A Biracial Author Discusses Difference Speaking To Students At The Baldwin School, James Mcbride Noted That People Are More Than Their Differences.

Posted: September 18, 1998

BRYN MAWR — American society, says author and musician James McBride, sees him as a black man.

But when he looks in the mirror, he sees only himself.

``If I grew up in a truly color-blind society, I would not be a black American,'' McBride said.

``I wrote this book [The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother] because I wanted people to see that our community is more than our differences. I've talked about this book to people around the world, black, white, Asian, short, tall, and literally I've met people who have had the same experiences growing up.''

McBride, 41, the son of a white Jewish mother and a black Baptist minister, spoke this week to ninth through 12th grade students at the private, all-female Baldwin School. Though the auditorium was hot and muggy, McBride held the attention of the 170 students, most of whom, including Crystal Fleming, 16, of Norristown, had read the book.

``I thought the book was great. It gives a look into the lives of biracial children,'' Fleming said. Because she is part Cherokee, she said, ``I can identify with the book.''

One of 12 children, McBride said that as he was growing up in New York City housing projects, his mother passed herself off as a light-skinned black woman. She never spoke of her family.

As an adult, he said, he learned that his mother was born Rachael Shilsky in a small town in Poland and came to the United States with her family.

McBride's grandfather was an Orthodox rabbi. At age 17, McBride said, his mother ran away to Harlem, where she married his father, and together they founded the all-black New Brown Memorial Baptist Church.

``When my mother left home, her family sat shivah for her, more because my father was not Jewish than because he was black,'' McBride said.

``My father died in 1957, just before I was born. My mother went to her Jewish aunt, who slammed the door in her face.''

From his father's side of the family, McBride said, his Aunt Candice, the granddaughter of a slave, came to help with the cooking and housekeeping.

She remained with the household until his mother remarried. When his mother was 51 years old and McBride was 14 years old, his stepfather died.

``We would not have been a successful family without my father and stepfather, who were working-class men with better dreams for their children. We just wore them out,'' McBride said.

His mother, who worked as a bank typist, insisted on education and faith.

In her home, he said, cursing was prohibited, and not doing homework earned the culprit a beating.

All 12 children, McBride said, graduated from college. Some, including himself, also completed graduate school.

Asked by the audience about his religious faith, he said he sees himself as a Christian but is proud of his family's Jewish history. One of his siblings has returned to her mother's original faith.

``My mother doesn't judge people that much. She is very open-minded and extremely compassionate,'' McBride said.

``She said, `Who cares what people say?' . . . She taught me that you have to look to your goal and decide the way you want to go.''

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