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

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

4.2 397
by James McBride, Lainie Kazan (Read by), Andre Braugher (Read by)

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This is a book that will "make you proud to be a member of the human race," says Mirabella, and countless readers have already discovered its power. Written in remembrance of his Polish-born, Southern-raised Jewish mother-who married a black man and raised twelve children, all of whom completed college-The Color of Water is a classic of the memoir genre


This is a book that will "make you proud to be a member of the human race," says Mirabella, and countless readers have already discovered its power. Written in remembrance of his Polish-born, Southern-raised Jewish mother-who married a black man and raised twelve children, all of whom completed college-The Color of Water is a classic of the memoir genre, a testament to love, and a truly American story.

Inspiring. (Glamour)

Vibrant. (Boston Globe)

Moving. (New York Times Book Review)

Unforgettable. (Publishers Weekly)

Lively. (Washington Post Book World)

Poignant. (Miami Herald)

Terrific. (The Nation)

Lyrical. (Detroit News)

Engrossing. (Cincinnati Enquirer)

Remarkable. (Emerge)

Wonderful. (Baltimore Sun)

Author Bio: James McBride is an award-winning musician as well as a former staff writer for The Boston Globe, People, and The Washington Post.

Editorial Reviews

As a young black boy in Brooklyn, James McBride wondered why his mother looked different. When he asked her if she was white or black, she would answer, "I'm light-skinned." Finally, when he had become an adult, she told him her story. She was a rabbi's daughter, born in Poland, raised in the American South. McBride's tribute, now published in a 10th anniversary edition, has become a classic in healthy race relations, a topic we are all apparently still learning.
James Marcus
At a time when the relationship between African-Americans and Jews is deeply fissured, The Color of Water reminds us that the two groups have a long history of coexistence -- sometimes within a single person. The author's mother, Ruth Shilsky, was born in Poland in 1920, the daughter of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi. She grew up in rural Virginia, hemmed in by anti-Semitism and small-town claustrophobia, and at the age of 18 she fled to the cultural antipodes of Harlem. There, four years later, she married a black man named Dennis McBride, and since her family promptly disowned her, she launched a second existence as (to quote her son) "a flying compilation of competing interests and conflicts, a black woman in white skin." The lone Caucasian in her Brooklyn housing project, she somehow raised 12 children without ever quite admitting she was white. In retrospect, of course, her son is able to recognize that his parents "brought a curious blend of Jewish-European and African-American distrust and paranoia into our house." However, as children, James McBride and his 11 siblings didn't dwell on questions of their mother's color. Only later, after he became a professional journalist, did McBride feel compelled to tackle the riddle of his heritage. Bit by bit, he coaxed out his mother's story, and her voice -- stoic, funny, and with a matter-of-fact flintiness -- alternates perfectly with his own tale of biracial confusion and self-discovery.
Library Journal
The need to clarify his racial identity prompted the author to penetrate his veiled and troubled family history. Ruth McBride Jordan concealed her former life as Rachel Deborah Shilsky, the daughter of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, from her children. Her grim upbringing in an abusive environment is left behind when she moves to Harlem, marries a black man, converts to Christianity, and cofounds a Baptist congregation with her husband. The courage and tenacity shown by this twice-widowed mother who manages to raise 12 children, all of whom go on to successful careers, are remarkable. Highly recommended for public libraries.-Linda Bredengerd, Univ. of Pittsburgh Lib., Bradford, Pa.
The Color of Water [will] make you proud to be a member of the human race.
NY Times Book Review
[A] triumph.
From the Publisher
"[A] triumph."—The New York Times Book Review

"As lively as a novel, a well-written, thoughtful contribution to the literature on race."—The Washington Post Book World


"Vibrant."—The Boston Globe

"James McBride evokes his childhood trek across the great racial divide with the kind of power and grace that touches and uplifts all hearts."—Bebe Moore Campbell

Product Details

NewStar Media, Incorporated
Publication date:
Edition description:
Abridged, 2 Cassettes
Product dimensions:
4.28(w) x 7.09(h) x 0.67(d)

Read an Excerpt


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 left Virginia for good in 1941. Rachel Shilsky is dead as far as I'm concerned, She had to die in order for me, the rest me, to live.

