James McBride is a 65-year-old Black American writer and musician. His story is that he grew up in a housing project with eleven siblings and his white Jewish mother. “‘Emphasize The Positive’: James McBride On The Kindness That Shaped Him” is a short yet insightful view into what this man is about. In this, he tells the story of his childhood growing up in a community where people came together and created a sense of being in a village. This life story of his is the major influence and inspiration for his novel ‘Deacon King Kong’, with the setting being a housing project similar to his childhood one.
James McBride’s story is one that is unfortunately not unique to him. Many black people in America have had to grow up in poverty due to racism and capitalism. Those in poverty, of working class, etc., haven’t had the privilege of living in a normal sized house that was fresh and clean, wasn’t filled to the brim with lead, didn’t cost too much, and that they could afford. There is something to be said about how James was able to grow up in a black community despite his black dad dying before his birth and him being predominantly raised by his white mother. About how his mother, despite being white, was welcomed into the community and treated as one of their own.
“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.” He sums it up perfectly. With the assassinations of MLK JR. and Malcolm X, the civil rights movement took a huge moral hit, and the lack of racial equity and equality the existed already means that white people were going to view black people in much more racist ways. James’s own mother, despite not talking about her whiteness with her son, did make sure that he did good because she knew that people would view him through the lens of him being a black boy. Blackness affects everything we do no matter what, and in a racist society of the 70s, it was a serious problem if a black child was caught making even a minor mistake.
Some questions I have after listening to the 28 min podcast and reading the article pertains to his sentences on the police and his comments about how we in the present should deal with the lingering statues of confederates. In the article, which was published on March 9th 2020, he states his belief that the narrative that dehumanizes policemen is dangerous. He says that most cops are good, they aren’t paid well, and that they aren’t respected or treated well. Which, as another black person in America, I cannot agree with this in good taste at all. Police are one of the most powerful individuals in this state. Out of all legal forces, I can’t think of one that is more respected, more well paid/financed, and more well off than the police. Just in the last few years they’ve been given whose knows how much money as a department alone. According to this page on statistica.com and this police budget breakdown system on costofpolice.org, we can see that the US spends more money on policing than it does on overall community resources. And considering that Cop City is officially a thing, I definitely don’t think caring about the humanity of police of all people is a constructive focus. One thing that I agree with James on is that we should focus on education for children. Free and accessible education for children brings them up properly and influences them to pursue progressive and better opportunities.
I am also a little, for a lack of a better word, confused and weirded out over how he refers to Mary Chestnut, the wife of a confederate commander. She as a white person who married a confederate and had black servants in the household is referred to by James McBride as a good person in the podcast. While it’s one thing for her to be referred to as an interesting person, no one that takes part in any form of white supremacy, even simply by marrying a white supremacist, is anywhere close to being a good person. I also listened to him talk about how he never thought much about the confederate statues earlier in life. He said that he and others just walked past confederate flags and the people holding them up. I wonder just how much the political and social environment he was raised in socialized them to see these things as just something to accept. I always found it important to analyze and learn exactly why these things are allowed to be waved around in society, why is it acceptable in an nation of “freedom and the brave” to openly celebrate white supremacy and chattel slavery and why should we just simply walk by it and not fight against it completely?
Learning about James McBride was an interesting and eye-opening experience. It was important for me to learn about a black musician’s/writer’s journey in life and what he finds important. Looking at his observations and comments, I see what he finds important and what he has grown to believe over time. And while I find him an interesting person, it is obvious that he is from an older generation, and that this fact has a lot to do with what he finds important and what he believes in. I believe that what he has learned from in his life and how that is reflected in these two interviews can teach us what a lot of people can share and what a lot of people still need to learn about.