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

by James McBride
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

by James McBride


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Notes From Your Bookseller

James McBride's endearing voice has already won over a generation of readers and here that voice translates into a profoundly moving personal narrative ripe with real-world implications that resonate across audiences.

From the bestselling author of Deacon King Kong and the National Book Award-winning The Good Lord Bird: The modern classic that spent more than two years on The New York Times bestseller list and that calls one of the best memoirs of a generation. 

Who is Ruth McBride Jordan? A self-declared "light-skinned" woman evasive about her ethnicity, yet steadfast in her love for her twelve 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 eleven siblings in the poor, all-black projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn. "Mommy," a fiercely protective woman with "dark eyes full of pep and fire," herded her brood to Manhattan's free cultural events, sent them off on buses to the best (and mainly Jewish) schools, demanded good grades, and commanded respect. As a young man, McBride saw his mother as a source of embarrassment, worry, and confusion—and reached thirty before he began to discover the truth about her early life and long-buried pain.

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. With candor and immediacy, Ruth describes her parents' loveless marriage; her fragile, handicapped mother; her cruel, sexually-abusive father; and the rest of the family and life she abandoned.

At seventeen, 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. Twice widowed, and continually confronting overwhelming adversity and racism, Ruth's determination, drive and discipline saw her dozen children through college—and most through graduate school. At age 65, she herself received a degree in social work from Temple University.

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 readers 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781594481925
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/07/2006
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 10,303
Product dimensions: 5.04(w) x 7.96(h) x 0.73(d)

About the Author

About The Author
James McBride is an accomplished musician and author of the National Book Award-winning The Good Lord Bird, the #1 bestselling American classic The Color of Water, and the bestsellers Song Yet Sung and Miracle at St. Anna. He is also the author of Kill 'Em and Leave, a James Brown biography. A recipient of the National Humanities Medal in 2016, McBride is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University.


Bucks County, Pennsylvania

Date of Birth:


Place of Birth:

New York, New York


Oberlin Conservatory of Music; M.A., Columbia University School of Journalism

Read an Excerpt

When I was fourteen, my mother took up two new hobbies: riding a bicycle and playing piano. The piano I didn’t mind, but the bicycle drove me crazy. It was a huge old clunker, blue with white trim, with big fat tires, huge fenders, and a battery-powered horn built into the middle of the frame with a button you pushed to make it blow. The contraption would be a collector’s item now, probably worth about five thousand dollars, but back then it was something my step- father found on the street in Brooklyn and hauled home a few months before he died.

Excerpted from "The Color of Water"
by .
Copyright © 2006 James McBride.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. Dead1
2. The Bicycle5
3. Kosher15
4. Black Power21
5. The Old Testament37
6. The New Testament45
7. Sam57
8. Brothers and Sisters65
9. Shul79
10. School85
11. Boys107
12. Daddy117
13. New York129
14. Chicken Man137
15. Graduation153
16. Driving159
17. Lost in Harlem169
18. Lost in Delaware177
19. The Promise193
20. Old Man Shilsky203
21. A Bird Who Flies213
22. A Jew Discovered219
23. Dennis231
24. New Brown249
25. Finding Ruthie259
Thanks and Acknowledgments287

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Praise for The Color of Water

"[A] triumph."—The New York Times Book Review

"As lively as a novel, a well-written, thoughtful contribution to the literature on race."—The Washington Post Book World


"Vibrant."—The Boston Globe

"James McBride evokes his childhood trek across the great racial divide with the kind of power and grace that touches and uplifts all hearts."—Bebe Moore Campbell

Reading Group Guide

The Color of Water

James McBride grew up one of twelve siblings in the all-black housing projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn, the son of a black minister and a woman who would not admit she was white. The object of McBride's constant embarrassment, and his continuous fear for her safety, his mother was an inspiring figure, who through sheer force of will saw her dozen children through college, and many through graduate school. McBride was an adult before he discovered the truth about his mother: the daughter of a failed itinerant Orthodox rabbi in rural Virginia, she had run away to Harlem, married a black man, and founded an all-black Baptist church in her living room in Red Hook. In this remarkable memoir, she tells in her own words the story of her past. Around her narrative, James McBride has written a powerful portrait of growing up, a meditation on race and identity, and a poignant, beautifully crafted hymn from a son to his mother.



James McBride, a writer and musician, is a former staff writer for The Boston Globe, People magazine, andThe Washington Post. A professional saxophonist and composer, he has received the Richard Rodgers Development Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Music Theater Festival's Stephen Sondheim Award for his work in musical theater composition. He lives in South Nyack, New York.

