Oprah’s Newest Book Club Pick Is by Black Jewish Author James McBride

"Deacon King Kong," Winfrey’s 85th book club selection, is about race, religion, and community in the 1960s.

Oprah Winfrey, queen of book clubs, announced her latest book club pick is Deacon King Kong by James McBride.

“I selected Deacon King Kong by James McBride well before the events of the past weeks, during which our collective hearts are being broken again and again by the images of violence against Black people. Our grief and anger aren’t letting up — justifiably so,” Oprah begins her announcement video. “And we have to continue to speak up and protest about what’s wrong with the world, but at the same time, we have to do better in seeking out stories by Black authors, and reading and learning more. That’s why I’m moving forward with my book club announcement today. While we all mourn the Black lives that have been taken from us, we’re going to celebrate the life, and work, of another.”

Deacon King Kong is Winfrey’s 85th (!!) book club selection. The story — about race and religion and community in the 1960s — begins with a shooting in September 1969 at a housing project in Brooklyn. A church deacon, known as Sportcoat, shoots a drug dealer at point-blank range, setting off a chain of events.

Actually, let’s let McBride himself give you a synopsis: “Deacon King Kong is essentially a book about a deacon from a small Baptist church in the southwest corner of Brooklyn who gets drunk one morning, pulls out his old, ancient 38, walks up to the most dreadful drug dealer in the neighborhood and shoots him. He doesn’t kill him, but he shoots him. And that shooting sets off — it’s like dropping a rock in a pond. It sets off a wave of activity both in the community, in the church. Then you have the projects, which is a mix of Black and Hispanic people. And then you have the surrounding area, which is Italian, Jewish. And then you have your Irish police force — largely Irish police force. And they all come together to kind of work on this problem. And as they deal with this issue, you see these different worlds coming together and how they come to know each other, to like each other, to tolerate each other, to respect each other and to even dislike each other. But you see all these different orbits, these — all these worlds spinning together as a result of this one act by this old unlucky-yet-lucky deacon who takes the law into his own hands.”

It’s a remarkable read, and all the more remarkable that Oprah has picked it for her book club. (After, you know, just a few controversies this year.)

“I never thought something like that would happen with one of my books,” McBride said of the call from Winfrey telling him his book was her next book clup pick. “We talked a little about the pandemic, and the craziness that is now America. Then she said she liked Deacon King Kong and had been a fan of my previous work. I was very pleased to know that she had followed my work.”

McBride, a Black Jewish author (and jazz musician!), is perhaps best known for his 1995 memoir, The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, which tells the story of his mother, Ruchel Dwajra Zylaska (later Rachel Deborah Shilsky, then Ruth McBride Jordan). Ruth immigrated to America from Poland; she was the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi. In 1942, Ruth, a white woman, converted to Christianity and married James’ father, Rev. Andrew Dennis McBride, a Black man. Ruth and Dennis would go on to have eight children, including James; after Dennis’s death, she remarried, and they had four children. The Color of Water is James’ attempts to understand his mother and how she raised 12 Black children; growing up, he would ask her where she was from, and she’d reply, “God made me.”

On James’ own Jewish identity, he’s explained, “I’m proud of my Jewish history. Technically I guess you could say I’m Jewish since my mother was Jewish… but she converted [to Christianity]. So the question is for theologians to answer. It doesn’t cause me one drop of blood, sweat or tears. I just get up in the morning happy to be living.”

McBride’s 2013 novel The Good Lord Bird won the National Book Award for Fiction. The novel is the fictional memoirs of Henry Shackleford, an enslaved person in Kansas who joins up with abolitionist John Brown. It’s currently being adapted into a TV show starring Joshua Caleb Johnson and Ethan Hawke.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H-Tm63y-S4s

In 2015, President Obama awarded McBride a National Humanities Medal for “humanizing the complexities of discussing race in America. Through writings about his own uniquely American story, and his works of fiction informed by our shared history, his moving stories of love display the character of the American family.”

Whether you’re not a book club person, it seems that Deacon King Kong is one book not to miss. You can purchase it here.

Header image of James McBride by JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images and of Oprah via @Oprah on Instagram.

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