My family mourned me when I married your father. They said kaddish and sat shiva. That's how Orthodox Jews mourn their dead. They say prayers, turn their mirrors down, sit on boxes for seven days, and cover their heads. It's a real workout, which is maybe why I'm not a Jew now. There were too many rules to follow, too many forbiddens and "you can'ts" and "you mustn'ts," but does anybody say they love you? Not in my family we didn't. We didn't talk that way. We said things like, "There's a box in there for the nails," or my father would say, "Be quiet while I sleep."

My father's name was Fishel Shilsky and he was an Orthodox rabbi. He escaped from the Russian army and snuck over the Polish border and married my mother in an arranged marriage. He used to say he was under fire when he ran off from the army, and his ability to slick himself out of anything that wasn't good for him stayed with him for as long as I knew him. Tateh, we called him, That means father in Yiddish. He was a fox, especially when it came to money. He was short, dark, hairy, and gruff. He wore a white shirt, black pants, and a tallis on his shirtsleeve, and that was like his uniform, He'd wear those black pants till they glazed and shined and were ripe enough to stand in the corner by themselves, but God help you if those pants were coming your way in a hurry, because he was nobody to fool with, my father. He was hard as a rock.

My mother was named Hudis and she was the exact opposite of him, gentle and meek. She was born in 1896 in the town of Dobryzn, Poland, but if you checked there today, nobody would remember her family because any Jews who didn't leave before Hitler got through with Poland were wiped out in the Holocaust. She was pretty about the face. Dark hair, high cheekbones, but she had polio. It paralyzed her left side and left her in overall poor health. Her left hand was useless. It was bent at the wrist and held close to her chest, She was nearly blind in her left eye and walked with a severe limp, dragging her left foot behind her. She was a quiet woman, my sweet Mameh, That's what we called her, Mameh. She's one person in this world I didn't do right by....

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
Praise for The Color of Water

"[A] triumph."—The New York Times Book Review

"As lively as a novel, a well-written, thoughtful contribution to the literature on race."—The Washington Post Book World


"Vibrant."—The Boston Globe

"James McBride evokes his childhood trek across the great racial divide with the kind of power and grace that touches and uplifts all hearts."—Bebe Moore Campbell

Meet the Author

James McBride is an accomplished musician and author of the National Book Award-winning The Good Lord Bird, the #1 bestselling American classic The Color of Water, and the bestsellers Song Yet Sung and Miracle at St. Anna, which was turned into a film by Spike Lee. McBride is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University.

Brief Biography

Bucks County, Pennsylvania
Date of Birth:
Place of Birth:
New York, New York
Oberlin Conservatory of Music; M.A., Columbia University School of Journalism

