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The Color of Water
Cover of The Color of Water
The Color of Water
A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother
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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,...
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,...
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  • 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 listeners 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.

Excerpts-

  • From the cover When I was fourteen, my mother took up two new hobbies: riding a bicycle and playing piano. The piano I didn't mind, but the bicycle drove me crazy. It was a huge old clunker, blue with white trim, with big fat tires, huge fenders, and a battery-powered horn built into the middle of the frame with a button you pushed to make it blow. The contraption would be a collector's item now, probably worth about five thousand dollars, but back then it was something my step- father found on the street in Brooklyn and hauled home a few months before he died.

    I don't know whether it was his decision to pull out or not, but I think not. He was seventy-two when he died, trim, strong, easygoing, seemingly infallible, and though he was my stepfather, I always thought of him as Daddy. He was a quiet, soft-spoken man who wore old-timey clothes, fedoras, button-down wool coats, suspenders, and dressed neatly at all times, regardless of how dirty his work made him. He did everything slowly and carefully, but beneath his tractor- like slowness and outward gentleness was a crossbreed of quiet Indian and country black man, surefooted, hard, bold, and quick. He took no guff and gave none. He married my mother, a white Jewish woman, when she had eight mixed- race black children, me being the youngest at less than a year old. They added four more children to make it an even twelve and he cared for all of us as if we were his own. ''I got enough for a baseball team,'' he joked. One day he was there, the next—a stroke, and he was gone.

    I virtually dropped out of high school after he died, failing every class. I spent the year going to movies on Forty-second Street in Times Square with my friends. ''James is going through his revolution,'' my siblings snickered. Still, my sisters were concerned, my older brothers angry. I ignored them. Me and my hanging-out boys were into the movies. Superfly, Shaft, and reefer, which we smoked in as much quantity as possible. I snatched purses. I shoplifted. I even robbed a petty drug dealer once. And then in the afternoons, coming home after a day of cutting school, smoking reefer, waving razors, and riding the subway, I would see my mother pedaling her blue bicycle.

    She would ride in slow motion across our street, Mur- dock Avenue in the St. Albans section of Queens, the only white person in sight, as cars swerved around her and black motorists gawked at the strange, middle-aged white lady riding her ancient bicycle. It was her way of grieving, though I didn't know it then. Hunter Jordan, my stepfather, was dead. Andrew McBride, my biological father, had died while she was pregnant with me fourteen years earlier. It was clear that Mommy was no longer interested in getting married again, despite the efforts of a couple of local preachers who were all Cadillacs and smiles and knew that she, and thus we, were broke. At fifty-one she was still slender and pretty, with curly black hair, dark eyes, a large nose, a sparkling smile, and a bowlegged walk you could see a mile off. We used to call that ''Mommy's madwalk,'' and if she was doing it in your direction, all hell was gonna break loose. I'd seen her go up to some pretty tough dudes and shake her fist in their faces when she was angry—but that was before Daddy died. Now she seemed intent on playing the piano, dodging bill collectors, forcing us into college through sheer willpower, and riding her bicycle all over Queens. She refused to learn how to drive. Daddy's old car sat out front for weeks, parked at the curb. Silent. Clean. Polished. Every day she rode her bike right past it, ignoring it.

    The image of her riding that bicycle...

Reviews-

  • Publisher's Weekly

    January 22, 1996
    Writer and musician McBride recounts a telling conversation with his mother: "Am I Black or White?" "You're a human being. Educate yourself or you'll be a nobody!" With the help of two remarkable African American husbands (James is the youngest of eight McBride kids; his father, Rev. Andrew McBride, died before he was born in 1957, and four more children were born during a second marriage), Ruthie Shilsky McBride Jordan infused her children with two values--a respect for education and religious belief. What makes this story inspiring is that she succeeded against strong odds--raising her family in all-black lower-income neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens in New York City, where opportunities for her children to get into major trouble abounded; how she did this is what makes this memoir read like a very well-plotted novel. An orthodox Jew born in Poland and raised in the South, Ruthie's early life included her abusive father, an itinerant rabbi who ran a grocery store where he exploited his black customers; a caring but helpless mother crippled by polio, who spoke no English; and a hardscrabble childhood in rural Virginia, where she was shunned by whites and blacks alike, because she was a Jew and also for her father's business practices. McBride skillfully alternates chapters relating his life story and his coming to terms with his mixed ethnic and religious heritage with chapters conveying his mother's travails and her development into a fervent Baptist; the latter in her own voice. This moving and unforgettable memoir needs to be read by people of all colors and faiths.

  • AudioFile Magazine In this touching homage to his mother, James McBride paints a portrait of growing up in a black neighborhood as the child of an interracial marriage. Although raised an Orthodox Jew in the South, McBride's mother abandoned her heritage, moved to Harlem and married a black man. A wonderful sense of realism is offered by the dual-voiced narration. AndrÄ Braugher's earnest presentation is matched perfectly with Lainie Kazan's character-rich representation of the headstrong matriarch. The result is not only a duet of victory over racial intolerance, but also a very personal celebration of familial bonds. R.A.P. (c) AudioFile, Portland, Maine
  • AudioFile Magazine McBride's book tells two stories: One recalls his upbringing in a black family in the 1960s and '70s, and the other recounts his mother's growing up an Orthodox Jew and leaving that life to marry a black man in 1942. JD Jackson and Susan Denaker deliver the son's and the mother's parts in successive sections. They're expressive, have good voices, and are adept at pacing and at giving the text its proper emotional tone. Denaker has more opportunity to show her creativity by providing character voices, which she does well, if slightly overdone. Jackson, when relaying the conversations of the mother with her son, gets to give voice to her character, and he does so in a way that fits Denaker's performance. The two halves of this skillful reading add up to an affecting whole. W.M. © AudioFile 2014, Portland, Maine

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