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December 14, 2015

Judy Jordan ’83: Family Ties

by Bonnie Eissner
Judy Jordan, '83

Judy Jordan, ’83

What if your sibling wrote a best-selling, tell-all book about your mother, revealing for all the world painful aspects of her past that you never knew? Judy Jordan, ’83, the younger sister of James McBride, lived the experience when her brother published The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to his White Mother (1996), his hugely popular account of his mother’s escape from an oppressive upbringing in an Orthodox Jewish family and her experience as the mother of 12 black children.

Jordan, who lives in Philadelphia and teaches middle school music and musical theater, recalled reading her brother’s manuscript. “I remember my sister telling me that I have to read the book before it got released, and I knew I was going to get emotional.” She was teaching in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood at the time. “I was on the subway with my sunglasses on…because I cried a lot…I didn’t know a lot of the difficult parts of my mother’s life.”

On the phone, Jordan was friendly but reserved when sharing her own story and that of her dynamic, well-known family. Jordan is the third youngest in the family and the youngest girl. Of her mother, Jordan said, “I just know that she shaped us in a certain way. We are very, very close.

“We are a normal family in my eyes,” she said, adding with a slight laugh, “Like what is normal, right?”

For Jordan and her siblings, normal was being raised in black neighborhoods, mostly in New York, and attending black Baptist churches. Ruth McBride Jordan described herself as light-skinned to her children and fully embraced their black upbringing. She did, though, send her children to largely white schools. “We did go outside of our district to make sure we got the best we could for an education,” Jordan recalled. Often that meant traveling far from their home and experiencing a markedly different monoculture.

All 12 siblings graduated from college and most continued on to graduate school. Jordan said of her mother, “She just made sure that we went to college because that was the path that we were given.”

Jordan and her siblings took music and dance lessons from a young age, and Jordan intended to study dance in college despite her mother’s misgivings and the relative scarcity of colleges that offered the major. The fact that Adelphi did drew her to the school.

She has fond memories of Adelphi’s dance program and made lifelong friends. She spoke candidly about other more mixed Adelphi experiences, such as the Thursday night discos. “That was the only event that the black students had, and we really, really loved going because you just danced, and if there was one inkling of a problem, they would shut it down.”

Ultimately, Jordan chose a career as a teacher rather than one as a professional performer. After Adelphi, she pursued a master’s degree in education at Columbia University and taught in Washington Heights for nine years before moving to Philadelphia.

Since then, she has taught at Penn Wood Middle School in Darby, Pennsylvania, which serves a largely low-income population. “I love what I do, and I love the kids,” Jordan said. Every spring, she mounts a full-length musical production in the school. “To see the kids—these are seventh and eighth graders—memorize their lines and learn their songs, it’s pretty amazing,” she said.

She likes it when people say that they enjoyed her brother’s book and realize that she is Ruth’s daughter and James’ sister. “I feel honored,” she said. “I’m grateful to have the loving and special parents that I did.”

This article was published in AU VU Magazine, Fall 2015 issue.
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