The incredible modern classic that Oprah.com calls one of the best memoirs of a generation and launched James McBride’s literary career.
Over 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.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.04(w) x 7.96(h) x 0.73(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
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
Read an Excerpt
When I was fourteen, my mother took up two new hobbies: riding a bicycle and playing piano. The piano I didn’t mind, but the bicycle drove me crazy. It was a huge old clunker, blue with white trim, with big fat tires, huge fenders, and a battery-powered horn built into the middle of the frame with a button you pushed to make it blow. The contraption would be a collector’s item now, probably worth about five thousand dollars, but back then it was something my step- father found on the street in Brooklyn and hauled home a few months before he died.
Excerpted from "The Color of Water"
Copyright © 2006 James McBride.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
|2. The Bicycle||5|
|4. Black Power||21|
|5. The Old Testament||37|
|6. The New Testament||45|
|8. Brothers and Sisters||65|
|13. New York||129|
|14. Chicken Man||137|
|17. Lost in Harlem||169|
|18. Lost in Delaware||177|
|19. The Promise||193|
|20. Old Man Shilsky||203|
|21. A Bird Who Flies||213|
|22. A Jew Discovered||219|
|24. New Brown||249|
|25. Finding Ruthie||259|
|Thanks and Acknowledgments||287|
What People are Saying About This
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
Reading Group Guide
The Color of Water
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 his 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 this 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.
ABOUT JAMES MCBRIDE
James McBride, a writer and musician, is a former staff writer for The Boston Globe, People magazine, andThe Washington Post. A professional saxophonist and composer, he has received the Richard Rodgers Development Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Music Theater Festival's Stephen Sondheim Award for his work in musical theater composition. He lives in South Nyack, New York.
Overwhelming acclaim for James McBride's unforgettable memoir:
"Vibrant."—The Boston Globe
"Incredibly moving."—Jonathan Kozol
"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
"Complex and moving... suffused with issues of race, religion and identity. Yet those issues, so much a part of their lives and stories, are not central. The triumph of the book—and of their lives—is that race and religion are transcended in these interwoven histories by family love, the sheer force of a mother's will and her unshakable insistence that only two things really mattered: school and church... The two stories, son's and mother's, beautifully juxtaposed, strike a graceful note at a time of racial polarization.—The New York Times Book Review
November 13, 1997, renowned journalist James McBride joined BarnesandNoble@aol to discuss his memoir, THE COLOR OF WATER, which explores his white mother's Orthodox Jewish past as well as his own heritage as a man between black and white.
VogelBN: Good evening, Mr. McBride, and welcome to BarnesandNoble@aol! We're thrilled that you could join us!! We're brimming with wonderful questions from the audience, so whenever you're ready....
James McBride: Delighted to be here!
Question: Mr. McBride, what an honor! I am leading a book club tomorrow on your book and am anxious to find out why you decided to share all this info with all the rest of us?
James McBride: Well, I always wondered where my mother came from. It was something that was on my mind for many, many years.
Question: Judaism is passed down via the mother. Have you ever considered embracing the faith? Why or why not?
James McBride: I've considered it, but Christianity always worked for me. I grew up as a Christian. If my children decided to embrace the faith, I'd be more than delighted.
Question: As I read THE COLOR OF WATER, I kept wondering, what was your mother's motivation to become a Christian? Do you think it was an effort to become closer to your father? Or did she have a revelation of faith?
James McBride: No. It happened because after her mother died, she converted to Christianity. I think that it was the loss of her mother and the loss of her family and the love of my father and the embrace of the Christian church that pushed her into Christianity.
Question: Did you enjoy doing the "Rosie O'Donnell Show"?
James McBride: I did indeed. I kissed her seven times.
Question: What advice do you give to a novice like myself about entering the professional writing field?
James McBride: Well, writing teaches writing. Many books have been written between 5 and 7 in the morning. Never give up. It's a great catharsis.
Question: Did you ever harbor any anger against your mother for her dishonesty? It seems that her secret was important to her sense of self, and thus valid, but still....
James McBride: A very good question. I don't think so. I've thought about that a lot. I'm not sure if there was any other thing she could do. We didn't really have the time to think about her past that much. So it wasn't that great an issue. I was never angry at her for that. I think a lot of my anger was self-directed, meaning it had to do with my own feelings of inadequacy.
