September 6, 2004
Mary Ann Travis
Phone: (504) 865-5714
James McBride grew up in a New York City housing project. He was the eighth of 12 black children, whose mother was white.
"When I was a boy," McBride writes in The Color of Water, "I used to wonder where my mother came from, how she got on this earth. When I asked her where she was from, she would say, 'God made me.'"
And when McBride asked his mother what color God was, she answered, the color of water. McBride and his family were poor. Family life was messy and chaotic. Three or four children slept in one bed. They were often hungry, scrambling for meals. But school was a priority.
And all 12 children eventually graduated from college and most earned advanced degrees. The Color of Water is this year's Tulane Reading Project book.
Every incoming, first-year student received a copy of the book this summer.
The Color of Water is the "perfect vehicle" for opening up discussions about equality in America, says Ana Lopez, associate provost. The reading project task force, led by Lopez, includes faculty members, student affairs and library staff and undergraduates.
The group picked The Color of Water, a memoir/biography about a young black man's quest for identity, because coming-of-age tales are so appealing to students, who are coming of age themselves.
The Color of Water vividly describes how race, poverty, education and religion intertwined in McBride's early life. As the 2004 presidential campaign heats up, these issues may be "at the heart of the debates that are likely to take place as the election rolls around," Lopez says.
James Elliott, assistant professor of sociology, will give the reading project's keynote lecture on Monday, Aug. 23, in Dixon Hall as part of the orientation program for freshman students. Elliott plans to point out how private troubles such as those experienced by McBride and his family are linked to public problems of race and class inequities in a segregated society.
"These issues are not in the past," says Elliott. "They are still here, but less visible, especially for white Americans." McBride's book deals with race as a concern within a family. McBride's mother tells her children that she is "light-skinned," not admitting to being white.
Her white Jewish family has cut off all contact with her, and she goes to the black side of American society, where the family and friends of her two black husbands welcome her. She even converts to Christianity and helps found a Christian church in New York. As a sociologist, Elliott says his first reaction to the book is that it's "too personalized. It's a tribute to a mother."
In his talk, he hopes to bridge the personal and the public, bringing a sociological perspective to the race and class issues that the book raises. In mid July, Lopez began mobilizing 40 to 50 faculty members to lead small-group discussions about the book on Tuesday, Aug. 24. In a new twist this year, faculty will go to the students--into the residence halls or to Newcomb Hall--for the discussions, rather than the students, who are new to campus and tend to get lost, having to meet with faculty in regular classrooms. Regular classes will begin soon enough.
"The reading project is designed to provide an opportunity for incoming students to have an intellectual experience with the rest of the Tulane community soon after arrival," says Lopez. "It gives everyone something to talk about and something to do."
Students also can enter an essay-writing contest about the book. The deadline is Sept. 17. The winners get cash prices and a chance to participate on-stage in a panel discussion with McBride when he visits campus on Oct. 14. McBride also is a jazz musician, and in recognition of that talent, the Hogan Jazz Archive plans an exhibit on the role of jazz in identity in America at the Howard-Tilton Memorial Library.
Most first-year students are away from home for the first time, and they find the first days at the university stressful, says Lopez. They move in on Saturday, and classes don't start until Wednesday.
"The five days of orientation are crucial," she says. The students who come to Tulane are "used to being challenged intellectually," says Lopez. "They are high achievers. This provides them with something to do that they're used to doing. It engages them intellectually right away."
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