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A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother

by James McBride

Pub Date: Jan. 23rd, 1996
ISBN: 1-57322-022-1
Publisher: Riverhead

An eloquent narrative in which a young black man searches for his roots—against the wishes of his mother. 

McBride, a professional saxophonist and former staff writer for the Boston Globe and the Washington Post, grew up with 11 siblings in an all-black Brooklyn, New York, housing project. As a child, he became aware that his mother was different from others around him: She was white, and she kept secrets. When asked where she was from, McBride recalls, she would say something like ``God made me''; when asked about her ethnicity, she would say, `` `I'm light-skinned,' and change the subject.'' No amount of prodding could get her to say much more, and McBride was left to explore his mother's past without much help from his principal subject. What he learned occupies the pages of this vivid, affecting memoir: the story of a woman whose parents fled the anti-Jewish pogroms of Central Europe for the American South, there to be faced with new prejudices and develop a few of their own; a woman whose father sexually abused her for years and who ``would run down the back roads where the black folks lived'' to escape him; a woman who moved to New York, married a black minister, and raised eight children, then remarried on his death and raised four more. ``My parents were nonmaterialistic. They believed that money without knowledge was worthless, that education tempered with religion was the way to climb out of poverty in America, and over the years they were proven right,'' McBride writes. The catalogue of his siblings with which he closes his book bears him out: Most have gone on to be doctors, educators, and professionals, with résumés of unbroken success.

McBride's mother should take much pleasure in this loving if sometimes uncomfortable memoir, which embodies family values of the best kind. Other readers will take pleasure in it as well.