Somwe way or another James McBride inherit the best qualities of his mother despite the fact he may not have understood her.
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The story he tells is mixed between his mother’s telling of her life – one that she had refused to share with her children, until McBride nearly forced it out of her in her later years – blended into his own upbringing and that of his siblings, for a wonderful memoir.
On his first page, McBride writes, “As a boy, I never knew where my mother was from – where she was born, who her parents were. When I asked she’d say, ‘God made me.’ When I asked if she was white, she’d say, ‘I’m light-skinned,’ and change the subject. She raised twelve black children and sent us all to college and in most cases graduate school…yet none of us knew her maiden name until we were grown.”
He continues, “Here is her life as she told it to me, and betwixt and between the pages of her life you will find mine as well.”
Indeed that’s exactly what you’ll find. Both stories are incredible ones. And I found it difficult to switch back and forth from one chapter to a next – going from his story to hers – simply because I never wanted either story to end.
Of course, his mother’s story is fascinating on its own. Ruth Jordan McBride was born Ruchel Dwarja Zylska, on April 1, 1921, in Poland. Soon after her birth, her Polish Orthodox Jewish family emigrated to the U.S. Ultimately, her family disowned her over her marriage and love for a black man. She seemed perfectly content with her life without them for most of her life.
McBride has a wonderful way of weaving his mother’s story and his together. He describes the experiences of two generations involved in two very volatile times in America. She grew up in the segregated South, with all its Jim Crow laws, which wasn’t a whole lot friendlier toward Jews. In his time came the Civil Rights movement with the Black Panthers and Martin Luther King, Jr. It all makes for a fascinating read.
How is it that a white Jewish girl can fall in love with a black man, have his children and make a life for herself in Harlem? Ruth Jordan McBride does it with guts, gusto and a faith she finds only after being married to a black Baptist minister and finding a comfortable place for herself in the black community. It’s a community she never leaves.
James McBride doesn’t sugar coat the struggles his mother shares, of her growing up in a Jewish home with a father who ran a grocery store on the edge of a black community in the south. Her father spent years as a Orthodox Rabbi before he was virtually asked to leave. Apparently there were many reasons, but it certainly wasn’t a stretch to believe that he was an unhappy, unkind man. Clearly he was nasty toward his daughters and wife.
McBride also doesn’t sugar coat his own struggles growing up in a mixed race family with two father figures. When his father dies, McBride, as a young teenager, becomes involved in drugs and drops out of school. But his mother never gives up on him – or any of her children. Ultimately, her belief and strength prove strong enough for all of them.
McBride’s mother had a two-track mind – religion and a good education. And she did whatever was necessary to get her children into the best public schools, often open-enrolling them in nearly all white schools farther from their home. She also made sure they all got college educations.
McBride often quotes her saying things like, “Educate yourself or you’ll be a nobody.” It was clear throughout the book – and throughout the raising of her children – that Ruth Jordan McBride and her husbands believed that “education tempered with religion was the way to climb out of poverty in America.” Clearly “The Color of Water” shows that, as McBride writes, “Over the years they were proven right.”
At the end of his memoir, McBride includes a list of his siblings, their level of education and their positions as of the date of publication in 1997. It is an impressive one, including doctors, professors, school teachers, writers and musicians. His mother has to be extremely proud.
This book is so strong and powerful – we all should read it. Publishers Weekly agrees. On the back of the cover they write, “This moving and unforgettable memoir needs to be read by people of all colors and faiths.”
The power of love and family that is demonstrated in the life of Ruth Jordan McBride is inspiring. And the way James McBride tells her story – and his, which is really an extension of hers – is equally so.