One man's unique story about poverty, race, family

February 9, 1997
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

James McBride, at 39, still calls his mother "Mommy."

"You can see I have a lot of things to work out," he told a full house at the UC Davis Main Theater at the end of January. The audience laughed. Most of the people in the audience knew about or had read McBride's memoir, "The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother" (Riverhead Books, 1996) and they got the joke. McBride's book is devoted to an exploration of his mother's life - she being the daughter of a black-hating Jewish rabbi - and her marriages to two black men. The story is told in counterpoint chapters - her story, her son's story.

This is McBride's introduction, which he read aloud:

"As a boy, I never knew where my mother was from - where she was born, who her parents were. When I asked she'd say, "God made me." When I asked if she was white, she'd say: "I'm light-skinned," and change the subject. She raised 12 black children and sent us all to college and in most cases graduate school. Her children became doctors, professors, chemists, teachers - yet none of us even knew her maiden name until we were grown. It took me 14 years to unearth her remarkable story - the daughter of an orthodox Jewish rabbi, she married a black man in 1942 - and she revealed it more as a favor to me than out of any desire to revisit her past."

McBride was No. 8 of 12 children. He did not become a doctor, like his revered big brother, Dennis. No, he became a journalist and a jazz musician. At the reading, he looked like a musician: funky hat, bright tie, baggy suit. It's a lucky thing for us that he became a talented writer, too, for without McBride's curiosity and persistence this unique story would never be told.

"My mother never cooked and never cleaned house, but insisted on education and church," said McBride. She converted to Christianity early in her first marriage.

"I saw her abused by both blacks and whites for having all these black children - but she always kept looking ahead, she kept her eyes on the prize.

"She's 75, still alive...and a very weird person," added her son.

This weird wonderful person kept her painful past a secret. She used to tell her kids: "Never ask questions or your mind will end up like a rock."

So how did McBride get her to open up?

"She didn't want to talk about her life until I told her (my book) would make $1 million. That moved the mountain a little," McBride said to more laughter from the audience.

But what was it like being raised in Queens by a white mother and a black father and stepfather?

"We didn't stumble through life like tragic mulattos trying to figure out whether to eat matzo balls or black-eyed peas," McBride assured the audience. "We were accepted in the black community. In the real world, race is secondary. Poverty is first."

McBride read this section aloud: "My brothers and sisters were my best friends but when it came to food they were my enemies. There were so many of us we were constantly hungry, scavenging for food in the empty refrigerator and cabinets. We would hide food from one another, squirreling away a precious grilled cheese or fried bologna sandwich, but the hiding places were known to all and foraged by all and the precious commodity was usually discovered and devoured before it got cold. Entire plots were hatched around swiping food, complete with double-crossings, backstabbings, intrigue, outright robbery and gobbled evidence."

McBride has been surprised at one aspect of the book's reception.

"I thought it would be received well in the black community but it's sold much better in the white Jewish community," he said. "Most of my readers are middle-age, white, Jewish women - thank you. I've been told the subtitle puts black women off."

Someone in the audience asked McBride if he considered himself Jewish.

"I'm proud of my Jewish history," he replied. "I have more empathy now with Jewish issues. I've been to Africa and I'm going to Israel this year...but I was raised as a black Christian. Technically I guess you could say I'm Jewish since my mother was Jewish...but she converted. 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."

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