The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother is a book by James McBride. It describes the life of his mother, Ruth McBride Jordan, who was born and raised in a poor black family in rural Maryland during the early 20th century; her marriage in 1940 to Willy Jordan, a white man from New York who became well-known in Harlem for his blues singing; and their experiences raising twelve children together as a mixed-race couple.
In The Color of Water, James McBride shares his extraordinary journey—from the Brooklyn ghetto where he grew up to the front page of The New York Times, from abuse at home and in the streets to sudden fame as a jazz musician. His tale is of laughter and hope, tragedy and triumph, with a mother who survived poverty and prejudice by passing for white.
In this poignant and powerful book, James McBride explores his mother’s past, as well as his upbringing and heritage, in a story that goes far beyond the familiar boundaries of race relations. A self-declared “light-skinned” woman evasive about her ethnicity yet steadfast in her love for her twelve black children, Ruth McBride Jordan was born in 1925 to a white father and an African-American mother. When James was just five years old he began noticing certain oddities about his mother’s history.
About The Color of Water Book
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.
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 recreates her remarkable story through her searing and spirited voice. The daughter of a failed itinerant Orthodox rabbi 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 honesty 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 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 received a degree in social work from Temple University.
Interspersed throughout his mother’s compelling narrative, McBride shares candid recollections of his 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.