Acclaimed writer James McBride honored, humbled by National Humanities Medal honors

Author James McBride will receive a National Humanities Medal from President Obama on Thursday. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Author James McBride will receive a National Humanities Medal from President Obama on Thursday. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

James McBride’s books have been bestsellers; they’ve earned him a National Book Award and been made into a movie.

But he stays low-key. He lives in a modest, brick rowhome in Lambertville, New Jersey, with his teenage son (the youngest of three kids), two cats, and tomato plants in the backyard.

On Thursday morning, he will travel to the White House, where, in the East Room, he and 11 other artists and scholars will receive the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama. Among them will be Wynton Marsalis, poet Louise Gluck, and radio host Terry Gross of WHYY’s “Fresh Air.”

Watch President Obama present the National Medals of Arts and Humanities.

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McBride feels honored, but he said that comes at a cost.

“It’s stressful for me, really,” said McBride. “First of all, I’m absolutely certain there are many other people more qualified.”

The National Endowment for the Humanities chose McBride for the honor for “humanizing the complexities of discussing race in America.”

“I have never aimed to win anything,” said McBride. “I’ve achieved no more greatness than a single mother from the Bronx or North Philly, who raised her child to be a successful adult.”

james mcbride gardenJames McBride stands in his backyard garden in Lambertville, New Jersey. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

McBride’s breakout 1995 bestseller, “The Color of Water,” is a memoir about his mother, a white Jewish woman who married a black minister. He died before McBride was born.

In 2008 he won a National Book Award for “The Good Lord Bird,” a story set at the dawn of the Civil War, told by a black boy passing as a girl under the wing of the radical abolitionist John Brown. It’s a novel about slavery, and it’s comic.

McBride said he doesn’t set out to write stories about race. In fact, if he could avoid talking about racism altogether, he would. But as a black man living in America, there it is.

“I think we’re doing a lot better than we give ourselves credit for,” he said. “But if I started thinking about this stuff all the time, I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed. I don’t think about it. It lives in my stories, not in my life.”

McBride started as a journalist, graduating from Columbia University and eventually landing a staff writer job at the Washington Post. But he quit to write novels.

For his latest, “Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul,” he put his journalism hat back on. McBride wanted to tease out the troubled personal life of Godfather of Soul.

“Every compartment he created in his life to protect himself from pain essentially collapsed,” said McBride. “He didn’t surrender in the moment, the right now. As a result of that, he suffered. Because there is no safety. Life shoves you forward.”

In addition to being a writer, McBride is an award-winning jazz saxophonist and composer. Unlike James Brown, who would fine his musicians for the slightest mistake on stage, McBride’s approach is more forgiving.

“The magic of writing is like jazz. You have a certain number of techniques, and you have harmonic knowledge, and you know what the melody is, and when it’s your turn to solo, you do the best you can,” said McBride.

“If you practiced enough, you might be able to say something. But there’s no map. You just connect the dots however you like,” he said.

McBride generally avoids talking about his writing process and urges his students at New York University to do the same. Whether it’s good, bad, or ugly, the story’s the thing.

“Just hit it. Writing teaches writing,” said McBride. “Why you gotta sit around and, you know, fluffing and puffing? Tell me a dirty joke. That’ll work.”

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