The color of water : a Black man's tribute to his white mother

by James McBride

Paperback, 2002





New York : Riverhead Books, [2002]


An African American man describes life as the son of a white mother and Black father, reflecting on his mother's contributions to his life and his confusion over his own identity.

User reviews

LibraryThing member nbmars
The Color of Water is an absorbing and moving memoir about the author’s coming of age as a mixed race man with a black father and a Jewish mother who admitted only to having “light” skin. The book is also “A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother.” Ruth Shilsky McBride converted to Christianity after she married her first husband and father of the author. But she probably stopped being a Jew when being molested at night by her Orthodox Rabbi father, or when her father finally abandoned her crippled mother for a gentile neighbor, or when richer aunts shunned her (going so far as to declare her dead for marrying a black man). Or, when she found the love, acceptance, and salvation she was seeking all her life among black people.

With Ruth’s first husband, Andrew McBride, she had eight children. Following his death of lung cancer, she remarried Hunter Jordan, Sr. and had four more children. The author and his siblings were raised in Brooklyn’s Red Hook housing projects in cramped quarters with no television but lots of pressure from his mother to use their minds. And use them they did, growing up to become doctors, professors, chemists, teachers, and in the author’s case, a writer and award-winning musician and composer. Once James asked his mother, “Am I black or white?” She snapped back at him: “You’re a human being. Educate yourself or you’ll be a nobody!” When the kids were growing up, “Mommy,” as they called her, would lead her long rag-tag group of kids wearing hand-me-downs and hand-outs to the city to every free cultural event offered: festivals, libraries, concerts, exhibits.

But the author’s growing up years were marred by his struggles over his mixed identity. And Mommy always seemed oblivious to the fact that she was a white woman inhabiting a totally black world. He asked his mother whether God was black or white. “Oh boy,” she responded, “God’s not black. He’s not white. He’s a spirit.” …God’s spirit doesn’t have a color. “God is the color of water. Water doesn’t have a color.”

I loved this heart-warming book. It is more than a memoir; it is also a revealing look into the two worlds that come together so fruitfully in this touching tribute to a life well-spent.
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LibraryThing member tututhefirst
James McBride tells us the story of growing up black, in Harlem, then in projects in the Bronx. Raised by his white mother (his black father died before he was born) and black step-father, he was one of 12 children. He describes a loving family life, where children were expected to be successful, respectful, and STAY IN SCHOOL. Children were due in the house by 5:00 in the evening, and slept 5 to a bed. Dinner might often be a jar of peanut butter or several spoons of sugar. He never met his mother's family and did not discover until he had completed his master's in Journalism at Columbia U, and decided to write a tribute to his mother, that she was jewish, that her family had disowned her, that her father was an orthodox Jewish rabbi who abused her, and just how hard her life had been.

The story is told both in the son's and the mother's voices. It is very well-written, and gives us an incredible insight into each mind. James' father was a preacher, and his mother converted to Christianity and insisted on church attendance and prayer from all her children. As he begins to realize that his mother is different from other mothers, he asks her "Is God Black?" "NO" she answers. "Well is he white?" Mom replies in the negative. Still the young boy persists. "Well what color is he?" "The color of water." I just loved that image, and fell in love with this family.

As he lovingly recounts his search for his mother's family, and helps her confront a past she has repressed, he comes to an acceptance of his Jewishness, his multi-cultural roots, and gives us a picture of an exceptional family. In the epilogue he gives us a breakdown of the incredible achievements of them all. Every one of the 12 graduated from college. There are two doctors, school teachers, musicians, journalists, nurses, artists, and the mother completes her degree in her late 60's.

It's a tribute any mother would be proud to have her son write.
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LibraryThing member cbl_tn
Author James McBride's mother, Ruth, rarely spoke of her past during McBride's childhood in Queens. McBride knew his mother as a hard-working devout church-going Christian who was determined that all twelve of her children receive a college education. Her past was nothing like her present. Ruth McBride Jordan had been Rachel Shilsky in Suffolk, Virginia, the daughter of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi. Her family had emigrated from Poland to the US in the 1920s when Rachel/Ruth was two. By the time McBride was born, Ruth and her first husband, Andrew McBride, had founded the Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Brooklyn. Ruth eventually opened up her past to her son. He writes his mother's life story in chapters that alternate between McBride's childhood memory of his mother and her recollections of her early life and her transformation from Rachel Shilsky to Ruth McBride Jordan.

