Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

Monthly Update sign up
Mailing List signup
Search
MENU
Teaching Multicultural Literature : A Workshop for the Middle Grades
Workshop 1 Workshop 2 Workshop 3 Workshop 4 Workshop 5 Workshop 6 Workshop 7 Workshop 8
Workshop 1: Engagement and Dialogue
Overview
Authors and Literary Works
Julia Alverez
Biography
Work
Gish Jen
Biography
Work
Tina Lee
Biography
Work
Khot T. Luu
Biography
Work
James McBride
Biography
Work
Lensey Namioka
Biography
Work
Lensey Namioka
Biography
Work
Key References
Video Summary
Teaching Strategies
Commentary
Student Work
Resources
Interactive Workbook -- Explore two poems using strategies from these workshops. Go.
Channel-Talk -- Share your views on the discussion board. Go.


Authors and Literary Works
Biography

James McBride enjoys a rich creative life as both a well-regarded writer and an accomplished composer and jazz saxophonist.

McBride is best known for writing The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother. This combined biography of his mother and memoir of his own life has struck a chord with the reading public, earning more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list.

It's ironic that his mother's story is now so intimately known to readers across the country. When McBride was a boy growing up in housing projects in Red Hook, Brooklyn, his white, Jewish mother was unusually secretive about her life. As a child, James made periodic stabs at discovering the background of his obviously white mother. "When I asked her where she was from, she would say, 'God made me,' and change the subject... Answering questions about her personal history did not jibe with Mommy's view of parenting 12 brown-skinned children."

Eventually McBride broke through the wall. Through conversations with his mother and additional research, he was able to construct a poignant and memorable portrait.

McBride found that his mother had been born in Poland to an Orthodox Jewish rabbi and his wife. Life was never easy for Ruth Shilsky. The family immigrated to America, where they moved around a lot in the early years, before settling in Virginia. Her father abused her and was generally difficult. She moved to New York after high school, and married African American Andrew McBride, a leather maker and aspiring musician who was known by his middle name, Dennis. He started his own church, and Ruth enthusiastically converted to Christianity. They had eight children. James was the last, born after his father's death of cancer. Ruth later married another black man, Hunter Jordan, and had four more children.

In The Color of Water, James McBride interweaves this maternal history with a vivid portrait of what it was like to grow up in Ruth's chaotic household, where religion and education were the two great verities. He paints an indelible picture of the indomitable character who was his mother, who had to barrel through poverty every day of their lives. "It wasn't that she forgot who we were, but there were so many of us, she had no time for silly details like names. She was the commander in chief of my house," acting "as chief surgeon for bruises ('Put iodine on it'), war secretary ('If somebody hits you, take your fist and crack 'em'), chief psychologist ('Don't think about it'), and financial adviser ('What's money if your mind is empty?')."

James's birth rank buried him deeply in the insignificant middle of the family of 12 children. "It was kill or be killed in my house, and Mommy understood that, in fact, [she] created the system. You were left to your own devices -- so you thought, until you were at your very wits' end, at which time she would step in and rescue you."

McBride was 14 when his stepfather died. Ruth slid into a long daze of grief, and James went on his own emotional slide. His grades plummeted. He started drinking, using drugs, shoplifting, and flirting with other petty crime. He eventually regained his equilibrium and went off to Oberlin College, "because they had a great liberal arts school, a conservatory of music, and most of all, scholarship money." He followed up with a master's degree from the Columbia School of Journalism. Like his 11 siblings, James McBride went on to have a successful career. He was a staff writer for The Washington Post, People Magazine, and The Boston Globe, and has also written for Essence, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times. McBride has written fiction as well. His historical novel, Miracle at St. Anna, portrays black soldiers during World War II who are stranded in a remote Italian village between their commanders and the German Army.

James McBride's creative gifts extend beyond literature to the field of music. He has developed a talent he inherited from Dennis McBride, the father he never knew. McBride plays the saxophone, and has written songs for Anita Baker, Grove Jr., Purafe, Garry Burton, and even the television character, Barney. "You can say things in music that you can't say verbally or as a writer, and in some ways they have a deeper impact. Songs are in many ways the lighthouses of your life." His awards include the American Arts and Letters Richard Rogers Award, the ASCAP Richard Rodgers Horizons Award, and the American Music Festival's Stephen Sondheim Award.

back to top Next: James McBride: Work
Workshop Home Support Materials About this Workshop Sitemap
Teaching Multicultural Literature : A Workshop for the Middle Grades Workshop Home

© Annenberg Foundation 2014. All rights reserved. Legal Policy