The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother – How Do We Relate to His Story Today?

The Color of Water
A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother

By James McBride

Spoiler Alert!




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.

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. (Courtesy of

Adult Point of View

I’m appalled with ongoing racism and the only hope I see for change is parents teaching their children to love others. I don’t understand racism. We all have hopes and fears, justice and injustice, happiness and unhappiness. This is the human condition. Some will way this is too general, but I also see vividly how some races have suffered by far worse than mine. Finding justice doesn’t seem possible when you’re fighting against a system that judges you by the color of your skin. Who should judge that one person’s life is not worth as much as another? At the root, I see racism as a way for one individual to try to lift themselves by pushing another lower. It makes as much sense as drinking the ocean.

One of my good friends loaned me her copy of The Color of Water. My family is a combination of different races, and I was interested in McBride’s experience.

By combining his own narrative with sections from his mother’s history, I drew a broader picture of the bubbling pot that created his life. This was a pot he couldn’t see or understand until he wrote this book and learned more about his mother. She pushed her children to become educated. I understand the correlation of education and success – my own family has imprinted this message upon me, and I’ve done the same to my children. How many of society’s ills would be eliminated with a good education?

I believe the author came to understand himself better by writing this story. His mother was haunted by the demons from her childhood. The hardships she endured as a young wife and mother living in poverty didn’t compare to the damage from her youth. She always felt more comfortable in a poor black community even though she was a white immigrant Jew. She was too young to remember immigrating to the United States, but it was a fundamental piece of her family dynamic.

Why was this story on the New York Times bestselling list for two years? Essentially, it’s a coming of age story. We all have to figure out who we are. But if you come from two racial identities, it must be even harder. (Since I am not black, I have to make the distinction of “must be” because it isn’t my experience.) This book is loved by more people than those who reflect a multi-racial background. Would people who are prejudiced benefit from this story? I’m afraid not. People have to want to change.

I feel like our country needs to change for the better. The divide seems to be growing. From this book, I believe that James McBride would want to see us coming together instead of increasing the divide. He describes his extended family as a rainbow. Should color be the factor, deciding who we will like or associate with? It sounds foolish to me to write such a question, but I must because society is still labeling and judging others based on the color of one’s skin.

For my followers, I will warn you there is a fair amount of drug use and sexual triggers – though not graphically detailed. I recommend this book.

4.5 out of 5 star

4 1:2 star

  • Michelle


About Tales Untangled

I am a mother of four children and have a passion for reading. I love sharing my treasury of books with my kids. I also do experiments in cooking which includes such things as Indian Tandoori Chicken slow-cooked in a tagine. I write stories and illustrate in ink.
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