Best-Selling Author James McBride Searches for James Brown In “Kill ’Em and Leave”

Author James McBride. Photo credit: Chia Messina
Author James McBride. Photo credit: Chia Messina

About 25 years ago, James McBride’s journey to self through the prism of his mother’s life led him to Suffolk, where she had spent part of her childhood. The award-winning author interviewed distant relatives and retraced Ruth’s childhood there. That culminated in the 1996 memoir “The Color of Water,” which explored McBride’s life as a black man with a white mother.

The book topped The New York Times best-sellers list and made the musician and former journalist for People a literary sensation. Since then, McBride has published other books, including 2013’s “The Good Lord Bird,” which won a National Book Award and became another best-seller.

But McBride recently found himself in a desperate space, reeling from a costly divorce, as he started work on his new book, “Kill ’Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul.” In a way, the journey to complete his latest effort, released early last month, mirrors the exploration behind “The Color of Water.”

The Brooklyn native went South to lift some of the mystery shrouding a person he’d admired since childhood. In doing so, McBride uses the smoky fishbowl of James Brown’s life to tell the triumph and tragedy of the soul movement the legend invigorated and anchored.

“I needed the money,” McBride says flatly. “And I felt that the emotional part of the man was not represented in any of the books I read about him. He seemed to be a puzzle to me. I know that from his onstage persona and his message that there had to be a lot of good in him, and I wanted to see where it was.”

Much already has been written about Brown, who died on Christmas Day, 2006. Several books, including “The One: The Life and Times of James Brown” by RJ Smith, published six years after Brown’s death, and “James Brown: The Godfather of Soul,” by James Brown with Bruce Tucker, which came out two years later, have tried to encapsulate one of modern pop’s most mercurial architects. And there was the film biopic “Get on Up,” starring Chadwick Boseman and Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, which hit theaters in 2014 and garnered mostly positive reviews.

But some of the books, and especially the movie, perpetuated lies about the complicated man born dirt poor in rural South Carolina on May 3, 1933. Much of “Get on Up,” including the opening scene where Boseman as a demented Brown brandishes a shotgun inside a strip mall office, is fantasy.

In “Kill ’Em and Leave,” the title of which is taken from a line Brown used to describe his performance style, McBride writes: “During the civil rights movement, which was [Brown’s] heyday, he epitomized that striving and pride of the African American struggle. Yet since his sad, dispirited death in an Atlanta hospital in 2006, the facts of his life have become twisted like a pretzel beyond recognition, which is how, sadly, a lot of black history ends up …’ ”

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SOURCE: The Virginian-Pilot
Rashod Ollison