I went on a limb for this one, having no idea who the author was and having never heard of the book either. But the subtitle, ‘A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother’, was enough, needless to say, to captivate my attention and prick my curiosity. Was she his foster mom? Was he adopted? Was she just a mother figure and not his real mother? Those were, unfortunately, the first questions that crossed my mind. There was no scenario in my mind, for a black man to be old enough to be writing a memoir on his ‘real’ white mother, considering the recent history of racism. Yet, it was real enough. James McBride is the child, one of 12, of Ruth McBride Jordan, nee Ruchel Dwajra Zylska, a Polish immigrant, daughter of an Orthodox Jew rabbi.
For the longest time, McBride was unaware of his mother’s background, how her parents came to immigrate to the United States, where they lived when she was young, how she left her home and came to New York, why she ran away from home, why she never talked about her family; in other words, there was this enormous part of his mother’s past life he had no way of peeking into. His mother finally decides to tell him and this book is about her tumultuous journey, one that is alas more embedded with prejudice, pain, suffering, than happiness. Along with her journey, this book is also about the author’s own journey, his life growing up with his 11 siblings in a New York neighborhood mainly populated by blacks, the various forms of racism he had to face, the different civil rights movements he was involved, directly and indirectly, and his search for identity as a black man, and as the son of a white ex-Jewish, currently-Baptist woman who felt more akin to African Americans despite her difficulty to be ‘fully accepted’ by some of them. And the two journeys are both incredible.
Although it is personally hard for me to understand why anyone would want to have 12 children when she doesn’t have the means to ‘abundantly’ provide for them (this is the same frustration I get when reading Irish/Irish-American literature. I sigh every time the children are told to go outside of their small, shabby apartment, because that means when they come back, they’ll see their mother propped up in bed with a new baby), I don’t want to judge her, I’m sure there is a certain dimension there I am not able to understand. Besides that though, her journey is one of a strong person and a strong woman, having survived an abusive childhood, having found love and having managed to find the energy and tenacity to raise and educate all of her 12 children.
Some of the reviews on this book criticize the author for writing too much like a reporter and for giving a voice to his mother she didn’t want in the first place. Those are valid criticisms, I guess, but when one’s writing style cannot escape the influence of one’s job and him being a reporter, I don’t think it is fair to accuse him of being what he is. As for the second point, true, Ruth avoided the story of her childhood for most of her life and the way her son wrote it may not have been how she would have put it, word for word. But I empathize with and understand the author’s effort and desire to know who his mother was and is, and his inclination to put it into letters and words and share her story with the rest of the world.
Mothers are funny influences that way. When you’re growing up, they’re your heroes, your source of comfort, the very rendition of how love would look like. Their simple physical presence is everything. They tell you bits of their stories and you cry when she cries, you laugh when she laughs. Then, you grow up, and you see faults and weaknesses you never thought she had. After the initial disappointment, you learn to deal with them with a feeling of compassion and understanding, mixed with – let’s be honest – the inevitable annoyance. And so you want to know more about them, to be the psychologist without her knowing, to dig deep in her childhood and her youth, so that you can perhaps have a better grasp at their changes and prepare yourself, especially if you’re a girl, for any changes you may also go through in the future. And for a child, your mother’s story and her voice are worth writing, telling and sharing with others, because that’s what people do with heroes, isn’t it? People write comic books, build figurines, make movies and hold huge conventions where fans flock to. No mother is just a ‘normal, ordinary’ person to a child, and that is why you want everyone else to know her ‘superpower’.
I guess this is somewhat what went through the author’s mind when he dared give a voice to his mother; writing as a therapy, to cope with who she was and is, and with who he is.
McBride’s own story is just as fascinating as his mother’s and I would like to leave it to the readers to discover for themselves the exceptional story of a man who embodies a mixture of identities, voices, biographies, injustices, achievements, and victories.