BCBC Panel at ODU addresses race, identity and memoir

Race, family, memoir-writing and politics were just a few of the topics on the table Nov. 20 when a panel of scholar-writers gathered at Ohio Dominican University to discuss the best-selling memoir by BCBC’s 2015 Selected Author James McBrideThe Color of Water. Panelists Sharon Davies, Hasan Kwame Jeffries and Lee Martin, in addressing questions posed by moderator Fred Andrle, took a broad approach to the topic, drawing connections between the book, their own lives and experiences, and the state of race relations in America today.

McBride’s memoir, subtitled A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, includes two entwined stories: that of McBride’s mother Ruth, who was disowned by her Jewish family after she married a black man, and who spent the rest of her life living among African-Americans in Brooklyn and raising twelve biracial children, all of whom went to college and earned advanced degrees; and McBride’s own story of growing up, finding his voice as a musician and then writer, and uncovering his own family history.

“Black people live and navigate in white environments all the time,” said Davies, who is the director of OSU’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. “That is the black experience in America. Her [Ruth McBride’s] experience navigating in a black community is unique and makes the memoir rich.”

Jeffries, a professor of history at OSU, said the narrative made him think of his own Brooklyn childhood, in which he never knew a mother who was white. Ruth, he said, was “treated in some ways worse than a black person because she was viewed as a ”˜race traitor’.”

Asked about whether memoirists must recall events exactly as they happened or can use artistic license in recounting the past, Lee Martin, who has published three memoirs, responded: “There’s an ethical line out there in the sand and only the memoirist himself knows when he has crossed over it. . . Your main obligation is to be fair to the people that you are depicting.”

The wide-ranging conversation moved on to touch on electoral politics, white privilege and current events. Davies summed up: “We’re in a time when we have a great deal of difficulty bringing race into the conversation,” she said. “As a nation, we have to get much better at talking about race freely and easily.”

The next Bexley Community Book Club event will be Jan. 22 at the Kelton House at 7 p.m. Click here for further information. For information about James McBride’s presentation at the Lincoln Theater on April 14, 2015, click here.