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

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

Series: Memoirs for your Reading Challenge

James McBride is probably best known for his first book, memoir The Color of Water. It won all kinds of awards, was highly praised by the critics (not that that necessarily matters, but we're going to put that as a check in the pro column). The subtitle is A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother. McBride's parents had an interracial marriage back in the 1940s in America. Living now, it's almost difficult to fathom until I read something like this, just how extremely difficult that was to live in that kind of family then in that place and time. McBride speaks so well and so poignantly in this book about both his own family and their place in the world. It's really really beautiful. McBride is writing from his own experience as a native New Yorker and a musician (he studied at Oberlin College and Columbia). His writing style is clearly well-crafted and carefully honed and he's written about a wide variety of topics and yet manages to have a body of work that doesn't at all feel scattered. McBride writes about the things he's interested in in new and fascinating ways with a journalist's eye and a journalist's pen. He's written memoir, nonfiction, fiction. (You can listen to me recommend James McBride to Carly Friedman on What Should I Read Next Episode 119 and I was glad to hear McBride is on her TBR list.)

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About the Book

Publisher’s description:

The New York Times best-selling story from the author of The Good Lord Bird, winner of the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction.

Who is Ruth McBride Jordan? A self-declared “light-skinned” woman evasive about her ethnicity, yet steadfast in her love for her 12 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 11 siblings in the poor, all-black projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn.

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. At 17, 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.

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 listeners 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.

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