The Color of Water

The Color of Water

A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother

Book - 1996
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From the New York Times bestselling author of The Good Lord Bird , winner of the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction, and Kill 'Em and Leave , a James Brown biography.

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 marria≥ 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.


Publisher: New York : Riverhead Books, 1996.
ISBN: 9781573220224
Branch Call Number: 974.7/MCBR
Characteristics: xiii, 228 p. : ill. ; 25 cm.


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neyoscribbles Mar 07, 2020

An insightful glimpse into what it was to be Ruth, the author’s mother who was born a Jewish woman but converted into Christianity. Religion and race aside, Ruth’s sheer determination to succeed in life regardless of all the obstacles she had to experience tenfold, is truly inspiring. This book was very difficult to put down and it was a fast read considering the chapters alternate between Ruth and the author providing two different perspectives. At times I found it difficult that Ruth, a white woman simply did not accept being white and would not discuss the topic of colour as she raised 12 children. But as you read, you realize that Ruth is not having an identity crisis, rather she wants to be identified as a human and not one who identifies by the categories dictated by her/our society. This memoir felt very personal and this touching story will stay with you for a while.

Feb 05, 2019

Outstanding. Simply at once touching, humorous, moving masterpiece of writing. A must read, definitely. Once you start reading this memoir, you cannot put it down. Highly recommend.

Aug 04, 2018

This is an important and timeless book. I am grateful that the author and his mother were willing to share their stories with the world.
There are more and more biracial/multiracial individuals in this country. Many of them could profit from listening to the author's experience. I would love to hear the stories of other multiracial people!
In addition, McBride's writing is beautiful and spellbinding!

McBride’s revealing memoir also uncovers the remarkable story of his mother, Ruth. Through weaving the story of his childhood with that of his mother’s narrative, McBride offers an inspiring and uplifting tribute to his family as well as to the human spirit which can transcend the barriers of race, class, and generation.

Nov 01, 2016

A loving and well written book, part biography and part memoir as the chapters alternate between the author's life growing up in Brooklyn's Red Hook housing project and the recounting of his mother's life in Suffolk, Virginia as the victimized daughter of a Jewish rabbi.

Jul 27, 2016

James McBride -- where have you been? Sorry I never read this book earlier. It is truly a classic.

May 04, 2016

An amazing book. Not only is it very well written, but the true story is fascinating: a Jewish white mother who will not admit she is white. Because of the so-called dysfunctional situation being infused with so much love, the children turned out just great, by all accounts. I would highly recommend this book.

Mar 06, 2016

A true story about a selfless and gutsy woman who sees everyone through the same lens regardless of race or religion. Her life was not an easy one.

ehbooklover Mar 20, 2015

An interesting and eye-opening read. My only issue with the book is that I found that it was hit and miss in terms of keeping my interest: the mother's story was much more interesting than that of the author's.

WVMLStaffPicks Dec 09, 2014

An inspiring, unforgettable unfolding of two lives: the author's mother's -- a woman of remarkable strength who flees the South and her Orthodox Jewish family and co-founds a Baptist church in Harlem with her black husband, and McBride's -- one of her twelve children. An inviting read, full of strength and spirit, pain, and humour.

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Jul 17, 2017

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.

SnoIsleLib_BrianH Jun 22, 2017

“The plain truth is that you’d have an easier time standing in the middle of the Mississippi River and requesting that it flow backward than to expect people of different races and backgrounds to stop loving each other, stop marrying each other, stop starting families, stop enjoying the dreams that love inspires. Love is unstoppable. It is our greatest weapon, a natural force, created by God.
― James McBride, The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother

SnoIsleLib_BrianH Jun 22, 2017

“I asked her if I was black or white. She replied "You are a human being. Educate yourself or you'll be a nobody!”
― James McBride, The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother

Jul 27, 2016

"Go away!" I shouted to the boy in the mirror. "Get on out!"

Violet_Lion_31 Aug 01, 2013

"...I resolved to jump back into my studies and rebuild myself. Like my own mother did in times of stress, I turned to God. I lay in bed at night praying to Him to make me strong, to rid me of anger, to make me a man, and He listened, and I began to change."

Violet_Lion_31 Aug 01, 2013

"Mommy's tears seemed to come from somewhere else, a place far away, a place inside her that she never let any of us children visit, and even as a boy I felt there was pain behind them."


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Violet_Lion_31 Aug 01, 2013

Violet_Lion_31 thinks this title is suitable for All Ages

death0217 Jul 24, 2012

death0217 thinks this title is suitable for between the ages of 12 and 6

Fastgirl124 Jul 06, 2012

Fastgirl124 thinks this title is suitable for 13 years and over

Brown_Dog_365 Jun 27, 2012

Brown_Dog_365 thinks this title is suitable for 13 years and over


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Jul 27, 2016

Subtitled – A Black Man’s Tribute to his White Mother, McBride takes us to the public housing projects of New York City where he and 11 brothers and sisters live. They are all black. James knows there is something different about his mother. When asked, she would declare – “I’m light-skinned,” and change the subject. As years went by, James learned about his mother, her Jewish background and the mysteries of her life that unfolded, bit by bit. In short, Ruth McBride eventually told him her story of being a rabbi’s daughter, born in Poland and raised in the South, who fled to Harlem, married a black man, founded a Baptist church, and put the twelve children through college.

This book is also on the list of 75 best books in the last 75 years. An engrossing story and on the best-seller list back in the mid- to late-90s. It is truly a classic.

Brown_Dog_365 Jun 27, 2012

This book is about a man who is writing about his mother's life. The mother was a Jewish woman, who in the 1950s married an African American man. She was "thrown" out of her family for what she had done, and her and her children were made fun of by other people. She never really talked about race and her life story with her children, and so they lived a very closed life style. They didn't ever think about pressuring their mother for the information that they desperately wanted to know about. They grew up in poverty, but they always managed to make it by. And to top that off, everyone was sent to college and became very successful people. Finally James McBride one of the twelve children finds out about their mother's life, and then writes a book about it. The story is a wonderful one, and is sure to bring tears of joy and sadness to your eyes.


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