The Col­or of Water: A Black Man’s Trib­ute to His White Mother

  • From the Publisher
June 5, 2006

From the New York Times best­selling author of Dea­con King Kong and The Good Lord Bird, win­ner of the Nation­al Book Award for Fiction:

The mod­ern clas­sic that Oprah​.com calls one of the best mem­oirs of a gen­er­a­tion and that launched James McBride’s lit­er­ary career.

More than two years on The New York Times best­seller list.

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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