Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
James McBride grew up one of twelve siblings in the all-black housing
projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn, the son of a black minister and a woman who
would not admit she was white. The object of McBride's constant embarrassment,
and his continuous fear for her safety, his mother was an inspiring figure, who
through sheer force of will saw her dozen children through college, and many
through graduate school. McBride was an adult before he discovered the truth
about his mother: the daughter of a failed itinerant Orthodox rabbi in rural
Virginia, she had run away to Harlem, married a black man, and founded an
all-black Baptist church in her living room in Red Hook. In this remarkable
memoir, she tells in her own words the story of her past. Around her narrative,
James McBride has written a powerful portrait of growing up, a meditation on
race and identity, and a poignant, beautifully crafted hymn from a son to his
- Discuss Ruth McBride's refusal to reveal her past and how that influenced
her children's sense of themselves and their place in the world. How has
your knowledgeor lack thereofabout your family
background shaped your own self-image?
- The McBride children's struggle with their identities led each to his or
her own "revolution." Is it also possible that that same struggle
led them to define themselves through professional achievement?
- Several of the McBride children became involved in the civil rights
movement. Do you think that this was a result of the times in which they
lived, their need to belong to a group that lent them a solid identity, or a
combination of these factors?
- "Our house was a combination three-ring circus and zoo, complete
with ongoing action, daring feats, music, and animals." Does Helen
leave to escape her chaotic homelife or to escape the mother whose very
appearance confuses her about who she is?
- "It was in her sense of education, more than any other, that Mommy
conveyed her Jewishness to us." Do you agree with this statement?
Is it possible that Ruth McBride Jordan's unshakable devotion to her faith,
even though she converted to Christianity from Judaism, stems from her
Orthodox Jewish upbringing?
- "Mommy's contradictions crashed and slammed against one another
like bumper cars at Coney Island. White folks, she felt, were implicitly
evil toward blacks, yet she forced us to go to white schools to get the best
education. Blacks could be trusted more, but anything involving blacks was
probably substandard... She was against welfare and never applied for it
despite our need, but championed those who availed themselves of it."
Do you think these contradictions served to confuse Ruth's children further,
or did they somehow contribute to the balanced view of humanity that James
- While reading the descriptions of the children's hunger, did you wonder
why Ruth did not seek out some kind of assistance?
- Do you think it was naïve of Ruth McBride Jordan to think that her love
for her family and her faith in God would overcome all potential obstacles
or did you find her faith in God's love and guidance inspiring?
- How do you feel about Ruth McBride Jordan's use of a belt to discipline
- While reading the book, were you curious about how Ruth McBride Jordan's
remarkable faith had translated into the adult lives of her children? Do you
think that faith is something that can be passed on from one generation to
the next or do you think that faith that is instilled too strongly in
children eventually causes them to turn away from it?
- Do you think it would be possible to achieve what Ruth McBride has
achieved in today's society?
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