Overwhelming acclaim for James McBride's unforgettable memoir:

"Vibrant."The Boston Globe

"Incredibly moving."Jonathan Kozol

"James McBride evokes his childhood trek across the great racial divide with the kind of power and grace that touches and uplifts all hearts."Bebe Moore Campbell

"Complex and moving... suffused with issues of race, religion and identity. Yet those issues, so much a part of their lives and stories, are not central. The triumph of the bookand of their livesis that race and religion are transcended in these interwoven histories by family love, the sheer force of a mother's will and her unshakable insistence that only two things really mattered: school and church... The two stories, son's and mother's, beautifully juxtaposed, strike a graceful note at a time of racial polarization.The New York Times Book Review


  • Discuss Ruth McBride's refusal to reveal her past and how that influenced her children's sense of themselves and their place in the world. How has your knowledgeor lack thereofabout your family background shaped your own self-image?
  • The McBride children's struggle with their identities led each to his or her own "revolution." Is it also possible that that same struggle led them to define themselves through professional achievement?
  • Several of the McBride children became involved in the civil rights movement. Do you think that this was a result of the times in which they lived, their need to belong to a group that lent them a solid identity, or a combination of these factors?
  • "Our house was a combination three-ring circus and zoo, complete with ongoing action, daring feats, music, and animals." Does Helen leave to escape her chaotic homelife or to escape the mother whose very appearance confuses her about who she is?
  • "It was in her sense of education, more than any other, that Mommy conveyed her Jewishness to us." Do you agree with this statement? Is it possible that Ruth McBride Jordan's unshakable devotion to her faith, even though she converted to Christianity from Judaism, stems from her Orthodox Jewish upbringing?
  • "Mommy's contradictions crashed and slammed against one another like bumper cars at Coney Island. White folks, she felt, were implicitly evil toward blacks, yet she forced us to go to white schools to get the best education. Blacks could be trusted more, but anything involving blacks was probably substandard... She was against welfare and never applied for it despite our need, but championed those who availed themselves of it." Do you think these contradictions served to confuse Ruth's children further, or did they somehow contribute to the balanced view of humanity that James McBride possesses?
  • While reading the descriptions of the children's hunger, did you wonder why Ruth did not seek out some kind of assistance?
  • Do you think it was naïve of Ruth McBride Jordan to think that her love for her family and her faith in God would overcome all potential obstacles or did you find her faith in God's love and guidance inspiring?
  • How do you feel about Ruth McBride Jordan's use of a belt to discipline her children?
  • While reading the book, were you curious about how Ruth McBride Jordan's remarkable faith had translated into the adult lives of her children? Do you think that faith is something that can be passed on from one generation to the next or do you think that faith that is instilled too strongly in children eventually causes them to turn away from it?
  • Do you think it would be possible to achieve what Ruth McBride has achieved in today's society?
  • Interviews

    November 13, 1997, renowned journalist James McBride joined BarnesandNoble@aol to discuss his memoir, THE COLOR OF WATER, which explores his white mother's Orthodox Jewish past as well as his own heritage as a man between black and white.

    VogelBN: Good evening, Mr. McBride, and welcome to BarnesandNoble@aol! We're thrilled that you could join us!! We're brimming with wonderful questions from the audience, so whenever you're ready....

    James McBride: Delighted to be here!

    Question: Mr. McBride, what an honor! I am leading a book club tomorrow on your book and am anxious to find out why you decided to share all this info with all the rest of us?

    James McBride: Well, I always wondered where my mother came from. It was something that was on my mind for many, many years.

    Question: Judaism is passed down via the mother. Have you ever considered embracing the faith? Why or why not?

    James McBride: I've considered it, but Christianity always worked for me. I grew up as a Christian. If my children decided to embrace the faith, I'd be more than delighted.

    Question: As I read THE COLOR OF WATER, I kept wondering, what was your mother's motivation to become a Christian? Do you think it was an effort to become closer to your father? Or did she have a revelation of faith?

    James McBride: No. It happened because after her mother died, she converted to Christianity. I think that it was the loss of her mother and the loss of her family and the love of my father and the embrace of the Christian church that pushed her into Christianity.

    Question: Did you enjoy doing the "Rosie O'Donnell Show"?

    James McBride: I did indeed. I kissed her seven times.

    Question: What advice do you give to a novice like myself about entering the professional writing field?

    James McBride: Well, writing teaches writing. Many books have been written between 5 and 7 in the morning. Never give up. It's a great catharsis.

    Question: Did you ever harbor any anger against your mother for her dishonesty? It seems that her secret was important to her sense of self, and thus valid, but still....

    James McBride: A very good question. I don't think so. I've thought about that a lot. I'm not sure if there was any other thing she could do. We didn't really have the time to think about her past that much. So it wasn't that great an issue. I was never angry at her for that. I think a lot of my anger was self-directed, meaning it had to do with my own feelings of inadequacy.

    Question: What would you say to your mother's father if you met him today?

    James McBride: I have no bitterness toward him. I'm sorry that he was the dysfunctional person that he was, but I certainly don't harbor any bitterness toward him. I guess I would say hello.

    Question: How did finding out about your mother's history influence your own sense of identity?

    James McBride: It gave me a tremendous sense of self. It made me feel complete. It gave me a sense of peace. It imbued in me my own sense of my "Jewishness." I don't consider myself qualified to go around claiming to be a Jew. But I'm proud to be one anyway. I like who I am.

    Question: I respect your mother's strengthraising 12 kids on her own. What sustained her after both her husbands had passed on?

