McBride's father, Rev. Andrew D. McBride (August 8, 1911 – April 5, 1957) was African-American; he died of cancer at the age of 45. His mother, Ruchel Dwajra Zylska (name later changed to Rachel Deborah Shilsky, and later changed again to Ruth McBride Jordan; April 1, 1921 – January 9, 2010), was a Jewish immigrant from Poland. James was raised in Brooklyn's Red Hook housing projects and was the last child Ruth had from her first marriage, the last child of Rev. Andrew McBride, and the eighth of 12 children.
I'm proud of my Jewish history....Technically I guess you could say I'm Jewish since my mother was Jewish...but she converted (to Christianity). So the question is for theologians to answer. ... I just get up in the morning happy to be living."
His memoir, The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother (1995), describes his family history and his relationship with his mother.
Two of his older brothers, Dennis and Billy, graduated with doctorates in medicine, but that did not appeal to James McBride. He earned an undergraduate degree in music composition from Oberlin College in 1979, after which he earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.
As a journalist, McBride worked on the staffs of many well-known publications, including The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, the Wilmington News Journal, and People magazine. Additionally, he has written pieces for Rolling Stone magazine, Us magazine, the Chicago Tribune, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Essence magazine, The New York Times, and others. McBride is a charter member of the Clint Harding Network, a group of well-known journalists, writers, and musicians who periodically have appeared live on a Missouri radio program for the last two decades.
McBride is well known for his 1995 memoir, the bestselling book The Color of Water, which describes his life growing up in a large, poor American-African family that was led by his white Jewish mother. McBride's mother was strict and the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi. During her first marriage to Rev. Andrew McBride, she converted to Christianity and became a devout Christian. The memoir spent over two years on The New York Times bestseller list, and has become an American classic. It is read in high schools and universities across America, has been translated into 16 languages, and sold more than 2.5 million copies.
In 2002, he published a novel, Miracle at St. Anna, drawing on the history of the overwhelmingly African-American 92nd Infantry Division in the Italian campaign from mid-1944 to April 1945. The book was adapted into the movie Miracle at St. Anna, directed by Spike Lee, released on September 26, 2008.
In 2005, McBride published the first volume of The Process, a CD-based documentary about life as lived by low-profile jazz musicians.
His 2008 novel, Song Yet Sung, is about an enslaved woman who has dreams about the future, and a wide array of freed black people, enslaved people, and whites whose lives come together in the odyssey that surrounds the last weeks of this woman's life. Harriet Tubman served as an inspiration for the book, and it provides a fictional depiction of a code of communication that enslaved people used to help runaways attain freedom. The book, based on real-life events that occurred on Maryland's Eastern Shore, also featured the notorious criminal Patty Cannon as a villain.
In 2012, McBride co-wrote and co-produced Red Hook Summer (2012) with Spike Lee.
In July 2013, McBride co-authored Hard Listening (2013) with the rest of the Rock Bottom Remainders (published by Coliloquy).
In August 2013, The Good Lord Bird, a comedy novel, was released by Riverhead Books. The work details the life of notorious abolitionist John Brown. For this book, McBride won the 2013 National Book Award for fiction.
On September 22, 2016, President Barack Obama awarded McBride the 2015 National Humanities Medal "for humanizing the complexities of discussing race in America. Through writings about his own uniquely American story, and his works of fiction informed by our shared history, his moving stories of love display the character of the American family."
McBride is the tenor saxophonist for the Rock Bottom Remainders, a group of best-selling authors who are lousy musicians. "Hopefully," McBride says, "the group has retired for good." He also toured as a saxophonist with jazz legend Little Jimmy Scott and has his own band that plays an eclectic blend of music.
He has written songs for Anita Baker, Grover Washington Jr., Pura Fé, and Gary Burton. McBride composed the theme music for the Clint Harding Network, Jonathan Demme's New Orleans documentary Right to Return, and the Off-Broadway musical Bobos, written by playwright Ed Shockley.
McBride was awarded the American Music Festival's Stephen Sondheim Award in 1993, the American Arts and Letters Richard Rodgers Award in 1996, and the inaugural ASCAP Richard Rodgers Horizons Award in 1996.
McBride is currently a Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at New York University. He has three children and lives between New York City and Lambertville, New Jersey.Miracle at St. Anna (2008)Red Hook Summer (2012)