nys writers logo




James McBride










Photo Credit: Judy Lawne

James McBride

Appeared on THE WRITER PBS Series
Air Date:
WMHT, Channel 17, Saturday, December 19, 1998, 6:00 p.m.
Air Date: WMHQ, Channel 45, Wednesday, December 23, 1998, 9:30 p.m

NYS Writers Institute on February 17, 1998

Cosponsored by the Greater Capital Region Teacher Center
and the UAlbany's Project Renaissance

James McBride, African-American journalist and jazz musician, is the author of the best-selling biography of his Jewish mother, The Color of Water (1996). The book recounts the life of Ruth Jordan McBride, born Ruchel Dwarja Zylska to a Polish Orthodox Jewish family that emigrated to the U.S. in 1921, her marriage to a black Baptist minister and her efforts to raise twelve children. The biography explores the slippery notions of race and identity in the modern era.

He was recently chosen by American composer, producer and jazz legend Quincy Jones to write his autobiography for Doubleday Books, a work currently in progress. James is the recipient of several awards for his work as a writer and a composer. His literary awards include the 1997 Anisfield Wolf Book Award. His awards for musical theater composition include the 1996 American Arts and Letters Richard Rodgers Award, the 1996 ASCAP Richard Rodgers Horizons Award, and the American Music Theater Festival's 1993 Stephen Sondheim Award. James served as panelist for the 1993 National Endowment Of The Arts Opera Musical Theater Division and is the author of The Color Of Water (Riverhead/Putnam) the autobiographical account of his mother, a white Jewish woman from Poland who raised 12 black children (movie rights optioned by Showtime for Sanford/Pillsbury Productions). James has written songs (music and lyrics) for Anita Baker, Grover Washington Jr., Gary Burton, Everett Harp, Rachelle Farell, and PuraFe among others. He has toured with a variety of artists, including Michael Jackson and jazz vocalist Little Jimmy Scott. His award-winning jazz, hip-hop musical "Bobos" premiered in 1993 at the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia and won the prestigious Alton B. Jones Foundation Grant. James served as musical director of the acclaimed Billie Holiday musical "Lady Day," and wrote the scores for the musicals "All Roads Lead Home" and "Harlem Kids Symphony" written in 1993 for the Osaka, Japan Manaichi Broadcasting System. He has written children's songs for Silver Burdett Textbooks (Simon & Schuster), and for the PBS television character "Barney." James studied composition at The Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio and received a masters in journalism from Columbia University in New York at age 22. He worked as a journalist for eight years at The Boston Globe, People Magazine, Rolling Stone and The Washington Post (Style Section) before his musical career took hold.

James McBrides' second book for Riverhead/Putnam, Miracle at St. Anna (February 2002), is an historical novel which chronicles a Black World War II soldier's participation in the liberation of a concentration camp. The story centers around four Black American soldiers in World War II, a band of Italian partisans, and an Italian boy, who encounter a miracle, though perhaps the true miracle lies in themselves.

James McBride is married with two children.

The Color of WaterJames McBride grew up one of twelve siblings in the all-black housing projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn, the son of a black minister and a woman who would not admit she was white. The object of McBride's constant embarrassment and continuous fear for her safety, his mother was an inspiring figure, who through sheer force of will saw her dozen children through college, and many through graduate school. McBride was an adult before he discovered the truth about his mother: the daughter of a failed itinerate Orthodox rabbi in rural Virginia, she had run away to Harlem, married a black man and founded an all-black Baptist church in her living room in Red Hook. In her son's remarkable memoir, she tells in her own words the story of her past. Around her narrative, James McBride has written a powerful portrait of growing up, a meditation on race and identity, and a poignant, beautifully crafted hymn from a son to his mother.


Excerpt: Mommy's house was orchestrated chaos and as the eighth of twelve children, I was lost in the sauce, so to speak. I was neither the prettiest, nor the youngest, nor the brightest. In a house where there was little money and little food, your power was derived from who you could order around. I was what Mommy called a "Little Kid", one of five young'uns, microscopic dots on the power grid of the household, thus fit to be tied, tortured, tickled, tormented, ignored, and commanded to suffer all sorts of indignities at the hands of the "Big Kids", who didn't have to go to bed early, didn't believe in the tooth fairy, and were appointed denizens of power by Mommy, who of course wielded ultimate power.

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-crossing, backstabbing, intrigue, outright robbery, and gobbled evidence.

"This moving and unforgettable memoir needs to be read by people of all colors and faiths."
- Publishers Weekly

Writers Online Magazine Article
USA Today Book Review
The Writer PBS Series

For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620
or online at https://www.albany.edu/writers-inst.