Author James McBride Delivers Spring Convocation Address


James McBride Oberlin celebrated the beginning of spring semester by bringing best-selling author, saxophonist, and composer James McBride '79 to campus to discuss his first book, The Color of Water. In the book, McBride reveals his mother's remarkable life story, and in so doing, explores his life and those of his 11 siblings.

"This book is a tribute and a testament to my mother's desire to see us successful," McBride told the audience gathered in Finney Chapel for the Spring 1999 Campus Convocation.

Ruth McBride Jordan is white, the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi. Disowned by her family when she became involved with her first husband, a black man, and twice widowed, she raised 12 children, sending all of them to college and many to graduate school.

McBride read passages from The Color of Water, peppering his presentation with reminiscences of his childhood in Brooklyn's Red Hook Housing Projects and later in St. Albans, Queens. After the reading, he answered questions from the audience.

Asked about his experience at Oberlin, McBride answered that being encouraged to explore many interests, and being allowed to fail, is "what's special about this place."

"When you're sitting around and you have nothing else to do, do the thing you want to do," he urged students. "Develop the ability to fail, because through failing you succeed."

McBride's exploration of things he wanted to do led him to study jazz and communications at Oberlin and to earn a master's in journalism at Columbia. He accepted a feature-writer position with The Boston Globe, but his love of music kept surfacing.

"I couldn't decide if I wanted to be a writer or musician," he writes in The Color of Water, "not knowing it was possible to do both." McBride has written songs for, among others, Anita Baker and Grover Washington, Jr.; he's written for The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Essence, and other magazines and newspapers; he's composed musicals, including the jazz/pop Bobos; and he's won the 1993 Stephen Sondheim Award, the 1996 American Arts and Letters Richard Rodgers Development Award, and the 1996 ASCAP Richard Rodgers Horizons Award. He is currently writing the authorized biography of music legend Quincy Jones.