Color of Water (McBride)

The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother
James McBride, 1996
Penguin Group USA
ISBN-13: 9781594481925

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. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio 
Where—New York, New York
Education—Oberlin Conservatory of Music; M.A., Columbia    University
Awards—American Arts and Letters Richard Rodgers Award,
  1996; ASCAP Richard Rodgers Horizons Award, 1996;
  Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, 1997
Currently—Bucks County, Pennsylvania, USA

James McBride's bestselling memoir, The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother, explores the author's struggle to understand his biracial identity and the experience of his white, Jewish mother, who moved to Harlem, married a black man, and raised 12 children. His first novel, Miracle at St. Anna (film version by Spike Lee), followed a black regiment through turbulent events in Italy late in World War II. It was a book of considerable breadth and character diversity.

Readers may not know that the multitalented McBride has another dual identity: He's trained as a musician and a writer and has been highly successful in both careers.

After getting his master's degree in journalism from Columbia University at the age of 22, he began a career in journalism that would include stints as staff writer at the Boston Globe, People magazine, and the Washington Post. But McBride also loved writing and performing music, and at age 30, he quit his job as a feature writer at the Washington Post to pursue a music career in New York. After Anita Baker recorded a song he'd written, "Good Enough," McBride had enough contacts in the industry to spend the next eight years as a professional musician, writing, recording, and performing (he plays the saxophone).

He was playing tenor sax for jazz singer Little Jimmy Scott while he wrote The Color of Water "on airplanes and in hotels." Like the jazz music McBride plays, the book alternates voices, trading off between McBride's perspective and that of his mother. The Color of Water was a worldwide success, selling millions of copies and drawing high praise from book critics. "This moving and unforgettable memoir needs to be read by people of all colors and faiths," wrote Publishers Weekly. It now appears on reading lists at high schools and colleges around the country.

After the enormous success of The Color of Water, McBride felt some pressure to continue writing memoirs, or at least to continue with the theme of race relations in America. Instead, he turned to fiction, and although his second book draws part of its inspiration from family history, it isn't autobiographical. "My initial aim was to write a novel about a group of black soldiers who liberate a concentration camp in Eastern Europe," McBride explains on his web site. "I read lots of books and spent a lot of time researching the subject but soon came to the realization that I'm not qualified to write about the holocaust. It's too much." Instead, he recalled the war stories of his uncle and cousin, who served in the all-black 92nd Infantry Division, and began researching World War II in Italy—particularly the clashes between Italian Partisans and the German army.

The resulting novel, Miracle at St. Anna, is "an intricate mosaic of narratives that ultimately becomes about betrayal and the complex moral landscape of war" (the New York Times Book Review) and has earned high marks from critics for its nuanced portrayal of four Buffalo Soldiers and the Italian villagers they encounter. McBride, perhaps not surprisingly, likens writing fiction to playing jazz: "You are the soloist and the characters are the bandleaders, the Duke Ellingtons and Count Basies. They present the song, and you must play it as they determine.

• McBride has written songs for Anita Baker, Grover Washington Jr., Gary Burton, and the PBS television character Barney. He has also written the score for several musicals and currently leads a 12-piece jazz/R&B band.

• One of his most taxing assignments as a journalist was to cover Michael Jackson's 1984 Victory Tour for six months. "I thought I was going to lose my mind," he told USA Today.

• For a book fair, he performed with the Rock Bottom Remainders, a rock band made up of writers including Amy Tan, Mitch Albom, Stephen King, Dave Barry, and Ridley Pearson. (From Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews 
For years James McBride was puzzled, even repulsed by his mother. She was strange. She was, in fact, far stranger than McBride suspected. It isn't until well into adulthood that McBride learns her story.
A LitLovers LitPick - (Nov '07)

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 is her voice—unique, incisive, at once unsparing and ironic—that is dominant in this paired history, and its richest contribution....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

