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:||5.15(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.74(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.
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.
Successful journalist writes touching memoir his life with a mother who has overcome a lifetime of hard knocks. (Possible spoiler alert!) As a youngster, the writer's Jewish "Mommy" immigrates, has a crippled mother, abusive father, and lives with both poverty and hunger. Later she's a runaway, disowned, married African Americans in decades full of prejudice and discrimination, widowed (twice), raises 12 kids, etc. Despite all this she co-founds a church, survives cancer, and raises 12 successful professionals who still trek to her house on holidays. It's an inspirational story and a loving tribute, along with being a thought-provoking piece on what actually determines an individual's cultural identity.
Very well written book written by a black man as a tribute to his white mother. Every other chapter is about the mother and then the inbetween chapers are about the son growing up. The mother was born in Poland of Jewish parents. Her mother had polio and was paralyzed on one side. Her father was a rigid, controlling, abusive rabbi. The day after she graduated from high school, she got on a bus and headed for NYC. She ended up marrying a black man who was a devout Christian. She converted and they founded a church in Harlem. They had seven children. When she was pregnant with the author, the father died of cancer. She was devastated. Eventually she married another black man and had five more children. All children graduated from college and many had advanced degrees.
James McBride creates a not-very-flattering portrait of race in America in this outstanding story of his white Jewish mother and black father and stepfather. Ruth McBride was born an Orthodox Jew who came to America at the age of two. The product of a traditional, arranged, loveless marriage, her family lived in the South, and from a young age she found warmth and love only in the black community. As a teenager she left home for New York, married a black man, raised 8 children, founded a church in Brooklyn, and married again as a widow and raised another 4.
Wonderful story of the author's upbringing by his very unorthodox mother who herself was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family. Due to the narrowness of her family's views and the abusiveness of her father, she leaves home at a young age. She winds up in New York City, falls in love with a black man, marries, has 8 children with her husband and they start a church in Brooklyn. When he dies at a young age, right when the author was born, she marries again to another black man and has 4 more children. The children mostly grow up in the Red Hook Housing Project in Brooklyn and due to their mother's emphasis on education, and the love in the home they all graduate college, with most obtaining advanced degrees and become professionals in various fields. The author's mother never talks about her past, the author did not know her maiden name until college, or even that she was white, instead she says she is light skinned or the color of water, meaning that there is no color and color is not important. Their story is fascinating and the book is very easy to read. Highly recommended.
I want to preface my review by saying that there are many people whose opinons I value greatly who loved this book. These are not the osequously religious, nor are they lberals affraid to say they don't like the book (I know a couple of those,too). These are well-educated, middle-class people from various races and religious backgrounds. For some, it literally changed their lives and altered how they think about the world. I think for many people who grew up in the 60's and 70's (and some in the 80s I suppose), this is probably the case.With that caveat in place, I disliked this book. I didn't loathe it, but I couldn't finish it fast enough so I could be done with it. James McBride gives a great recounting of his mother's life and some autobiographical information. Because of when and where he grew up, this story is almost entirely about race. Even the bits about religion were more about race. In the Reader's Digest version of this book in my mind, the book looks like this: "Race, race, race, white people, black people, Jews, crackers, niggers, Jesus Christ, race, education, race, race, race." I am probably oversimplifying things, but I'm fairly certain trying to find a plot to this family's life beyond race would be difficult. I would not read this book again if I didn't have to and would have a hard time recommending it to anyone because I really can't tell who a good person for this book would be. I know they are out there, but I'm not that person.
Although I love the title, The Color of Water, I struggle to say I liked the book. It has some wonderful merits, but I just can't say I loved it either. The author James McBride obviously loves and respects his mother. I think that is heartwarming in itself. Mrs. Ruth McBride (the mother) did an amazing job instilling the value of education in the minds and hearts of her children seeing them all to college. Any mother who raised 12 children to become responsible adults deserves a tribute. The book also includes many fabulous themes for discussion: heritage, identity, religion, faith, parenting, marriage relationships, family hierarchy, race, forgiveness, love, history, etc. There is worth in reading this book particularly along side some other classics like Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, or Martin Luther King Jr's I Have a Dream speech. But somehow this book just didn't reach straight to my heart. I'm not sure why, because I do see so much that is of worth in this book. Perhaps it's because I want more information about Ruth. I want to know more about her relationships with her husbands. I want to know more about her faith. I want to know how her faith changed her. And the book never quite lets me see how that change happened. I see many issues in Ruth's life where she needed the healing influence of Jesus: her molesting and abusive father, her first boyfriend, her abortion, her family abandoning her, etc. But I never get to the heart of how her conversion to Christianity healed the years of hurt. Obviously the woman had great faith that saw her through the years and helped her raise 12 kids. And I began to see a glimpse of it when she told Dennis that she wanted to get married and refused to "live in sin" any longer. But it never went beyond that.I suppose the reason could be that this book was written by her son James McBride, and I really want to hear the story from Ruth's own lips. James McBride is successful in portraying his personal love for his mother, but he's lacking when it comes to expressing his mother's testimony. That's what I really wanted to see.
James McBride tells us the story of growing up black, in Harlem, then in projects in the Bronx. Raised by his white mother (his black father died before he was born) and black step-father, he was one of 12 children. He describes a loving family life, where children were expected to be successful, respectful, and STAY IN SCHOOL. Children were due in the house by 5:00 in the evening, and slept 5 to a bed. Dinner might often be a jar of peanut butter or several spoons of sugar. He never met his mother's family and did not discover until he had completed his master's in Journalism at Columbia U, and decided to write a tribute to his mother, that she was jewish, that her family had disowned her, that her father was an orthodox Jewish rabbi who abused her, and just how hard her life had been.The story is told both in the son's and the mother's voices. It is very well-written, and gives us an incredible insight into each mind. James' father was a preacher, and his mother converted to Christianity and insisted on church attendance and prayer from all her children. As he begins to realize that his mother is different from other mothers, he asks her "Is God Black?" "NO" she answers. "Well is he white?" Mom replies in the negative. Still the young boy persists. "Well what color is he?" "The color of water." I just loved that image, and fell in love with this family.As he lovingly recounts his search for his mother's family, and helps her confront a past she has repressed, he comes to an acceptance of his Jewishness, his multi-cultural roots, and gives us a picture of an exceptional family. In the epilogue he gives us a breakdown of the incredible achievements of them all. Every one of the 12 graduated from college. There are two doctors, school teachers, musicians, journalists, nurses, artists, and the mother completes her degree in her late 60's.It's a tribute any mother would be proud to have her son write.
This is the true story of James McBride and where he came from. He is mixed; his mother is white and his father is black. He tells his story of how he figured out who he was and where he came from. This book brings up issues of identity, which many students may be dealing with in high school. It also deals with issues of race, which is always controversial but would probably spark good class discussions if led the right way.
A wonderful, funny and moving book.