The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, by James McBride. Originally published in 1995.
For the most part, I almost never read books written by black authors which were published later than the 1970’s. I make exceptions for Christian authors or political writers with whom I am in general if not lockstep agreement. But unless I know a bit about the author, I assume that any similarity I share with them begins and ends with our common hue and that the book is going to be filled with ideology that makes me want to scream.
As it turns out, I have a white friend who has clued me in to two recent books written by black authors that I found engrossing and worth my time to read. I am not sure how she finds herself so informed about black authors, although I think I know why. This book by James McBride was one she handed me off of her bookshelf during a recent visit, and I am glad she did.
A memoir, The Color of Water covers the lives of two people: the author, James McBride and his mother, a woman raised as an Orthodox Jew. Ruth McBride Hunter was declared dead by her family in 1942 when she converted to Christianity, and fell in love with and married the black man who exposed her to the gospel. The narratives were so interesting and compelling in this memoir that it completely overrode anything reservations that I may have had when I first cracked it open.
Despite her white skin, McBride’s mother clearly came of age at a time when Jews were something separate and distinct from White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Not only culturally, but racially. She routinely referred to “white people” as a separate entity, and so much that McBride didn’t realize that she was what people today would consider white until he was over 10 years old.
James McBride was one of 12 children, eight born to his mother’s marriage to his father followed by four born to the man she married after her first husband died. He describes a harsh life, yet a life filled simultaneously with material lack and his mother’s relentless commitment to her children’s educational and cultural enrichment.
Although glad to be free of the oppressive and abusive life she experienced growing up in her Orthodox Jewish family, Ruth McBride took pains to ensure that her children attended public schools in Jewish communities rather than those in the black communities in which she lived.McBride described his parents’ philosophy this way:
My parents were nonmaterialistc.They believed that money without knowledge was worthless, that education tempered with religion was the way to climb out of poverty in America.
McBride’s mother was odd, zealously private, very strict, frugal, and mistrusted outsiders of every race, although she considered the black community her home and its church the first place she ever truly learned about real love.
The chapters in the book switch back and forth between his mother’s recollections of her youth and life, and his own recollections. This works and flows well. McBride’s mother offered some interesting perspective and insights to her children as well. When he asked her what color God was, she told him that God was a spirit. He asked what color God’s spirit was, and she answered:
“God is the color of water. Water doesn’t have a color.”
When he asked her what it meant to be a “tragic mulatto”, she was outraged:
“Don’t ever use that term.”
“Am I black or white?”
“You’re a human being”, she snapped. “Educate yourself or you’ll be a nobody…if you’re a nobody, it doesn’t matter what color you are.”
The book is full of such quotes as this devout Christian mother raising kids in a time where her family was ridiculed and derided at every turn (and when the “revolution” was calling out to them at various times) struggled to figure out how to instill in those children that their identity and worth was rooted in God.
Whatever your ideological bent, this is a compelling and well written book. McBride’s story is fascinating, his mother’s even more so and I enjoyed reading The Color of Water.
- Ruth McBride recounts stories of her childhood sexual abuse, although in very benign terms.
- Severe (by today’s standards) corporal punishment was common in the 1930’s-1960’s, so fair warning that it is included in the book
- Racial slurs (that should go without saying)