James McBride

American author James McBride is one of contemporary literature’s most exciting voices. His debut memoir The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother (1996) is regarded as a classic of modern American literature and is read in high school and university classrooms across the United States.

James McBride James McBride

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Table of contents

    James McBride Biography

    James McBride’s colorful childhood and the influence of his mother resulted in his bestselling debut memoir. He has also had successful careers as a journalist and musician.

    James McBride’s Family and Early Life

    James McBride was born on September 11th, 1957, in New York City. His father, Andrew Dennis McBride, was an African American reverend, and his mother, Ruth McBride Jordan, was a Jewish immigrant from Poland. On April 5th, 1957, four months before McBride was born, his father, who was just forty-five years old, passed away from cancer.

    Ruth was left with eight children, of which McBride would be the youngest. For seven years, the family lived in the Red Hook housing projects in Brooklyn, New York. After the death of her husband, Ruth met Hunter Jordan, a furnace fireman who repaired the boilers in the housing projects. The two married. Jordan became a father to Ruth’s children, and the new couple had four more, making a round dozen.

    James McBride, Brooklyn, New York, StudySmarterMcBride grew up in Brooklyn and Queens, New York. Pixabay.

    When McBride was seven years old, the McBride-Jordan clan moved into a home in Queens. Several years later, when McBride was a teenager, Jordan suffered a stroke and died a few months later. Both McBride and his mother were devastated.

    With the loss of his stepfather, McBride began failing his classes, skipping school to play in a band and drink and smoke weed with his friends. He began shoplifting, and he and his friend sometimes snuck into the rail yards to rob the freight cars.

    When his mother discovered his transgressions, she sent McBride to Louisville, Kentucky, where he stayed with one of his older sisters. Ruth’s plan to straighten her son out worked, and McBride returned to New York ready to recommit to his junior year of high school.

    Without the support of her husband, Ruth struggled financially in New York and so decided to move herself and her five children not yet away at college to Wilmington, Delaware. There, McBride attended the Pierre S. Du Pont High School for his senior year and began to focus on music, primarily the saxophone and trombone.

    McBride was admitted to Oberlin College, where he studied musical composition and began writing with the encouragement of a teacher. He graduated in 1979 as the eighth of his siblings to attend college. All of the McBride-Jordan children would pursue higher education, and many would receive advanced degrees.

    The next year, McBride pursued a graduate degree in journalism at Columbia University.

    Journalism and literary career

    After graduating from Columbia University in 1980, McBride worked as a staff writer for several major publications, including The Boston Globe, People Magazine, and The Washington Post.

    James McBride, A saxophone, StudySmarterIn addition to his writing, McBride worked for a time as a professional musician. Pixabay.

    McBride also worked as a musician, touring as a professional saxophone player with the jazz legend Little Jimmy Scott and playing various other gigs.

    McBride has played music in his own band and written songs for artists such as Anita Baker, Grover Washington, Jr., and even PBS’s “Barney.” He also composed the score for the 1993 musical Bobos, for which he won a Stephen Sondheim Award and a Richard Rodgers Foundation Horizon Award.

    During this time, McBride also began working on his first book, the best-selling memoir The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother. The book was published in 1996 to great critical acclaim. The Color of Water spent two years on The New York Times bestseller list and is now referred to as a modern American classic that is taught in schools across the country.

    In 2002, McBride’s first novel, Miracle at St. Anna, was published, followed by Song Yet Sung in 2008. That same year, Miracle at St. Anna was adapted into a film by the same name, directed by Spike Lee.

    McBride’s next great literary success was the novel 2013 novel The Good Lord Bird, a comedic take on the life of abolitionist John Brown. The Good Lord Bird received many positive reviews and was awarded the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction.

    McBride returned to John Brown’s story in 2016 with the nonfiction Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul. The next year, he published a collection of short stories titled Five-Carat Soul (2017).

    Most recently, McBride released his first novel since The Good Lord Bird, titled Deacon King Kong (2020). Deacon King Kong was celebrated as one of the best books of 2020 and won several awards.

    McBride is currently a Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at New York University.

    James McBride Books

    James McBride has published seven books, including a memoir, four novels, a work of nonfiction, and a collection of short stories.

    The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother (1996)

    James McBride’s best-known work is his debut work, the memoir The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother. McBride reportedly spent fourteen years interviewing his mother. He learned about her childhood migration from Poland to the United States, her life in Virginia with her Rabi father and disabled mother, and her flight to New York, where she fell in love with the Reverend Andrew Dennis McBride.

    The memoir weaves his mother’s recollections together with McBride’s own memories of his often chaotic childhood growing up with eleven brothers and sisters. He uses his mother’s story and his own to explore themes of belonging, race, and identity in the United States.

    The memoir has been translated into several languages and has sold millions of copies.

    The Good Lord Bird (2013)

    The Good Lord Bird was James McBride’s second novel. The story is set in the late 1850s and tells of a young enslaved boy named Henry Shackleford who teams up with the abolitionist John Brown. Brown believes that Henry is a girl, and Henry conceals his identity for most of the novel. Other historical characters, such as Fredrick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, appear in the novel, as do historical events, like Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.

