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The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother (1995)

by James McBride

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
5,8981071,600 (3.97)202
Biography & Autobiography. Multi-Cultural. Nonfiction. HTML:From the bestselling author of Deacon King Kong and the National Book Award-winning The Good Lord Bird: The modern classic that spent more than two years on The New York Times bestseller list and that Oprah.com calls one of the best memoirs of a generation. 

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)

  1. 00
    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 202 mentions

English (105)  Finnish (1)  Dutch (1)  All languages (107)
Showing 1-5 of 105 (next | show all)
Ruth McBride Jordan underwent several name changes in her life, each indicative of a major life event. She was born Ruchel Zylska on a shtetl in Eastern Europe. When she emigrated to the US with her family, her name was changed to Rachel, and then Ruth, Shilsky. Orthodox Jews, her father ran a small grocery store with the help of her disabled mother. Despite depending on the local Black population for their livelihood, her father hated Blacks, and when Ruth moves to New York and falls in love with a Black man, her family sits shiva. She is dead to them.

A white woman living with a Black man in 1941 would have been dangerous in the South, but they found acceptance in Harlem, eventually marrying and having seven children. Dennis McBride was religious and Ruth finds solace and joy in the Baptist Church. When Ruth was pregnant with James, their eighth child, Dennis becomes sick and dies of cancer. Ruth overcomes her profound grief and goes on to marry again and have another four children. When her second husband dies when James is 14, Ruth raises her twelve children on her own. All of them go to college and become successful professionals. Her story is one of perseverance and determination.

The book is written in alternating chapters with first James and then Ruth narrating. James writes of his struggles with his mixed heritage and identity and the lure of life on the street as a teen. He knew little of his mother's background, not even that she was Jewish, until he was an adult. This book is both a tribute to his mother and an uncovering of her past. Clearly she was a tremendous force in the lives of her children, although not always a gentle one.

The audio version is wonderful. The narrators do a fantastic job of bringing the words to life with subtle accent and cadence changes. I highly recommend it. ( )
1 vote labfs39 | Sep 4, 2023 |
Here's what I wrote in 2008 about this read: "Black man tells his story, including of his remarkable white mother (born a Polish Jew who marries a black man and helps found a Baptist church, mother to 12 children, all of whom went through college) and his family's experiences growing up in NYC in the 1960's. Memorable, human, inspirational." ( )
  MGADMJK | Jul 25, 2023 |
I'm not shocked that the first page of reviews for this book are overwhelmingly better than, say, Lord of the Flies. This is the kind of book that people read nowadays, a somewhat touching memoir of a life that carries a message of hope and perseverance. McBride's life history is not so atypical anymore now that racial and ethnic barriers are disintegrating; look at our president-elect's background as an example. This is a well-written account of a hard and unusual upbringing, but that's all it is; I don't think it says anything particularly profound about human nature or its social context.

After re-reading TCOW, I find it even harder to untangle the ideas in the book. What does Ruth's religion have to do with the eventual success of her children? Did James ever resolve his struggle for racial identity? Was it really Ruth's strength of character that made her a good mother, despite some seemingly bad decisions she made in raising her children? This book works as a memoir - McBride had an interesting childhood and adolescence - but it isn't literature worthy of a deep analysis. ( )
  jonbrammer | Jul 1, 2023 |
An interesting memoir with gripping reflection and candor recounting the lives of a mother and child. As an adoptive mother this book resonated deeply in how physical differences can either divide us or bring us together. ( )
  rebeccasue15 | Mar 25, 2023 |
A fascinating memoir of a boy who grew up with 11 brothers and sisters. His story is told in parallel to that of his mother, the daughter of Jewish immigrants.

This story was weird. First, a disclaimer. I am Jewish (cultural, but no longer practicing), and the mother's family (also Jewish) was portrayed in the most unflattering way. Now, this is a memoir, so I'm assuming that most it was true. Nonetheless, it was hard to read. The mother ends up rejecting her religion and becoming seriously involved in the church. She also is a white woman who ends up having sex with/living with/marrying two different African American men - - and she immerses herself in the culture of Harlem. An unusual choice for a white, Jewish woman who grew up in the South.

What I found really odd, yet interesting, was that the mother made seemingly bad choice after bad choice - - yet most of her 12 children came out just great (2 doctors, a journalist/writer, other professionals, almost all with masters degrees). But when you are reading the book, you can't really figure out why other than the men she chose to have babies with were both very bright guys.

James, the other subject of the memoir, also makes quite a few bad choices (crime, drugs and more), and yet somehow, he too lands on his feet and ends up researching his family history for the book.

All in all, the writing is extremely well done, compelling, and engaging . . .James McBride is going to be speaking in Rochester, and I'm looking forward to his appearance. ( )
  Anita_Pomerantz | Mar 23, 2023 |
Showing 1-5 of 105 (next | show all)
Wie fatal die entschlossene Weigerung dieser Frau, irgend etwas anderes zu sein als sie selbst, sich auf die n√§chste Generation √ľbertr√§gt, macht den Leser schier atemlos. Wie erfolgreich sie und ihre Kinder andererseits Teil des amerikanischen Traumes werden, nicht minder. James McBride liefert mit seinem Debut nicht nur eine Familiengeschichte ab, sondern ebenso ein Sittenbild des amerikanischen S√ľdens der 40er Jahre und New Yorks in der Mitte dieses Jahrhunderts. Und dieses Bild ist alles andere als schwarzwei√ü.
 

» Add other authors (20 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
James McBrideprimary authorall editionscalculated
Denaker, SusanNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jackson, J. D.Narratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schmalz, MonikaÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
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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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Biography & Autobiography. Multi-Cultural. Nonfiction. HTML:From the bestselling author of Deacon King Kong and the National Book Award-winning The Good Lord Bird: The modern classic that spent more than two years on The New York Times bestseller list and that Oprah.com calls one of the best memoirs of a generation. 

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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About a black man who has a white mother and a complex with issues of race, religion, and identity.
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