August 10, 2018

Looking Back - The Color of Water

Looking Back... In an effort to transfer my book journal entries over to this blog, I'm going to attempt to post (in chronological order) an entry every Friday. I may or may not add extra commentary to what I jotted down in these journals.

The Color of Water by James McBride
1997 Riverhead Trade (first published 1996)
Finished in January 1998
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

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'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 Deborah 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.

My Original Notes (1998):

Another wonderful memoir! Very inspirational. A look at racial identity through the eyes of a black man, born to a white, Jewish mother. McBride is one of twelve children! I enjoyed the alternating voices (his and his mother's), switching in each new chapter. McBride's mother had a very difficult life, but still managed to raise responsible children. They all went to college and many attended graduate school.

My Current Thoughts:

I remember that this was a very powerful memoir, but other than that, the details are sketchy. After reading the publisher's blurb, I feel that the book would make for a good discussion in my book club, perhaps combined with Rick Bragg's All Over But the Shoutin'. I'll have to recommend both of them at our annual planning meeting. They might work well in May for a Mother's Day theme.


  1. Sounds like a good plan, Les! I remember reading this book about the same time. We probably talked about it perhaps.

    1. Kay, I think we did talk about it. It was probably one of those books that we read in our little group.

  2. I started this once then had to set it aside for other commitments and never got back to it. I really do need to do that and I love your idea of teaming it up with All Over But The Shoutin'.

    1. Lisa, it's certainly worthwhile and I wish I still had my copy. I know it's one I'd enjoy a second time.


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