    Throughout the 1850s, tensions over slavery were escalating in the United States, leading up to the start of the Civil War in 1861. John Brown was an important member of the abolitionist movement who was working to end slavery. On October 16, 1859, Brown led a group of armed abolitionists to raid the federal armory in Harper's Ferry, Virginia (present-day West Virginia). With the raid, Brown intended to begin a slave revolt. However, the raid failed, and Brown was executed.

    The Good Lord Bird won the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction. The Good Lord Bird was also adapted into a television show that premiered on Showtime in 2020.

    Deacon King Kong (2020)

    McBride’s most recent novel is the 2020 Deacon King Kong. The novel is set in New York City in 1969 and tells the story of a deacon who one day shoots the housing project’s local drug dealer in front of the whole neighborhood. McBride uncovers the reason for the crime and its effect on all those living in the neighborhood.

    Deacon King Kong won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction, the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, and was acknowledged as one of the best books of the year by The New York Times, The Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, and more.

    Other works

    James McBride’s other novels are Miracle at St. Anna (2002) and Song Yet Sung (2008). He has also published the nonfiction account of James Brown’s life, Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul (2016), and the short story collection Five-Carat Soul (2017).

    James McBride: Quotes and Themes

    Identity, religion, and community social change are key themes in James McBride’s work.

    Identity in the United States

    The image of her riding that bicycle typified her whole existence to me. Her oddness, her complete nonawareness of what the world thought of her, a nonchalance in the face of what I perceived to be imminent danger from blacks and whites who disliked her for being a white person in a black world. -The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother (Chapter Two: The Bicycle)

    Many of James McBride’s books deal with the construction of identity in the United States. His bestselling memoir The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother tells the story of McBride’s mother, a white woman with twelve black children. He uses his mother’s character to unpack the many contradictions present at the intersection of race and identity and how this played out in his own biracial household.


    He was like everybody in war. He believed God was on his side. Everybody got God on their side in a war. Problem is, God ain’t tellin’ nobody who He’s for. -The Good Lord Bird (Chapter Seven: Black Jack)

    Religion is often a prominent theme in much of McBride’s work. Many of his characters are religious, and his books highlight the role of the church in the African American community. McBride’s father was a reverend, and even though he died before McBride was born, religion was an important part of the author’s childhood.

    Community and social change

    Isn’t it something,” Hettie said softly, “what ol’ New York really is? We come here to be free and find life’s worse here than back home. The white folks here just color it different. They don’t mind you sitting next to ’em on the subway, or riding the bus in the front seat, but if you asks for the same pay, or wants to live next door, or get so beat down you don’t wanna stand up and sing about how great America is, they’ll bust down on you so hard pus’ll come out your ears. -Deacon King Kong (Chapter Twenty: Plant Man)

    Much of McBride’s work explores the collective identity of communities and how those communities are affected by social change. Many of his books are set during key moments in American and world history and seek to discover the effect of these changes on individuals and communities. McBride is frequently inspired by the stories of real-life people, such as his mother, James Brown, and the Buffalo Soldiers; he believes that these stories have the power to bring people together.

    James McBride Interesting Facts

    • James McBride had an eventful childhood as the eighth of twelve children, the story of which forms the basis of his memoir The Color of Water.
    • James McBride is a self-proclaimed terrible dancer.
    • In 2007, McBride wrote a piece for National Geographic titled “Hip Hop Planet,” examining African American music and culture.
    • McBride’s articles have also been published in Rolling Stone, Essence, and The New York Times.
    • In 2015, Barack Obama awarded McBride the National Humanities Medal for his contributions to American literature and the American discussion on race, family, and identity.
    • James McBride has three children.

    James McBride - Key takeaways

    • James McBride was born in New York City on September 11th, 1957.
    • He was the eighth of twelve children, and his childhood and his mother’s life story became his bestselling debut memoir, The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother.
    • James McBride has worked as a journalist and professional musician.
    • McBride’s novel The Good Lord Bird won the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction.
    • McBride is a Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at New York University, and he lives in New York City and Lambertville, New Jersey.
    Frequently Asked Questions about James McBride

    What inspired James McBride to become a writer?

    James McBride first began writing as an undergraduate student at Oberlin College. His teacher noticed that he had a knack for writing. He later studied journalism at Colombia University and began a successful journalism career after graduation.

    Where does James McBride live?

    James McBride is currently a Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at New York University, and he splits his time between New York City and Lambertville, New Jersey.

    What is James McBride known for?

    James McBride is known for his best-selling memoir The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, which is considered a classic of contemporary American literature, and his novels, including The Good Lord Bird and Deacon King Kong.

    Who is James McBride?

    James McBride is an award-winning American writer and a musician.

    What was James McBride’s primary purpose for writing?

    The stories of others, such as his mother, James Brown, and the Buffalo Soldiers, often inspire James McBride. He believes telling stories like these can help bind humanity together.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What historical figure does NOT appear in The Good Lord Bird?

    True or false: The Under Graham Railroad Box Car Set is a real train in the short story? 

    Why is the train worth so much money?


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