‘Song Yet Sung’ Makes Freedom’s Bell Ring

James McBride's new novel links dreams of historical past to today's reality.


It's March of 1850 when James McBride's new novel, "Song Yet Sung," opens. That's when Liz Spocott has the dream that makes her decide she'd rather be a 19th century slave than a 21st century black American.

"She dreamed of Negroes driving horseless carriages on shiny rubber wheels with music booming throughout, and fat black children who smoked odd-smelling cigars and walked around with pistols in their pockets and murder in their eyes. She dreamed of Negro women appearing as flickering images in powerfully lighted boxes that could be seen in sitting rooms far distant, and colored men dressed in garish costumes like children, playing odd sporting games and bragging like drunkards—every bit of pride, decency and morality squeezed clean out of them."

Liz is a runaway slave, who experiences Harriet Tubman-like visions that lead the other characters whose lives she touches to nickname her "the Dreamer." Repeatedly, in this stunning, hypnotic book, McBride uses Liz's dreams to ask whether the world of black America today is the destination that the African Americans who fled to freedom on the Underground Railroad had in mind.

Here's how Liz describes today to one of the pivotal characters in the novel, a man who whites see as a weak and downtrodden slave, but who blacks recognize as a leader on the hidden but well-established road to freedom:

"I've seen it already, seen the colored up there, in their tomorrows," she says. "You know what's up there? Colored men walking around free as birds. They don't love their women. They don't love their children. They love horseless carriages. And money. And boxes of candy. Clothing. Long cigarettes. And chains. Chains of gold. They cry for their chains. They even kill for them. Ain't nothing they won't do for them."

It does not take too much historical mind-reading to answer the question McBride raises. Slaves fighting for their freedom, colored people battling against lynching, Negroes marching with Martin Luther King, Jr., none of them were crusading to see 70 percent of black children born out of wedlock, or to find black students lagging four full years behind their white peers in school or to make young black men the leading cause of death among young black men.

What do African Americans of today owe to our history? Are a sideways baseball cap or a pair of too-large jeans a slap in the face to the generations of ancestors who could only dream of the freedoms we take for granted today? Is the freedom we enjoy in the 21st century encumbered by the blood and toil our ancestors spent to purchase it? Do we have an obligation to them to respect ourselves, to take care of our families, to educate our children? Or does being free mean that we are free as any other American to embrace materialism, to reach for our guns at the first provocation, to indulge our human weaknesses?

"Song Yet Sung" takes us deep into the treacherous waters, both literal and figurative, that black people of generations past braved to earn their freedom, and, no less, ours. The story takes place on the eastern shore of Maryland, where Tubman, who, like Liz, experienced dream spells as a result of a childhood head injury, conducted the Underground Railroad. Liz's dreams contain images of another dreamer, King, and the vision he revealed to a quarter-million listeners on the Mall in Washington in 1968.

"Song Yet Sung" is a story about slaves and slave owners, free blacks and poor whites, in the watery marshland of Maryland's eastern shore. Maryland was a slave state, but a very different one than Virginia, its neighbor across the Chesapeake Bay, or the states farther south. Instead of large plantations, typical slave owners had small farms or made their living fishing in the abundant waters of the bay. In the towns that dotted the landscape, free blacks lived a precarious existence as tradesmen, never more than a chance encounter with a slave catcher away from the fate of their enslaved brethren.

The book's action is set in motion when Liz, who had escaped from her owner but been captured by a slave trader named Patty Cannon, kills the slave guarding her and 13 other captives and runs off into an unfamiliar land where she has no friends and countless enemies.