Trying to Bridge the Racial Divide in America

Four books celebrate black Americans' achievements and examine progress in their lives


By Scott Minerbrook

Harcourt Brace & Co.

259 pp., $24


By James McBride

Riverhead Books

228 pp., $22.95


By William Lee Miller

Alfred A. Knopf

577 pp., $35


By Janus Adams


418 pp., $18

THE agonies of America's racial divide have never cut more deeply than in mixed-race families. Yet the hope that we can see beyond racial stereotypes burns brightest there too.

To introduce his story of self-discovery, journalist Scott Minerbrook, the child of a white mother and black father, quotes the cry of black poet Derek Walcott: ''I who am poisoned with the blood of both/ Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?''

Minerbrook begins and ends his saga, Divided to the Vein: A Journey into Race and Family, with a visit to Caruthersville, Mo., a journey to try to talk with his grandmother, Ocieola. She, like his other white relatives, had long ago disowned his white mother and her children.

Like most offspring of mixed parents, Minerbrook had come to identify himself as black. ''I'd never been able to develop the part of my personality that might have blossomed by knowing my white relatives.... There was still some part of myself I didn't even know,'' he says. ''I recognized that I'd lost much of the tenderness in myself in resentment toward my own flesh and blood, justifying my anger on the grounds of a racial hallucination that had shaped my life.''

His eventual contact with Ocieola doesn't neatly wrap up all the loose ends. His life, like racial progress in America, is a work in progress.

Another new book, The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother, also explores the story of a mixed-race family in the form of a moving tribute by James McBride to his white mother, Ruth. Raised as a Jew in the segregated South of the 1930s, Ruth McBride survived an abusive father, moved to New York, married a black minister, and raised 12 children who have become doctors, educators, and writers.

This tale of a remarkable woman is a kind of ''Cheaper by the Dozen'' for the 1990s, full of humor, pathos, and insight.

When as a child, McBride asks his mother if he is black or white, she replies, ''You're a human being. Educate yourself or you'll be a nobody.''

''Will I be a black nobody or just a nobody?''

''If you're a nobody,'' she says dryly, ''it doesn't matter what color you are.''

An even greater value was placed on religion. One day after church, young McBride asked Mommy whether God likes black or white people better:

''He loves all people. He's a spirit.''

''What's a spirit?''

''A spirit's a spirit.''

''What color is God's spirit?''

''It doesn't have a color,'' she says. ''God is the color of water. Water doesn't have a color.''

By patiently prying the amazing story of her life out of his reluctant mother over many years, McBride has been able to write an inspiring, utterly fresh, moving, and unforgettable book.

In the 1830s and 1840s, the idea that America's African slaves would ever be freed seemed almost impossible, even to those white Americans in the North who acknowledged slavery as a moral wrong. The practical problems of freeing millions of unpaid workers, valuable property to their owners, seemed beyond solution.

Before the Civil War could settle this great question on the battlefield, the ideas that would underpin the abolitionist cause had to be aired, tested, and refined. The United States Congress, in the years 1835-44, did just that, says William Lee Miller in Arguing About Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States Congress.

The unlikely hero of this effort was John Quincy Adams, son of the revolutionary patriot and a largely undistinguished former president of the US. Adams returned to Congress after his White House years and worked tirelessly to end the ''gag rule'' that prevented Congress from even talking about slavery. Adams was a model of patience, reintroducing his legislation year after year, fighting it out speech by speech, vote by vote. Miller lays out the arcane workings of the proceedings with admirable detail, clarity, and verve.

The subjects of these backroom shenanigans and great debates, enslaved black Americans, had no way, of course, to participate directly in this great debate. But here we see the democratic process itself become their champion: The ideals of the republic and the free forum of an elected body combine over time to eventually provoke the Southerners' hand and move the matter toward its final bloody conclusion. Using personal journals and congressional records, Miller takes us inside Congress to hear one of the most neglected yet important debates in American history.

In Glory Days: 365 Inspired Moments in African-American History, Janus Adams has produced a ''book of virtues'' of interest to parents, teachers, or anyone who'd like to learn about African-American history in quick, easy-to-read portions.

The book contains a short essay on an important event in black history for each day of the year. The page for Feb. 12, for example, explains how in 1926 Dr. Carter G. Woodson proclaimed the first Negro History Week, the forerunner of today's Black History Month.

These vignettes about famous and should-be-famous black Americans and their achievements can be enjoyed at a browse or by using the helpful triple index. Organized by person and subject matter, it also references important themes, such as love, responsibility, courage, liberation, and perseverance.

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