. I struggled with it a little bit. Not necessarily in a bad way, but -- so the beginning of the book is sort of framed as though this important document, which is Henry Shackleford slash -- who is called the Onion as the book progresses, it's this sort of a memoir-ish kind of thing that he's buried in a strong box. A church burns down in 1966 and among the ruins of this church, another member of the church comes across this kind of metal box that's buried under the floor and begins to read it.

  • 11:09:13

    MATHISAnd, of course, what we encounter, that the vast bulk of the story, 99 percent of the book is this first person account of Henry Shackleford's experience as the Onion and sort of as this member of John Brown's crew, if you will. But it was very interesting. In a certain way, I suppose the prologue, this part in which we're told that it's -- this document is buried under the ground or in a strong box, it kind of lends a certain sort of legitimacy.

  • 11:09:47

    MATHISBut that seemed very interesting to me because the book isn't necessarily interested in legitimacy in a certain kind of way, you know. I mean, it's interested in sort of straddling this line between historical fact and this kind of invented re-imagining of things. And it's irreverent and it's all these things. So it's very interesting that there's this very serious, tonally completely different, prologue introducing, you know, the fact of this document being found.

  • 11:10:14

    REHMHow does Henry get the name Onion? How does he meet up with John Brown?

  • 11:10:24

    ROTHMANHe meets up with Brown basically by accident. Most of the things in the novel sort of happen by accident. Plans routinely fall apart. He's off in the Kansas territory and Brown comes through ostensibly to free him, but things go awry and Henry's father gets killed in an initial encounter with Brown and Henry gets scooped up by John Brown, basically as a kind of prize, an object to be liberated.

  • 11:11:07

    ROTHMANConfusion at the very beginning because Brown thinks that Henry is Henrietta. He thinks he's a girl.

  • 11:11:14


  • 11:11:15

    ROTHMANAnd then, for the rest of the novel, Henry has to play along, for reasons we can discuss. But he gets the name Onion because John Brown takes this weird object out of his pocket. He seems to carry a lot of weird objects around. And he gives it to Henry and it's this really old, musty, dirty onion. And Henry eats it 'cause he thinks it's -- he thinks Brown is trying to feed him.

  • 11:11:43

    REHMWell, and Henry is hungry. Let's face it.

  • 11:11:46

    ROTHMANHe's hungry. He's hungry so he eats this onion. But it turns out that Brown gave it to him as a good luck charm and Henry just gobbled it up. So Brown dubs him the Onion...

  • 11:12:01

    REHMThe Onion.

  • 11:12:01

    ROTHMAN...as a consequence of that.

  • 11:12:02

    REHMAnd why is it that Brown thinks that Henry is a girl? He immediately gets little girls clothes for him and a hat to cover his head. How come, Dana?

  • 11:12:19

    WILLIAMSWell, because he has decided that what he thinks is all that matters. It's the only reality that there is so he assumes that she's a girl. So when he hears Onion's father say, Henry, he ain't a -- to say Henry's not a girl, he says, oh, Henrietta, just come on. So he begins to imagine Henry as a girl and refuses to see anything different. Although, at the end of the book, I thought it was kind of interesting that -- this isn't a spoiler alert -- or it's not a spoiler, I guess, so there's no need for the alert.

  • 11:12:52

    WILLIAMSBut there seems to be some ambiguity at the end about whether or not John Brown has known for some time that Onion is actually a girl because he asks, you know, why have you allowed this to go on for so long. And he says, you have to figure out who you want to be.

  • 11:13:08

    REHMWho you want to be and Henry really wants to be someone strong. He thinks he's going to run away from John Brown many, many times, but he doesn't. Adam, he was -- John Brown is depicted as a religious fanatic. Do we know that for a fact about him?

  • 11:13:40

    ROTHMANWell, the short answer is yes. He was deeply devout, deeply religious, animated by a sense that the Bible commanded human equality and was anti-slavery. When you throw in the term fanatic, it's kind of a value judgment and it gets you into the questions of how we judge and evaluate John Brown. But there's no question that he was deeply religious and that religious perspective he cultivated himself.

  • 11:14:12

    ROTHMANFor instance, if you read John Brown's letters from jail after Harper's Ferry to his family, which are marvelous letters, they're just suffused with a religious sensibility, with a Biblical cadence to the language. The man was just steeped in the Bible and there's no question that that motivated him.

