This memoir, published is 1995, is subtitled ‘A Black Man’s Tribute To His White Mother’. The edition I read has an Afterword marking the 10th anniversary of the first publication which brings the reader up to date with the family. McBride has also published three novels, of which Miracle at St Anna (2002) and Song Yet Sung (2008) have been made into films. His third novel, The Good Lord Bird (2013) won the American National Book Award. The memoir is considered a classic.
The story is told in two voices which alternate throughout the book – those of McBride, and of his mother, Ruth. The sections in which his mother recalls her life – italicized in this edition – are told in her voice. Perhaps McBride recorded interviews with her, or perhaps his ear is perfectly attuned to her cadences, or both. However he did it, the result is masterful. You can almost hear her speaking.
She tells the story of how she was born to Jewish immigrants from Poland. Her father seems only to have married her mother in order to get sponsorship from other members of her family to allow him entry into the United States. A Jewish Rabbi, he set up a grocery store in Suffolk, Virginia, exploiting his black customers, whom he despised. She presents him as a cruel and unpleasant man, who ill-treated and abused his wife and children. Ruth left home as soon as she could and moved to New York. There she met and later married Andrew McBride, a kind and loving African American man. Her family completely rejected her. Ruth converted to Christianity when Andrew felt called to establish a Baptist church. They had eight children before he died at the age of 46 of lung cancer. Ruth later married again, this time to Hunter Jordan, also an African American, and had another four children, some of whom were still very young when her second husband died.
McBride tells his own story alongside that of his mother. For many years he felt uncertain of his identity. As a child, he wondered why she looked so different from him, and from the parents of all his friends. He talks about how his mother slaved to keep her children clothed and fed. He tells how she valued education above all else except Jesus, and how she struggled to get them into good schools – where, inevitably the majority of children where white, and often Jewish. She took them to every free concert, museum or community event she could find in New York, determined that they should acquire cultural capital (not that she used that phrase) to make up for their decided lack of material goods. ‘We thrived on thought, books, music and art, which she fed us instead of food.’ Ruth was intensely private; she thought that never accepting government assistance was a badge of honour – though the family lived in what I take to be public housing for a time. But accepting private philanthropy was OK. Although inevitably there were some bumps in the road – for example, one daughter ran away and James got hooked on booze and drugs for a time – all twelve of the children graduated from university and took up professional careers. Persuading his mother to talk about her past helped McBride come to terms with his own life.
Successfully raising twelve children is clearly an amazing achievement, even if there wasn’t the question of racism mixed in – and the strength of racism in America in the 1950s, 60s and even into the 70s still has the power to shock. McBride makes it clear how unusual his parents’ marriage was in 1940s America; in the South, it would have been illegal. Ruth and her family experienced prejudice and discrimination as Jews; at school, Ruth was called ‘Christ killer’ and ‘Jew baby’, and rejected by most of the other students. Being white, with a black husband and black children, caused comment and often abuse –such as being called ‘white trash’ – where ever they went. The only people who didn’t reject her were African Americans; ‘That’s why I never veered from the black side,’ she says. The main reason that she was able to ignore racism and insults was the strength of her belief in God. ‘It’s not about black and white,’ she says. ‘It’s about God, and don’t let anyone tell you different.’ When James asks her whether God is black or white, she explains that God is a spirit, and that like water, doesn’t have a color. ‘God is the color of water.’
So what is it about this remarkable story that makes me slightly uneasy? I guess it’s the way it can be assimilated into the ‘log cabin to Whitehouse’ myth – that in America, if you work hard enough, you will succeed. This was not true then and is even less true now. Ruth McBride Jordan’s struggle was exceptional. Millions of other Americans, particularly African American ones, could work hard, be thrifty and honest and honourable in their relationships, and still fail to rise out of poverty. Children shouldn’t need their parents to have remarkable drive and persistence for them to have the chance of a good education and the motivation to succeed. This is not something that McBride questions in the book, and why should he? I just would have felt more comfortable if he had acknowledged somewhere that systemic failures are overwhelmingly what keep people poor, not personal ones.
You can read more about James McBride here. Make sure you have the sound on – I forgot to say that he is an accomplished musician. I think I owe it to him to read The Good Lord Bird.