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

Masterfully composed by journalist and musician James McBride, The Color of Water seamlessly weaves together two coming-of-age narratives. The first describes the author’s mother, Rachel Shilsky – the daughter of a poor, itinerant rabbi – as she grows up in a small Southern town that is as anti-Semitic as it is racist. The second story follows the early life of McBride himself, the eighth of 12 mixed-race children raised in the projects of Brooklyn. These two stories are expressed in captivating prose, exploring issues of race, class, faith, and identity.

McBride’s mother, later known as Ruth McBride Jordan, stands out as one of the most resolute and inimitable characters in modern literature. I first read this book a decade ago, and her unique perspective and vernacular continue to resound in my mind. Raised in an abusive household, Jordan interprets her childhood trauma in a way that is forthright and expressive, yet lacking in self-pity. Over time, we see her transform from an emotionally-stunted Orthodox Jewish teen to an indomitable Christian woman who identifies most strongly with the black community.

The title of the book derives from a childhood conversation McBride has with his mother. Noting that she usually cries during church services, he wonders if this is because she wishes to be black like the other congregants. He asks her if God is black or white, to which she responds, “God is the color of water. Water doesn’t have a color.” McBride’s own struggle to understand his racial identity is closely bound up with his mother’s complex history. This is a relationship he explores with tenderness, candor, and unflinching self-examination.

Due to the multi-faceted natures of both stories, it is difficult to characterize this book. The Color of Water embodies the many layers that comprise an identity and the faith that brings great love and triumph out of suffering. It is a son’s vibrant tribute to the tenacity of his mother, and a story of deep, abiding love. It is powerfully illuminating for empathizing with the other, and instructive for how a faith community can serve as either a great barrier or an irreplaceable support for building that understanding.

Note: Though this book is not overly explicit in nature, there are scenes and themes that could be triggering for survivors of sexual abuse.

Published by Riverhead Books in 1995; reissued 2006

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