  • 11:14:30

    REHMDana, would you read for us early in the book. Henry describes how John Brown lead his men in prayer. I think it begins on page 37.

  • 11:14:49

    WILLIAMS"I ought to give you a full sample of John Brown's prayers, but I reckon they wouldn't make sense to the dear reader who's no doubt sitting in a warm church basement 100 years distant, reading these words wearing Stacy Adams shoes and a fake fur coat and not having to do more than waddle over to the wall and flick a button to warm his arse and heat his coffee." The old man's prayers was more sight than sound, really, more sense than sensibility. You had to be there. The aroma of burnt pheasant rolling through the air, the wide Kansas prairie about, the smell of buffalo dung, the mosquitoes and wind eating at you one way and him chawing at the wind the other.

  • 11:15:34

    WILLIAMSHe was a plain terror in the praying department. Just when he seemed to wrap up one thought, another come tumbling out and crashed against the first. And then, another crashed against" -- excuse me -- "another crashed up against that one. And after awhile, they all bumped and crashed and comingled against one another till you didn't know who was who and why he was praying it. For the whole thing came together like tornados that whipped across the plains, gathering up the sagebrush and boll weevils and homesteads and tossing them about like dust."

  • 11:16:04

    REHMYou know, it's fascinating to me, the language that Henry is able to use because it's so vivid.

  • 11:16:15

    WILLIAMSYeah. It's an interesting thing. I do think -- I think that James McBride did something very, very wise and this may be sort of piggybacking on the first question that you asked about the prologue and what it might mean. You know, certainly the bulk, the entire novel becomes, you know, the Onion's account, which is retrospective, however. So we're not getting the Onion's account of what happened to him as it happened to him...

  • 11:16:40

    REHMAs it happened.

  • 11:16:40

    WILLIAMS...as a 14-year-old boy who would've been incapable, I think, of some of this language and certainly some of the insights that surround his experience. We're getting this as a much older man. I believe that Henry Shackleford -- in the prologue, it's established that he lived to be 100 or maybe a little bit over 100.

  • 11:16:54

    REHMRight, right.

  • 11:16:55

    WILLIAMSSo we're left to assume that a much older person is telling us this story about what happened to him when he was a young man and has become a person who is capable of this kind of nuance and insight and capable of using this language, which is a really, really smart move on James McBride's part. I say that just purely as a fiction writer because you would really run into some real difficulties in what to do with language and what to do with the nature of the experience if this were placed squarely in a kind of current action ongoing frame.

  • 11:17:29

    REHMAnd I must say, each of the scenes, as Henry Shackleford writes them down is so vivid in detail. I mean, none of it is general or wishy-washy. You really get a sense not only of John Brown, but at what's happening around them all. Short break here and we do invite your calls, your comments. The book we're talking about, "The Good Lord Bird" by James McBride.

  • 11:20:01

    REHMAnd welcome back for our Reader's Review this month. We've chosen the National Book Award-winning novel, "The Good Lord Bird" by James McBride. He also, of course, wrote "The Color of Water." He was here on this program talking about that book. This is a narrative from one -- a fictional narrative from one who allegedly was taken by John Brown and a little boy, he had to pose as a girl. He was very light-skinned. Isn't that correct, Diana (sic) ?

  • 11:20:50


  • 11:20:50

    REHMYeah, very light-skinned. Here's an email from Rich who says, "I enjoyed the humor in the book. Humor is a way to cope with life's paradoxes. Many of us, especially African Americans, or like many of us, Henry wrestled with many, including identity. Black, white, slave, free, male, female, bravery, cowardice, faith, unbelief." What do you think of the humor in the book, Adam?

  • 11:21:28

    ROTHMANI loved the humor. It's extremely difficult to write funny and so I admire the talent and skill that it takes to do that. But even beyond that, I think the humor draws you into the novel. It draws you into Onion's perspective on the world. But it does something else as well. It actually accentuates the horror when it comes. I think that the horror hits you harder because it's surrounded by wit and jokes and levity.

  • 11:22:06

    REHMThere's one point where John Brown takes of someone's head and, you know, you're thinking exactly as you say. The horror of it all and yet, coming from the Onion's visual perspective, it seems less horrific. You had a little trouble with some of the humor, Dana.

