All the Hard Questions: James McBride’s Talk at Garfield High School

By Erin Langner, WITS Program Associate

“You’re not going to meet anyone like me anytime soon, at least until college,” James McBride told the hundreds of Garfield High School students gathered to hear him speak inside the Quincy Jones Auditorium this afternoon, following their lunch period. While these words from the author, musician, screenwriter and 2013 National Book Award winner at first seemed self-congratulatory, when I thought about the people I knew in high school, and even college, I realized how optimistically modest they were; I wish I had known someone like James McBride in college.

Prior to his engagement as the kickoff speaker for 2014/15 Seattle Arts & Lectures Literary/Arts Series happening later tonight, McBride spoke generously at the Writers in the Schools partner school, Garfield High, where some classes are already reading his 1996 memoir, The Color of Water. Perhaps this is one reason they came to the talk unflinchingly ready to ask him the hard questions: was it hard to get his life back together after dropping out of school (yes, hence why no one listening in the audience will quit); was it strange having a white, Jewish mother while living in a mostly African-American neighborhood (yes, but the other mothers treated her just like everyone else); did he get any flack for being a person of mixed-race (yes, a little bit, but he didn’t think it was called that back then); how does someone make money as a writer (advances, but probably not something to expect straight out of Garfield High School); when did he stop believing in Santa Claus (age ten, when he noticed his mother would leave the labels on the gifts).

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The last question was one a student posed back at McBride, in response to an assignment the author suggested to anyone who “really wants to learn something:” write an essay about the person who raised you. The process he outlined involves interviewing the person in question, asking him or her the following:

  1. Where were you born?
  2. Who was your best friend when you were nine years old?
  3. What do you remember about your mother’s habits? Your father’s?
  4. Who did your hair when you were a child?
  5. When did you stop believing in Santa Claus?

Rarely have I walked away from a public talk with all of the things that James McBride left the students with at Garfield—insights that felt more like personal reveals than practiced wisdom, life advice, and a task guaranteed to make me learn something. It is hard to imagine what words he has left for the adults tonight, but it is clearly something worth finding out.

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