Life and Work
James McBride was born in 1957 in Brooklyn, NY, to a Black minister (Andrew McBride) and a white Jewish mother (Ruth McBride-Jordan). He expresses his curiosity as well as his confusion about issues of race and self-identity when he says: “Mommy was by her own definition ‘light-skinned,’ a statement which I had initially accepted as fact but at some point later decided was not true. My best friend Billy Smith’s mother was as light as Mommy was and had red hair to boot, but there was no question in my mind that Billy’s mother was black and my mother was not. There was something inside me, an ache I had, like a constant itch that got bigger and bigger as I grew… (The Color of Water 22).
His mother was very secretive about her ethnic identity and she refused to tell any of her twelve children where she was from or about her family. McBride’s biological father died before he was born and he was raised by his stepfather, Hunter Jordan, who died when he was fifteen. This only added to his confusion about racial identity because his mother wouldn’t talk and the only father he had known was gone. Looking for answers, he turned to the streets and dropped out of school. This hurt his mother, whose “twin pillars of belief were the church and education” (“James McBride”). Aware of the pain he was causing his mother, McBride later decided to go back and finish school. He also completed a degree in musical composition at Oberlin College in 1979, and in 1980 earned a master of arts degree in journalism from Columbia University.
After graduating from college, McBride became a successful journalist. He worked in top positions for notable publications such as The News Journal, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe. When asked why he gave up these secure jobs for less secure ones, he simply replied, “There is a certain type of person that’s meant to be a journalist and I’m not one of them…It wasn’t creative enough for me” (“James McBride”). Having found the creativity he craved in music, McBride is an award-winning musician and composer with an album, The Process, which was released in 2003. He also turned to writing, which brought back his curiosity about his mother and his childhood. McBride never discovered anything about his mother until he was grown and decided to write a memoir in dedication to her entitled, The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, published in 1996. It is the story of his life as well as his mother’s. He has also written a second book, a novel, Miracle at St. Anna, published in 2003. It tells the story of four American soldiers in the army’s Negro 92nd Division (Buffalo Soldiers) in WWII.
When McBride is not writing or composing, he enjoys going back to his old neighborhood, Red Hook, Brooklyn, where he sponsors a community day that his biological father’s church coordinates each year. Currently, he is a Distinguished Writer-In-Residence at New York University and lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and three children.
McBride writes on subject matters that capture “the commonality of the human experience.” Some of the themes he explores in his work are race, identity, human suffering, and liberation, to all of which every human being can relate in some way. When writing, he is “always looking for that connective tissue that binds one piece of humanity to the next.” His two books, The Color of Water and Miracle at St. Anna, serve as that connection not only to each other but to the world, by exploring human relations that are “culturally, physically, and humanistically different” (Mudge).
His first book, The Color of Water, is a memoir that tells two separate but related stories. The book is written in the first person, alternating between the narrator’s quest to find himself and the story of his mother’s ability to look beyond race and personal suffering to raise twelve children through faith in God and persistence. In it, he writes, “…the little ache I had known as a boy was no longer a little ache when I reached thirty. It was a giant roaring musical riff screaming through my soul like a distorted guitar with the sound turned all the way up telling me; Get on with your life… I had to find out more about who I was, and in order to find out who I was, I had to find out who my mother was” (266). The Color of Water is subtitled A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother; however, it is much more than that. It is a celebration of life and overcoming struggles, things that bind all human beings together. According to Daisy Maryles, “The book garnered enthusiastic critical response, and the author went back on the road for the reprint, visiting eight additional cities. After nine trips to press, the book [had] 148,000 copies in print and sales, according to the publisher, [were] gaining momentum.” Eight years later, the book continues to be a success.
McBride further explores the theme of the common human experience in his recent novel, Miracle at St. Anna. In it, an illiterate black soldier, Sam Train from the Negro 92nd Division (also known as the Buffalo Soldiers) and a six year old Italian boy come together after Sam decides to care for the young boy who is traumatized after witnessing and surviving a Nazi massacre. This novel is inspired by real-life events from the stories that he heard as child through his cousins and his uncles who fought in WWII. When asked what he wants readers to get from this book, McBride says, “ I hope [people will] come away from this book with a deeper understanding that we’re all a lot more the same than we are different; that our humanity intractably binds us and that there’s no getting out of it. If the grandchildren of slaves can go to Italy and bond and love the descendants of peasants, kings and court jesters, anything is possible” (“A Conversation with James McBride”).
McBride has had the opportunity to write in two different genres: fiction and non-fiction. Even though he enjoyed writing his memoir because he learned so much about himself, he feels he can be more creative in writing fiction because it offers a challenge: “With non-fiction you’re dealing with a set of facts and events that are intractable. You have to describe them in a way that makes people want to read to the end but the events are basically in place. With fiction you create a set of characters that eventually come to life and start reacting and doing things you haven’t necessarily planned. You have to be enough of a craftsman to then follow the characters and create the connective tissue that holds your story, your plots, and your characters together” (“A Conversation with James McBride”).
No matter what genre he chooses to write in, McBride has proven that he is an important writer whose work has the potential to change the lives of people in terms of the way they think and the way they react and live in a society that focuses so much on race, gender, identity, and personal preferences.