  • 11:22:35

    WILLIAMSI did. The parts that were the best writing in my estimation were those that kind of mimicked or mirrored local color, fiction in American literature. So everybody from Mark Twain to Joel Chandler Harris and even in the African American tradition, the tall tales of Sterling Brown, for instance, or even the conjure tales Charles Chestnutt. Those were the parts of the book that I thought worked really well with the humor.

  • 11:23:02

    WILLIAMSIt was a little more difficult to begin to think about the seriousness of what I thought were caricatures, essentially, of Frederick Douglass, particularly. And there's been a lot of conversation about how Douglass was portrayed in the text and the historical accuracy in some instances. A little less with Harriet Tubman because she isn't portrayed quite similarly. I just thought that the portrayal of Douglass was very flat. It was one dimensional.

  • 11:23:28

    WILLIAMSIf we had seen this kind of complicated Douglass as interested in a young person, along with Douglass as a very serious orator, even his powers or his prowess as an orator were essentially filled with humor or lampooned.

  • 11:23:45

    REHMBut in the book, Frederick Douglass is portrayed as someone who goes after the Onion's sexually, Ayana.

  • 11:23:57

    MATHISYes, absolutely. I really tend to agree with Dana on that one. In general, I like the humor in the book and I think that it works really well and I think it pulls in and relies on some really sort of important tropes and themes in African American literature and African American life, the trickster, you know, wiliness, all of these kinds of things, which are very important and have great historical precedent.

  • 11:24:21

    MATHISBut in terms of Frederick Douglass, I have the same feeling. I didn't mind so much that we see him, you know, doing this kind of wink-wink, nudge-nudge, you know, chasing the Onion around the library, you know, drunk, trying to pinch her bottom kind of thing. But I would've wanted to see more. I wanted to see another side. I wanted to -- because even his dialogue, I found to be -- I was confused a little bit by his dialogue because his dialogue is -- it has none of the sort of sweeping overtones of the great orator that he had.

  • 11:24:56


  • 11:24:56

    MATHISAnd sure, he's in his house and he's drinking so, of course, he's not going to be sounding the same way he would if we were giving a speech in front of thousands of people. Nonetheless, that he is a man who is capable of great articulation at all moments and the way he uses verbs, all kinds of things like that were very different from the way that I think he would have spoken. And that was -- it was a little bit hard for me, too.

  • 11:25:19

    REHMDana, from your point of view, what was the purpose of writing John Brown's story in this way?

  • 11:25:30

    WILLIAMSWell, according to McBride part of the impetus for the story was, you know, he was at Harper's Ferry and the seriousness of it all was just too much for him, right? So that there isn't a portrayal of John Brown that was kind of light-hearted. And I don't think that there is anything light-hearted about resistance and rebellion. There are certain moments, surely. We don't imagine that everyone who was committed to resistance was committed to resistance 24 hours a day, 7 days a week or certainly they were committed, but that there weren't light-hearted moments.

  • 11:26:05

    WILLIAMSBut the other thing that I have heard McBride say, which, I think, colored the way that I began to think about the novel, too, was essentially, we have to begin to think about the usefulness of certain traditions or -- so for instance, he says, you know, there were moments or, you know, certainly slavery was horrible, but something about it worked. So there's this kind of intermingling of relationships.

  • 11:26:29

    WILLIAMSAnd I don't think that we're anywhere close to beginning to think about the horrors in significant ways to begin to move to that kind of healthy place that he's talking about. So kind of moving beyond those would require a kind of truce in the first place before you can skim over that to begin to think about it differently.

  • 11:26:48

    REHMThe Onion, a couple of times, is tempted to go back to, say, I was less hungry as a slave than I am here with John Brown. And, you know, that sort of stunned me, thinking why would you ever want to return to slavery. But it's almost like they brutalized women, the brutalized child who will turn back to a parent or a wife to a husband because that's what they know.

  • 11:27:33

    ROTHMANYou know, I think there's been, you know, a long tradition of writing about what John Brown thought about black people and a much shorter tradition of writing and thinking about what black people thought about John Brown. And generally, the story is that John Brown is one of the very -- maybe the only white person in American history who's universally loved by black people, lionized by black people. That's the story that you generally read.

