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

4.2 390
by James McBride
     
 

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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

Overview

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.
Salon
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.
Mirabella
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
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

"Inspiring."—Glamour

"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

ISBN-13:
9781573225786
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
02/01/1997
Pages:
336
Product dimensions:
5.22(w) x 8.02(h) x 0.69(d)
Lexile:
1240L (what's this?)

Read an Excerpt

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 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

"Inspiring."—Glamour

"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. He is also the author of Kill 'Em and Leave, a James Brown biography. McBride is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University.

Brief Biography

Hometown:
Bucks County, Pennsylvania
Date of Birth:
1957
Place of Birth:
New York, New York
Education:
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 2 ratings. 390 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 8 months 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 8 months ago
Anonymous 8 months 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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The color of water is a tribute of the author James Mc Bride to his mother. A woman immigrant Jewish women that came to the united states with her parents when she was a child. She had a difficult childhood with an abuser father and disabled mother. I liked because the book has too many characters, but two principal stories in alternating chapters. The story of one of his 12 child, all of them black ones. she raised her children in the middle of the poverty, cultural and race issues. But, she fight with all this issues and her children learn the most important lesson that is a good education and be a professional person. I like when James asked to his mother " Am I black or white? and she answer " you are human being" she snapped " Educate yourself or you will be nobody". Also, James Mc story is a beautiful, he did not understand , why his mother was white and sometimes he feel ashamed to have a white mother. when he started to study in a school for whites he feel discriminated for his classmates then he created a world for him. Hi believed that his true self was a boy in the mirror. the boy in the mirror feel free, he did not seem to have an ache to be a different. that finally helped him to know the good things that he have and he could do like playing music. this book is a beautiful story. I enjoyed learning a little about the cultural and race issues in that time, emotion and love for the family.
Danielle More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed reading this book because I love stories that tells two sides of the same story like this one did, the past of Ruth McBride Jordan and present of James McBride. Ruth McBride Jordan came from Poland before moving to the Suffolk, Virginia as a child. Ruth hid her childhood from all 12 of her children. James spent his early years figuring out his mother, Ruth. Ruth McBride Jordan married two black husbands (both died young) while raising 12 black children while living in an all-black projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn, New York. While one side of the story gets slow, the other side got better so it evens itself out. I could not put this book down to save my life. I wanted to continue reading this book even if I was growing tired. I told myself just one more chapter then bed. It never got too slow that I could put the book down until I finished it. I think everyone should read this book.
4Bandits More than 1 year ago
The story of one man's incredible mother who endured many things for love. Made me think differently about the world.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The story goes back and forth from Ruth's past to James' past.  So the story begins with Ruth explaining that she's dead to her parents.  At the time when Ruth married Andrew Mcbride, James' real father and had children with him it was unheard of to have people of different races being together let alone getting married.  Then the story goes on to when James was a little boy and how his mom used to ride this bicycle that his stepfather found.  His  stepfather, Hunter Jordan, married his mom when she has 8 children.  Then they went on to have four more children.  Then one day he had a stroke and died.   James real dad, Andrew Mcbride died when his mother was pregnant with him.  After James stepfather died he began failing in school.  While his mother was going through her own crises dealing with all the children on her own.  He would remember how she looked so odd riding this ancient bicycle and being the only white woman around.  At that time she believed she would never marry again.  When James was a child he used to wonder why his mother looked different but she would just tell him she was light-skinned.  His mother would instill in him and his siblings values that they would carry on throughout their lives.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Give you a lot to think about