Publications and Awards
By the Author
- Miracle at St. Anna. New York: Riverhead, 2002; London: Sceptre, 2002; Waterville, ME: Wheeler, 2003.
- The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother. New York: Riverhead, 1996; Thorndike, ME: G.K. Hall, 1996; London: Bloomsbury, 1998; London: Turnaround, 2000.
- “The Color of Water: A Son’s Memoir.” Essence 27.1 (May 1996): 50.
- “One Nation, Still Divisible.” Potomac Review 10 (Spring 1996): 20-23.
- Foreword. Sacred Bond: Black Men and Their Mothers. By Keith Michael Brown. Boston: Little Brown, 1998.
- “What Color is Jesus?” Half and Half: Writers on Growing Up Biracial and Bicultural. Ed. Claudine C. O’Hearn. New York: Pathenon, 1998. 181-196.
- Prologue. Family: A Celebration of Humanity (M.I.L.K). Ed. Elliot Erwitt. London: Headline, 2001, New York: William Morrow, 2001, Auckland, NZ: M.I.L.K., 2002.
- The Process. Cuddy Sounds, 2003.
- Anisfield-Wolf Award for Literary Excellence for The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, 1997
- American Library Association Notable Book of the Year Award for The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, 1997
- Philadelphia’s second selection for the city’s One Book Program, The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, 2004
Criticism and Interviews
About the Author
- Booker, Harmony Nicole. “James McBride.” African American Autobiographers: A Sourcebook. Ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002: 259-63.
- Rev. of The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother. Library Journal 121.1 (Jan. 1996): 110.
- Rev. of The Color of Water: A Tribute to His White Mother. Publishers Weekly 243. (Jan. 1996): 454.
- Rev. of The Color of Water. New York Times Book Review 2 Mar. 1997: 28.
- Contemporary Authors. 2004. Gale Literary Databases. 24 Mar. 2005. <http://www.galenet.com/servlet/GLD>.
- Geiger, Jack H. “Rachel and her Children.” New York Times Book Review 31 Mar. 1996: 7, 16.
- Harper, Phillip Brian. “Passing for What? Racial Masquerade and the Demands of Upward Mobility.” Callaloo 21.2 (Spring 1998) 381-97.
- “James McBride: The Author.” James McBride. 14 Apr. 2005. <http://jamesmcbride.com>.
- “James McBride.” Publishers Weekly 247.33 (Aug. 2000): 196.
- “James McBride.” African American Literature Book Club (AALBC.com). 9 Apr. 2005.
- Maryles, Daisy. “Color Him Beaming.” Publishers Weekly 245.11 (Mar. 1998): 19.
- —. “Color Him Successful.” Publishers Weekly 244.11 (Mar. 1997): 17.
- Rev. of Miracle at St. Anna. Publishers Weekly 248.48 (Nov. 2001): 36-38.
- Rev. of Miracle at St. Anna. Kirkus Reviews (Dec. 2001).
- Rev. of Miracle at St. Anna. Library Journal 127.3 (Feb. 2002): 178.
- Rev. of Miracle at St. Anna. Library Journal 127.16 (Oct. 2002): 63.
- Mudge, Alden. “Real-life Episode Inspires James McBride’s WWII Novel.” Book Page. 24 Mar. 2005. <http://www.bookpage.com/0202bp/james_mcbride.html>.
- Oderman, Norman. “Black Men, White Relations.” Publishers Weekly 242.44 (Oct. 1995): 24-25.
- Ramsey, William M. “Knowing Their Place: Three Black Writers and the Postmodern South” Southern Literary Journal 37.2 (Spring 2005): 119-39.
- Ribbat, Christoph. “Nomadic with the Truth: Holocaust Representations in Michael Chabon, James McBride, and Jonathan Safran Foer.” Anglistik und Englischunterricht 66 (2005): 199-218.
- Savin, Ada. “The Workings of Memory: Blacks and Jews in James McBride’s The Color of Water.” Chard-Hutchinson, Martine, ed. Figures de la Mémoire dans la Littérature et les Arts Juifs Américains des XXe et XXIe Siècles. Paris, France: Institut d’Etudes Anglophones, Université Paris VII-Denis Diderot, 2004. 111-26.
- Wilson, Charles. “An Accidental Truce.” New York Times Book Review 3 Mar. 2002: 16.
- “A Conversation with James McBride, Author of Miracle at St. Anna.” 29 Mar. 2005 <http://www.jamesmcbride.com>.
- “An Interview with the Author of The Color of Water.” Program in Writing and Rhetoric Stony Brook University. 24 Mar. 2005. <http://www.sunysb.edu/writrhet/communitytext/ mcbrideinterview.htm>.
- “Chat Text.” African American Literature Book Club (AALBC.com). 14 Apr. 2005. <http://authors.aalbc.com/jamesmcbridechattext.htm>.
- “James McBride.” The Writer 116. 6 (Jun. 2003): 22.
- “James McBride Stays in Tune.” Author Interviews at Powells.com. 24. Mar. 2005. <http://www.powels.com/authors/mcbride.html>.