The Color of Water Summary

James McBride

The Color of Water

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The Color of Water Summary

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The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother is a 1995 work of nonfiction that is part autobiography, part memoir, and part biography as James McBride, the child of an interracial marriage, writes of his growing up in the civil rights era and of the story of his mother, a Polish Jew, who in 1942 married a black man. The chapters alternately tell of James’s early life and of the experiences of his mother, Rachel, who changed her name to Ruth to sound more American. James’s biological father was Andrew Dennis McBride, an African-American who succumbed to cancer before James was born in 1957. Ruth and Dennis had eight children, and she later had four more with her second husband, Hunter Jordan, the only father James knew. The title of the book stems from an event early in James’s life in which he proved in a science contest that water is colorless. A more poetic explanation of the title comes from Ruth’s response to James when, as a boy, he asks her if God is black or white. Her response is, “God is the color of water. Water doesn’t have a color.” Juxtaposed in the narrative are the experiences of James growing up biracial and Ruth’s trials as a white, Jewish woman married to a black man. At the heart of his story is James’s realization that his self-awareness needs to be born out of an understanding of his mother’s path in life.

Ruth was two years old in 1923 when her family immigrated to the United States from Poland, and her father unsuccessfully attempted to have a career as a rabbi. The family established a general store in Virginia during her years of growing up in the 1920s and 1930s. Ruth experienced the economic and racial problems of the South as Jews faced the same threats as blacks in the era. Later, while living in the Harlem section of New York City in the 1940s and 1950s, she saw more of the same, but there the negative side of life was intermingled with the energy and culture of the city.

Ruth’s father, Tateh, was an oppressive force in the home, who cheated on his wife, forced his daughter to work in the store, sexually abused her, and ultimately drove her to flee the situation and move to New York. At this time, she was also pregnant by a black boyfriend. Upon moving to Harlem she was disowned by her family for numerous reasons, including wanting to marry a black man and not choosing to embrace her Jewish religion. In Harlem, she met Dennis, married him, and became a Christian. Although these were happy times for Ruth, the couple did, however, meet with prejudice due to being in an interracial relationship. Together they established the New Brown Memorial Church and started a family. After Dennis’s death during Ruth’s pregnancy with James, their eighth child, Ruth worked to raise her children and eventually met Hunter Jordan, a black man, who became her second husband.

James did the research of a journalist to uncover the details of his mother’s past. He realizes that her perspectives on wide ranging topics such as education, respect, and hard work shaped the man he became. Her deep faith in God and her unshakable moral ethics were never weakened by racial conflicts in society. Even when widowed for a second time, she steadfastly faced whatever life brought her; raising her children to be of strong character was her main goal in life. James’s own story is filled with uncertainties. His father died before James was born and his stepfather while he was still young. He was sometimes embarrassed because he had a white mother and at other times confused by it. In spite of his mother’s support, example, and good intentions, James’s coming of age was by no means an easy path. In high school, he was an honor student but got involved with drugs, crime, and skipping school. He was sent away at one point to live with one of his older sisters in Kentucky, but his involvement in illegal activities increased, and he returned home. His fortunes changed when he got involved with music and writing, and earned a college scholarship.

It is ironic that in writing of his life, Ruth’s voice becomes omnipotent in the narrative. She was reticent to tell her story, yet it is through her story that he is able to eloquently tell his. The influence of Ruth, her spiritual and moral convictions, is evident not only in James but, as he points out, in all of her children. Among the careers represented among his siblings are professor, doctor, nurse, computer engineer, and social worker. James has worked as a journalist for both The Boston Globe and The Washington Post. Ruth herself earned a college degree while in her sixties.