  • 11:28:02

    ROTHMANBut McBride is really challenging that in some interesting ways, by...

  • 11:28:10

    REHMWell, blacks don't even show up when he's trying to help.

  • 11:28:14

    ROTHMANAnd that's always been sort of the main knock against Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, that he was unable to rally the black people in the neighborhood of Harper's Ferry to his cause, which is not actually true. There's actually quite a bit of evidence that he gathered a lot more black support than people have traditionally thought, but that those supporters sort of melted away for various reasons, including strategic -- tactical mistakes by Brown and just the overwhelming of the suppression of the raid that came from the U.S. government.

  • 11:28:52

    ROTHMANBut I think there are a number of ways that McBride really makes you think in new ways about the relationship between black people and Brown and one of them is through the ambivalence of people like Onion and another character named Bob who are just very reluctant to join Brown's army. In fact, most of Brown's army is there for mixed motives, I would say.

  • 11:29:17

    REHMYes, yes.

  • 11:29:17

    ROTHMANAnd they're not always reliable. But Brown mistakes the Onion and Bob for being soldiers in the cause when they're not. It's part of Brown constructing his own reality, as Dana was talking about earlier. And at several points, in fact for much of the first part of the novel, the Onion's main goal is to run away from Brown, run away from the person who's trying to liberate him. It is hard to get your head around that, but Onion's pretty clear that being with Brown is a huge risk and he's sticking his neck out.

  • 11:29:55

    ROTHMANAnd he doesn't want to do that. He wants to live. He doesn't want to die. And he thinks that going back to the sort of quasi-security of a stable relationship with his old owner might be preferable, but it just doesn't work out that way.

  • 11:30:10

    WILLIAMSAnd he's also, I think -- I agree with a lot of what you said and there are two things that come to mind. The first is that difficult and fraught though it is, I think that some of what McBride is doing is lifting the kind of -- the sense or challenging the sense of a monolith of black experience. You know, the Onion -- and it's difficult, right? Like, it's difficult to hear the Onion say, oh, I was better off as a slave. At least, I was eating. Nonetheless, I think that McBride is speaking to -- is attempting to sort of show us or to build a character whose experience of something is not in keeping with the general narrative of how we think about slavery and how we think about those events.

  • 11:30:57

    WILLIAMSAnd I don't think that in any way, he's trying to diminish it or make it any less horrible, he is simply trying to give the Onion a voice that is individually his and to establish a certain kind of humanity. And the other thing that I thought of was, you know, thinking of what Adam was just saying, you know, this notion -- I mean, the Onion was constantly trying to get away from John Brown and there's a sentence on page 20, very early on, when he says -- he's talking -- this is the Onion talking about John Brown.

  • 11:31:24

    WILLIAMSAnd he says, "whatever he believed, he believed. It didn't matter to him whether it was really true or not. He just changed that truth till it fit him. He was a real white man." So there is an incredible critique going on...

  • 11:31:36

    REHMOh, sure.

  • 11:31:36

    WILLIAMS...of whiteness, of John Brown and specific of John Brown's zealotry, of John Brown's benevolence and what we meant by white benevolence and all that kind of stuff. It's all here. It's just -- it's complicated.

  • 11:31:49

    MATHISYeah, and I thought that was somewhat of the irony of McBride's feeling about how there were certain parts of slavery that worked. None of them worked for black people. There were no parts of slavery that worked and that's part of the difficulty with Bob and the Onion. They can't -- they don't have choices in the same way. So as much as they think, hmm, maybe I was a little bit better off in this instance or maybe I'll run off or maybe I will find another space. There aren't options.

  • 11:32:18

    MATHISThere isn't a space where he can go and be free.

  • 11:32:20

    REHMYeah, right. He says...

  • 11:32:21

    MATHISSo there was nothing that worked about slavery for black people, hunger or not.

  • 11:32:26

    REHMAnd he kept saying, but where would I go, how would I get there, what would happen to me along the way? We have a caller here in Washington, D.C. William, you're on the air.

  • 11:32:41

    WILLIAMOh, hi. Thank you. Quick question, Diane, to the panel there. Have historians drawn any comparisons between John Brown and Newt Knight of the Free State of Jones, the movie now just coming out with Matthew McConaughey?

  • 11:32:58

    REHMAll right. Go ahead, Adam.

