“The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother” (1996) by James McBride was the number one book in America and spent two years on the New York Times’s bestseller list. It is now required reading at many high schools and universities.
It tells the story of his mother, who became an outcast from white society for marrying a black man in the 1940s, bringing up 12 children in Red Hook, a poor black part of New York, sending them all to get university degrees. And it is about James McBride himself, about his search for who he is as a mixed-race person.
Growing up, McBride did not make all that much of being mixed. He looked black, thought of himself as black. It was not like he could pass for white or something. He avoided the issue, but by the time he reached 30 he found he could not go on like that.
When he was growing up his mother was the only white person in the neighbourhood, at church, at the bus stop. And yet her past was a mystery. She never talked about where she came from or how she got there. But McBride found he could not understand himself unless he understood the mystery of her past.
She would not even say she was white. She said she was “light-skinned”. It turned out to be truer than McBride knew. She had a white body, got the diseases that white people get, but because whites would not accept her while black people did (more or less), she became in effect black. McBride calls her a black woman inside a white woman’s body.
Bit by bit the truth came out. She was a rabbi’s daughter who grew up in the South. Being Jewish in the South and living on the black side of town where her family’s shop was, she had only one good white friend growing up. After high school she left home for New York. There she fell in love and got married.
But because her husband was black, her family cut her off. Completely. They would not even let her see her mother on her deathbed. When her husband died and she needed help, they slammed the door in her face. Only years later, after the book became a bestseller, did they speak to her again.
Cut off, she did not know what the future held, she did not know what she was doing half the time, but, becoming a Christian, she trusted utterly in God.
One time he saw his mother crying in church. He thought it was because she wanted to be black like everyone else. He asked her what colour God was. She said, “the colour of water”.
When she saw him off to Oberlin College she gave an absent-minded wave as the Greyhound bus pulled out. But when the bus turned the corner and he could see her again, she had broken down, leaning against the wall crying.
- James McBride
- New York
- black ghetto
- The Wigger Fallacy
- Barack Obama
- There is absolutely nothing wrong with being black