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

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by James McBride

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James McBride grew up one of twelve siblings in the all-black housing projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn, the son of a black minister and a woman who would not admit she was white. The object of McBride's constant embarrassment and continuous fear for her safety, his mother was an inspiring figure, who through sheer force of will saw her dozen children through college,

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James McBride grew up one of twelve siblings in the all-black housing projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn, the son of a black minister and a woman who would not admit she was white. The object of McBride's constant embarrassment and continuous fear for her safety, his mother was an inspiring figure, who through sheer force of will saw her dozen children through college, and many through graduate school. McBride was an adult before he discovered the truth about his mother: The daughter of a failed itinerant Orthodox rabbi in rural Virginia, she had run away to Harlem, married a black man, and founded an all-black Baptist church in her living room in Red Hook. In her son's remarkable memoir, she tells in her own words the story of her past. Around her narrative, James McBride has written a powerful portrait of growing up, a meditation on race and identity, and a poignant, beautifully crafted hymn from a son to his mother.

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.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.22(w) x 8.02(h) x 0.69(d)
1240L (what's this?)

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....

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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

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Color of Water 4.2 out of 5 based on 1 ratings. 386 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.
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.
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
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
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 6 months ago
Anonymous 9 months 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 9 months 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
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The inspiring story of a white woman in a black man’s world A review of The color of water: a black man’s tribute to his white mother written by Baseme Anyanwu. Introduction            This essay is an attempt at writing a critical review of the first five chapters of The color of water: a black man’s tribute to is white mother.  The book which was originally published in 1996, before it was later followed by a second edition after ten years, was published by the Berkley Publishing Group of the Pengium Group Inc., New York.  The author is James McBride, an African-American journalist that is the product of inter-racial marriage between a black man and Jewish woman.  Mr. McBride is known for his prolific writings as a journalist, novelist and screen play writer.  He is also an acknowledged saxophonist and music composer. Summary           In this book the author tells the story of his family informing the reader about the challenges that his family went through in life because of poverty coupled with his mother’s physical handicap and the inter-racial nature of the marriage of his parents.  The high point of his story is that in the midst of their challenges, all his siblings came out successful in life.           The story is told in in twenty five chapters in which he tries to tell the unique plots of stories surrounding his family.  In chapter one the author describes his family, and provides information about their origin.  His mother’s family survived the Nazi holocaust.  He proceeds in chapter two to describe his stepfather and his influence on him and his siblings.  His biological father had died fourteen years earlier, when his mother was pregnant with him.  The death of his stepfather eventually affected him when he died.  He noted that his mother was so large in the life of him and his siblings so much so that she was everything to them – their psychologist, their chief medical consultant, their financial adviser and religious teacher.            His grandparents were also involved in their lives and brought their own impressions upon him. The grandparents were orthodox Jews who strictly observed the Jewish dietary and religious lifestyle.  This was equally reflected in the hygienic handling of their physical environment.             The author being the child of a black man and a white woman, had to struggle with the identity of who he was.  He tells the story of his identity struggle in chapter four.  He looked different from other people in the neighborhood, coupled with the taunting of his siblings who kept making jokes at him that his mother was in prison.  Initially he had thought that he was an adopted child since his mother was white, but his mother eventually made him to understand that she was his biological mother.  This family valued education more than material wealth, for it was their philosophy that money without knowledge was worthless.           The last chapter in this review is chapter five.  The story in this chapter centers around his grandparents’ life as Jewish preachers as was told by his mother. She had made the point that her parents were poor and her father was a Rabbi who lived a migrant preacher’s life.  The family’s poverty was a kind of trade mark on them wherever they went to. Critique            This is a very inspiring story told from a first-hand experience.  The writer writes in plain easy to read and comprehend English that makes it easy for a young reader to follow his line of story.  An important and interesting feature of this book is that the author tells his story in plots, with each plot dwelling on something unique about the story of his family.  The writer also is very realistic and practical in this book, telling his very private life account without shame but in ways that can encourage and motivate other people.  The writer makes very good use of figurative expressions in the book, but it is remarkable to note that they are used in ways that do not complicate matters for the reader.           Perhaps the highpoint of the inspiration in this story is when the author tells his readers about his mother’s struggle for education, for which she eventually earned a Bachelors degree from Temple University in Philadelphia at the age of sixty five.           The inspirations in this book notwithstanding, the writer sometimes makes it difficult to follow the line of his story as he meanders around with his story.  There are too many names mentioned in the book, which also makes it hard for the reader to keep track of his line of comprehension.  The story of his grandparent’s family is told in a first person experience without him revealing that this was the voice of his mother speaking.  This at first confuses things for a young reader. Conclusion            James McBride no doubt comes across in this book as an inspirational writer.  He comes across as a man who loves his mother and treasures her labors in raising him and his siblings out of a background of extreme poverty.  He is happy that all his siblings as successful despite their struggle with economic and material disadvantages.  Readers can gain both inspiration and challenge from this book in their own personal battles with life.
fakelu More than 1 year ago
amazing book .. This is a book talk about the author’s mother and his own. Ruth MacBride Jordan, author James’ white mother, was a women she grew up in a Jewish orthodox family. She had changed her name after she moved to America with her family. Ruth’s father was a cold-blooded man, and he married with her mother for a ticket to America, because her mother’s sister can take a responsibility for them. They lived with their grandparents in Manhattan. Because of their religion, they had strong rules for dinning and not allowed to ask questions. Ruth’s mother had a brother and sister. After their grandparents died, they moved a lot, and eventually, they settled in Virginia. She had a bad childhood, her father made everyone works hard in his store and her father abused her in a weird way. Since she had felt love with her first black guy who named peter never judged her. She was pregnant in her fifteen ages, and she could not tell anyone, because peter was a black guy, and he would be killed. After she had decided to marry a black guy who she really loved, she abandoned all of things she had before, and moved to New York City. She loved him, because he taught about a God who lifted her up and forgave her and made her new. She got a lot of love from him. Dating from her school time, she was sent to a school, but she had no friends of white people, because her father was doing business with black people. The only friend she had was named Frances, and Ruth always got a warm welcome from Frances’sFrances’s family. They met many years later. James’s stepfather was a mix of Indian and black. He was a furnace fireman for New York City housing Authority, and he also was an only father James had known. He treated Ruth’s entire child like his own baby. The only bad habit he had was drink a lot. He was a kind lovely man. Author James was a problem young guy when he was a teen, he was robbing and smoking and playing with a lot same problem guy. After his stepfather died, he felt unhelpful for his mother. After he met chicken man, he changed. At last, her 12 child went to college and very successful. Later years she moved a lot, and every year, her child and grandchild came back and celebrate with her, even though her husband left, she was not a lonely women, she had a very happiness family. When I first time read this book, it just a story book for me, after I keep reading, I realized that why this book are so popular, because it tell us that an ordinary woman had an unordinary life. How could she abandon her family and chase her true love. And how could she could she live toughly and after her first husband died, she took care her child and in that bad situation, she made all of his children became successful in their career. She had an unpleasant childhood, but she did not give up her life, after she met her first husband, he gave her and taught her about love and god. I learned from this book that, when you met bad things, you should always remember, it would turn out to be good. I could say Ruth was an unlucky girl and she was a lucky woman. Although she had a cold family, but she met two black lovely men and had a very warm family later. Most her child were a problem child, and they all changed tell us do not worry what you did wrong, if you want to make up, you can and can do better.