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The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to…

The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother (1996)

by James McBride

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4,842971,550 (3.95)163
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.… (more)
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    Off-White: a memoir by Laurie Gunst (Manthepark)
    Manthepark: An interesting coming-of-age story of a Jewish girl’s connections with the African-American and white communities in Richmond, Virginia, and how those connections carried forward into her adult life.

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» See also 163 mentions

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Showing 1-5 of 95 (next | show all)
I recently read, in succession, Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, River of Fire by Sr. Helen Prejean and The Color of Water by James McBride. When we read affects deeply how we read. I found myself looking for the conversion points, those iridescent moments when the paradigm shifts. Someone referred to the Covid 19 pandemic as an earthquake in slow motion. Paradigm shifts can sudden or slow but most often: both.

The Color of Water: won awards years ago. It is, as a friend noted, a page turner. It is also an accessible text on racism. But I was reading it looking for that conversion point, but it’s hidden in the story. “It was typical Mommy neurotic behavior, and I didn’t fully understand it till I learned how far she had truly come.” Isn’t that the task for all of us? Or, as Greg Boyle,SJ says, “To stand in awe of the burdens they carry and not in judgment on how they carry them.” McBride’s moment was mixed in with his mother’s, “Imagine if you will 5,000 years of Jewish history landing in your lap in the e space of months. It sent me tumbling through my own abyss of sorts…” p.269
I’m in awe of people’s lives and a story of those lives well told.
( )
  MaryHeleneMele | May 18, 2020 |
Excellent book. Very engaging--took me to a unique and fascinating world. ( )
  joliek | Nov 3, 2019 |
McBride's book about his mother and his own life from birth to maturity stunned me. A powerful memoir, sure, but a heartfelt look at the effects of anti-Semitism, racism, slavery, and patriarchy. Oh, yes, religion and its place in life. The McBrides are a remarkable family and this is a remarkable story. I had wanted to read it for decades. Now that I finally have read it I am sorry I did not do so much much earlier. This is a book I know I will return to again and again. McBride's writing is so forceful and to eloquent!
  nmele | Oct 7, 2019 |
Interesting, but a little disjointed or me. A great tribute to his mother. ( )
  Stanslong | Jul 10, 2019 |
Ruth McBride Jordan, born Rachel Shilsky, left her Jewish family to marry the man she loved. Why did she have to choose? Because it was 1942, and the man she loved was black. They had eight children together before his early death, and with her second husband, also black, Ruth had four more. When said children had questions about their racial identity, she told them she was not white but "light-skinned," and she refused to talk any further about her heritage. When James McBride (child #8, writer and musician) decided to write a book in tribute to his mother, Ruth revealed her past, not only to us readers but also to her son, for the first time in her life.

The book is told in the alternating voices of Ruth and James. We get to know Ruth simultaneously as a child (her point of view) and a mother (her son's point of view). Over the pages, this portrait of her becomes fully realized in a non-chronological structure, more like a mosaic than a brush painting. Something she said when James was a child will suddenly make sense after some other thing is revealed about her history. Meanwhile we grow to understand James as well. As a teen he wrestles with his biracial identity, acts out though he can't explain why he's angry with the world. Ultimately, in part due to voices in the community around him that speak truth and worth into his life and challenge him to become better, he decides that only he is responsible for measuring up to the potential inside him.

The voices of Ruth and James are less "writerly" than conversational, which took me some getting used to. I read mostly fiction, so my mind automatically grasps for linear plot even when a book isn't supposed to have one. In the same vein, some repetition in the chapters could have been tightened a bit. But the rambling pace seems to be the point here. We repeat ourselves when we talk, especially when we tell life stories. We throw in details that don't seem to matter at the time. We detour and then come back to the point. All these things are allowed to remain in the text, especially Ruth's chapters, as if we are reading a transcript of an interview with her (perhaps we are?) rather than an edited literary work.

The story of Ruth McBride Jordan, "the two good men she loved and the twelve good children she raised," is an honest and honoring portrait of a woman who pursued love despite the censure of the time she lived in, who raised her children to work hard, value education, and love people. ( )
  AmandaGStevens | Mar 2, 2019 |
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I wrote this book for my mother, and her mother, and mothers everywhere.
In memory of Hudis Shilsky, Rev. Andrew D. McBride, and Hunter L. Jordan, Sr.
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As a boy, I never knew where my mother was from -- where she was born, who her parents were.
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About a black man who has a white mother and a complex with issues of race, religion, and identity.
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