The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride Download (read online) free eBook (PDF ePub Kindle)

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

Touches readers of all colors as a vivid portrait of growing up, a haunting meditation on race and identity, and a lyrical valentine to a mother from her son.

Who is Ruth McBride Jordan? A self-declared “light-skinned” woman evasive about her ethnicity, yet steadfast in her love for her twelve black children. James McBride, journalist, musician and son, explores his mother’

Who is Ruth McBride Jordan? A self-declared “light-skinned” woman evasive about her ethnicity, yet steadfast in her love for her twelve black children. James McBride, journalist, musician and son, explores his mother’s past, as well as his own upbringing and heritage, in a poignant and powerful debut, The Color Of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother.

The son of a black minister and a woman who would not admit she was white, James McBride grew up in “orchestrated chaos” with his eleven siblings in the poor, all-black projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn. “Mommy,” a fiercely protective woman with “dark eyes full of pep and fire,” herded her brood to Manhattan’s free cultural events, sent them off on buses to the best (and mainly Jewish) schools, demanded good grades and commanded respect. As a young man, McBride saw his mother as a source of embarrassment, worry, and confusion–and reached thirty before he began to discover the truth about her early life and long-buried pain.

In The Color of Water, McBride retraces his mother’s footsteps and, through her searing and spirited voice, recreates her remarkable story. The daughter of a failed itinerant Orthodox rabbi, she was born Rachel Shilsky (actually Ruchel Dwara Zylska) in Poland on April 1, 1921. Fleeing pogroms, her family emigrated to America and ultimately settled in Suffolk, Virginia, a small town where anti-Semitism and racial tensions ran high. With candor and immediacy, Ruth describes her parents’ loveless marriage; her fragile, handicapped mother; her cruel, sexually-abusive father; and the rest of the family and life she abandoned.

At seventeen, after fleeing Virginia and settling in New York City, Ruth married a black minister and founded the all-black New Brown Memorial Baptist Church in her Red Hook living room. “God is the color of water,” Ruth McBride taught her children, firmly convinced that life’s blessings and life’s values transcend race. Twice widowed, and continually confronting overwhelming adversity and racism, Ruth’s determination, drive and discipline saw her dozen children through college–and most through graduate school. At age 65, she herself received a degree in social work from Temple University.

Interspersed throughout his mother’s compelling narrative, McBride shares candid recollections of his own experiences as a mixed-race child of poverty, his flirtations with drugs and violence, and his eventual self-realization and professional success. The Color of Water touches readers of all colors as a vivid portrait of growing up, a haunting meditation on race and identity, and a lyrical valentine to a mother from her son.
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    Michael

    Such a gem to me. McBride is a black journalist, novelist, and jazz musician who recognizes what a wonder his mother Ruth was when she raised him and 11 siblings and gets her to open up about her secretive past. The book is lyrical and tender, tough and heartbreaking, and suffused with tales of courage balanced with humor.

    McBride alternates skillfully between Ruth talking about her early history and his own perspective from the inside of the family she nurtured in Brooklyn and Queens in the tur

    McBride alternates skillfully between Ruth talking about her early history and his own perspective from the inside of the family she nurtured in Brooklyn and Queens in the turbulent 60’s. James struggles to find a path to his black identity, taking a short tour of juvenile delinquency. He comes to understand his grounding in how his mother never saw things in black and white. When asked by her children about how it is she is not black, she just deflects the question by saying she is light-skinned and nagging them to get back to their education. Somehow the values she upheld was an anchor that contributed to all 12 kids getting a college education and most advanced degrees. When McBride as an adult gets her to submit to taped interviews, her marvelous voice finally comes through about her hidden past as a Polish Jew with a tough upbringing:

    I’m dead.
    You want me to talk about my family and here I have been dead to them for fifty years. Leave me alone. Don’t bother me. They don’t want no parts of me, I don’t want no parts of them. Hurry up and get the interview over with. I want to watch Dallas. …
    I was born an Orthodox Jew on April 1, 1921, April Fool’s Day in Poland. I don’t remember the name of the town where I was born, but I do remember my Jewish name: Ruchel Dwajra Zylska. My parents got rid of that name when we came to America and changed it to Rachel Deborah Shilsky, and I got rid of that name when I was nineteen and never used it again after I left Virginia for good in 1941. Rachel Shilsky is dead as far as I am concerned. She had to die for me, the rest of me, to live.

    From that introduction, you can see the trove of heritage McBride’s quest for roots gets into through his mother’s story. Her father was an itinerant rabbi, who came to run a store for a black neighborhood in rural Virginia in the segregated south. His brutality toward her mother and her was one reason Ruth ran away to Harlem; the other was that she had fallen in love at 15 with a black boy and was shunted to New York for family help with an abortion. Ruth finds a niche in the black community after being shunned by aunts and uncles. She gets a job at the Apollo Theater and enjoys the music scene. She ends up marrying a kind-hearted man, Andrew McBride, and having 8 kids with him, including James as the last, born after he died. His future stepfather, Dennis, came to their aid in the aftermath of the tragedy and soon charms her into marriage:

    He came from a home where kindness was a way of life. I wanted to be in this kind of family. I was proud to join it, and they were happy to have me.

    The welcoming feeling she got from Dennis’ mother in North Carolina (“God bless you, Ruth, because you’re our daughter now. Marry that man”) is consistent with the community she felt with blacks, accounting for why James had a white mother:
    That’s how black folk thought back then. That’s why I never veered from the black side. I would never even have thought of marrying a white man.

    Ruth’s journey seems so improbable, but it still epitomizes a theme from the river of stories that frame the immigrant experience in America. The blending of culture and race made some lovely blooms. Just because a book is a memoir doesn’t mean it can’t have the wonderful architecture of great fiction. I don’t read a lot of memoirs and recognize I should read more. My five stars puts this one up there with “Angela’s Ashes” and “The Glass Castle” (and with more joy, less torment), and for my reading pleasure it was a notch above “The Road from Coorain” and “Growing Up.”


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