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Author James McBride to speak in Monroe


James McBride

Sarah Leen Enlarge

James McBride is so unassuming that a casual observer couldn't guess that he's an esteemed author and experienced journalist who has reported for such major newspapers as the Washington Post and New York Times, a college professor, composer, and musician.

There was not a single trace of puffery during a conversation with the author of The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother, published in 1997 by Riverhead Books, a New York Times best seller for more than two years.

McBride will speak at the Monroe County Community College's Meyer Theatre at 7 p.m. Monday. His appearance is sponsored by the One Book, One Community of Monroe.

There are good reasons that McBride, who teaches one day a week at New York University, isn't clamoring for the limelight, attending the so-called right social events, or rubbing shoulders with the right people in industry. One of those reasons is his family. Married and living in New Hope, Pa., northeast of Philadelphia, he is the father of two sons and a daughter.

"Writing provides me the opportunity to be at home and around for them," he said in a phone interview Tuesday. "We only have them for a short period of time. They really belong to God."

His schedule allows him more time with his family, as his daily writing routine is from 4:30 to 11 a.m. Currently doing research on his next book, when he travels three days a week to New York City by bus, he sits in the last row and writes during the whole trip: one hour and 40 minutes.

At age 54, McBride has had an extensive career pursuing his creative passions. Though the saxophonist, who has written songs for the likes of Anita Baker and Grover Washington, Jr., seems no longer awed by the limelight, his creative urges are very much at work.

"Lots of times I'm not writing but sitting there waiting for something to happen," he said.

The writer's block surely gets out of the way soon enough. McBride also is the author of Song Yet Sung -- about a runaway slave and a slave catcher who gives up his search for the fugitive -- and Miracle at St. Anna -- which Spike Lee made into a movie with the same title.

McBride acknowledges the divine hand in his life after having had a good measure of exposure to God from various religious perspectives. The son of a Jewish immigrant, McBride writes about his mother, Ruth McBride Jordan, and family in The Color of Water, a title garnered from a conversation he had with her when his family lived in the Red Hook project in Brooklyn.

His mother converted to Christianity and helped found the New Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Brooklyn, N.Y. When McBride was old enough to realize that she was different, but still too young to understand how, he asked what color she was.

"I'm light-skinned," she said.

When McBride asked her whether he was black or white, "You're a human being," she said, insisting that he "Educate yourself or you'll be a nobody."

But those vague answers and the demands she put on her 12 children did not stop his questions.

When he asked what color God was, she said, "God is the color of water."

It was a poignant comment from a Jewish woman who had experienced much pain as a girl and young woman. Her response was proof that she didn't let the ugliness of her past turn her into a monster.

When only a toddler, the family of the former Ruchel Zylska, Rachel Zylska, Rachel Shilsky, and then Ruth Shilsky left what is now Gdansk, Poland and settled in Suffolk, Va. Her father, a rabbi and storekeeper, was abusive. Difficulties in school didn't make her life easier. Other high school girls' refusal to dance next to her because she was Jewish meant she couldn't be in the school musical. And she couldn't participate in high school commencement exercises because they were held in a church.

Though her children didn't learn about their mother's upbringing until much later in life, that darkness didn't rule over Ruth McBride Jordan, who died in January, 2010, when she was 88. Friday would have been the 90th birthday of the woman who was strict and who tightly operated her household, but who did so with motherly love.

Her determination paid off handsomely. McBride holds an undergraduate degree in music composition from Oberlin College and a master's in journalism from Columbia University. Among his siblings are doctors, teachers, a social worker, a professor of black history, a nurse-midwife, a carpenter who once was a chemistry professor, a financial director, a computer engineer, and a sound engineer. Mrs. McBride was no snooze, either. At 65, she obtained a social work degree from Temple University.

"I was raised in a good family. We didn't have much money," McBride said. "We went to church every Sunday; school and church were not options and that's what we did. It didn't matter to my mother what others did, and I was always grateful for that."

Very involved in his own children's lives, McBride still feels badly for today's youth.

"They have so much instant gratification, and we don't give them much to work with. We give them chips and a Coke, but expect them to be rocket scientists," he said. "We need to be more conscientious in terms of how we view our young people and their culture."

McBride is the eighth and last child of his mother's first husband, the Rev. Andrew McBride, who died before James McBride was born. His mother had four more children with her second husband, Hunter Jordan, who raised McBride until he died when McBride was 14. His father and stepfather were African-American.

Although when asked whether the terms mulatto or biracial are applicable to him and his siblings, McBride suggested another term: mixed. However, he said he really doesn't care about labels. After all, he said, America is full of mixed-race people.

"Mixed race people have been part of the American life since the first Europeans set foot on American soil. So 'mixed' is not a useful term. Most African-Americans are mixed. I don't know any pure Irish or Italians," he said. After all, he said, mixed race people "come from the best of both worlds, whatever those are."

Contact Rose Russell at or 419-724-6178.

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