The Color of Water

The Color of Water Study Guide

The Color of Water (1997) is the bestselling memoir of James McBride, a biracial journalist, jazz saxophonist, and composer whose Jewish mother gave birth to twelve children, all of whom she raised in a housing project in Brooklyn. His mother witnessed the premature death of her first husband, a reverend, and through sheer force of will saw each of her children graduate from college. Her basic household tenets rested on the importance of academic success and the church, and many of her children moved on to earn graduate and professional degrees.

McBride grew up in the Red Hook housing projects of Brooklyn confused by his mother's "whiteness". His confusion about his own racial identity later became the wellspring from which he pursued an understanding of his mother's history, and learned, as an adult, that she was born the daughter of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi and a crippled mother in Suffolk, Virginia. Ruth Jordan McBride was born Ruchel Dwarja Zylska to an Orthodox Jewish family in Poland. The family settled in America, in the small town of Suffolk, Virginia, during a time of active discrimination against Jews and heated violence against blacks. Ruth married a black man, and was thus after considered "dead" by her Jewish family. When her mother died, the "Jew" in her passed away completely. She healed her feelings of grief and guilt by turning to Christianity, and she and her first husband, Andrew McBride, founded a Baptist church in the living room of their apartment. Her husband was the first reverend of the church.

The book alternates between the mother's voice, transcribed from interviews, and the son's voice, which recounts the "orchestrated chaos" of his childhood. Near the end of the book, the voices converge into a portrait of a family's love that transcends divisions of race, religion, and generational experience. McBride eloquently weaves a tribute to his mother and grandmother, offering his readers a complex tale that mixes elements of the immigrant experience, race politics, religion, generational dissonance, friendship, family, love, the force of will, and, perhaps, above all, the value of memory. As the American experience presses into the future, this memoir asserts just how far it is that we have come.