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.
Among the enemies are Patty, a character based on a real-life historical figure; Patty's gang of shady accomplices, both white and black; and Denwood Long, a slave catcher feared but respected by the blacks on the eastern shore.
The black people in McBride's story are multidimensional figures, trapped in slavery but fully realized as individuals with their own hopes, fears and contradictions. There's Amber, the slave whose love for Liz compromises his plan to run for freedom; Mary, who was forced to choose between Liz and her own missing child; and the woman with no name, who introduces Liz to the existence of the "freedom train," the hidden, multifaceted route to the north.
It is a testimony to McBride's skill as a writer, and to the breadth of his ambition for this novel, that not all of the whites in the book are portrayed as one-dimensional evils. Denwood, especially, is a complex, intriguing character, a man who wants to retire from the thing he does best—catching runaway slaves—but who cannot escape the lure of money or the memory of his 6-year-old son, whose death challenges Denwood's belief that the world is rational.
In fact, Denwood's pursuit of Liz ultimately causes him to confront many of his core beliefs, including the fictions that enable him to hunt down human beings and return them to a life of slavery.
At one point, when Denwood is faced with the need to bargain with a slave who can help him find Liz, McBride offers this glimpse into the slave catcher's conflicted soul. "He disliked making deals with slaves and free blacks. It hampered him in too many ways, mostly internally, because in making deals with them, they became more human to him, and in doing so—try as he might to resist the feeling—they became less slave and more man to him. He could not make a deal with a pig, or a dog, or a piece of pork. But if a man says to another man or woman, I'll give you this for that, then who are you dealing with? An equal? Or chattel?"
"Song Yet Sung" is McBride's third book. His first one, the bestselling "The Color of Water," told his story of growing up as the black child of a white mother. His second book, "Miracle at St. Anna," will be made into a movie by Spike Lee. "Song Yet Sung" fulfills McBride's potential as a major writer with a unique vision and the ability to entrance readers who enter his world.
Typical of McBride's subtlety is his approach to the subject of reading. During slavery, blacks risked life and limb to learn to read, while whites did everything in their power to keep them ignorant. Today, in a pernicious reversal, reading—and, by extension, education in general—is scorned in some precincts of black teen culture as "acting white." McBride lets his characters tell the story.
Patty, he writes, "actually liked the colored. She trusted them more than she did the white man. They were predictable. They gravitated toward kindness. She could tell when they thought or did wrong, could read it in their faces. They were like dogs, loyal, easy to train, unless of course they learned to read, which made them useless."
Liz, meanwhile, has yet another dream "of young black men in great cities who shot one another from horseless carriages, and of fat children who cried of starvation and ran from books like they were poison."
As you read this book—and you should—it will be difficult to escape the conclusion that the present does owe something to the past. By the time the story ends, Liz attains freedom of a sort, but it does not come to her for free. Even in the midst of slavery, all of the black characters in McBride's novel taste freedom, but all of them pay a price for it. That price is high enough to impose a debt on those of us who are alive today. It's a debt we can repay; McBride suggests, by taking responsibility for the things we can control—our families, our culture and ourselves.
Harold J. Logan is a businessman, writer and social entrepreneur who lives in Atlanta. A former metro and national reporter of the Washington Post, he is a cofounder of the W.E.B. Dubois Society .