Press "Enter" to skip to content

McBride makes a lasting image of his mother, in “The Color of Water”

Mills College Weekly

“The daughter of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, she married a black
man in 1942 – and she revealed it more as a favor to me than out of
any desire to revisit her past. 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.” This is the skeleton of James McBride’s incredible
story of his mother’s life and of his own. Simple, but as complex
as the entire range of human emotion.

I first read this book in high school and it was touching even
then. It has since become the first book I have ever read twice
(and I’m an English major). I have quite literally dropped tears on
the pages and laughed so suddenly that people stare at me like I’m
one of those ranters wandering Market Street in the city. As this
is double reading is a watershed moment for me, let me start from
the beginning and try to help you understand why you should read
this book, and maybe read it again.

James McBride is by trade a journalist and thus his story reads
less like a work of narrative literature such as, say, Maxine Hong
Kinston’s Woman Warrior or one of Toni Morrison’s incredible
novels. Rather, in reading The Color of Water I felt as if
James McBride was sitting in the room with me as a man I had known
all my life and trusted (an admirable feat by any writer), and I
was simply listening to him open up to me about his past, his
present, his tears, his pain, his joy, his sadness, his fear, his
crimes and his love. He never held back yet I was overwhelmed by
emotional metaphor or outpourings. None of the pages were soppy.
There were no self-piteous ode-to-poor-me paragraphs. McBride
survived the Black Panthers, a black ghetto neighborhood with a
white mother, drugs, alcohol, death, and crime. Yet his sentences
are straightforward, matter-of-fact, as if his life happened to
most everyone (as it in fact does). Yet at the same time, every
sentence is so compact with emotion and honesty that McBride’s
story becomes inseparable from anyone else’s. For example, McBride
describes leaving for college for the first time and his mother’s
reaction: “I was actually worried she would cry when I boarded the
bus, but when I looked at her through the window I was relieved to
see she wasn’t crying at all. She was pacing, puckering her lips,
frowning, making faces…She seemed so agitated and jumpy I
remembered wondering if she had to go to the bathroom. As the bus
engine rumbled to life, she didn’t wave but rather gave a quick
flip of the hand that said, “Go! Go on!” and hurried away. The bus
pulled off and she was out of sight for a moment, but after we
turned the corner I saw her from the window across the aisle and
she had broken down. She was leaning on the wall beneath the train
trestle, head bowed, one hand squeezing her eyes, as if the tears
that flowed out of them could be squeezed into oblivion.” But this
is just McBride’s side of the story.

The heart (in more ways than one) of the book itself is really
his mother’s story. The book is divided into many small chapters,
each one toggling between McBride’s own memories and his mother’s.
Her words are clearly scribed almost word-for-word from McBride’s
many tape-recorded interviews and her voice is unique and fresh. My
favorite phrase is “That man was the finest preacher I’ve ever
heard to this day. He could make a frog stand up straight and get
happy with Jesus.” She is as matter-of-fact as her son yet the
emotional intensity of her story and her words are not lost in her
honest, open tone. She speaks simply of her appallingly strict
father: a child molester, an adulterer, a racist, a wife-beater and
a rabbi. She talks with bare sympathy of her mother: a kind,
crippled woman who spoke no English and needed nothing but love,
something she never got in her lifetime from anybody. She speaks so
candidly, yet without anger, about the rampant racism she received
for loving black men and black people and for having black children
and loving them too. She has an incredible story to tell, one that
gets hard to read sometimes because it is so real and stark and so
often without anything uplifting to walk away from the pages

Yet, it is for this very reason that I suggest that anyone with
a mother read this book. Whether you’re white, black, or bright
purple, read it because inside its pages you will find lives that
exist right under your nose without you even knowing it, hard
lives, hard lives that are mixed with such happiness, such
darkness, such love, such hate, such humor, and such sincerity that
you will at once feel like you know a bit more about who we are as
human beings after reading it. As one critic has said of The
Color of Water
, it will “make you proud to be a member of the
human race.”