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Color of Water 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 397 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Color of Water was an excellent novel. I thoroughly enjoyed the captivating life stories of James and of his white, Jewish mother. Each narrative is carefully woven throughout the chapters of this novel, all of which were remarkable and imaginative. I would recommend the poignant and touching accounts of James and his mother to anyone of any race, any religion, and any background.
Guest More than 1 year ago
James McBride is a wonderful writer who makes the book so interesting that it is difficult to put down. That's how good the book is to read. McBride provides excellent details and gives the reader a good view of what the characters are like and what their purpose is in the story. James McBride is an author I would like to meet and I will for sure read 'The Color of Water' again and I will most definitely read more books writen by McBride. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to others. The book will, I think, give people more of an understanding of what black people had to go through in the 1990's. It will also give people an understanding of what a white mother had to go through while raising twelve black children. Over all, I think, 'The Color of Water' is a book every one should read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found this book to be very inspirational. It proves that no matter the color of your skin or the content of your background, you can make it to be anything you want to be. It makes you more aware of how times are changing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
When I first picked up this book, and thumbed through it, I thought that it wasn't going to be so great. Now that I have read the book, I realize that i couldn't been farther from the truth.
The switching between his story and his mother's story caught me off gaurd at first, and made me think that the two stories where about the same person. After I had read a few chapters, though, I realized that the story was being split into two different tales told by ttow different people.
Overall, this book is a great tribute to the hardships' that McBrides' mother had to endure as a child, along with the ones that she got through as an adult.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I'm buying this book for my seven siblings. This book brought back so many wonderful childhood memories. The places,struggles,dynamics of the family. Hard times but the best times. I laughed and I cried. The mothers strength and courage and tenacity reminded me so much of my mother. I loved this book. A day later and I'm still smiling.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Why are there so many bad reveiws? I showed them to my dad and he got so mad and sad that me and my brother got grounded. Jeez if you dont like something than either say it nicer or dont say it at all. P.S. my dad is James McBride
Guest More than 1 year ago
James McBride makes an outstanding performance in this book which took him fourteen years to write. The result is excellent. A beautiful honest story, full of thruths and full of life. A must-read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A path to know Ruth came in America at a tender age from Poland in 1921. The desire of her father, Tateh, to become a rabbi was the reason Ruth traveled around the country.Tateh was very prejudice,cheated on his wife and openly expressed racist opinions. Ruth did not want to have anything to do with such absurd character and converted from Judaism to Christianity. The disgust for black people by her family and her preference for black people made her own family to disowned her. The constant hardship in the south and broken relationship was a pain in her life. Harlem was the setting for the story. In Harlem, Andrews Dennis McBride married Ruth she became a christian to avoid her past life and experience. They both opened a church, New Brown Memorial Church, in memory of Reverend Brown. Dennis died of lung cancer before James was born. James last for self-identity, was the reason he weaved his own life into that of his mother. James desperate efforts to understand race, religion and work. changed his life style of drug abuse. He employed his skills in journalism and music to help him understand the intense racial difference. In my opinion, the goal he pursue was made a reality by weaving into the suffering of his mother's past life and experience. This created a path in understanding his role in employing his journalistic and musical knowledge in educating people about equality for all.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a great book. We had to read it as a school assignment, and i really thought it would be a boring killer... after i read it for school, I read it over, and over on my own spare time... Ruth is a great mother. I really recomend this book! It kept my intertained for hours!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is my #1 favorite book of all times. Read it, you will love it
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of my favorite books growing up and stil is.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I had to read this book for summer reading anf honestly it was one of the very best. It had a moving plot with likable characters and was just wonderul quick read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
who are both inter racial. Maybe they will read this and appreciate the strife I went through. It wasnt easy in the 60. The new divivion is that there is no division. Not!!! There will always be a difference. It is the person that makes it through the BS.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
So i am a sophomore in high school and i love to read and my sisters boyfriend who is in college wants me to read it for him and he's going to pay me. Is it worth the read? Someone please respond!
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Color of Water is an easy read. I read this novel with my English Advance class and everybody seemed to enjoy it as well. The context is straight foward which makes the book fun and enjoyable to read. The Color of Water makes a great summer beach book.
Anonymous 2 days ago