  • 11:33:01

    ROTHMANOff the top of my head, I can't think of comparisons between Knight and Brown, but, you know, they're interesting to bring together in a conversation because here are two white men who did believe in equality, racial equality at a moment when it was not a common standard of practice for white folks.

  • 11:33:29

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Elliot in Baltimore, Maryland. You're on the air.

  • 11:33:40

    ELLIOTYes. Good morning, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.

  • 11:33:42

    REHMHi. Sure.

  • 11:33:44

    ELLIOTI'm an avid listener and one of your biggest fans.

  • 11:33:46

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:33:47

    ELLIOTAnd I just wanted to tell you that I had the pleasure of meeting James McBride in Baltimore about a year or so ago at the public library. He did a book signing. And I have the book on my nightstand and I read it over and over. I love the book. I love Onion. I think the word Onion is just incredible, funny, flexible, just fascinating. And the book is just wonderful. I recommend it to everyone.

  • 11:34:09

    REHMI'm glad you called. I certainly would recommend it because it does give you a different view of what was happening during that era. Let's go to Sprig in Washington, D.C. You're on the air.

  • 11:34:28

    SPRIGSplu (sic) Good morning.

  • 11:34:30


  • 11:34:30

    SPRIGI have a quick question here. John Brown, by the time he made it to the Harper's Ferry area at the Kennedy farm, he had 21 people and five of them were African Americans. And I wondered why these five individuals, which have very unique incredible stories, have never really been spotlighted in American history and present history to talk about their journey and what they did.

  • 11:34:58

    REHMSure. Here you go. Dana?

  • 11:35:01

    WILLIAMSWell, I think it's, unfortunately, the reality of a publication industry that has a particular way of viewing slavery or a particular way of portraying slavery. So it's far more marketable and profitable to have the story told from a particular perspective that continues to perpetuate the narrative the way that we've become familiar with and comfortable with. And it's really interesting that with the other comment about the Newton book that's about to -- or movie that's about to come out and "Roots" of course, the miniseries is on now...

  • 11:35:36


  • 11:35:36

    WILLIAMSAnd I don't even know how it happened, but I am reading, for some reason, four books in row about slavery and so there's something to be said about the way that we portray it. The one outlier, in some ways, I think, for me in terms of the way that it's portrayed, or two really, would be Daniel Black's "The Coming," which takes on the perspective of the narrator is the entire cargo, for lack of a better -- the humans that are taken from their homeland becomes the entire narrator.

  • 11:36:13

    WILLIAMSAnd talking to Black about it, for instance, he said he had a really hard time convincing his publisher to take the book. And the only way they took it was he insisted that the book that they were waiting for, which they knew would be a great seller, is if they did this one first because they couldn't conceive that the story could be told from a particular kind of perspective. And a similar kind of outlier in that regard is Nubia Kai's "I Spread My Wings And I Fly," which, again, is -- and I was joking a couple of weeks ago or a couple of days ago about these 400-page books in a row that I was reading.

  • 11:36:51

    WILLIAMSAnd I was wondering what was I thinking reading two 400-plus -- in one week, each, right? But in the Kai book, we see these three-dimensional portraits of 20 different characters. So my short, long answer would be you get the same representations in mainstream over and over and over again. If you want something else, you have to pursue it differently.

  • 11:37:14

    REHMDana Williams is professor of African American literature, chair of the English department at Howard University. The book we're reading and talking about is titled "The Good Lord Bird" by James McBride, winner of the 2013 National Book Award.

  • 11:40:01

    REHMWelcome back. If you've just joined us, we're talking about the National Book Award winner for 2013, James McBride. His book, "The Good Lord Bird" focuses on John Brown, talks about his efforts to plan his attack at Harper's Ferry and to insure that many, many people joined in that attack. He hoped to begin the revolution to end slavery. Ayana, one of the factors you talked about is how James McBride handles gender in this book. What do you mean by that?

  • 11:40:56

    MATHISWell, he does a couple of very interesting things. One I think is kind of incredible. We were talking a little bit about his first book and how, you know, there was a certain point in his first book in which he was kind of passing for white and his mother was kind of passing for a person of color. And then, of course, in this book the Onion is Henry, who's passing for Henrietta for many, many years.

