Deacon King Kong

by

James McBride

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Deacon King Kong Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on James McBride's Deacon King Kong. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of James McBride

James McBride was born and raised in New York City. His father, an African American, died of cancer just before McBride was born, and so his mother, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, raised him. When he was born, McBride was one of eight children, and when his mother remarried, he became one of twelve. McBride grew up in the Red Hook housing projects of Brooklyn, and his experience has influenced much of his writing, including Deacon King Kong (2020). In the mid-1970s, McBride  Oberlin College, where he received his bachelor’s degree. He then immediately earned a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University, which he received in 1980. McBride’s writing career took off in 1995 after the publication of his autobiography and memoir titled The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother. The book details McBride’s upbringing in New York and received critical acclaim for its reflections on race in America. It is now considered a classic in the genre. McBride’s next book was a novel, Miracle at St. Anna (2002), which tells the story of four African American soldiers fighting on the Italian front in WWII; Spike Lee later directed a film adaption of the novel. McBride’s greatest achievement in fiction didn’t come until 2013 with the publication of The Good Lord Bird, which won the National Book Award in 2013. Later, in 2020, Ethan Hawke and Jason Blum adapted it for television. McBride has also published two other works of fiction, Song Yet Sung (2008) and Five-Carat Soul (2017). He has also written a work of experimental non-fiction—Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul (2016). Currently, McBride is the Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University.
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Historical Context of Deacon King Kong

Deacon King Kong is set in late-1960s Brooklyn, New York and examines the racial tensions present during that time. The 1960s were a difficult time for African American people in the United States. Malcolm X, a prominent civil rights leader, was assassinated in 1964. Not long after, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968. These killings led to widespread despair among African American communities who understandably felt that their fight for equality had been stifled. Often, characters in Deacon King Kong will fatalistically refer to the oppressive forces in society meant to keep Black people down, and it’s likely that the political assassinations of the 1960s contributed to their pessimism. Indeed, open and aggressive racism was common in the 1960s, even in multicultural areas such as Brooklyn. Additionally, the late 1960s saw the rise of heroin in America’s major cities. Various mob associations—including the Italian mob in New York—introduced heroin to the most vulnerable populations in the inner cities. Heroin use rose significantly over the next decade, claiming many lives in the process. In Deacon King Kong, Deems, one of the main characters, sells heroin to his own community at the behest of Joe Peck, a local mob boss. The novel grapples with the legacy of drug distribution and drug use among minority communities during this period.

Other Books Related to Deacon King Kong

Deacon King Kong is part of a strain of contemporary American fiction that looks back on historical events as a way of exploring the racial divide in the country. It is part of a contemporary tradition that includes the novels of Colson Whitehead such Harlem Shuffle (2021) and Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black. Obvious precursors to Deacon King Kong include works by Toni Morrison, particularly Beloved and The Bluest Eye, both of which are works of historical fiction and tackle the history of racism in America. McBride also examines race in America in many of his other works, including Miracle at St. Anna, which tells the story of four African American soldiers fighting on the Italian front in WWII; and The Good Lord Bird, a novel about an enslaved person who becomes an abolitionist. In addition to being a serious work of historical fiction, Deacon King Kong is also a work of farcical comedy. Its slapstick humor is more akin to what is normally found on the stage (Shakespeare) or the screen (The Three Stooges) than the novel. However, one obvious precursor is the fiction of Mark Twain. Another is Kurt Vonnegut’s aptly titled Slapstick, which uses humor to examine difficult subjects like death and grief. 
Key Facts about Deacon King Kong
  • Full Title: Deacon King Kong
  • Where Written: New York, New York
  • When Published: 2020
  • Literary Period: Contemporary American Fiction
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Setting: Brooklyn, New York in 1969
  • Climax: Sportcoat visits Deems in the hospital and almost smothers him to death after Deems treats him cruelly. 
  • Antagonist: Joe Peck and his associates
  • Point of View: Third Person

Extra Credit for Deacon King Kong

Musically Gifted In addition to being an acclaimed author, James McBride is a skilled saxophonist and composer. For several years, he played as part of the “Rock Bottom Remainders,” a charity supergroup made up of published writers including Stephen King and Barbara Kingsolver.

Presidential Acclaim Former president Barack Obama listed Deacon King Kong as one of his favorite books of 2020.