At the beginning of the book, James talks about growing up in a family with twelve children. James's biological father, Andrew McBride, died when James's mother was pregnant with him. After his father passed away, James's mother married a man named Hunter Jordan, whom James calls Daddy.
James tells us that his stepfather lived in a separate household in Brooklyn until close to the end of his life. So, James and his siblings only saw their stepfather during the weekends. Essentially, James remembers worrying about his mother during his childhood years. It seemed to him that she never acknowledged her danger.
James understood that, with twelve biracial children, his mother had to walk a tightrope. Due to the racial tensions among the white and African American populations in the neighborhood, she was often marginalized by both groups. Throughout his childhood years, James remembers fearing for his mother's safety.
While he and his siblings had curly hair and various shades of darker skin, James's mother was clearly white. After the death of Malcolm X, James feared even more for his mother's safety. His mother, on the other hand, seemed unconcerned. Unless he discussed issues that involved church or school, his mother largely ignored the racial tensions in their Queens neighborhood.
According to James, his mother insisted on good grades and privacy. He remembers that she distrusted strangers of either race.
In fact, he and his siblings were instructed to reveal nothing about their home life to strangers who were in positions of authority, such as police officers, teachers, and social workers. As a result, James always felt a sense of "otherness" while growing up.