Matteo Sciabordi, left, and Laz Alonso clasp hands in ‘Miracle at St. Anna,’ the story of four black American soldiers stationed in Tuscany,
Matteo Sciabordi, left, and Laz Alonso clasp hands in ‘Miracle at St. Anna,’ the story of four black American soldiers stationed in Tuscany, Italy, during Word War II, based on a novel by James McBride. (Associated Press)

NORTH ADAMS -- To be the change they wish to see in the world, some men work with peaceful resolve, like civil rights activist Mohandas Gandhi.

Then there are others, like white abolitionist John Brown, the subject of the historical novel "Good Lord Bird." In 1859, Brown wanted little to do with anything but the word of God -- he wanted to lead an attack on the system of slavery by tearing it down.

James McBride, author of "Good Lord Bird," is a man in between.

In a recent interview with The Eagle, he spoke via phone from Miami with the baritone ease of a jazz musician (which he is). But his latest book shows his ability to wield words with fiery, unshackled creativity.

"I didn't want to write one of those books that were depressing and boring about slavery," said McBride, who tells Brown's story through the eyes of a young slave child nicknamed "Onion," who breaks free and takes to the road with Brown.

"All of my work speaks to the commonality of the human experience," McBride said. "That's where I live, to move audiences to think, to question and to find common ground."

At 7:30 tonight, McBride will share his words, perform gospel music with his band and discuss lessons of life during his return to the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts as keynote speaker/performer for the college's new "Creating Equality" series.


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He will share the stage with Keith Robinson (guitar), Trevor Exter (bass), Adam Faulk (piano) and Showtime Brooks (drums), playing "music that inspired the civil rights abolitionist movement," adding texture and context to McBride's reading.

"Creating Equality" will bring an academic year's worth of discussions, film, words, music and more, curated by the college to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement and its continuing impact on American society today.

McBride, 56, plays a part in this in his own right as a storyteller whose practice is steeped in history.

He was born and raised in Brooklyn's Red Hook housing projects with a family founded by his mother. As he tells the story in his New York Times best-selling book "The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother," his mother is "a white Jewish woman from Poland who married a black man, founded a Baptist church, and put 12 children through college."

"I believe in school, I believe in college and I believe in the liberal arts," he told The Eagle. "I think a liberal arts background teaches you how to think, and that's a greater tool than anything for going forward and a more effective tool for living a decent life.

James McBride stands, right, with director Spike Lee.
James McBride stands, right, with director Spike Lee. (Associated Press)
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In addition to degrees from Oberlin and the Columbia School of Journalism, McBride received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from and delivered the keynote commencement address at MCLA in 2009.

As his own story transcends class, culture and barriers, so does his work with people. He's worked with Michael Jackson, Spike Lee, Anita Baker and others, but McBride says it's the single, working parents and first-generation college students of the nation who truly inspire him.

"These are people who are willing to sacrifice for [a] cause. It's not like in football, the way people cheer someone for making a touchdown. The good cop making the good arrest. The good teacher helping struggling students turn themselves around. The good minister doing the right thing -- there's no cheering section for those kinds of people. That's my role in a way," McBride said.

He said that's why he believes so much in sharing the story of John Brown (1800-1859), who was ultimately hanged for his antislavery pursuits. McBride said writing the book was easy, but it took him five years to research Brown to portray the man as he did in "Good Lord Bird."

Brown is most noted for his failed mission to arm slaves and lead them on a fight to freedom. On Oct. 16, 1859, he led 21 men on a raid of the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va., but the crusade was thwarted, resulting in the capture and/or deaths of many of Brown's men.

"I'm trying to thrust him onto the lips of Americans, for people who don't know who he is," said McBride. "He was like Jesse James or Al Capone in a way. He really tried to do good. But John Brown showed up with guns, a broadsword and a bible, and he got to business."

McBride also said Brown was, in part, a resolute New Englander, who in 1847 met black abolitionist Frederick Douglass for the first time in Springfield while living there.

He said modern-day embodiments of John Browns are elusive.

"They're rare. But there are men like him, like Father [Walter] Waldron in Roxbury. I met him while I was working at the Boston Globe in the South End. He doesn't preach at you, but he's been working with the poor all through his career, because he believes in it. He's a good guy, deeply religious," he said.

Waldron has been a priest for 49 years and pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Roxbury for 30 years.

"In a metaphysical sense, John Brown is everywhere," McBride said. "There is always someone trying to do good. Part of being an American is to learn to appreciate people for who they are and where they are and not lay judgment."

If you go ...

What: Novelist and filmmaker James McBride will read from ‘Good Lord Bird'

When: 7:30 p.m. tonight

Where: Church Street Center, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, North Adams

Admission: Free

Information: www.mcla.edu