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Community Read, McBride Featured

Geneva’s first annual Community Read concluded April 5 when author James McBride visited the HWS campus to discuss his memoir, “The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother.”

Thanks to a variety of local sponsors and organizers and AmeriCorps VISTA coordinator at HWS Holly Kahn, Geneva community members and many students, faculty and staff at HWS read “The Color of Water” throughout the month of March, which Geneva Mayor Stu Einstein declared Geneva’s “Community Read Month.”

An article in the Finger Lakes Times covered McBride’s talk in the Albright Auditorium on the Colleges campus. The full article follows.

Finger Lakes Times
Author James McBride stresses the importance of being true to one’s self
DAVID TAUBE • April 7, 2010

GENEVA – For sixth-grader Alison Lamb, Monday was the perfect opportunity to learn about her ideal career.

Geneva Reads’ community celebration of the two-year New York Times bestseller “The Color of Water” concluded Monday with a talk by its author, James McBride, at Albright Auditorium on the campus of Hobart and William Smith Colleges. McBride has also worked as a staff writer for The Boston Globe, People magazine, and The Washington Post.

“I came because I want to be a writer,” said Lamb, a student at Geneva Middle School.

Fortunately for her, McBride, who saw the book published in 1996, provided a step-by-step guide for success, including how the Nike slogan pushes him, why it’s OK to fail and what’s really needed in the real world.

“There’s no one who can be you better than you,” McBride said, building on his point that even though a better musician can always come along, no one can replace each person’s uniqueness.

He encouraged students to study subjects from philosophy to organic biology, whatever their interest, so that someday they would be smart enough to work in a job they like. He said that’s the way to a life of reason and purpose, rather than becoming a yuppy and living in a gated community.

Drawing from his own experience as a jazz musician, he said the real world doesn’t care where you went to college when you get a note wrong. He repeated in the lecture that bands just want to get the gig, play and go home.

“People want to know if you know how to think,” he added.

He said his own agent pushes him to succeed.

That agent also happens to be the sister of a professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, a connection that helped secure his visit. Public Library Director Michael Nyerges said prior to the lecture that an author like this would typically be unaffordable for the library.

The agent’s advice of “just do it” is sometimes followed by a quick slam of the phone when McBride makes excuses about why a chapter isn’t finished.

McBride explained how repetition contributes to success. He said even though the time might be 3:30 a.m., he’ll set aside two hours with a legal pad to write.

McBride added that by doing what you love, you’ll eventually get good enough that somebody will pay you for it.

But even though there are financial rewards, McBride emphasized a saying of his mother’s: “What’s money if your mind is empty?”

“The Color of Water” focuses on the story of his mother, a white Jew who married two black men in succession and raised 12 children by herself, and how family, race and religion shaped McBride’s own life. It was selected for Geneva’s community read because of the issues of diversity explored in the book and its reflection on the Geneva community, said Hobart and William Smith Colleges-based AmeriCorps VISTA coordinator Holly Kahn.

“[My mother] felt … education and religion were the keys to a good, successful and fruitful life,” McBride said.

To showcase examples of that success, McBride pointed to two people – “just a neighborhood guy” and “just a neighborhood librarian.”

He identified the first as a childhood neighbor who taught him how to play baseball.

“I never knew what kind of effect the guy had on me until years later,” McBride said, recalling how the lessons he learned as a child were passed on to his own son when he taught him how to play.

He identified the second as longtime Geneva Public Library children’s room staffer Linda Blackwell, who passed away in February. This year’s community read was dedicated to her.

McBride said librarians are the last defense of reason and discourse in this country, fighting against the Internet and classroom technology, and that they help teach the community how to become free.

McBride said people need to continuously try in order to succeed, noting that most of what he has written has failed.

“Forgive yourself and learn how to fail,” he said. “You’re under tremendous pressure to do well.”

It took McBride 14 years to write the “The Color of Water.”

The month-long Geneva Reads effort included asking residents, students and book club members to read the book; a game show about shared cultural heritage by the Geneva Human Rights Commission; and a Finger Lakes Times memoir contest.

Additional sponsors included the Geneva Public Library, the City of Geneva, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, the Geneva City School District, the Ramada Inn Geneva Lakefront, the African-American Men’s Association and Lyons National Bank.

McBride recalled how once he finally had the pre-releases of the book, he drove from Brooklyn to New Jersey to drop off a copy for his mother. He called back each day to check in, but his sister said she was in her room or the bathroom crying. After three days of the same conversation, he drove back to talk in person.

“Mom, what do you think?” he asked her.

“It’s OK,” he recalled her saying.

“Part of her really didn’t understand why people made such a big fuss about it. She would say, ‘There’s a woman in our neighborhood who had 22 kids.'”

And with that anecdote, McBride suggested a final ingredient for success: Humbleness, as shown by himself, his mother and Blackwell.

Author James McBride recalled how his research for “The Color of Water” brought tension to his band, despite his attempts to keep the two separate.

McBride said he researched about 5,000 years worth of Jewish history in six months, and when the band’s drummer began making fun of a young Orthodox or a Hasidic Jew while on a plane flight, McBride became so upset that he argued with the drummer for the remainder of the trip. The argument got to the point that when the four band members arrived at customs in Montreal, they were pulled aside.

The incident further escalated when McBride realized his manager, bassist Hill Greene, might fire him for causing a scene, and the incident caused the band to be so late they performed their sound check in street clothes while the audience trickled in.

However, as the band warmed up Greene turned to McBride and said that the band’s drummer never should have made the joke.

Some people say they aren’t prejudiced, but it’s another thing not to act prejudiced, McBride summarized.

When faced with adversity, McBride said people should stand up and say: “This is who I am.”