A Review: “The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother” by James McBride

The Color of Water by James McBride is a book I picked up while visiting friends in Dallas, Texas, last year. It’s a memoir in which McBride details the life of his mother, who comes from a Jewish background. If you have never heard of James McBride, he is a writer and musician and has written several books. I chose this book for a few reasons: one was because I have been trying to read more books by authors of color, and two because I was interested in reading about McBride’s interracial family. This piqued my interest since interracial marriage was not as common in the 1940s, when McBride’s mother Ruth married his father. If you are a lover of nonfiction and memoirs, this is an endearing novel that gives a unique perspective. I can’t say I’ve ever read about a Jewish woman marrying a black man and raising a large family.

Here is the book’s description. I have the 10th anniversary edition, so this description may be different from other copies.

“As a boy in Brooklyn’s Red Hook projects, James McBride knew his mother was different. But when he asked about it, she’d simply say, ‘I’m light-skinned.’ Later he wondered if he was different, too, and asked his mother if he was black or white. ‘You’re a human being,’ she snapped. ‘Educate yourself or you’ll be a nobody!’ And when James asked what color God was, she said, ‘God is the color of water.’ As an adult, McBride finally persuaded his mother to tell her story – the story of a rabbi’s daughter, born in Poland and raised in the South, who fled to Harlem, married a black man, founded a Baptist church, and put twelve children through college. The Color of Water is James McBride’s tribute to his remarkable, eccentric, determined mother – and an eloquent exploration of what family really means.”

Another interesting note about this book is that the chapters switch between James’s perspective growing up and figuring out his place as a biracial youth and Ruth’s perspective from the beginning of her life and throughout her time raising her 12 children, largely as a single mother. Ruth was born with a traditional Jewish name, but as she shed her Jewish religion and converted to Christianity, she eventually changed her name to Ruth. Raised by a strict and sexually abusive father who was a rabbi and a meek mother who was crippled, Ruth fled her home in Virginia as soon as she was able and eventually landed in Harlem, where she met her first husband (James’s father), who was a reverend.

I’m not a mother, but reading this book made me smile at how adamant Ruth was with her children. She made sure they had an education and weren’t getting into trouble. Ruth married twice. Her first husband died at a fairly young age, leaving her with 8 children and after a while, she married again, and had 4 more children. I’m amazed at how she was able to raise so many children and still make a living. Even though they were poor, Ruth managed to keep a roof over their heads. Not only that but Ruth was determined to see her children grow up to be successful, and many of them became doctors. At the end of the book, James names his siblings and what they have made of themselves as adults. They all hold bachelor’s degrees and many of them have master’s degrees, too. Ruth also was adamant that her children not limit themselves based on the color of their skin.

I guess, this post isn’t so much a review as it is an overview of the book. Rating it seems inappropriate to me simply because it is a memoir and a true story, and it feels like I’m rating someone’s life. The writing is compelling. James writes like he’s talking to the reader, which I enjoyed. Although the book is centered on his mother, I did like reading about James and his quest to find himself and what he was good at. He knew he wasn’t like his other siblings who were more interested in medicine and math. With so many siblings, there was bound to be a writer in the family! James is definitely talented. I can only imagine how hard it was to write this book, given the hardship his mother endured.

If you are interested in reading nonfiction and from authors of color, I highly suggest you pick up this one. It’s definitely worth reading. According to Barnes and Noble, other books similar to this one are The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah, An Invisible Thread by Laura Schroff, and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.

Have you read this book? If so, what did you think of it? I’d love to hear your thoughts! As always, thanks for reading!

1 thought on “A Review: “The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother” by James McBride”

  1. I’m absolutely sure I’ve read this book, a good while ago, but I can’t find it in my blog archives or in my index to my pre-blog reading journals! I remember it as well, his tough mum making them all get themselves as educated as they could be!


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