Question: What would you say to your mother's father if you met him today?
James McBride: I have no bitterness toward him. I'm sorry that he was the dysfunctional person that he was, but I certainly don't harbor any bitterness toward him. I guess I would say hello.
Question: How did finding out about your mother's history influence your own sense of identity?
James McBride: It gave me a tremendous sense of self. It made me feel complete. It gave me a sense of peace. It imbued in me my own sense of my "Jewishness." I don't consider myself qualified to go around claiming to be a Jew. But I'm proud to be one anyway. I like who I am.
Question: I respect your mother's strengthraising 12 kids on her own. What sustained her after both her husbands had passed on?
James McBride: She was a very religious woman. And her faith in God is what has sustained her.
Question: Most of what you write is nonfiction. Do you write fiction? Which do you feel more comfortable with? How do they differ for you?
James McBride: Before I started writing Quincy Jones's biography for Doubleday, which I began last February, I was working on a novel for Riverhead. I enjoyed it immensely, though it was much more difficult than nonfiction. I plan to finish that novel after finishing Quincy's biography. That's due in late 1998.
Question: THE COLOR OF WATER chronicles each time you asked your mother about her past. Is this book a record of your personal odyssey to find out who you are?
James McBride: In a way, yes. I wrote the book partly because I didn't know who I was. And I realized I couldn't discover who I was until I discovered who my mother was.
Question: You attended a segregated school in Wilmington, Delaware. Could you comment on your experience there and how it differed from the schools in New York?
James McBride: The schools in New York were better. The variety of students added to my education. There were good things about the segregated school. The teachers were very kind and very educated, but I got a far better education in the New York City schools that were integrated.
Question: I've read that you are a very talented musician, although I've never heard anything by you. What do you play? What draws you to music? Do you feel that performing music affects your writing?
James McBride: I used to perform music. No longer. I wrote songs for Anita Baker, Grover Washington, and Gary Burton. I'm literally in the recording studio now, working on a demo for a Disney audition to write the score for one of their theatrical musicals. I play saxophoneall the saxophonesand I play piano and I write. I started on piano and clarinet as a boy. My mother encouraged music around the house. And no, performing music doesn't affect my writing. I always loved music, even as a boy. I've just always been attracted to it.
Question: In your book you mention, "Mommy was the wrong color for black pride and black power." Could you elaborate on that statement from a modern-day historical perspective?
James McBride: At the time, black power was a huge deal in my neighborhood, and we were all imbued with a sense of black pride and black consciousness. In that context, she did not fit.
Question: Your childhood was hard, but you seem to successfully remember the good times. What's your favorite childhood memory? What were you doing? Who were you with?
James McBride: My favorite childhood memory is swimming in the Red Hook swimming pool with my mother, brothers, and sisters. I remember the strength in her hands and the firm way in which she held me.
Question: Americans like to classify. Any federal form you fill out asks for your race black, white, Native American, etc. As someone who could feasibly check all those boxes, which do you choose, if any?
James McBride: I would prefer to choose "other," but I'll always choose "black." I think there should be one box human being. But in the real world, I choose black.
Question: Could you please recommend your favorite jazz album?
James McBride: I guess I would have to answer that with three. "It Might as Well Be Swing," which is Frank Sinatra with the Count Basie Orchestra, with Quincy Jones as the arranger; "Kind of Blue" by Miles Davis; and "Stolen Moments" by Oliver Nelson. My favorite tenor saxophone player is Billy Harper.
Question: I haven't read the book yet, but I am fascinated by the title. What is "the color of water"?
James McBride: When I was a little boy, I would ask my mother, "What color is God?" I asked her if God was white or black. She said God was the color of water.
Question: Have you seen the film "Ethnic Notions"? What's your reaction to it?
James McBride: I'm sorry but I haven't seen it.
Question: First, I really enjoyed the book. Second, there's been a lot written lately about the memoir and its form of narrative, with your book and Frank McCourt's. How do you distinguish between telling a great story and telling the truth?
James McBride: What you have to do as a writer is find the gatepost moments of your story. The points of highest drama that prove your point.
Question: Mr. McBride, I was really moved by the scene where you brought your mother back to her hometown, and to her first real friend, Frances. Did your mother feel it was worth it to come back to this place that caused her such pain, to be reunited with Frances?
