The Color of Water

The Color of Water:  A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother

By James McBride

Published 1995

Read Feb 2022

The Color of Water is this reader’s first exposure to James McBride, mainly because it was the only e-book or audiobook by McBride that was available for take out in this reader’s library system.  All of the other McBride books had waiting lists. 

The Color of Water is partly a biography of McBride’s mother, partly a memoir of McBride’s life, and certainly meant to be a tribute to his remarkable mother as noted in the subtitle.  This reader listened to this book which was a great way to read it as McBride wrote chapters that are in his voice and chapters that are in his mother’s voice and the audiobook used a man’s voice for McBride and a woman’s voice for his mother. 

James McBride knew his story.  He knew he was the eighth child born to Ruth McBride of twelve total and the last one whose father was Dennis McBride.  Dennis McBride died of lung cancer before he was born.  He knew his mother subsequently married Hunter Jordan, who raised Ruth’s children as his own and with whom she had four more children.  He knew his mother embraced Christianity and that Dennis McBride and his mother started a church.  He knew his mother valued education and the (Christian) church above all else and while they lived in Red Hook, a rough neighborhood in Brooklyn. She had sent her children to public schools in Jewish neighborhood where she was sure that learning was a priority.  He knew his mother mourned two husbands and somehow managed to keep all the children in school and food on the table despite great obstacles.  He knew all of his siblings went to college and half of them went to graduate or professional post-grad school.  He knew his skin and that of his siblings was dark, that they lived in black neighborhoods, and that his mother had light skin.  He knew she never spoke of race and, when asked, said God was The Color of Water, neither white nor black.  He knew she never spoke of her parents or family.

What James McBride didn’t know was who his mother really was.  After he had graduated from Oberlin College and was a journalist, he convinced her to talk to him about her past.  He anticipated the exercise would take a few sessions but it actually took eight years—her story was only very slowly revealed to him.  He eventually learned that his mother was the daughter of a failed Orthodox rabbi who did not successfully keep a job as a rabbi in a synagogue.  He opened a store in the last town in which he was employed as a rabbi.  The town was an anti-Semitic and racist small southern town.    He set up the store in a black section and overcharged and otherwise misused his patrons.  McBride learned that his mother’s father was sexually abusive to his mother and her sister.  Her mother’s father mistreated his wife, cheated on her, and raised a second family while remaining legally wed to his mother.  We learn that Ruth’s name was actually Rachel but she gave up that name when she gave up her family to live in New York City.  He learned that she felt most at home in the company of blacks and she embraced her husband’s Christian religion, both of which fully separated her from her family.  McBride tells a moving story of his mother’s challenges and of her triumphs and how she set twelve children on exceptional paths. 

James McBride eventually became a successful writer and musician but only after narrowly escaping a life of crime and drugs that he started towards while a teenager.  He landed an acceptance to Oberlin College.  After graduation he tried his hand at journalism for several years but eventually decided he could be both a musician and a writer.

While this reader is not usually a fan of memoirs, this is a very special one.  McBride found a truly engaging way to reveal his story, that of his mother, and how he worked through his identity as a mixed-race person.  In the end he comes to understand that his mother’s relentless focus on education and church instilled in him and his siblings that learning and finding a way to serve others is really much more important than the race box you are required to check on too many forms.  This reader looks forward to getting notification that his books are available for me to read. 

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