James McBride was born in 1957 to an African-American father and a Polish Jewish immigrant mother. McBride's biological father, Andrew Dennis McBride, died of lung cancer while his mother, Ruth McBride, was pregnant with James. Therefore James regarded his stepfather, Hunter Jordan, as "Daddy." James's mother eventually had twelve children, eight from her first marriage and four from her second. James grew up in New York City and Delaware.

While James was a bit young to fully understand the events of the 1960s, he experienced their impact through his older siblings. The Civil Rights and Black Power movements manifested themselves in his siblings' behavior, sometimes resulting in conflicts between his mother Ruth and her children. In questioning the authority of the white man, they came up against issues of their own identities as biracial members of society. Later, James struggled with the same issues that had plagued his siblings. When he finally confronted these issues, James discovered that in order to understand himself, he had to understand his mother's background.

Born in Poland in 1921, Ruth McBride arrived in the United States at the age of two. The family traveled around the United States for several years, and Ruth's father tried and failed to make a career as a rabbi. Ruth's family settled in Suffolk, Virginia, where they opened a general store. Ruth's character was formed by her life in the South of the 1920s and 1930s. Both black and Jewish people experienced hardships; she and others lived with constant fear and the threat of violence. Desperate poverty and prejudice permeated the South. Ruth also describes Harlem in the 1940s and 1950s, capturing not only the racial tensions of that period, but also the vitality, culture, and humor of the New York City neighborhood.

James McBride's methods of investigation and style of writing reflect his background as a journalist and musician. His is like a puzzle to him. In the beginning, McBride knows few details about his mother's past, and his memoir charts his attempt to piece together her life's story. In order to understand her story, McBride uses the tools of the journalist: interviews and phone calls, a trip to his mother's hometown, and research in newspapers, records, and archives. The emotion provoked by the discovery of his mother's past takes on a musical quality.

James's and Ruth's love of the Christian faith also provide a backdrop to the memoir. Although Ruth's family raised her in the Orthodox Jewish tradition, she converted to Christianity after she met James's father Dennis, with whom she opened a church in the early 1950s. She raised all of her children as Christians, and took their involvement in church very seriously. Christianity is a powerful element of the book's context, as it gives Ruth and James comfort and guidance during times of trial.