James McBride’s book arrived at a very particular solution for how to tell a story about slavery. He tells it as comedy, from within, using a narrator who has, for the entirety of his life, taken slavery as a given; Onion’s innocent eyes relieve him of the need to preach its obvious horrors. “This is not the typical story of the white savior that comes to save African-American people,” the writer said this past January, at that Television Critics Association conference. “This is the African-American perspective on the white savior that comes to save us, and that’s why it’s so funny. It’s a story of caricature.”
McBride’s novel is primarily concerned with the relationship between a growing boy and the wild-eyed father figure who has come to him by recklessly causing the death of his actual father — just one among many, many layers of grim irony and humor. When Onion travels back East with Brown so that the abolitionist can guilt white liberals into donating to his cause, Brown asks the boy to assist by telling the donors some tales of woe — or, as he puts it, “your life of deprivation and starvation as a slave. Being hungry and all. Whipped scandalous and them type of things.” To this, the book’s Onion tells us: “I didn’t want to confess to him I weren’t never hungry as a slave nor was never whipped scandalous. Fact is, only time I was hungry and eating out of garbage barrels and sleeping out in the cold was when I was free with him. But it weren’t proper to say it, so I nodded.” But in the TV series, created by Hawke and adapted by the showrunner Mark Richard, Onion challenges his guardian, pointing out that it is only under this “freedom” that he’s been hungry, cold and shot at. “I would stay off that subject entirely,” Brown mumbles, before changing the subject.
In McBride’s framing, no white person, whether free-stater or pro-slaver, ever fully sees Onion. They don’t even know his gender. “Black people have been hiding from white folks so long,” McBride told me of the choice to put Onion in a dress, “that that gives you room as a writer to work, because it shows the separation between the two races. Because racism is so stupid; it’s obvious to us.” A running gag is that nearly every Black character immediately recognizes Onion as a boy dressed as a girl, and immediately considers it the least important thing about their exchange. Brown, who is regarded (perhaps most of all by himself) as the most fearsome abolitionist in the country, views Onion sometimes as a good-luck charm and other times as a tragic symbol, but it takes the entire story for him to grow the ability to see Onion as a person. Even as Brown rallies abolitionists to the cause, Onion notes that the scene makes him “a bit sad” — “them hundreds of white folks crying for the Negro, for there weren’t hardly ever any Negroes present at most of them gatherings.” It is, he observes, “like a big long lynching. Everybody got to make a speech about the Negro but the Negro.”
Last year, I met with McBride at the place where he can most readily be found on any day of the week: the humble church his mother was a founder of, across the street from the housing projects in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where he grew up. The front door was open at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday, and a few workers were inside, carrying folding chairs down a rickety flight of stairs. I stopped one of them and asked him if he knew where I could find James McBride. Turns out he was James McBride.
We sat in a basement under fluorescent lights and talked. In Onion, McBride said, he saw something that he felt Black people today may be able to relate to. “It’s easy as a kid to say, ‘Well, if I was a slave, I’d have done a Quentin Tarantino and shot up …’” he told me. “Man, you ain’t shootin’ up nobody! The cops pull you over here on Centre Street and Clinton, you keep your hands where he can see them and hope the guy didn’t have a bad day. Onion is the opportunist in us all, because so few of us are really able to say, ‘I’m going to leave what I have and take it to the rack, and lose my chance to get Mister Softee’s on Friday and a good house and good car.’ There’s an Onion in all of us, you know? It’s just a question of how much.” His story is not judgmental about the decisions Black characters make as they work through a complex calculus of freedom and survival; Onion refers to one companion, a man always focused on their coming out of every affair with their heads still attached, as the bravest coward he ever met.
As for the character of Brown, McBride says he is someone you can’t help loving for his singleness of purpose. “He was wrong in a lot of the things he did,” McBride added, “but in the greater scheme, was he wrong? He was crazy, but I loved him, and I loved what he stood for. And it took me a long time to really accept him fully enough that I could write about him.” Later, at a news conference, I would ask McBride — who serves as an executive producer on the show, but was not involved in writing it — if he had any concerns about telling what could be seen as the tale of a white man’s saviorism, and if that risk was doubled by attaching a prominent white name to the television project. He acknowledged the concern but was, on this point, very clear. “You know, I still work in my church, in my little storefront Baptist church in Brooklyn,” he said to the assembled crowd. “I know a lot of the pain and suffering that happens that white people don’t pay no attention to. But I’m also hip to the fact that a lot of people, whatever their race, pay a lot of lip service to the poor, what the poor in this country need and what they should have.” Here he paraphrased a quote from the Rev. Joseph Lowery: “My house is on fire,” McBride said. “My children are in it. I don’t care who brings me the water.” Brown, he said, was “a real hero to me and to many Black people who are no longer alive, and I’m so glad that we brought this story to people.” He continued: “John Brown gave his life and two of his sons’ lives to the cause of freedom for Black people. And he started the Civil War. And they buried this man’s story for a long time because nobody could figure out how to tell it without losing money or losing their career or getting themselves deep-sixed some kind of way. We managed to do it.”