James McBride was born in New York City on September 11, 1957, the eighth and posthumous child of Reverend Andrew Dennis McBride and Rachel (Ruth) Shilsky. His father was a black preacher, who died of lung cancer at the age of forty-five, and his mother was from a Jewish immigrant family from Russian Poland. His mother became Christian and helped her husband found New Brown Baptist Church in the New York Red Hook Housing Project. After his father died, McBride’s mother remarried another black man, Hunter Jordan, and had four more children. James was raised with Jordan as his father. Ruth, living in poverty, with Jordan only coming home on weekends, managed to raise a dozen black children in St. Albans, Queens, as a white mother. She got her children into good schools, and each child graduated from college.
James details his difficult childhood in The Color of Water (1996), a memoir about his independent mother and his growing up under her strict command. Education and religion were the two forces she relied on to get her children out of poverty and into professional lives.
When James was fourteen, his stepfather, the only father figure in his life, died, and James went into a tailspin, taking drugs and becoming a street punk and flunking out of school. From the age of ten he had been embarrassed by his white mother and confused by his mixed racial heritage. James eventually got his life together through music, studying the saxophone under a black band director in Wilmington, Delaware, where he finished high school. He got an undergraduate degree in music composition from Oberlin College in 1979. He received a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University in 1980.
As a young adult James had several jobs as a journalist with such newspapers as the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, the Wilmington (Delaware) News Journal, and People magazine. He wrote pieces for Rolling Stone magazine, Us magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Essence, and the New York Times. His search for his identity led him to use his journalism skills to research his mother’s past, which she had kept a secret. The resulting book, The Color of Water, helped him come to terms with the race question and became a best-seller. It is now taught in colleges and schools.
McBride published a second book in 2002, Miracle at St. Anna, made into a film by Spike Lee in 2008. It is a fictional account inspired by the African-American Army division in World War II. In 2005, he published the first volume of The Process, a CD-based documentary about life as lived by low-profile jazz musicians. In 2008, he published a second novel, Song Yet Sung.
McBride married Stepanie Payne and has three children. He is the tenor saxophonist in the Rock Bottom Remainders and an award-winning songwriter. McBride is Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at New York University.