The Color of Water is an absorbing and moving memoir about the author’s coming of age as a mixed race man with a black father and a Jewish mother who admitted only to having “light” skin. The book is also “A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother.” Ruth Shilsky McBride converted to Christianity after she married her first husband and father of the author. But she probably stopped being a Jew when being molested at night by her Orthodox Rabbi father, or when her father finally abandoned her crippled mother for a gentile neighbor, or when richer aunts shunned her (going so far as to declare her dead for marrying a black man). Or, when she found the love, acceptance, and salvation she was seeking all her life among black people.
With Ruth’s first husband, Andrew McBride, she had eight children. Following his death of lung cancer, she remarried Hunter Jordan, Sr. and had four more children. The author and his siblings were raised in Brooklyn’s Red Hook housing projects in cramped quarters with no television but lots of pressure from their mother to use their minds. And use them they did, growing up to become doctors, professors, chemists, teachers, and in the author’s case, a writer and award-winning musician and composer.
Once James asked his mother, “Am I black or white?” She snapped back at him: “You’re a human being. Educate yourself or you’ll be a nobody!” When the kids were growing up, “Mommy,” as they called her, would lead her long rag-tag group of kids wearing hand-me-downs and hand-outs to the city to every free cultural event offered: festivals, libraries, concerts, exhibits.
But the author’s growing up years were marred by his struggles over his mixed identity. And Mommy always seemed oblivious to the fact that she was a white woman inhabiting a totally black world. He asked his mother whether God was black or white. “Oh boy,” she responded, “God’s not black. He’s not white. He’s a spirit.” …God’s spirit doesn’t have a color. “God is the color of water. Water doesn’t have a color.”
Evaluation: I loved this heart-warming book. It is more than a memoir; it is also a revealing look into the two worlds that come together so fruitfully in this touching tribute to a life well-spent.
Published by Riverhead Books, 1996