At a time when the relationship between African-Americans and Jews is deeply fissured, The Color of Water reminds us that the two groups have a long history of coexistence—sometimes within a single person. The author's mother, Ruth Shilsky, was born in Poland in 1920, the daughter of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi. She grew up in rural Virginia, hemmed in by anti-Semitism and small-town claustrophobia, and at the age of 18 she fled to the cultural antipodes of Harlem. There, four years later, she married a black man named Dennis McBride, and since her family promptly disowned her, she launched a second existence as (to quote her son) "a flying compilation of competing interests and conflicts, a black woman in white skin." The lone Caucasian in her Brooklyn housing project, she somehow raised 12 children without ever quite admitting she was white. In retrospect, of course, her son is able to recognize that his parents "brought a curious blend of Jewish-European and African-American distrust and paranoia into our house." However, as children, James McBride and his 11 siblings didn't dwell on questions of their mother's color. Only later, after he became a professional journalist, did McBride feel compelled to tackle the riddle of his heritage. Bit by bit, he coaxed out his mother's story, and her voice -- stoic, funny, and with a matter-of-fact flintiness—alternates perfectly with his own tale of biracial confusion and self-discovery.
James Marcus - Salon

The need to clarify his racial identity prompted the author to penetrate his veiled and troubled family history. Ruth McBride Jordan concealed her former life as Rachel Deborah Shilsky, the daughter of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, from her children. Her grim upbringing in an abusive environment is left behind when she moves to Harlem, marries a black man, converts to Christianity, and cofounds a Baptist congregation with her husband. The courage and tenacity shown by this twice-widowed mother who manages to raise 12 children, all of whom go on to successful careers, are remarkable. Highly recommended for public libraries. The Color of Water [will] make you proud to be a member of the human race. —Linda Bredengerd, Univ. of Pittsburgh Lib., Bradford, Pa
Library Journal

"An eloquent narrative in which a young black man searches for his roots--against the wishes of his mother. Mc Bride, a professional saxophonist and former staff writer for the Boston Globe and Washington Post, grew up with 11 siblings in an all-black Brooklyn, New York, housing project. As a child, he became aware that his mother was different from others around him: She was white, and she kept secrets...McBride's mother should take much pleasure in this loving if sometimes uncomfortable memoir, which embodies family values of the best kind. Other readers will take pleasure in it as well.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions 
1. Discuss Ruth McBride's refusal to reveal her past and how that influenced her children's sense of themselves and their place in the world. How has your knowledge—or lack thereof—about your family background shaped your own self-image?  

2. The McBride children's struggle with their identities led each to his or her own "revolution." Is it also possible that that same struggle led them to define themselves through professional achievement?  

3. Several of the McBride children became involved in the civil rights movement. Do you think that this was a result of the times in which they lived, their need to belong to a group that lent them a solid identity, or a combination of these factors?  

4. "Our house was a combination three-ring circus and zoo, complete with ongoing action, daring feats, music, and animals." Does Helen leave to escape her chaotic homelife or to escape the mother whose very appearance confuses her about who she is?  

5. "It was in her sense of education, more than any other, that Mommy conveyed her Jewishness to us." Do you agree with this statement? Is it possible that Ruth McBride Jordan's unshakable devotion to her faith, even though she converted to Christianity from Judaism, stems from her Orthodox Jewish upbringing?  

6. "Mommy's contradictions crashed and slammed against one another like bumper cars at Coney Island. White folks, she felt, were implicitly evil toward blacks, yet she forced us to go to white schools to get the best education. Blacks could be trusted more, but anything involving blacks was probably substandard... She was against welfare and never applied for it despite our need, but championed those who availed themselves of it." Do you think these contradictions served to confuse Ruth's children further, or did they somehow contribute to the balanced view of humanity that James McBride possesses?  

7. While reading the descriptions of the children's hunger, did you wonder why Ruth did not seek out some kind of assistance?  

8. Do you think it was naïve of Ruth McBride Jordan to think that her love for her family and her faith in God would overcome all potential obstacles or did you find her faith in God's love and guidance inspiring?  

9. How do you feel about Ruth McBride Jordan's use of a belt to discipline her children?  

10. While reading the book, were you curious about how Ruth McBride Jordan's remarkable faith had translated into the adult lives of her children? Do you think that faith is something that can be passed on from one generation to the next or do you think that faith that is instilled too strongly in children eventually causes them to turn away from it?  

11. Do you think it would be possible to achieve what Ruth McBride has achieved in today's society?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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