The Colour of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother

Christiana Jolaoso
5 min readMar 26, 2024

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by James McBride

The Colour of Water is a tragic, riveting, and eloquent story about how one woman's grim childhood background shapes the jagged course of her life and how those unfortunate events resonate in her children's lives. In the Colour of Water, author James McBride traces the incredible true life story of his mother, Ruth McBride Jordan (also Rachel Deborah Shilsky, born Ruchel Dwajra Zylska), a Jewish woman whose family migrated from Poland to America when she was only two.

Growing up in a poor orthodox Jewish family with an abusive father and disabled mother in a society that had no love for Jews and even less for Blacks, Rachel charts her path and incurs the wrath of her family when she falls in love with a black man. Hence, the beginning of a lifetime of constantly living in defiance of a society rife with extreme racism and discrimination of all forms.

The Colour of Water is also McBride's narration of his confused and chaotic childhood as one of twelve children living in the poor Red Hook community of New York. It is a book about family and the bonds of love that connect us all. It is also a quest for self-discovery, emphasizing the power of hope, faith, and persistence.

The book is easy to read, and the prose flows very seamlessly. You can even find a tinge of humor beneath all the gloom. It has no conventional plotline following a particular trajectory, like a linear pattern. Instead, it is written as a memoir, and the narrative progresses alternatingly from the perspective of McBride and his mother. Yet, the stories remain connected since they hinge on real-life events involving these two people. The juxtaposition of two narrative perspectives presents a sense of intertwined past and present. There is a burning desire to move on in both, but they go about this differently. James navigates his present and future by seeking a grasp of the past, while his mother navigates the present by forgetting the past.

As a mixed-race kid born to a white Jewish mother and black father in a poor neighborhood and raised along with eleven siblings who had different surnames and were constantly contesting for scarce resources, James McBride's childhood was an 'orchestrated chaos'. He recounts being confused about why his mother was different from others and how his mother always avoided the subject like the plague. Caught between two worlds, the black and the Jewish, the latter of which he knew nothing about, McBride began to seek out his mother's past to resolve his broken sense of identity. That process churned out this book.

On the other hand, his mother resolves her tragic past by banishing it from her memory. To escape her father, who abused her sexually and emotionally, she also had to sacrifice the memory of her mother and sister. Every positive perished with the tragedy. For instance, as a teenager, she knew how to drive her father's truck, but as James recounts, after her second husband died, she abandoned his car and never drove it because she had forgotten how to drive. Her children never knew she was Jewish until they were all grown, and she never admitted to being white, preferring to call herself 'light-skinned'. Everything about her life before marriage was utterly obscure. She was forced to become mysterious even to her children.

This book is a fitting tribute to a remarkable woman who achieved a lot against all odds. It captures her strengths and her weaknesses. For example, she is described as a lousy homemaker since she never had anybody to teach her as a child. After she got married, her husband had to teach her how to cook. James McBride recalls how his mother's food always tasted awful, and their home was always dirty and disorganized.

Yet, for all her weaknesses, her strength was in her undying persistence, never content with what life put on her table. She was always independent and never conformed to other people's perceptions of the norm. When her fanatic father forbade her to enter a church, she went and became a Christian. When other black children attended schools for the colored, her children were the sole black kids in white classrooms. Even when her family warned her, 'Don't marry a black man,' she married two over the course of her life. She also wore education and religion as her strong suit. Those were her go-to coping mechanisms. She encouraged all her children to always turn to God and constantly stressed the importance of education.

James never met his father, and his stepfather came into town only on weekends. Living in a poor neighborhood with 11 siblings, getting into trouble was always on the cards (and he did get into a lot of trouble). This book serves as an insightful peek into the author's life and how, from the brink of drugs, addiction, petty crimes, and other vices, he retraced his steps and became a success story.

The Colour of Water is also a sterling testament to the power that family wields on a person's life; to make or mar our past, present, and future; to keep us happy and content or to keep us abused and depressed; to breed despair or to give us a new lease of life and rebirth hope in us. James and Ruth encounter all of these through shared family ties.

By the end of the book, James resolves his inner conflict. He begins to appreciate his Jewish heritage and identity as a mixed man in America. At the same time, his mother eventually embraces the positives of her past while making peace with the haunting side of it. Despite her past misery, Rachel Jordan McBride's commitment to raising a mixed-race 'colony' of children paid off, with everyone becoming accomplished professionals in their chosen fields and leading very successful lives. In the end, out of something utterly tragic came something extraordinary. It is a satisfying conclusion to an incredible story.

This book plucks all the right strings in all the right places. The narrative is intriguing beyond words. The experiences of these genuine individuals are so unique they almost feel unreal, and you can grasp the pain and suffering conveyed on every page. From a literary perspective, it is a masterpiece, and over 25 years after its initial publication, it is widely regarded as a classic — an excellent specimen of American historical literature.

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Christiana Jolaoso

Thoughts on peace and kindness and how our actions can give us the desired future. Summaries of stories with lessons that steer positive actions.