The Color of Water by James McBride

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Having loved James McBride’s recent book Deacon King Kong, I was eager to be in his world again and this book truly does take you there. His mother grew up in Suffolk, Virginia in an Orthodox Jewish family. Her father was a rabbi who, always fired by his congregation, finally became a successful merchant in a Black community. He was nasty and unpleasant to his customers and in general was as awful a person as you can imagine. Ruth escaped during the summers to work in New York for her mother’s sister and left for good after high school.

She had an adventurous time in New York before she settled down and married Dennis McBride, a Black man from North Carolina. She was disowned by her family who sat shiva and said Kaddish to be clear about their feelings. She and Dennis had eight children and James was the youngest. Several years after Dennis died, Ruth married again and had four more children. James dearly loved Hunter Jordan and regarded him as his father. Money was always an issue in their chaotic household and yet Ruth devised activities to enliven the lives of the children. They all finished college, many finished postgraduate degrees, and two became doctors.

The stories of Ruth and James are told in chapters alternating between her voice and his. Ruth had brushed off questions from her children about her family but eventually James managed to get her to tell her story. As an eight-year-old, he was confused: ¬†his mother did not look like any of her children. They were varying shades of brown, some light, some medium. She “was, by her own definition, light-skinned, a statement which I had initially accepted as fact, but had later decided was not true.” His best friend’s mother was as light-skinned as his mother and had red hair, but he knew Billy’s mother was Black and his mother was not, yet she refused to acknowledge her whiteness.

After she married Dennis, she became a Christian and her belief became important in her life. She and Dennis founded a church near the Red Hook project where they lived and that community remained important throughout her life, though she moved away from Brooklyn.

James tells about his loss of interest in school and his dangerous activities in his teenage years. He was sent to Louisville to be with a relative in the summers and spent time hanging out on a corner with a group of good-natured alcoholics. The cast of characters in Deacon King Kong were drawn from people he knew. The Louisville folks fielded softball teams who played each other; they had names like Red, Hot Sausage, One-Armed James, and Chicken Man. The latter was his favorite, he staggered up the street “like a wandering bird, lost in flight.” He was a sweet man, completely incoherent when drunk, a philosopher when sober. It was Chicken Man who gave James good advice that kept him from actions that would have kept him on the corner for his whole life, telling him, “You don’t know shit from Shinola,” such a useful phrase.

It was a joy to hear about this unique family; Ruth McBride Jordan was an amazing woman. And it was such a pleasure to read the 1996 book that revealed the genesis of the characters in James McBride’s 2020 book.

James McBride, The Color of Water, Riverhead Books, 1996, 228 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the public library.

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