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The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother ()

Vintage Books List of the Best Reading Group Books (13)

Ruth McBride Jordan, twice married, mother of 12 remarkably successful children, cofounder of a Baptist church, was born Rachel Shilsky, a Polish Jew.  Fleeing her abusive father, an itinerant rabbi, she ended up in Harlem, where she a married a black man and her family declared her dead.  James McBride tells the remarkable story of this determined woman's life and of his own troubled youth in sort of parallel tales.  Together and between them they faced poverty, anti-Semitism, white racism, black racism, etc.  (the title comes from his mother's answer when he asked whether God was black or white; God is "the color of water").  Eventually, due mostly to her emphasis on religion and education, they overcame all of these challenges and the children of Ruth numbered:  two doctors, a social worker, a historian and professor of African-American history, a graduate student in nurse-midwifery, a chemistry professor, a medical practice office manager, two teachers, a computer engineer and a businessman.  And once they were all educated and gone, Ruth went back to school and got a degree in social work.

Now I have no desire to minimize the burden that this woman bore as she struggled to raise and feed her children, nor to excuse in any way the reprehensible forms of hatred that were aimed at her.  But the question that this book really raises is whether racism matters.  If we are to judge by this one woman and her family, the simple values that we assume are effective--family, work, religion, education--are in fact a sufficient basis for folks to rise out of the ghetto and achieve great things.   If this family could do these things, why can't other families?  The answer seems not to be racism.  The implied answer is that they do not have these value systems to rely on.  James McBride says that ultimately his mother's Jewishness expressed itself in her obsession with the value of education.  This seems like an obsession that more of the urban poor could stand to develop.


Grade: (B)