  • 11:41:17

    MATHISAnd that -- the theme of passing seems to be one that's very strong sort of in him, as a writer and certainly is deeply resonant in the whole of African-American literature and I think in African-American experience in general. Both in the sense of sort of being light-skinned enough to pass for white, but also I think in all kinds of ways in which the passing is an extant fact of black life, from anything from kind of simply code switching. You know, speaking one way when you are at a job interview or in a classroom and speaking another way when you're with your friends or your family.

  • 11:41:51

    MATHISAll of those things are forms of passing. And so it's very interesting, I think, that that sort of implicitly the gender play here speaks to that. On the other hand -- or not on the other hand, I suppose. In addition to -- it's an and/and, not an and/or. The other thing, though, that I struggled with a little bit was that Henry is Henrietta, is a young girl, you -- from 12 to 14 is when we're with her, you know, in these really rough spaces.

  • 11:42:22

    MATHISYou know, the Missouri and Kansas, which was then just a territory. And the fact of gender is not really dealt with aside from the fact that she worries a bit about or he worries a bit about being discovered. Nonetheless, the fact is that a person like that, in that situation, in that time and place would not have escaped, I don't think, some very serious threat of sexual violence and other kinds of things that would come up around the fact of being female. And the book sort of -- the book avoids all of that stuff.

  • 11:42:55

    REHMInstead, Henrietta, or Henry, worries about displaying his maleness because he falls in love. And the woman he's in love with, one senses that she may know, as well. But he is exhibiting his maleness by virtue of when he gets close to her, when he gets a sense of her fragrance, her beauty. And he is moved, as normally a man would be, a young man especially, and he is so afraid he will be found out that he tries to stay away from her.

  • 11:43:47

    WILLIAMSYeah, not only does he stay away from her, you know, in that instance, but he's also very clear that once he gets to be a certain age, at the point where he's in the brothel with Pie, he's clear that his turn to become a prostitute is inevitable. So I think that's the closest that the book comes to beginning to deal with the real serious issue of exploitation.

  • 11:44:10


  • 11:44:11

    WILLIAMSAnd then he's also very aware of the consequences of being around women, white women particularly. Because if he is found out to be a black male, then that has these tremendous consequences for him. So his fear is, if they find out that I am male, and I have been given privilege of these spaces…

  • 11:44:28

    REHMPosing, yeah.

  • 11:44:30

    WILLIAMS…then this has tremendous implications.

  • 11:44:32

    REHMYeah, absolutely. One of our earlier callers wanted to ask about John Brown, whether back then or even now, he would considered a terrorist or a great American. Adam?

  • 11:44:53

    ROTHMANI think the question tells us -- it's a question that's commonly asked these days about Brown. And I think it tells us a lot about the kinds of questions we ask in our own age of terror that dictates the questions. So I would say that John Brown was a counterterrorist. People don't often think of him that way. But slavery was a system of terror. That was the terrorism in American society. Brown was fighting against it, which in my book makes him a counterterrorist.

  • 11:45:20

    REHMWhat do you think, Dana?

  • 11:45:21

    WILLIAMSI think certainly he is a counterterrorist, but he would have been considered a terrorist.

  • 11:45:26

    REHMA terrorist.

  • 11:45:27

    WILLIAMSAnd even by some standards -- we were in the lobby, of course listening a little bit earlier to the previous conversation in the first half of the hour. In today's terms, by some callers' estimations, it would still be terror. Because it would be an active act against or an active resistance against state-sanctioned violence against black people. And if it's state-sanctioned, then somehow it's -- and if you're pushing back against, if you're resisting state-sanctioned violence against black bodies then there is this element of terror that is associated with it. So even today I think, sadly and wrongly, he would be considered a terrorist.

  • 11:46:08

    REHMWhat about the idea, as James McBride has done here, of sort of bending historical fact into fiction? How did you feel about that, Ayana?

  • 11:46:24

    MATHISI'm pretty biased because I wrote a novel that was set largely in the past. And I bent it in all kinds of ways. So I'm all for it. But I do think that he keeps -- and I think that it's very important to have done this -- that he keeps the sort of framework of the facts in place. You know, there is no betrayal of what is most important here. The facts of slavery, the facts of what was happening in Kansas and Missouri at that time. All of that kind of stuff is kept very squarely sort of to historical reality.

