Western Herald




"Reading Together" done well but should ask more


by Vaneitta Goines

March 08, 2005



If all you get out of The Color of Water by James McBride is an interracial marriage, you will have missed major parts of the story. Chosen by the Kalamazoo Public Library's as the book the community will be "Reading Together" this year, McBride's story chronicles bits of his life interspersed with snatches of his mother's life experience. McBride's mother is a white, Jewish woman, and his father was a Black man. However, as I said, this is not the most important part of the story. Throughout the book a duality of racial reality is reflected. Racial unity is needed for progress, but the need exists in the face of histories of discrimination and current racist belief and behavior.


Drawn out by this conflict, what the author calls the "love/hate" relationship between Black and Jewish people, underlies much of McBride's mother's experiences. For anyone marrying someone of another ethnicity, questions arise. If something awful should happen to your partner, how will you educate your child about this heritage which you don't share? One interesting argument McBride pursues is that successfully raising children is more than just immediate family. Using the extended family network which his mother found in Harlem's Black community, she was able to succeed. Focusing on religious and ethnic self-identification, this book questions what happens to the sense of self when parents don't teach ethnic identity?


This book, its choice as the 2005 Kalamazoo County "Reading Together" text, and the Kalamazoo demographics all seem to cry out for review of some under-explored aspects of race and ethnicity in the U.S. For example, why does our publicly-expressed concern for "interracial" relationships center around white and "other", especially black and white? Of interest to me, as well as demographically on the rise, are relationships between people of two different "minority" heritages. Given our systemic miseducation about each other, the concept of a Black person marrying a Native American one, or a Latino marrying an Asian person seems to have potentially as significant an impact as any of the white-other relationships that more often capture media attention.


Interestingly enough for this book, key concerns were not in our question lists or discussion guides. What is the potential impact of such relationships to our definitions of race or ethnicity? For many of us, our self-identification owes much to our understanding of race or ethnicity. Our national understanding is greatly shaped by who we imagine ourselves to be, and what we think others are (or are not). Reverence for education was central to McBride's understanding of his mother's Jewish heritage. That feeling about educational achievement would extend to most Americans' concepts of other ethnic groups, particularly Asian-Americans. Complimentary intentions or not, representing an ethnic group as a monolithic entity which is understood primarily through such simplified concepts is just as dangerous as condemning others to fit into the negative versions of these prejudgments. Either way, it oversimplifies the complex nature of very different, yet similarly human, beings.


One of the cords that struck a personal connection with me was McBride's repeated description of black, Southern-born men, and the importance they placed on academic accomplishment as a means out of poverty. Growing up, I thought this was unique to my culture. Therefore, to see McBride pull it out, and highlight it in his Jewish heritage, initially led me to a sense of shared diversity. Yet as I read further, and McBride did not spell this out directly in reference to his African-American heritage, I lost perspective on this text. I was involuntarily dropped back to a world in which black is not one of the ethnic groups that comes to mind when people think of a reverence for scholarship. Unfortunately, this left me, like many of McBride's black schoolmates, subconsciously demanding some "proof" that he understood the reality of black culture as different from dominant world stereotypes.


From the descriptions in the text, I felt that McBride's mother actually found much more to love and to admire in the black culture in which she found herself, after making what at the time was considered an irretrievable choice, than did McBride.


To me, one of the increasing difficulties facing parents and caregivers, and indeed our society as a whole is that of creating an understanding of ethnic identity in your child. The specific goal is to raise your child with a love and respect of their own culture and heritage, yet without disrespecting or devaluing that of others. For a nation which has often fallen back on using negative images of the "other" to create a false sense of unity among ourselves, this is a great challenge. From the Little Black Sambo books of yesteryear, to the name of today's Washington football team, the idea of trying to create respect for all people is challenged by many beloved American traditions.


Similar to people of many different backgrounds, I feel that my ethnic heritage is something to be cherished and passed down with reverence (and a healthy reality check) to future generations. Unfortunately, McBride's communication of his own experience was less than forceful. Despite the gripping nature of his mother's experience, I did not feel that McBride shared my feeling about any of his heritages. Indeed, I was finally left feeling that he was black by default. Don't get me wrong. He doesn't have to feel like me to be "black". It is just that his mother put a strong effort into communicating to her children the essence of what drove her, such as her faith. Therefore, I must wonder what left McBride, a self-described "black man" with a "white mother" so far outside looking in at the diversity of black experience. Whatever your thoughts, I challenge you to attend some of the programs this week, and discuss them with others. Or, go to the public libraries this Wednesday or Thursday night, meet McBride in person and ask him yourself.


Vaneitta Goines, a Western Herald opinion columnist, is a graduate student.









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