This book, The Color of Water, is the autobiography and memoir of James McBride first published in 1995; it is also a tribute to his white mother, whom he calls Mommy, or Ma. The chapters alternate between James McBride’s descriptions of his early life and first-person accounts of his mother Ruth’s life, mostly taking place before her son was born. McBride depicts the conflicting emotions that he endured as he struggled to discover who he truly was, as his mother narrates the hardships that she had to overcome as a white, Jewish woman who chose to marry a black man in 1942.
I was introduced to this book, The Color of Water, when I enjoyed a Book Spa at Mr. B’s Emporium in Bath. Read my post HERE. When I was told about this book I could not believe it was a true story. Ruth was the daughter of a Rabbi who, with his wife, emigrated to America from Poland in the 1930s. Her father sexually abused and her mother, who was a meek woman, never defended Ruth. Ruth ran away to Harlem and escaped this orthodox Jewish life where she married Andrew ‘Dennis’ McBride and had 8 children. James, the author and narrator of this story, was the youngest of these children and was born after his father died. When Dennis died Ruth married another black man, Hunter Jordan, and together they had four children.
Ruth was used to prejudice as her family mourned her ‘death’ when she left by sitting shiva in the traditions of Judaism. She went on to experience inter-racial prejudice following her marriage to Dennis. The children leant towards their African-American heritage as they knew little about Ruth’s upbringing until James wrote this book.
When James asked his mother if he was black or white. ‘You’re a human being,’ she snapped. ‘Educate yourself or you’ll be a nobody!’ And when James asked what colour God was, she said ‘God is the color of water.’
In the 50s it was the time of Malcolm X who advocated for black supremacy, black empowerment, the separation of black and white Americans, and publicly criticized the mainstream civil rights movement for its emphasis on nonviolence and racial integration. James was confused about his own racial identity but was also worried about the safety of his own mother living in an all-black area.
Ruth always sent her children to the best schools, no matter the commute, to ensure they received the finest possible educations. She insisted that her children learn a musical instrument so their very small home was always chaotic and untidy. She sent all 12 children to college and they continued on to become teachers, doctors, professionals and authors which is all down to her perseverance and hard work.
Ruth demanded respect and hard work from her children, and always treated them tenderly. She had an unwavering faith in God and strong moral convictions. To Ruth, issues of race and identity took secondary importance to moral beliefs. Ruth died at her home in Ewing, New Jersey on January 9, 2010.
However their lives did not go smoothly and James himself went through a disruptive time when he had many a run in with the law and other black criminals. His life was not easy and could have ended in the way that so many lives like his, at that time, did. However Ruth never gave up on her kids, she was a driven and determined woman. The overwhelming feeling is one of eventual success and respect for Ruth and her children.
I cannot recommend The Color of Water enough. It is not long but it is so powerful and so well written. It is honest and revealing and gives the reader an insight into a troubled time in black American history.
To purchase from Amazon click HERE