MARY HELEN WASHINGTON: I'm wondering if you've ever thought about how religious this book [Brown’s novel Iron City] is despite the fact that you wrote it as a communist?
LLOYD L. BROWN: I tell you, that comes not from my own religiosity. I am not religious except culturally. Culturally I am in a sense and. . . if I am an Afro-American therefore I have to be moved by, let’s say gospel; when there's a gospel program on I tape it. I’m inspired by gospel. It moves me. And so it’s religious, but it is a humanistic religion. . .
I once discussed with Paul Robeson the song ‘Little Jesus Boy’ that Mahalia sings. ‘They didn’t know who you are, they treated you like they treat me’ is in the song—she humanizes Jesus. Makes him like one of us. One of our own people, she makes him. So it is, in that respect, the Afro‑American religion is very earthy, it’s down‑to‑earth. It’s very real. And therefore if I’m trying to write how they are I have to have them come into it. The role of the preacher in this thing, who became the head of the committee, the church, well that was his role, you see. Rev. Bruford. So, to me, you cannot write about our people and leave out their spirituality. To me, I see it as cultural rather than ideological.
I think of it as, well, like in the ‘spiritual.’ See now some of the Reds used to say that they weren’t spiritual; that they meant ‘follow the drinking gourd’ means escape—they made everything into ‘practical’; ‘steal away to Jesus’ that meant escape from slavery. I said, No, no, they’re talking about both. They’re talking about stealing away. Yes. But they’re also, they’re also looking to heaven because they don’t have anything here. It’s not just the North. They’re going to have to . . . get away! To get on board. ‘Come on children, there’s room for many or more.’ The escape was a big part of it, but it was both spiritual and, and that’s what made it so good. Because it was not, you know, some abstract hymn. This was their own lives they were talking about, they were singing about their own lives, that’s what gave them.
SOURCE: “Lloyd L. Brown Talks to Mary Helen Washington: Writing the Collective Narrative (Route One Interview),” Route One [University of Maryland, College Park], vol. 1, no. 1, Spring 1996, pp. 64-78. Extract, pp. 73-74.