  • 11:46:57

    MATHISAnd then, you know, sort of purely speaking as a fiction writer, it's an interesting line, right. Like, you have to have the latitude and the freedom to imagine. You have to have the latitude and the freedom to make a character that is believable as the character, that has breath and nuance and all of that kind of stuff. And I think that if -- there is the danger that if you're sort of sticking to the script of history in a very literal, you know, fact-by-fact kind of way that you cut off at the knees your ability to imagine a world. And he avoids that by kind of playing in certain ways.

  • 11:47:33


  • 11:47:34

    ROTHMANWell, as a very literally-minded historian myself, I've nothing but envy for novelists like Ayana and James McBride. I really wish I could untether myself from the documentary and other forms of evidence and write. But I'm not that creative. And I actually really appreciated the ways that McBride grounded his fiction in historical detail, and re-imagined it and developed in very extraordinary ways.

  • 11:48:08

    ROTHMANAnd I just want -- more thing about the relationship between fact and fiction here. Even before the prologue in the dedication, McBride refers -- he -- the dedication is to, "For Ma and Jade who loved a good whopper."

  • 11:48:25

    REHMYeah, right.

  • 11:48:26

    ROTHMANAnd so right there you realize that you're in a kind of world of legend, a world of tall tales. And I think that's always in the background of the presentation of the slave -- or the ex-slave narrative as the kind of authentic memoir. So he's really successfully having it both ways.

  • 11:48:45

    REHMYes, indeed.

  • 11:48:45

    ROTHMANIt's both a tall tale and an eyewitness account and a trickster tale and all of that.

  • 11:48:52

    REHMWhy did John Brown have such a hard time gaining supporters who would fight with him, Dana?

  • 11:49:04

    WILLIAMSI think the vulnerability, the volatility of enslavement for black people made it very difficult for him to -- as he says in the novel -- to hive, you know, to hive the enslaved. So it would have been impossible for, you know, that kind of uprising and resistance to go unnoticed. So his single failure is an inability to get people who are like him to rally with him. He could have certainly been successful had he been able to convince other whites to go with him, because they could have, you know, participated without the fear of retaliation.

  • 11:49:39

    ROTHMANCan I add something to that?

  • 11:49:41


  • 11:49:41

    ROTHMANI'm really glad that Dana brought up this idea of hiving, you know, hiving the bees. That's a metaphor that runs through the last third of the novel. And it's John Brown's way of understanding the process of gathering, you know, rallying black people in the neighborhood of Harper's Ferry to his standard. He says he's hiving the bees. And it actually is a task that falls to the Onion, primarily, who's able to move as a young, you know, in the disguise of a young girl, who's able to move through these spaces in ways that are relatively undetected, even though it's still very dangerous for him to do so.

  • 11:50:18

    ROTHMANBut here's the point I want to make about the relationship between history and fiction. McBride didn't just make up that metaphor. That metaphor comes from Frederick Douglass' memoir of the one of the last -- the last conversation that Douglass has with John Brown. Where Douglass -- according Douglass, Brown says to him, you know, you have to help me hive the bees, you have to help me hive the Negro. That -- so that metaphor, that language is from the historical record, but then transformed by McBride himself.

  • 11:50:53

    ROTHMANAnd the other interesting thing about that encounter, is that that's the point where Douglass sort of makes the final decision not to go with Brown. But one of Douglass' companions, a man named Shields Green, an African-American man, who's also known as The Emperor, makes a different decision. And at the very end of this conversation Douglass turns to Shields Green and says well, what are you gonna do. And Shields Green says I believe I'm gonna go with the old man. And he does. So there's a choice and I think that moment reveals the choice.

  • 11:51:24

    REHMAnd the difficulty thereof. All right. Let's go to Minneapolis. Hi, Cynthia. You're on the air.

  • 11:51:35

    CYNTHIAHi. So I just wanted to bring up -- I went to elementary school in Maryland and went on a school trip to Harper's Ferry.

  • 11:51:42

    REHMWhat year?

