Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Trying to Bridge the Racial Divide in America Four Books Celebrate Black Americans' Achievements and Examine Progress in Their Lives

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Trying to Bridge the Racial Divide in America Four Books Celebrate Black Americans' Achievements and Examine Progress in Their Lives

Article excerpt

DIVIDED TO THE VEIN: A JOURNEY INTO RACE AND FAMILY

By Scott Minerbrook

Harcourt Brace & Co.

259 pp., $24

THE COLOR OF WATER: A BLACK MAN'S TRIBUTE TO HIS WHITE MOTHER

By James McBride

Riverhead Books

228 pp., $22.95

ARGUING ABOUT SLAVERY: THE GREAT BATTLE IN THE UNITED STATES CONGRESS

By William Lee Miller

Alfred A. Knopf

577 pp., $35

GLORY DAYS: 365 INSPIRED MOMENTS IN AFRICAN-AMERICAN HISTORY

By Janus Adams

HarperCollins

418 pp., $18

THE agonies of America's racial divide have never cut more deeply than in mixed-race families. Yet the hope that we can see beyond racial stereotypes burns brightest there too.

To introduce his story of self-discovery, journalist Scott Minerbrook, the child of a white mother and black father, quotes the cry of black poet Derek Walcott: "I who am poisoned with the blood of both/ Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?"

Minerbrook begins and ends his saga, Divided to the Vein: A Journey into Race and Family, with a visit to Caruthersville, Mo., a journey to try to talk with his grandmother, Ocieola. She, like his other white relatives, had long ago disowned his white mother and her children.

Like most offspring of mixed parents, Minerbrook had come to identify himself as black. "I'd never been able to develop the part of my personality that might have blossomed by knowing my white relatives.... There was still some part of myself I didn't even know," he says. "I recognized that I'd lost much of the tenderness in myself in resentment toward my own flesh and blood, justifying my anger on the grounds of a racial hallucination that had shaped my life."

His eventual contact with Ocieola doesn't neatly wrap up all the loose ends. His life, like racial progress in America, is a work in progress.

Another new book, The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother, also explores the story of a mixed-race family in the form of a moving tribute by James McBride to his white mother, Ruth. Raised as a Jew in the segregated South of the 1930s, Ruth McBride survived an abusive father, moved to New York, married a black minister, and raised 12 children who have become doctors, educators, and writers.

This tale of a remarkable woman is a kind of "Cheaper by the Dozen" for the 1990s, full of humor, pathos, and insight.

When as a child, McBride asks his mother if he is black or white, she replies, "You're a human being. Educate yourself or you'll be a nobody."

"Will I be a black nobody or just a nobody?"

"If you're a nobody," she says dryly, "it doesn't matter what color you are."

An even greater value was placed on religion. One day after church, young McBride asked Mommy whether God likes black or white people better:

"He loves all people. He's a spirit."

"What's a spirit?"

"A spirit's a spirit. …

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