Review of James McBride’s The Color of Water

The Color of Water

While I’d love to say James McBride strikes again with The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother (2006), the truth is that I’m just really late to the party. If you’ve been following this blog for a while then you know that I’ve devoured just about everything this man has written. But I resisted reading his autobiographical text—just wasn’t interested, mostly because I don’t jump to read autobiography. Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Life of Frederick Douglass is the one exception (I’ve read that too many times to count and always find something new.) To Be Young, Gifted, and Black, which I reviewed a few weeks ago, is another exception, but it’s a hybrid text, full of Lorraine Hansberry’s incomparable creative expression and not directly authored by her. In fact, the only reason I read The Color of Water was because Amazon sent it to me for free. I, to this day, do not know why, but I am so grateful they did. 

It’s no wonder The Color of Water has such high ratings on Amazon. It really is a masterpiece in form and content. 

The text begins with the words of McBride’s white mother, Ruth McBride Jordan, pronouncing “I’m dead” It is followed by her asking him why he wants her to recount a time in her life that she obviously wants to forget. From there the narrative alternates between her memories of her childhood in the south and his memories of his childhood growing up with eleven brothers and sisters in Brooklyn and Queens, New York. Along the way we learn the origins of McBride as the renaissance man that we love. 

Some pieces about his life that I had not been able to put together before reading the autobiography fell into place. One, his affinity for James Brown who lived in St. Albans, Queens, New York, a bizarre community where I was also raised. I call St. Albans bizarre because it always struck me as the place where Black people who felt themselves rich or at least middle class and those who aspired to middle class lived and where Caribbean people who wanted a piece of the American pie moved after graduating from their first stop from whatever island they hailed from in Brooklyn fled to. McBride also spent part of his childhood there with a mother who, though white, felt most at home amongst Black people. 

Secondly, the community that McBride describes in Brooklyn in Deacon King Kong (2020) also made sense to me then as, in The Color of Water, he describes spending part of his childhood near Red Hook—a place I only ventured a few times while in grad school in New York. My son (who was four years old at the time) and I would go there to visit a German exchange student and her son with whom I traded babysitting duty. The people McBride describes with such care and grace in Deacon King Kong are people he knew. There’s even a Hot Sausage—a real person from his childhood—who makes his way from his childhood memories into his novel! Deacon King Kong is a loving and fitting tribute to those people who peppered his formative years.

Through McBride’s eyes we learn about the Black Power movement that rocked the nation in the sixties and gain some insight into not only his personal experience with it—he says “I had swallowed the white man’s fear of the Negro, as we were called back then, whole”—but also insight into the thoughts of other black people who bought into white propaganda and were afraid of what Black Power represented to them—the hatred of white people. Of course, this is not what Black Power was about—it was about Black self-determination. Unfortunately, white people who felt threatened by Black self-determination mislabeled the movement as well as the Black Panther Party, calling it a hate group, much like the Nation of Islam and today’s Black Lives Matter Movement were and are labeled hate groups by certain sectors of the population. And lest we forget there were even Black people who feared the Civil Rights movement as they saw it as rocking an already sinking boat. 

About Black fear of Black Power McBride provides deep insight in classic McBride fashion, giving me, the reader pause at the crime that is the self-hatred that racism inflicts on those who are its target. But then a few pages later in classic McBride fashion he had me laughing out loud when he recounts boarding the Fresh Air Fund bus and finding himself sitting in front of the son of a Black Panther while his mother stands on the sidewalk next to the kid’s father—his worst nightmare come true. He says, “I had no idea who the Panthers truly were. I had swallowed the media image of them completely.” Unable to warn his mother of the danger he believes her in, he turns his wrath on the Panther’s son: “When they were out of sight I turned to the Black Panther’s son sitting behind me and punched him square in the face with my fist. The kid held his jaw and stared at me with shock on his face and melted into a knot of disbelief and tears.” Of course, after I got done laughing at the image of childhood antics that McBride so masterfully conveys the gravity of the impetus behind his actions hit me and I was angered and saddened that the two little boys, both innocent, had been victimized by white adult hatred and fear—for they were the poisons they drove McBride’s actions and with which he and someone who might have been his friend have to live with for the rest of their lives. 

This is just one example of many in which I paused to reflect on the gems that McBride peppers the narrative with. Along the journey of McBride’s coming to terms with his personhood I became sensitive to the difficulty of being mixed-race in a country that insists on labeling you everyone one or the other. He says, “Yet conflict was a part of our lives, written into our very faces, hands, and arms, and to see how contradiction lived and survived in its essence, we had to look no further than our mother,” before continuing with a litany of ways that his mother embodied contradiction. 

The section in which McBride recounts his wayward teenage years in Baltimore reminded me of D. Watkins’ We Speak for Ourselves. I have never been to Baltimore except to get to Washington, D.C. by way of airport, but I was incredibly saddened and angered by the existence of an environment that lends itself to Black addiction, imprisonment, and death. Making it out of such conditions is often a feat of sheer will as there is nothing—I mean nothing—to support Black survival, let alone excellence. And this despite the fact that one of the leading universities in the nation is located there. Talk about a contradiction!

The sections that comprise McBride’s mother’s story as it is intertwined with his own are equally poignant and punctuated by profound sadness. They make clear the price we all pay for white ignorance, greed, and hatred. It is evident for example, that Ruth McBride Jordan’s family, Orthodox Jews, were victims of white gentile hatred, which the father, in particular, foisted onto those he saw as beneath him, his wife, his children, Black people. This is all within a southern community that thrived on disenfranchising and killing Black people both physically and spiritually within a country that did the same. 

I could keep going, but I won’t. I encourage you to read it for yourself. 

Again, The Color of Water is a brilliant text and I’m glad I finally read it. I feel my life is all the richer for having done so.

A huge thanks to Amazon for sending it along.

I read Song Yet Sung many, many years ago and suspect that I’ll be returning to it soon. I have yet to read Miracle at St. Anna, and of course, will have to now. You’ll be the first to know when I do 😉

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