    James McBride: She was a very religious woman. And her faith in God is what has sustained her.

    Question: Most of what you write is nonfiction. Do you write fiction? Which do you feel more comfortable with? How do they differ for you?

    James McBride: Before I started writing Quincy Jones's biography for Doubleday, which I began last February, I was working on a novel for Riverhead. I enjoyed it immensely, though it was much more difficult than nonfiction. I plan to finish that novel after finishing Quincy's biography. That's due in late 1998.

    Question: THE COLOR OF WATER chronicles each time you asked your mother about her past. Is this book a record of your personal odyssey to find out who you are?

    James McBride: In a way, yes. I wrote the book partly because I didn't know who I was. And I realized I couldn't discover who I was until I discovered who my mother was.

    Question: You attended a segregated school in Wilmington, Delaware. Could you comment on your experience there and how it differed from the schools in New York?

    James McBride: The schools in New York were better. The variety of students added to my education. There were good things about the segregated school. The teachers were very kind and very educated, but I got a far better education in the New York City schools that were integrated.

    Question: I've read that you are a very talented musician, although I've never heard anything by you. What do you play? What draws you to music? Do you feel that performing music affects your writing?

    James McBride: I used to perform music. No longer. I wrote songs for Anita Baker, Grover Washington, and Gary Burton. I'm literally in the recording studio now, working on a demo for a Disney audition to write the score for one of their theatrical musicals. I play saxophoneall the saxophonesand I play piano and I write. I started on piano and clarinet as a boy. My mother encouraged music around the house. And no, performing music doesn't affect my writing. I always loved music, even as a boy. I've just always been attracted to it.

    Question: In your book you mention, "Mommy was the wrong color for black pride and black power." Could you elaborate on that statement from a modern-day historical perspective?

    James McBride: At the time, black power was a huge deal in my neighborhood, and we were all imbued with a sense of black pride and black consciousness. In that context, she did not fit.

    Question: Your childhood was hard, but you seem to successfully remember the good times. What's your favorite childhood memory? What were you doing? Who were you with?

    James McBride: My favorite childhood memory is swimming in the Red Hook swimming pool with my mother, brothers, and sisters. I remember the strength in her hands and the firm way in which she held me.

    Question: Americans like to classify. Any federal form you fill out asks for your race black, white, Native American, etc. As someone who could feasibly check all those boxes, which do you choose, if any?

    James McBride: I would prefer to choose "other," but I'll always choose "black." I think there should be one box human being. But in the real world, I choose black.

    Question: Could you please recommend your favorite jazz album?

    James McBride: I guess I would have to answer that with three. "It Might as Well Be Swing," which is Frank Sinatra with the Count Basie Orchestra, with Quincy Jones as the arranger; "Kind of Blue" by Miles Davis; and "Stolen Moments" by Oliver Nelson. My favorite tenor saxophone player is Billy Harper.

    Question: I haven't read the book yet, but I am fascinated by the title. What is "the color of water"?

    James McBride: When I was a little boy, I would ask my mother, "What color is God?" I asked her if God was white or black. She said God was the color of water.

    Question: Have you seen the film "Ethnic Notions"? What's your reaction to it?

    James McBride: I'm sorry but I haven't seen it.

    Question: First, I really enjoyed the book. Second, there's been a lot written lately about the memoir and its form of narrative, with your book and Frank McCourt's. How do you distinguish between telling a great story and telling the truth?

    James McBride: What you have to do as a writer is find the gatepost moments of your story. The points of highest drama that prove your point.

    Question: Mr. McBride, I was really moved by the scene where you brought your mother back to her hometown, and to her first real friend, Frances. Did your mother feel it was worth it to come back to this place that caused her such pain, to be reunited with Frances?

    James McBride: It was a catharsis for Mommy. It was painful, but wonderful and terrifyingly exhilarating for her. I was moved by it. My sister Judy was there. It was just as moving for her.

    Question: I found it interesting that you said your household was truly ruled by the women there, but in the end, it was you who told the story of your mother. Had it ever occurred to any of your siblings to tell her story? Were they just as interested as you?

    James McBride: I don't think it ever occurred to any of them, but they were just as interested. My siblings felt that God had put this story in my heart, and they felt it was appropriate that I be the one to tell it.

    Question: When you were writing from your mom's perspective, how did you change your tone so it really sounded like her?

    James McBride: I just climbed into her skin. And felt what it felt like to be her. It wasn't hard -- she is my mother. Eighty percent of those words were hers.

    Question: Can you tell us about the novel that you are currently working on?

    James McBride: I'm working on a novel about a group of black soldiers who stumble upon a group of Jewish refugees after World War II.

    VogelBN: Thanks so much for joining us, Mr. McBride. We are so glad to have had you, and we hope that you will join us again with your next book!

    James McBride: I'm honored to be the recipient of so much love from so many people. My mother, myself, and my siblings feel truly blessed beyond words.

    VogelBN: Your readers thank you. Have a wonderful night!

    James McBride: Thank you!

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