book review

Review: “The Color of Water” by James McBride

McBride, James. The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother 
Riverhead Books, 1996
Hardcover, 228 pages
ISBN 1-57322-022-1


As a young boy James McBride recognized that his mother was different: “Gradually . . . I began to notice something about my mother, that she looked nothing like the other kids’ mothers. In fact, she looked more like my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Alexander, who was white” (p. 8). When he asked his mother if she was white, she’d reply that she was “light-skinned” and tell him to stop asking questions. It wasn’t until he was an adult that McBride and his 11 siblings learned about their mother’s personal history.

Ruth McBride Jordan was born Rachel Shilsky, the daughter of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi turned shopkeeper who settled in Suffolk, Virginia. Rachel’s dictatorial father sexually abused her. She finally left Virginia to visit relatives in Harlem, where she met and married a Black factory worker and minister, Dennis McBride. She became a Christian, and together they founded a Baptist church. Dennis died of lung cancer when Ruth was pregnant with James, her eighth child. She later married another Black man and had four more children before he, too, died.

When the young James asked his mother whether God is Black or white, she told him, “God is the color of water. Water doesn’t have a color” (p. 39). In The Color of Water James McBride describes his search for his mother’s history. In his introductory notes he says, “It took me fourteen years to unearth her remarkable story–the daughter of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, she married a black man in 1942–and she revealed it more as a favor to me than out of any desire to revisit her past. Here is her life as she told it to me, and betwixt and between the pages of her life you will find mine as well” (xiii).

To reinforce the inter-relatedness of his mother’s history and his own, McBride alternates chapters of his own with chapters written by his mother. The problem with this technique, though, is that the two stories really are not parallel, at least not in the way that McBride, who has a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University, tells them. Although Ruth McBride Jordan reveals her story for her son, he doesn’t quite succeed in communicating exactly what her revelations mean for him.

When James McBride finally goes to Suffolk and finds the spot where his mother’s family’s store had stood, he tells the reader:

A penetrating loneliness covered me . . . I had no tears to shed. They were done long ago, but a new pain and a new awareness were born inside me. The uncertainty that lived inside me began to dissipate; the ache that the little boy who stared in the mirror felt was gone. My own humanity was awakened, rising up to greet me with a handshake as I watched the first glimmers of sunlight peek over the horizon.

(p. 179)

Later, he writes:

. . . the little ache I had known as a boy was no longer a little ache when I reached thirty. It was a giant, roaring, musical riff, screaming through my soul like a distorted rock guitar with the sound turned all the way up, telling me, Get on with your life: Play sax, write books, compose music, do something, express yourself, who the hell are you anyway? There were two worlds bursting inside me trying to get out. I had to find out more about who I was, and in order to find out who I was, I had to find out who my mother was.

(p. 208)

And, when his mother finally tells him her life story:

It was a fascinating lesson in life history–a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction marvel, to say the least. I felt like a Tinkertoy kid building my own self out of one of those toy building sets; for as she laid her life before me, I reassembled the tableau of her words like a picture puzzle, and as I did, so my own life was rebuilt. 

(p. 211)

But these generalities do little to communicate exactly what meaning McBride derived from learning about his mother’s background. In The Detroit News (February 1, 1996), McBride tells writer Pam Janis about seeing “a small quiet boy wearing a yarmulke and traveling alone” on an airplane. When the boy wouldn’t eat, McBride realized that he couldn’t eat because the food wasn’t kosher. McBride took the boy under his wing and watched out for him the remainder of the trip. And in the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California Online (1996), writer Leslie Katz reports that McBride was planning to make his first trip to Israel and to introduce his children to Jewish religious services. It’s unfortunate that McBride did not include such anecdotes and information in his own book; their presence would have validated his thesis and narrative structure.

I also would have liked to read a bit more about the daily life in a household of 12 children. Nevertheless, as a tribute to James McBride’s mother, The Color of Water succeeds very well.

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

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