The Color of Water





The color of water is the title of a book written by James McBride, a mixed race man born to a white Jewish mother and a black man. The book provides an insight into the tumultuous life of interracial couples and mixed children – the overwhelming odds that were stacked against these people in a society that was not tolerant of such unions.

Although the book’s subtitle is A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, it is a moving story that bears the similarity of other interracial couples and their mixed children.

Ruth McBride Jordan, the author’s mother, was born Ruchel Zylska in Poland and immigrated to America at the age of two with her Jewish family. She was raised in Virginia, but fled from her family and faith to New York where she eventually married a black man, and eventually another when she became a widow. Between the marriages, she raised 12 children.

James McBride

Battling racism and poverty, her marriage to black men, made her even more isolated but with her strong will and solid values, the story is a testament the American success story. Despite all her trials and being severely tested, she was able to put all 12 of her children through college, and she herself earned a degree in social work from Temple University when she was 65.

Reading The Color of Water on the heels of Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime and Fredreick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass paved the way for my understanding of how divisive the world is, even within the white community.

As a mixed child, James McBride was in a constant state of confusion and curiosity regarding his own family’s background. He was lied to, teased or simply dismissed when he inquired about his race or background. James’ mother dodged questions about herself, or answered curtly. She was at heart a black woman, but trapped inside a white woman’s body, and did not want to venture back into the past which haunted her. For example, when asked if she was white, she would say “I’m light-skinned.”

As a youth, James’s racial consciousness was divided, owing to his association with other black youths who held up whites as the enemy. Having two opposing sentiments, James had to publicly agree with his friends’ rants against whites, while secretly feeling ashamed and guilty because those rants also meant denigrating his own mother.

A quote that jumps out at me in the book is “If you throw water on the floor it will find a hole.” This metaphor alludes to the fact that everything eventually finds its way out, and indeed that is exactly what the book is about – Ruth and her 12 kids finding a way out.

The book is a product of his constant digging and as he puts it, she revealed it more as a favor to him rather than a desire to revisit her past. All in all, it make for a great lesson. We all face adversities, but I am sure that many will pale in comparison to this story.

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