A few weeks ago I watched a brilliant panel discussion entitled “Black American Buddhists on Community and Activism.” The panel featured three African American Buddhist practitioners and teachers, two with whom I was familiar: Kamilah Majied and DaRa Williams. When Williams’ moment for opening comments arrived she made several critical points; one of which is the difficult relationship that African American people have with this land.
She talked about the fact that her parents were part of the Great Migration from the Southern to the Northern, Western, and Midwestern United States. She went on to talk about her memory of, as a child, taking annual Memorial Day weekend trips with her family to the South to acknowledge and honor the ancestors. She also recounted her 95-year-old mother’s assertion that she would never live in the South again. Williams invoked her mother’s words to draw attention to black people’s connection to the land and more so, “the inability (to connect)…to this land where the terrorism and atrocities were directly offered up to my ancestors that lived here.”
Williams was referring to, not only the atrocities of slavery, but also its legacy of Jim Crow and de facto segregation and racism that persists and that drove thousands of African Americans from their homes and the lands that they had for generations worked, fought, and sacrificed for.
I mention this panel—one worth checking out—because I was reminded of Williams’ words while reading the incomparable James McBride’s latest offering, Deacon King Kong (2020), about a diverse community of people in Brooklyn, New York in the late sixties. Now, if you have been following this blog for any amount of time you KNOW that I love me some James McBride.
Feel free to check out my reviews of some of his other works:
McBride is a true renaissance man, jazz musician, writer extraordinaire, and “a credit to the race ” a la Henry Louis Gates. Indeed, in 2015, he was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Obama “for humanizing the complexities of discussing race in America.” He also holds several honorary doctorates and is currently a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University. AND he’s from my old stomping grounds of Brooklyn, New York!! AND he knows it well.
Here’s the copy for Deacon King Kong:
In September 1969, a fumbling, cranky old church deacon known as Sportcoat shuffles into the courtyard of the Cause Houses housing project in south Brooklyn, pulls a .38 from his pocket, and in front of everybody shoots the project’s drug dealer at point-blank range.
The reasons for this desperate burst of violence and the consequences that spring from it lie at the heart of Deacon King Kong, James McBride’s funny, moving novel and his first since his National Book Award-winning The Good Lord Bird. In Deacon King Kong, McBride brings to vivid life the people affected by the shooting: the victim, the African-American and Latinx residents who witnessed it, the white neighbors, the local cops assigned to investigate, the members of the Five Ends Baptist Church where Sportcoat was deacon, the neighborhood’s Italian mobsters, and Sportcoat himself.
As the story deepens, it becomes clear that the lives of the characters–caught in the tumultuous swirl of 1960s New York–overlap in unexpected ways. When the truth does emerge, McBride shows us that not all secrets are meant to be hidden, that the best way to grow is to face change without fear, and that the seeds of love lie in hope and compassion.
Indeed, McBride’s storytelling is masterful and is evidence of his abiding faith in humanity. Yes, the story of the people of Cause Houses is “told with insight and wit” and demonstrates that “love and faith live in all of us.”
All of this is true about the novel. But it is also so much more. There are a multitude of threads that one could follow while taking in the whole of the narrative—McBride is just that good.
But the thread that I want to pick up on and run just a tiny ways with in this post is, as a consequence of white supremacy, that of African Americans’ fraught relationship with the land that Williams addresses in her comments.
Cause Houses, a government project complex, is in an urban environment in the Northern United States. But it is populated by people like Sportcoat and his wife, Hettie, and Sportcoat’s best friend, Hot Sausage, and the women of Five Ends Baptist Church, Bum-Bum, and Sister Gee from the Southern United States as well as those like Miss Izi Cordero from Puerto Rico and Dominic Lefleur, the Haitian Cooking Sensation, both from what is commonly called the Global South.
Although this fact is not front and center of the novel it provides a poignant backdrop to the narrative, adding context for many of the characters’ nicknames as well as their behaviors and idiosyncracies. The residents of Cause Houses look out for each other, shelter each other, feed each other, share what little resources they have, have falling-outs and then come back together again as family. These are Southern ways; ways that are passed down from one generation to the next even when the drugs that were pumped into those communities in the late 60s and 70s threatened to tear those communities asunder.
McBride has a firm handle on the unique culture that emerges from Northern-based misplaced Southerners who ache for the land even when it has been used against them for centuries and that they have been driven from by greed and hatred. We find evidence of this ache in the garden that is planned for at Five Ends as well as Sportcoat’s green thumb and Hettie’s longing for moonflowers. It is also in Hot Sausage’s brewing knowledge that gives birth to the King Kong that Sportcoat loves so much and that he uses to dull the emotional pain that his dsplacement and profound loneliness engenders. It is found in the language that McBride puts in the mouths and gestures of the characters that the author describes so vividly. It is why i, like Levar Burton (August 28,2020), found myself laughing out loud for much of the book, with the deep memory of that southern sensibility that only those who grew up around it recognize.
Black people’s fraught relationship with the land, our displacement, and our disconnection from it and relatedly, our food systems as a consequence of “the terrorism and atrocities [that] were directly offered up to my ancestors” is something I spend a lot of time thinking about and I will be exploring for the next few weeks. I invite you to come along on this journey of pain and power.
P.S. In case I didn’t make this clear, Deacon King Kong was a pure joy to read, richly layered with multiple avenues to reflect on and explore. The Master does it again!
Check out this interview with Mr. McBride here on Amanpour and Company.