Sunday Salon – Review of The Color of Water, by James McBride

The Sunday

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 she was repeatedly 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 from lung cancer, she married 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 his 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.

James McBride

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.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Riverbed Books, 1996


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16 Responses to Sunday Salon – Review of The Color of Water, by James McBride

  1. I really like memoirs. This one sounds something I would love reading. Your review is very good. Thanks.

    TSS: The Locked Room by Paul Auster

  2. Frances says:

    Wow. This sounds great. His mother sounds like she would be a great role model for some of the parents of kids I teach in a high-poverty school in DC. Especially the part about taking her kids to every free cultural event in the city. If we could just get our parents to do that! Love the fact that his mother appeared not to see color at all. Love…. a lot of aspects of what you discuss here.

    Happy reading!

  3. susan says:

    I loved this book. I’m pretty sure I read it when it first published. Enjoyed reading your blast from the past.

    Sad to hear it rained. (from tweets)

    Have a safe trip home.

  4. I love James McBride’s mother’s attitude. If only we could all see each other the way she believes God sees color. Imagine our world then.

    Hope you’re having a great time at the Book Festival.

  5. Ceri says:

    I’ve heard about this before, and I’ve heard good things about the way it’s written. I think this si definitely one I’d like to read.

  6. Eva says:

    This one has been on my radar for awhile, so I’m glad that you liked it! (And it’s so neat that you bring reviews out of the archives-I might try it when my life gets busier!)

  7. beastmomma says:

    I really enjoyed this book and actually it was one of the first books I reviewed on my blog:

    Looking back at that review makes me realize how much longer and more detailed my reviews are now! Hope that you had a great trip!

  8. Alyce says:

    That’s wonderful that you got to go to the National Book Festival – I wish I could have gone! This book looks like a good one, and I missed the review the first time around, so it was new to me.

  9. bermudaonion says:

    Wow, what a book! I’d probably like it though, since I love memoirs.

  10. Lisa says:

    My mom just loaned me this one. Looking forward to it.

  11. softdrink says:

    You went to the National Book Festival? Where have I been? Hope you had an amazing time!!

    You know, the LA Times Festival of Books is in April. Hint, hint.

  12. Ti says:

    I’ve not heard of Blast From the Past…what a great idea.

    I read The Color of Water a long, long time ago but remember liking it quite a bit.

  13. Jenners says:

    What a life his mother had!!! I can’t imagine going through what she did and then turning around and being what seems like an amazing mother with a great attitude.

  14. This is one of my favorite memoirs. I loved the way McBride was able to use his mom’s story to tell about his life and tell us more about her. You can tell he loves her dearly despite her flaws.

  15. This was one of my favorite memoirs during grad school. I had to read it and write a paper to make up for the time I was going to be off for my wedding. What a great gift! I may have never read it otherwise.

    James McBride was at the last NBF and I missed his talk. I’m still sad about that.

  16. Richard says:

    Very nice review of what sounds like a very nice book. I’ll have to keep this in mind for my “future” TBR additions!

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