The Color of Water
by James McBride
On Friday 24 October I happened to catch Margaret Throsby’s midday interview
on ABC Classic FM. It was a replay of a 1998 interview with American Jazz musician, composer and writer James McBride. The interview focused on James’s mother Ruth.
Ruth was Jewish, a child refugee who came to America with her parents in the 1930s. Her father was an unsuccessful rabbi in search of a congregation who later became a storekeeper in rural America. She rebelled against her family, abandoned them, and went on to marry Dennis McBride, a black man, was widowed very young and married Hunter L. Jordan, another black man. She bore twelve children in her two marriages; her 8th, James, was still in the womb when his father died.
James spoke in the interview about The Color of Water, the book he wrote of his life and his mother’s – a dual autobiography. It was first published in 1978 to great acclaim, and is now used as a text in American schools and universities. What is so special about it?
Quite simply, this book is one of the most frank, compelling autobiographies one could ever hope to read. It took James many years to overcome his mother’s refusal to talk about her background, her family, the mistakes she made and the reasons for her silence. Eventually she began to open up, and the tales she told of her own life are alternated with James’s chapters about his own life. The parallels are clear.
In American society, Jews and coloureds are equally disliked, misunderstood, reviled, though for different reasons. James and Ruth write frankly of their experiences, thoughts and feelings in every chapter, making this book far more than just a chronicle of their lives. It is a documentary of their life and times.
One may wonder why a nice Jewish girl should totally reject her family and become so comfortable in the company of black people. And along with that, how she should discover Christianity and embrace it for the meaning it gave her life. And how she should found a church in her own living room in memory of the first pastor who gave her hope. Given the treatment she received from her father the rabbi – the bullying, the slavery in the family’s store, the material deprivation and his attempts to molest her - it is no wonder she gave up on her Judaism.
Ruth and James both tell of their downward spirals into the low life of society. Ruth was at one point a short step away from prostitution, while James got involved in drug taking and petty crime, though fortunately he came to his senses long enough to finish school and get a tertiary education while hanging out with adherents of the protest movements; a perfectly normal thing for an educated African-American boy to do.
To return to the title: The Color of Water – what does this mean? Ruth explains, when James asks her if God likes black or white people better:
“He loves all people. He’s a spirit,” she states.
“What’s a spirit?”
“A spirit is a spirit.”
“What color is God’s spirit?”
“It doesn’t have a color. God is the color of water. Water doesn’t have a color.”
I commend this book for its brilliant telling of the lives of two very different families as they struggle to survive in America. It is a tale of courage overcoming despair, abject poverty and blatant racism, of a lady who takes on the world and wins: a lady who has educated all of her twelve children, and studied for her own university degree in her 60s. Ruth never gives up.
A copy of this book is available for members to borrow from the JHGS Library.