James McBride: It was a catharsis for Mommy. It was painful, but wonderful and terrifyingly exhilarating for her. I was moved by it. My sister Judy was there. It was just as moving for her.
Question: I found it interesting that you said your household was truly ruled by the women there, but in the end, it was you who told the story of your mother. Had it ever occurred to any of your siblings to tell her story? Were they just as interested as you?
James McBride: I don't think it ever occurred to any of them, but they were just as interested. My siblings felt that God had put this story in my heart, and they felt it was appropriate that I be the one to tell it.
Question: When you were writing from your mom's perspective, how did you change your tone so it really sounded like her?
James McBride: I just climbed into her skin. And felt what it felt like to be her. It wasn't hard -- she is my mother. Eighty percent of those words were hers.
Question: Can you tell us about the novel that you are currently working on?
James McBride: I'm working on a novel about a group of black soldiers who stumble upon a group of Jewish refugees after World War II.
VogelBN: Thanks so much for joining us, Mr. McBride. We are so glad to have had you, and we hope that you will join us again with your next book!
James McBride: I'm honored to be the recipient of so much love from so many people. My mother, myself, and my siblings feel truly blessed beyond words.
VogelBN: Your readers thank you. Have a wonderful night!
James McBride: Thank you!
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
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.
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!
This is my #1 favorite book of all times. Read it, you will love it
One of my favorite books growing up and stil is.
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.
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.
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!
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.
The Color Of Water was written from two points of views. This book was written by James McBride. James was the eighth of twelve children. Through the novel, he describes his crazy loving upbringing from the highs to lows. While trying to truly understand who he is as a person and the life he lived he includes his mothers perspective. James and his siblings battled every day with race although, his mother did not identify as a race she was just simply human. This decision left all twelve of her children in the dark at such a crucial time in history. I do not believe Ruth James mother made this decision on purpose but it was how she was raised. Ruth was the daughter of a rabbi and Orthodox Jew and was taught to keep who she was a secret. Ruth grew up in Virginia where she moved from Poland at age two. In Virginia Ruth fell in love with a black man and married but during this time racism was still alive and well. Ruth was shunned by her family and moved to New York where they were more accepting to interracial marriages, and raised her family. James father passed away before he was born and his mother remarried a kind loving black man. He chose not to live with and the children leaving them to make ends meet. Through the many challenges, they faced Ruth made sure education was a priority. Ruth raised twelve successful children all of them attended HBCU’s and pursued their dreams.
The Color of Water is a decent book with an interesting story line but it doesn't have any exciting scenes to draw you into it. The characters, who consist mainly of James and Ruth, tell their stories really well but I didn't like how the chapters jump back and forth. It made the story very confusing. The setting started in Virginia for Ruth and then she moved to New York with her aunt. When there she meet her first husband, a black man named Andrew McBride, and they started there interracial family. In the time period that Ruth and Andrew married, white and black couples were frowned upon. When Andrew passed away, she ended up remarrying and having more kids. She raised them on the belief that education and God are important. James story was just trying to figure out his life and why his mother was white and he was black. He also had to "fight" for his place in the household against his 11 siblings. The novel focuses on James and Ruth's hardship but I liked how everything worked out in the end.
This book is about his mother’s remarkable life story. Ruth McBride was out from the Jewish family that immigrated to the USA when she was only 2 years old. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries there was a racial discrimination against blacks and Jews in the USA. Ruth fell in love with a black man what made her family to disown her. She had 8 kids from this marriage and after her first husband passed away, she married another black man, with whom she had 4 more kids. She instilled the importance of school and the church in her children, and they were strongly disciplined and well-loved by their parents. All of her children were high achievers and all became successful professionals, despite of the fact that they were born in a half Jewish half black family. This story shows us the power of love with no boundaries! When you love somebody, you don’t care what race he or she is. As well this story shows us that it is possible - to imagine a goal, to keep taking steps to attain the goal, and to never give up. I strongly recommend this book to everyone! This book touched me to the marrow of my bones. This is a beautifully written and fascinating true story about the complex history of a biracial family who never gives up!
