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Novelist indicts hip-hop through the lens of slavery

Robin Hamilton

She is a slave who dreams the future — and is fearful of what she sees.

When we are introduced to Liz Spocott, the protagonist in James McBride’s new novel “Song Yet Sung,” we are met with the raw and complex dynamic between blacks and whites during the pre-Civil War years, coupled with a stinging indictment of today’s hip-hop culture.

“What if a slave woke up and saw where we are now?” McBride asks. Seen through the eyes of Spocott, the answer is sobering.

Enduring the indignity of enslavement and navigating the intricate path of the Underground Railroad, Liz is a reluctant heroine in the pursuit of freedom — a freedom she isn’t so sure exists. Her dreams warn her of a future filled with “ … Negros driving horseless carriages on shiny rubber wheels … and colored men dressed in garish costumes like children … every bit of pride, decency, and morality squeezed out of them.”

“She didn’t want to run to the North; she dreamed of the future of the Negro race and if that is where she was going, she didn’t want to go,” McBride explains.

McBride sets the story in the Chesapeake Bay area, where the characters and the events mirror historical figures. Harriett Tubman was born in that area.

“The dreams come from Tubman — whose dreams she says would tell her of impending danger,” McBride says.

A year of detailed research led McBride to some painful records of what blacks suffered during slavery. Those experiences are woven into the book, written with honesty and eloquence — without the explicit savagery that came from the era. McBride did that purposefully.

“I divorced myself from the brutality of slavery,” he says. “Eventually, I had to remove myself from it.”

He says he did so because its graphic nature could distract from the message he is trying to relay to the readers — that if we take a hard look at how we behave today, we would be putting our ancestors, and all they sacrificed, to shame.

“I didn’t have to look any further than where we are now,” he says. “The [hip-hop] industry promotes ignorance and makes money. What we are teaching our children is to ‘obey your thirst.’ Most poor children are victimized by this. It is heartbreaking to see.”

Equally troubling, McBride says, is how the rest of the country reacts to the value of African Americans. McBride, an accomplished musician and author, worked all over the country as a journalist for several years, writing for a number of publications including the Boston Globe in the 1980s. He remembers the area well, and says during an interview in Cambridge, “Roxbury is only 15 minutes away, but feels like a different world than here.”

The separation is acute, the hierarchy is clear. On a national level, he explains, “We see an explosion of events, and then it gets placed down to the bottom-feeders. Like Hurricane Katrina. Our threshold of pain is somehow judged to be greater than whites.”

When challenged about the very real possibility of Barack Obama becoming the country’s first black president, McBride says that doesn’t negate the overwhelming picture of the state of black America and the deeply ingrained messages from hip-hop culture.

“Obviously I am deeply concerned about where we are,” McBride says. “I am thrilled with Barack, but I am concerned by the level of bestiality, homophobia, bashing of women. It is the mark of a slave.”

But that concern does not mean loss of hope — or the impossibility of true freedom, as seen through his book.

“Liz dreams of someone begging for change,” he says. “She dreams of a great awakening.”

McBride says that awakening can come from all of us — changing the way we think, what we create, and believing that there are other avenues of success than the rap culture.

“You have to retrain yourself for other options,” he says. “We need kids who want to be filmmakers, architects. Hip-hop doesn’t lead to those avenues.”

McBride leads by example. He was born eighth of 12 children in Brooklyn’s Red Hook housing projects, his father African American, his mother a Jewish immigrant.

She was the strict disciplinarian, and instilled the values of hard work and education. James graduated from Oberlin College with a major in music composition, and later received his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia. While he nurtured his musical career in jazz, his gift for writing evolved, spawning his first work, the memoir “The Color of Water,” which in some respects was a tribute to his mother. His second novel, “Miracle at St. Ana,” was critically acclaimed, and was optioned by filmmaker Spike Lee.

Humble about his success, McBride asserts positive change, prosperity and freedom is possible for all of us. In McBride’s latest novel, that sentiment is expressed through the words of an old woman who tells Liz Spocott “ … despite the troubling vision, there is still hope, the song yet sung.”