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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
The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother

James McBride and his 11 siblings were raised by a mother who shrouded her own early life in mystery. McBride's father and stepfather were both black men, but the boy knew his mother looked different. "When I asked if she was white, she'd say, 'I'm light-skinned,' and change the subject."

In The Color of Water, McBride relates the remarkable story he finally extracted from his mother. Born in Poland in 1921, she became Ruth Shilsky when the family immigrated to America. As McBride reveals his mother's early life and the story of his own upbringing in alternating chapters, Ruth Zilska Shilsky McBride Jordan emerges as an American original.

Her Orthodox rabbi father "was nobody to fool with," Ruth said. "He was hard as a rock." He hauled his family all over the Northeast until moving them to Virginia, where he opened a grocery store. Her mother was a gentle woman, disabled by polio and badly treated by her husband. Ruth's life as a young Jewish girl in the South was dismal. She was isolated, unpopular in school, required to work long hours in the store, and abused by her father.

After high school Ruth moved to New York, where she married a black man, Andrew Dennis McBride (known as Dennis), who was an excellent leather maker and a talented musician. "My family mourned me when I married your father," she told James. "They said kaddish and sat shiva. That's how Orthodox Jews mourn their dead." Ruth and Dennis lived together happily, much of the time in a Brooklyn housing project. She converted to Christianity, and Dennis went to divinity school and opened his own Baptist church.

James McBride, the youngest of Dennis's eight children, never knew his own father. Dennis died of cancer before the birth of his youngest son. James thought of Ruth's second husband, Hunter Jordan, "as Daddy ... he cared for all of us as if we were his own." Ruth had four more children with Hunter, so the family had an even dozen children. Fortunately, Hunter Jordan was in synch with Ruth's insistence on "education and church." Her child-rearing model, as James characterizes it, "represented the best and worst of the immigrant mentality: hard work, no nonsense, quest for excellence, distrust of authority figures, and a deep belief in God and education."

On a day-to-day basis, life in the McBride-Jordan household was challenging. "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."

The food shortage was evidence of the family's unrelieved poverty. Ruth Jordan's concerns were not materialistic, and housekeeping was not high on her list of important values to foster in her children. "Our house looked like a hurricane hit it. Books, papers, shoes, football helmets, baseball bats, balls, trucks, bicycles, musical instruments were everywhere and used by everyone."

James muses on his mother's contradictions: "White folks, she felt, were implicitly evil toward blacks, yet she forced us to go to white schools to get the best education. Blacks could be trusted more, but anything involving blacks was probably slightly substandard. She disliked people with money yet was in constant need of it."

In 1966, as a nine-year-old, James inevitably took notice of Black Power, which was highly visible in his neighborhood in New York. "Malcolm had been killed the year before and had grown larger in death than in life. Afros were in style. The Black Panthers were a force." But because of his unusual family configuration, his view was different from that of most African American boys: "There was a part of me that feared Black Power very deeply for the obvious reason. I thought Black Power would be the end of my mother. I had swallowed the white man's fear of the Negro, as we were called back then, whole."

In The Color of Water, James McBride offers a complex and individual description of racial identity within a particularly rich historical moment in the United States. At its core, this memoir is a moving dedication to a mother who was always a woman of fierce integrity. She paid no heed to what the world might think of her, and concentrated, laserlike on her brood of 12. Her single-mindedness paid off. All her children went to college -- most earned graduate degrees -- and are established in professional careers. James had a successful career as a newspaper writer before writing the book, and has also thrived as a musician in recent years. Ruth herself graduated from Temple University with a degree in social work when she was 65.

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