Summary and book reviews of The Color of Water by James McBride

The Color of Water

by James McBride

The Color of Water
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  • First Published:
    Feb 1996, 228 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 1997, 228 pages

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Book Summary

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 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.

Dead

I'm dead.

You want to talk about my family and here I been dead to them for fifty years. Leave me alone. Don't bother me. They want no parts of me and me I don't want no parts of them. Hurry up and get this interview over with. I want to watch Dallas. See, my family, if you had a been part of them, you wouldn't have time for this foolishness, your roots, so to speak. You'd be better off watching the Three Stooges than to interview them, like to go interview my father, forget it. He'd have a heart attack if he saw you, He's dead now anyway, or if not he's 150 years old.

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 ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Introduction

James McBride grew up one of twelve siblings in the all-black housing projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn, the son of a black minister and a woman who would not admit she was white. The object of McBride's constant embarrassment, and his continuous fear for her safety, his mother was an inspiring figure, who through sheer force of will saw her dozen children through college, and many through graduate school. McBride was an adult before he discovered the truth about his mother: the daughter of a failed itinerant Orthodox rabbi in rural Virginia, she had run away to Harlem, married a black man, and founded an all-black Baptist church in her living room in Red Hook. In this remarkable memoir, she tells in her own words...
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Reviews

Media Reviews

The Washington Post Book World

Lively...a well-written, thoughtful contribution to the literature on race.

The New York Times Book Review

The two stories, son's and mother's, beautifully juxtaposed, strike a graceful note.

The Boston Globe

Superbly written...a moving and exciting story that totally satisfies.

Library Journal

...his accounts of the almost unrelenting prejudice of white against black, black against white, light-skinned black against dark-skinned black, and so on are deeply disturbing. One is left to borrow the words of another recent commentator and say that this cancer does indeed make me want to holler. Highly recommended.

Reader Reviews

High School senior

Class mates find the book "racist"
Hello, I am a 17 years old high school senior who was assigned this book as my summer reading. Now, I read the book from cover to cover and and i thought it was a well written and detailed Memoir about a man (The author) who was on a journey to find...   Read More

Tina

Profound
This was one of the most memorable books I've ever read. It's been many years since I read it and was so impressed with it that I passed it on. The title says it all.

C.Perkins

In my Opinion
In my opinion this is a good story because people were all brought up in a different way & this story may help you change your perspective on some things in your life or others.

martha malagon

black and white
I like this story because it reminder me from the past and the present and future with my families. And this story based on the real life of histories with family.

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