This book is as much about McBride's coming to terms with his mixed race heritage as it is about his mother's life. The title comes from a childhood conversation between McBride and his mother. McBride and his siblings were conscious of the fact that their mother didn't look like them. When he pressed his mother about his race – was he black or white – she responded that he was “a human being.” And what about God, he asked? God is “the color of water.”

Ruth McBride Jordan left the world a better place than she found it. The world needs more people like her.
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LibraryThing member missesK
James McBride creates a not-very-flattering portrait of race in America in this outstanding story of his white Jewish mother and black father and stepfather. Ruth McBride was born an Orthodox Jew who came to America at the age of two. The product of a traditional, arranged, loveless marriage, her family lived in the South, and from a young age she found warmth and love only in the black community. As a teenager she left home for New York, married a black man, raised 8 children, founded a church in Brooklyn, and married again as a widow and raised another 4.… (more)
LibraryThing member PAUlibrary
The story of an immigrant mother, the two good men she married, and the 12 good children she raised; it delves into feelings of isolation, but is ultimately a success story of a mother who battled no only racism but also poverty to raise her children. The Color of Water addresses racial identity with compassion, insight, and realism.… (more)
LibraryThing member homeschoolmimzi
This was another book I came across while browsing at Barnes & Noble. The story was so inspiring, difficult and humorous at times too. James McBride is a fabulous story teller. In The Color of Water, McBride goes back and forth between two stories, telling his story growing up as one of eleven children, born to a white mother and black minister father, and his mother's story, growing up as a daughter of an orthodox Jewish rabbi.

I loved the title, The Color of Water. It was the phrase his mother used when McBride asked her what color God was: 'God is no color, he's the color of water.'

Fascinating read and highly recommended!
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LibraryThing member ilovemycat1
Wonderful story of the author's upbringing by his very unorthodox mother who herself was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family. Due to the narrowness of her family's views and the abusiveness of her father, she leaves home at a young age. She winds up in New York City, falls in love with a black man, marries, has 8 children with her husband and they start a church in Brooklyn. When he dies at a young age, right when the author was born, she marries again to another black man and has 4 more children. The children mostly grow up in the Red Hook Housing Project in Brooklyn and due to their mother's emphasis on education, and the love in the home they all graduate college, with most obtaining advanced degrees and become professionals in various fields. The author's mother never talks about her past, the author did not know her maiden name until college, or even that she was white, instead she says she is light skinned or the color of water, meaning that there is no color and color is not important. Their story is fascinating and the book is very easy to read. Highly recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member BookConcierge
McBride and his eleven siblings knew their mother was a free-thinking, intensely private, strong-willed woman, who demanded excellence from her brood. She was disorganized and overwhelmed, but they knew she loved them. She believed firmly in Jesus Christ and insisted they all attend church each Sunday. She also insisted that they attend the best possible public schools … which meant the Jewish public schools where they were frequently the only Blacks in attendance. They lived for most of their youth in Brooklyn’s Red Hook projects. Certainly they knew their mother wasn’t like the other kids’s mothers; but when they asked, she would simply say, “I’m light-skinned.” When James asked if he was black or white his mother’s curt response was, “You’re a human being. Educate yourself or you’ll be a nobody!” When he asked what color God was, his mother answered, “He’s the color of water.”

But eventually, and after repeated pleas, James convinced his mother to tell the story that he and his siblings never knew – or even suspected. She was not only white, but Jewish – the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi.

The book is told in alternating chapters – Ruth’s story, and James’s story. McBride doesn’t hold back in this memoir of “A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother.” He clearly outlines the missteps and tragedies, as well as the joy and success of his extended family.

It is emotional and heartfelt, tender and raw, full of the personal issues of race, religion and identity, as well as the societal issues of race and religion.
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LibraryThing member maggiereads
James is eight years old when he notices something different about his mom. As she stands alone, away from the other mothers, he sees it. “Mommy, are you white?”

“Why no child, I’m light-skinned.”

He then looks around to his brothers and sisters and notices their skin. Okay, that seems possible. Some of his brothers and sisters are dark and some are light.

Days later James decides to consult an older brother and his reply, “You’re adopted.” Adding insult to injury, “Your real mom is in jail.”

Fast forward to James’ junior year in college at Oberlin and he’s filling out forms requiring his mother’s maiden name. Right away James knows this is going to be like pulling teeth. His mother has always avoided questions about her background and this will be no exception.