  • 11:51:44

    CYNTHIAI went -- and I remember learning about John Brown as really quite a villain. And being totally unclear that it was a slave, that was on behalf of slaves and it wasn't until much later in life and through the filter of my own education that I began to see the differences in the story. So I thought -- and this was in the mid '80s when I was just like in 5th grade. And so I thought that was an interesting, you know, and then come stories, like this, came out that I began to see it as a different -- through a different lens. I was very unclear on the nature of the narrative and on John Brown as anything other than really a villain. So…

  • 11:52:21

    REHMThat's really interesting that as late as the 1980s she would have been confronted with a notion that John Brown was a villain.

  • 11:52:36

    MATHISYeah, it's, I mean, and it's, sadly, not surprising to me. I mean, I remember when I was in high school and now we're into the, yeah, into the late '80s, and the kind of narrative around kind of blackness in America was there were some slaves and then there was segregation and there was Martin Luther King and now there's "The Cosby Show." Like that was essentially the narrative, which is of course incredibly partial, incredibly untrue in many ways.

  • 11:53:08

    MATHISAnd I can certainly see in a state like Maryland, in which I think there's so much that's still fraught around slavery, what it is, what it means, the ways in which people are complicit in it that John Brown would be cast entirely as a villain.

  • 11:53:23

    REHMAnd you're listening "The Diane Rehm Show." So what happens, as far as the Onion is concerned? Somehow at the end there's a problem. What's the problem, Dana?

  • 11:53:45

    WILLIAMSWell, for one thing he fails to do one thing that is critically important. So he has -- in his hiving the bees, he has enlisted the support of the Rail Man. And it's a really great trope because, of course, the railroad is the way that people move, the way that information moves. So he's enlisted the help of the Rail Man, who's known, metaphorically and literally to be associated with resistance in the Underground Railroad and the actual literal one.

  • 11:54:15

    WILLIAMSAnd the Rail Man is clear and repeats, you must give the password. When I give the signal, whoever is responding to me must give the password. The Onion leaves without telling John Brown and John Brown's men what the password is. So essentially the help that he's going to get from the Rail Man and the men and women who are on the railcar, the black people who are ready to support Brown at the signal of someone that they trust completely, don't get the signal. And so there's no way that they were going to commit to someone that they do not trust.

  • 11:54:50

    REHMIs that fact or fiction?

  • 11:54:53

    ROTHMANWell, let me put it this way. The Rail Man is based on a real figure, who is completely re-imagined by McBride in a way that absolutely explodes some of the traditional myths about Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. I don't want to give it away. But I'll leave it at that.

  • 11:55:14

    REHMWow. What a story.

  • 11:55:17

    MATHISIt's really pretty incredible. And I might add, I don't want to, you know, in fact I won't spoil, so I won't have a spoiler alert, to piggyback off of Dana earlier, but there's something incredibly fascinating in the ways in which I think that the book does have a certain kind of reverence and a great deal of respect for John Brown, at the same time that it does not shy away in the least from talking about the ways in which his efforts and his zealotry could be utterly destructive to black life. And it walks that line, I think, in a very interesting and very complicated way.

  • 11:55:51

    REHMIn other words, what you're saying is that in part it was John Brown himself who, by virtue of his own personality, and the confusion of his planning, that somehow this raid on Harper's Ferry did not get carried off the way it should have.

  • 11:56:21

    ROTHMANWell, I think there's something to that. It's something of a failure of Brown himself. But I think we also have to remember that the raid was crushed by overwhelming military force. And that's the bottom line.

  • 11:56:33

    REHMIf it had succeeded -- let's rewrite history ourselves. If it had succeeded, would that have been the beginning of the uprising of slaves?

  • 11:56:50

    ROTHMANYou could argue that in a way it was anyway, to the extent that Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry is one of the sparks for the Civil War.

  • 11:56:59

    REHMTouchstones, absolutely.

  • 11:57:00

    ROTHMANAnd the Civil War is itself, can be interrupted as a kind of massive slave rebellion. That's what happened.

  • 11:57:07

    REHMWhat a book. And what a wonderful discussion. Thank you all so much.

  • 11:57:14

    MATHISOh, thank you.

  • 11:57:14

    WILLIAMSThank you, Diane. Such a pleasure.

  • 11:57:16

    ROTHMANThanks a lot.1

  • 11:57:17

    REHMAyana Mathis, Adam Rothman, Dana Williams. And thank you all for listening. The book we've been talking about, "The Good Lord Bird," by James McBride. I'm Diane Rehm.

Topics + Tags


comments powered by Disqus
Most Recent Shows