The Color of Water
Throughout the COVID19 I notice that reading a good book is welcome diversion from the relentless news cycle. However, I also notice and hear from others that it helps to read books that quickly grab and absorb one’s attention. With this in mind, I decided to re-read James McBride’s “The Color of Water.” I first read this best-selling autobiography the year it was published (1996) and the characters have stayed with me through the years.
The book tracks McBride’s journey of self-discovery through a series of interviews with his brilliant, unconventional, renegade mother. McBride creates a narrative of vignettes that toggle between his mother’s life and his own childhood growing up in the Red Hook projects of Brooklyn. The storyline and subsequent personal revelations demonstrate a core principle of therapy — in order to know and understand one’s self, it is important to know and understand one’s parents.
The daughter of a sexually abusive Orthodox Rabbi, McBride’s mother Ruth (born Rachel) flees her family and marries an African American minister and raises thirteen children. She puts twelve of her children through college. Many seek higher education and achieve exceptional professional success.
Ruth’s family disowns her for marrying outside of her faith and her race and she converts to Christianity. She describes her religious transformation as a healing salvation. Ruth and her first husband have 7 children. Then McBride’s father dies while Ruth is pregnant with their 8th child, author James McBride. Ruth eventually remarries and has 5 more children. Ruth’s second husband also dies. Never one to complain or fuss, it is clear through the narrative that McBride must push quite hard to convince his mother to open up about her mysterious past.
McBride writes with simplicity and depth about the challenges of being poor and mixed race. In a memorable exchange he recalls an early memory of his mother crying in church and developing the impression that her tears reflect deep unspoken pain. He wonders if God prefers black people or white people and he asks his mother if God is black or white:
“Oh boy…God’s not black. He’s not white. He’s a spirit.”
“Does he like black or white people better?”
“He loves all people. He’s a spirit.”
“What’s a spirit?”
“A spirit’s a spirit.”
“What color is God’s spirit?”
“It doesn’t have a color,” she said.” God is the color of water. Water doesn’t have a color.” I could buy that….
The struggle to live between two worlds is reflected in Ruth’s family cut off as well as McBride’s struggle to be mixed race. Re-reading the book, parallels with President Obama’s 1995 Memoir “Dreams From My Father” stand out. Published just a year apart, McBride’s memoir received much more attention at the time and has become required reading in classrooms and Universities across the country.
Ruth struggles with her Jewish roots and how they inform her approach to parenting despite her conversion. Similarly, McBride seems as torn between becoming a musician or a writer as he is about his mixed race. As a therapist, I am inclined to over-analyze everything. So it seems to me that his decision to dig deep and investigate his mother’s past helps him discover that he can do both and that each professional endeavor informs and enhances the other. There is a musical quality to the rhythm of his prose as the past and present dance with one another and create an illuminating and harmonious conversation.