After much hemming and hawing, Mrs. McBride Jordan reluctantly drops a bombshell. “My maiden name is Shilsky.”

Through the silent shock James fumbles out, “Can you spell that, Ma?”

“You’re in college,” she snaps. “You can spell. Figure it out yourself.”

James is just one of twelve siblings who struggle in the depressing conditions of New York City’s Red Hook Projects during the 1960s. It doesn’t help that his mother is the only white woman in the area. He worries for her safety, but she has three rules for her and her children’s success. Always put church and school first, and never tell anyone about your home life.

She may be evasive about her past, she may speak a different language when haggling with shopkeepers, she may even be poor and white, but Ruth McBride Jordan manages to see all twelve children through college. Her life is an incredible story and now that James has become a successful journalist it’s time to work that interview magic on Ma.

James is author James McBride and his moving memoir is titled, The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother.
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LibraryThing member Sandydog1
What a refreshing book. This is an inspirational story of a mother's tenacity, stubborness and total devotion to her children.
LibraryThing member megamommy
An inspirational biography of a young Jewish woman who was disowned by her family when she married a black pastor, with whom she had 9 children. When he dies, she married another kind black man and had three more. All 12 rose from poverty to hold advanced degrees and professions.
LibraryThing member berthirsch
One of the most touching memoirs you will read about a son's search for his mother's background. Inspirational. A book to be shared with others and passed from hand to hand.
LibraryThing member BoundTogetherForGood
This is a wonderful book that helps one to understand what it was like for a black child to be raised by a white, Jewish woman in Harlem. Wow. GREAT book
LibraryThing member peleluna
This is one of those few books that I felt touched a corner of my soul. Every time I have conversations about race, ethnicity, and idenitity I always find myself drawing on this little gem and passing it along.
LibraryThing member mentormom
Although I love the title, The Color of Water, I struggle to say I liked the book. It has some wonderful merits, but I just can't say I loved it either.

The author James McBride obviously loves and respects his mother. I think that is heartwarming in itself. Mrs. Ruth McBride (the mother) did an amazing job instilling the value of education in the minds and hearts of her children seeing them all to college. Any mother who raised 12 children to become responsible adults deserves a tribute.

The book also includes many fabulous themes for discussion: heritage, identity, religion, faith, parenting, marriage relationships, family hierarchy, race, forgiveness, love, history, etc. There is worth in reading this book particularly along side some other classics like Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, or Martin Luther King Jr's I Have a Dream speech.

But somehow this book just didn't reach straight to my heart. I'm not sure why, because I do see so much that is of worth in this book.

Perhaps it's because I want more information about Ruth. I want to know more about her relationships with her husbands. I want to know more about her faith. I want to know how her faith changed her. And the book never quite lets me see how that change happened.

I see many issues in Ruth's life where she needed the healing influence of Jesus: her molesting and abusive father, her first boyfriend, her abortion, her family abandoning her, etc. But I never get to the heart of how her conversion to Christianity healed the years of hurt. Obviously the woman had great faith that saw her through the years and helped her raise 12 kids. And I began to see a glimpse of it when she told Dennis that she wanted to get married and refused to "live in sin" any longer. But it never went beyond that.

I suppose the reason could be that this book was written by her son James McBride, and I really want to hear the story from Ruth's own lips. James McBride is successful in portraying his personal love for his mother, but he's lacking when it comes to expressing his mother's testimony. That's what I really wanted to see.
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LibraryThing member Blankenbooks
An excellent piece of writing! Alternating between telling his own story and letting his mother's voice reveal her own story. A revealing look at race and identity in mid-20th-century America. But, more importantly, this is a story of a mother's love and strength of personal worth, found in the profound love that she found in the men she married. Also demonstrates how much our own story is dictated by the stories of those who love us and care for us.… (more)
LibraryThing member jbigham0114
I loved this book. It was very insightful and moving. Since my children are bi-racial, I could identify with the author. It is also something I would recommend my children read when they are older so that they can see how much time changes things. One of my favorites!
LibraryThing member DSlongwhite
Very well written book written by a black man as a tribute to his white mother. Every other chapter is about the mother and then the inbetween chapers are about the son growing up.

The mother was born in Poland of Jewish parents. Her mother had polio and was paralyzed on one side. Her father was a rigid, controlling, abusive rabbi.