"The Color Of Water", by James McBride overall was a great novel to read. The novel includes several characters, but mainly focuses on James, and his mother Ruth. The novel shares both of there perspectives on there lives and there life experiences. The setting includes, Ruth's childhood home and James life as his mother raises him. Ruth was a Jewish immigrant that came to America with her family in World-War II. Her mother was disabled, and her father was sexually, physically, and emotionally abusive towards her. Ruth, married a black man and had 12 children. Her husband who was black, along with her children were unaccepted in society. The novel focuses on the struggles that they experienced as an interracial family during this time. The novel also shows many themes of identity, poverty, hard work and there relationship with God. The main character James, personally struggles with drugs, alcohol, and depression. But the novel has a turn around, and is based off a true story. Every single one of her children, was a college graduate. Including James I would recommend this book to anyone struggling with there family, struggling with addiction or struggling with a mental illness. I give this book three stars!
The Color of Water James McBride grew up struggling with his racial identity in the 1960's. James's mother Ruth would never speak of her past. When asked if she was white, Ruth would respond with I'm light skinned. Ruth would tell her kids to mind their business and focus on their education. With no directions from his mother, James was left confused on who he is and what color he is. James's father passed away before he was born, and Ruth remarried years later. At the age of 14, James's step father passed. After his stepfather's passing, James starting rebelling against his mother. Ruth's story begins in the 1920's. Ruth was born an Orthodox Jewish family that moved to the U.S. from Poland. Ruth tells her story of who she was before she became Ruth. Being Jewish was hard enough but growing up and then marrying a black man was even harder. People didn't believe in interracial marriages. Ruth's family ended up disowning her and was considered to be dead. Raised by her mother and father and had two siblings. Her father was a sneaky Rabi priest. He only cared about his money. He made money off the blacks by opening a grocery store in the black side of town. Ruth states that the only person she never did right by was her mother. Not speaking or understanding and English, Ruth was her mother's voice with American's. Ruth left home after she graduated school and left her family behind. Ruth then converts to Christianity. Ruth married a black man and had 8 kids. He then passed from cancer. Ruth remarried years later to another black man, had another 4 kids. Once her 2nd husband passed, Ruth was left with 12 kids to raise on her own. Though Ruth raised 12 kids on her own, they all attended college and became very successful. Ruth Believed nothing else mattered but education and church. The only time Ruth showed emotion was when her husbands passed away and in church. I loved this book! Once I started reading I couldn't put it down. The struggles of this biracial family are overwhelming. Ruth was a strong independent woman who was able to raise 12 kids and sent them all off to college. I fell in love with Ruth and her story. She was a great mother who worked to provide for her children. The story of James and Ruth pulls you into their captivating story. I wish there was a book solely on Ruth and her story.
The Color of Water is a great book to read, but after a while it starts to drag out. I love how the book is two-sided, and not mainly just focused on one character. The book gives you a sense of how the north and south was during the early 1990's. It also pin-points that even though your skin tone is white, but if you're a Jew you're also an outcast and not welcomed by the whites. It goes hand and hand with being an African American male or female living in a America. McBride talks about the struggles his family had with poverty, his mother being so secret, his father & step fathers passing, self identity, etc. His mother (Ruth) teaches them to focused on education, and not so much who they are. Which tends to make most wonder who they actually are, where they come from, etc. With most questioning themselves it throws them off of their studies a little bit, but in the end all 12 children ended up graduating college, and following behind Ruth did as well before her passing.
The Color of Water was a very descriptive memoir of James' mother, himself and their differences. James goes on to explain through himself and his mother, what times were like back in the day. I think the book was a bit confusing but it has definitely earned its name. The name I feel derived from the differences in the color of their skins and the injustices during that time. This book is a great read even if it's difficult to follow.
The characters are one of a kind. They have their own struggles that maybe some people can actually relate to. They have their own stories that made them who they are. The characters are easy to follow and understand. Each character had their own personality that goes along with the story. The settings change with every chapter. The book has flashbacks that goes from young Ruth that has a point of view, then it goes back to James’s point of view. It can be too mush, I think that it was actually pretty unnecessary to have all of those flashbacks. The main Idea is a young boy who grew up in a poor family tries everything he can to be successful. He goes through hardships throughout his life, including not having enough money for food or having family issues.
I really enjoyed the book, I couldn’t put it down after I started reading it.
I really enjoyed this book, I read with special interest as I'm in an interracial marriage myself, in NY/NJ. Inevitably I wonder about how this will affect my own children. Although times have changed significantly (maybe not as much as they should), and we do live in a multiracial, middle-class community.