The Color Of Water The color of water written by James McBride. The Novel is based on a true eventual life hardships. Story takes place when Ruth the main character Polish origin immigrated to America in late 1921 in her young age.... James the author of the Novel who has spend his young age in street crimes and later moved to the NY city where he had a rough time deals with drugs and gangsters. Tateh a Yiddish word used for father, who molisted Ruth in her childhood, Tateh was a rough and Pure Judaism believer, Due to Tateh behave Ruth converted to Christianity, The novel is a blend of Racisim, Love, family affairs, survival in hardship. there are lots of minor charasters, like Ruths sisters, Aunts, Uncles her childrens. but most of the times story reflets and reveals around James father Ruth, Jmaes,
bennysmom 2 days ago
The Color of Water is a black man's Tribute to his white mother. The two most important characters of the book is James McBride (the black man) and Ruth McBride (his white mother). James is the narrator of the book. The setting of the book takes place between the 1920s-1990s. It also takes place in New York, Suffolk Virginia, and Wilmington Delaware. The story is through James McBride and goes back and forth to his mothers past and the present time. James alternates between his own words and his mothers own words. Ruth married a black man which was forbidden. There is a couple themes in The Color of Water. The most important most important themes are racism, self-motivation, self-reliance, and the burden of secrets that are hidden in the book. My opinion of the book is that it's very good. I love how the book is through the son telling his mother's story as well as in his own words and telling his story too. The story wouldn't be the same if it was coming from someone else's eyes because you wouldn't have Jame's the author/narrator/main charterers point of view and how he lived life. The Color of Water explains him (James) coming to terms with his racial identity and his own identity.
Anonymous 12 months ago
This book I give a easy 5 stars due to the fact that this book deals with what life is like living with a parent who is a different race than you are. I love how this bok is written in a mother son kind of way. I believe many people can relate to this book because they also may be a victim of rasicm or rape. You learn how no one is ever raised the same as you are and that there are people who deal with animosity everyday for no good reason at all. I reaaly like this book and I rate it as one of my favorites in history.
Anonymous 12 months ago
The color of water is a breathe of fresh air. The color of water is a great book. It was very inspirational to me. I give it four stars. The story of a struggle Jewish woman trying to raise her mix children in poverty. The McBride's had many obstacles to over come in there lives. Having a strong mother help them on there way to becoming good citizens. She raised her kids to be strong and educated. She put her kids before anything. So I truly understand the tribute to his mother.
Anonymous 12 months ago
The Color of Water is Worth Reading I have read the book called The Color of Water and I will be reviewing it. The story is about a man named James McBride and his mother, Ruth McBride. Ruth has a very rough past and hides it from her twelve children. She is white and has eight children with a black man whom she meets. She later has four more children with another man, after her lover passes away. She struggled with poverty while raising her children. Although, they went on to be successful, happy people. She taught them values such as family and religion being most important. James wants to find out more about his life so he revisits his moms' old home she grew up in. In my opinion, this is a good book. It held my interest and inspired me. It has shown me that you can overcome hardships that are unfathomable. I think that Ruth's life is very interesting and worth reading about. It also gave me a different perspective as to what life would be like in James's shoes. I would recommend the book to a friend.
Anonymous 12 months ago
An Amazing story of how to survive the cruel world of racism. The story is about a women whose family immigrates from Europe to the United States during the Nazis war they are Jewish. She survives abuse by her farther (Ruth). She falls in love with African American men. She shows us how to live in a very raciest world while raising twelve kids with and with out her husbands. Her son is telling us her story, It shows that you can do anything you want in life as long as you work hard. She shows and teaches you that love knows no color or boundaries. It is a great book you learn so much from Ruth and her family.
Anonymous 12 months ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Color of Water The main characters of the book The Color of Water are James McBride and his mother Ruth. The story tells how Ruth grew up in Suffolk, Virginia. Racism was high in the period of time Ruth became pregnant by a young black man named peter, which meant they could not tell anyone about the pregnancy. Because that meant Peter would possibly be killed if they did not keep it a secret. Ruth moved away from her family, after doing so she met a man named Dennis. After they were married Ruth became a Christian. She would have James from Dennis. Ruth was deeply depressed after Dennis died from lung cancer, all the way up to meeting her second husband Hunter Jordan. I think the book was great overall. The story jumped around a lot but overall I enjoyed the book mostly because I can relate to the story in my personal life.
taesha More than 1 year ago
very interesting this is a very interesting book that will grasp your attention and keep it. The way McBride's mother, Ruth, raised her children to believe that everyone is the same is wonderful. Not once did she tell her children that she was white or they were black. This family was a very strong one who worked hard every day. Although they were not always good children, James being one of those, they all became successful in life. When reading this book you can have a clear vision as to what was going on and who was in the story. Ruth came from a very tragic childhood, but made sure her children never experienced the same thing even if she had to raise them on her own. Every person learning about the black history should be required to read this because it is a perfect example during the prejudice times. It also shows how a white mother raising 12 black children had to live knowing that whites hated blacks and one loved and raised some of her own.