Understanding The Color of Water, A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother (Featured on Thrive Global)

It is safe to say I have a predilection for memoirs. I love them not only because they concern real human beings, but also because they usually transport you into the fabric of a certain era. Sometimes that “era” may even be the present, in which through a memoir you’d feel tensions that would normally never apply to you.

The Color of Water is special in that it approaches a discussion of race through a relationship of a white mother and mixed race son.

It is timeless, because it touches you whether or not you are mixed-race.

The political landscape today has heightened racial tensions across the United States. In a time where Collin Kapernick’s kneeling has initiated a fresh wave of activism, one day I also felt compelled pick up The Color of Water. It was a simple coincidence, but reading this beautiful memoir strengthened my understanding of race. A black man’s love his white mother grounds us in the belief that love can grow over time, and that it truly transcends all racial barriers.

When your mother doesn’t look like you, you may often struggle to define who you are. James McBride shares with readers in The Color of Water how he grew up in a Queens setting, feeling both fear and embarrassment about his white mother. There were several times where he wished his mother was black. As he experienced his childhood and felt more connected to his black side, his mother remained his life’s anomaly. He also would ask his mother if she was white, to which she’d dismiss his questions by saying, “You are a human being! Educate yourself, or you’ll be a nobody!”.

Even when James asked about if God was black and white, his mother would respond by stating “God is the color of water”.

“Her oddness, her complete non-awareness of what the world thought of her, a nonchalance in the face of what I perceived to be an imminent danger from blacks and whites who disliked her for being a white person in black neighborhood.” (James McBride)

Ruth, otherwise known as Rachel Deborah Shilsky would ride her blue bicycle after her second husband’s death around town without any regard for how people perceived her. She was a woman who had suffered sexual abuse and sacrificed her familial relations (her love for her Mameh and little sister Dee-Dee) for a better life in the east coast. She had even given up her orthodox Jewish upbringing for a Christian lifestyle centered around church. As if these sacrifices were not enough, did I mention how she also had an abortion as a teenager?

It is imperative to note that James McBride only puts these pieces of his mother’s story only years after he receives inspiration as a journalist to interview his mother. Even as an adult he is learning about his mother.

She was a woman who sent all twelve children of hers through college, and would disregard any racial slurs hurled at her in public spaces. It was only when the slurs involved her children that she’d make the perpetrators sorry for their vulgar language.

The beauty of Ruth, James McBride’s mother ultimately resides within the fact that she combined the both white and black cultures to made sure her children had optimal lives. Even despite the family’s financial situation, she sent her children to quality schools and made sure to praise the kindness and generosity in others.

“In fact that’s what I liked about black folks all my life: They never judged me. My black friends never asked me how much money I made, or what school my children went to, or anything like that. They just said, “Come as you are.” Blacks have always been peaceful and trusting.” (Ruth).

When reading The Color of Water, we initially feel James McBride’s adolescent frustration with being different from his peers. There is a sense of restlessness in not assimilating. This tension worsens after McBride’s revered role-model, his stepdad passes away when McBride is a teen. His stepdad’s presence provided stability in McBride’s life and his absence unleashed another identity crisis. Whether it is sitting in a predominantly white classroom being taunted and forced to dance because he was African-American or even occupying the streets with Chicken Man, McBride struggles.

“My siblings had already instilled the notion of black pride in me. I would have preferred that Mommy were black. Now, as a grown man, I feel privileged to have come from two worlds. My view of the world is not merely that of a black man but that of a black man with something of a Jewish soul. I don’t consider myself Jewish, but when I look at Holocaust photographs of Jewish women whose children have been wrenched from them by Nazi soldiers, the women look like my own mother and I think to myself, There but for the grace of God goes my own mother—and by extension, myself.” (James McBride)

However, after a short period of tumbling into a period of confusion, James McBride revives himself and slowly starts building a successful future as a musician and a journalist. His appreciation for his mother deepens as her story unravels side by side his. The juxtaposition of McBride’s journey to gain confidence in his identity next to his mother Ruth’s story of endurance and sacrifice make this novel the immortal jewel that it is.

It was a heart touching moment as the memoir wraps up when James McBride lists each of his sibling’s accomplishments (including his own) as a tribute to his mother’s hard work in raising them. As a reader you feel the emotions run high when he mentions his mother on the list. She as a senior citizen graduates with a degree in social work from Temple University.

You also feel the conclusion of this heartfelt memoir when Ruth joins James McBride for the New Brown Memorial Church’s 40th Anniversary Gala. This is a church which she and her first husband, Mr. McBride founded together. Although Mr. McBride couldn’t live to see the church’s success, in a way Ruth’s attendance at the ceremony brings the memoir to a full-circle.

This is a must read for bookworms of any cultural background. Be prepared for the emotions and life-long lessons.

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