The day after she graduated from high school, she got on a bus and headed for NYC. She ended up marrying a black man who was a devout Christian. She converted and they founded a church in Harlem. They had seven children. When she was pregnant with the author, the father died of cancer. She was devastated. Eventually she married another black man and had five more children. All children graduated from college and many had advanced degrees.
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LibraryThing member carmarie
This was a great memoir. Amazing writing! I remember when reading this that his writing flowed so easily, though the story he told was not. It was a great memoir of a man trying to connect us to his mother. Great.
LibraryThing member laytonwoman3rd
Think Roots meets An Orphan in History. Subtitled A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother, this memoir touches on growing up black in America in the sixties; on growing up poor in America; on interracial marriage in the 50's and 60's; on Eastern European Jewry; the Holocaust; Orthodox Judaism in the South; the indomitable spirit of motherhood; love that knows no color; and the ability of human beings to thrive in hostile social environments with "dignity, humility and humor".
Well worth reading. I would have loved it had there been photographs of the remarkable people introduced to us in this book.
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LibraryThing member moonstruckeuphoria
This is a fascinating book; I'll tell you why.

I don't only love this 'cause I'm mesmerized by cultural oriented literature, but also because of the wholesome spirit added in. Sometimes I get bored with straight forward memoirs or biographies, but James Mcbride adds in not only his mother's biography – but also his intricate childhood recollections! I don't know if it'd be the same without that personalized detail added in every other chapter or so – and I know that really helped in keeping my attention growing with each passing page.

One of my favorite quotes from it is (the one the book is obviously named after):

“A deep sigh. 'Oh boy . . .God's not black. He's not white. He's a spirit.'

'Does he like black or white people better?'

'He loves all people. He's a spirit.'

'What's a spirit?'

'A spirit's a spirit.'

'What color is God's spirit?'

'It doesn't have a color,' she said. 'God is the color of water. Water doesn't have a color.'”

Lastly, this is my other favorite quote:

“'You don't need money. What's money if your mind is empty! Educate your mind! Is this world crazy or am I the crazy one? It's probably me.'”
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LibraryThing member Vampirate_queen
The Color of Water is not my favorite book. I had to read it for school and do all sorts of work on it. That doesn't help me like it at all. Despite all the work I did on it, I still thought it was an okay book. It was sad, and it could be confusing at times. The ending was not satisfying enough for me. It could have been better.… (more)
LibraryThing member tandah
This real-life story has so many ununusal elements, in the late 30's a woman escapes her oppressive Virginian based family, to ultimately move in with her black NYC lover whom she doesn't marry until they have a few children, she converts to christianity from judaism, supports him setting up a community church and following his death (and the birth of 8 children), marries her 2nd husband, to whom she has another 4 children - and so she raises her large family in a housing project - they all receive through her absolute drive and single minded focus a great education - chapter by chapter, her story is contrasted with that of the 8th child (James) born into this complex arrangement, and with his mother (and various family members) support, successfully navigates his way through the challenges that confron him - in between all of these facts is the wonderful emotional glue of the mother's determination and how her various children respond to her call.… (more)
LibraryThing member dele2451
Successful journalist writes touching memoir his life with a mother who has overcome a lifetime of hard knocks. (Possible spoiler alert!) As a youngster, the writer's Jewish "Mommy" immigrates, has a crippled mother, abusive father, and lives with both poverty and hunger. Later she's a runaway, disowned, married African Americans in decades full of prejudice and discrimination, widowed (twice), raises 12 kids, etc. Despite all this she co-founds a church, survives cancer, and raises 12 successful professionals who still trek to her house on holidays. It's an inspirational story and a loving tribute, along with being a thought-provoking piece on what actually determines an individual's cultural identity.… (more)
LibraryThing member Deb85
James McBride is bi-racial, with a white (Jewish) mother and a black father. He was born seventh of twelve children. His father died shortly before he was born, and his step-father died during McBride's teen years. He was raised in the hustle and bustle around and in New York City. He had to compete with eleven siblings for food, as well as time and attention from his mother.

In this book, he explores his identity in relation to his parents, especially how the "missing" side of his family left a hole in his life. He focuses almost entirely on his mother and her history, trying to learn about the white half of his heritage because his mother had so strongly rejected (and been rejected by) her family when she married his father. She would not talk about them, so he sought them out himself. This book is largely about that search and its results.

And the "color of water?" That's the response McBride gets from his mother when he asks her what color God is.
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