Noted author and musician James McBride kicked off the School of Social Administration’s first annual Gail Barnes Kelch Memorial Lecture Series on Wednesday in Tomlinson Theater.
The event, co-sponsored by the College of Education, was arranged by James Kelch, Temple University’s School of Social Administration emeritus professor, in memory of his late wife, Beverly Kelch, who passed away in 1997.
Though vocationally an artist, her giftedness in the arts ranging from performance to creative writing, Beverly Kelch shared her husband’s enthusiasm for social issues. When James sought to honor his wife’s memory with these twin passions, James McBride seemed the obvious choice for inaugural speaker.
An accomplished artist, McBride has seen a great deal of success both as a musician and as an author. He has accompanied such well-known artists as Michael Jackson and jazz vocalist Little Jimmy Scott; composed pieces for Anita Baker, Grover Washington Jr., Purafe and Gary Burton; and written several musicals including the hip-hop musical Bobos which won the American Music Festival’s Stephen Sondheim Award in 1993.
His resume as a writer is likewise impressive: former staff writer of The Washington Post, Boston Globe and People Magazine.
It is his book, The Color of Water, that has won him the most acclaim. It received both the 1997 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Literary Excellence and the ALA Notable Book of the Year, as well as maintaining a position on The New York Times’ bestseller list for two years, selling more than 1.7 million copies in the United States.
The book was also chosen by Mayor John Street for this past year’s One Book, One Philadelphia, a program sponsored by area libraries to promote literacy and community in the greater Philadelphia area.
Just as McBride’s resume demonstrates his passion for the arts, this novel demonstrates his passion for social issues. The Color of Water is essentially an autobiography and, as McBride has said, one “black man’s tribute to his white mother.”
The story follows the path of the man’s young mother, the daughter of Polish Jewish immigrants, and her family’s disowning her when she exchanges her Jewish heritage for the Christian faith and the embrace of the black man she loves.
The book deals candidly with the struggle for racial identity, a struggle with which McBride, in whom the worlds of his Orthodox Jewish mother and black Baptist father merge, is quite familiar.
He writes openly of his experience as a biracial child, sifting through the diverse heritages he was handed and trying to decide what parts to embrace and what parts to leave by the wayside.
McBride opened the evening remembering when he first decided to leave journalism in pursuit of a professional music career. He had gone to visit the grave of his late stepfather.
“And it was then I realized,” he said, “that life happens while you’re deciding what to do.” He went on to encourage students to pursue their studies not with the goal of landing a good job or making money.
“There are no jobs waiting for you,” he said. Rather, he advised, “Do what you love. … What you love will become your work.” McBride also encouraged students not to be afraid to fail as they pursue what they love.
The night continued with McBride performing a lively jazz set to the accompaniment of several musicians from various parts of the country. Among them was one of Philadelphia’s own, Leon Jordan on drums, and Temple graduate Monika Tyler taking care of vocals.
Midway through the set things changed pace with a soulful ballad dedicated to James Kelch and his late wife. Then McBride wrapped up the evening with a jazzed-up version of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Nathan Weaver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.