The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, 10th Anniversary Edition
by James McBride
Publication Date: Feb 07, 2006
List Price: $16.00
Format: Paperback, 295 pages
Imprint: Riverhead Books
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Parent Company: Bertelsmann
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Read an Excerpt from The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, 10th Anniversary Edition
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.
Questions for James McBride author of The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother
On Thursday, November 13, 1998 barnesandnoble.com hosted questions from readers for James McBride
VogelBN: Good evening, Mr. McBride, and welcome to BarnesandNoble@aol! We’re thrilled that you could join us!!
JM: Delighted to be here!
VogelBN: We’re brimming with wonderful questions from the audience, so whenever you’re ready….
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?
JM: 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?
JM: 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?
JM: 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"?
JM: 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?
JM: 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….
JM: 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?
JM: 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?
JM: 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?
JM: 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?
JM: 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?
JM: 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?
JM: 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?
JM: 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 saxophone and 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?
JM: 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?
JM: 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?
JM: 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?
JM: 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"?
JM: 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?
JM: 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?
JM: 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?
JM: 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?
JM: 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?
JM: 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?
JM: 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!
JM: 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!
JM: Thank you!
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