James McBride grew up aware that his mother was white, but never knowing anything about her background. If asked about the difference between her and her black husband and black community, she’d simply say, “I’m light-skinned.” When asked about where she was from, she’d reply, “God made me.” When he was an adult and became determined to learn more about his mother, it took McBride years to pry details about his mother’s Jewish past from her. Ruth McBride Jordan had simply left behind the girl who was once known as Rachel Deborah Shilsky.
In learning about Ruth’s past, it’s fairly understandable why she put it behind her. Her father was a severe man who was unkind to the wife he didn’t love and abused his daughter. When Ruth chose to marry a black man in the 1940s, her Jewish family sat shiva for her and thereafter refused any contact. So she created a new life for herself in black neighborhoods in New York City, giving birth to 12 mixed-race children and converting to Christianity.
Ruth’s first husband, McBride’s father, died before he was born, and she remarried another black man who accepted her eight children as his own and fathered four more. Her children had good, loving fathers and a mother who was dedicated to them growing up to be God-fearing, educated people, but they were quite poor. Amazingly, all of the children received university degrees, many receiving advanced degrees, and became doctors and professionals in varied careers. Along the way, though, they typically went through crises of identity as they lived through an era of “black power” but knew they had a white mother.
McBride writes a simple but compelling tale of his own upbringing and that of his mother’s, alternating between his story and hers. Ruth is a strong woman who lived a very unconventional, even dangerous, life for her era, pulling herself and her children through it by sheer force of will. The Color of Water is a fascinating look at a family who defied the odds and a testament to a mother’s strength, and it brings up many thought-provoking issues.
Rated: Mild, for some mild and moderate language, some mild talk about drugs and crime, and reference to an abortion.