Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Memoir #2: The Color of Water

Author: James McBride
Publisher/Format: Riverhead Trade (2006), Paperback, 352 page
also audio: Phoenix Books, narrated by Andre Braugher and Lanie Kazan
Subject: tribute to a mother
Setting: The Bronx, Suffolk VA,
Genre: memoir
Source: public library

Another outstanding memoir. This is the November read for our book discussion group. I read the print, and listened to portions of it while in the pool. Andre Braugher and Lanie Kazan do a truly devoted job of reading this one.

James McBride tells us the story of growing up black, in Harlem, then in projects in the Bronx. Raised by his white mother (his black father died before he was born) and black step-father, he was one of 12 children. He describes a loving family life, where children were expected to be successful, respectful, and STAY IN SCHOOL. Children were due in the house by 5:00 in the evening, and slept 5 to a bed. Dinner might often be a jar of peanut butter or several spoons of sugar.  He never met his mother's family and did not discover until he had completed his master's in Journalism at Columbia U, and decided to write a tribute to his mother, that she was Jewish, that her family had disowned her, that her father was an orthodox Jewish rabbi who sexually abused her, and  just how hard her life had been.

The story is told both in the son's and the mother's voices. It is very well-written, and gives us an incredible insight into each mind. James' father was a preacher, and his mother converted to Christianity and insisted on church attendance and prayer from all her children. As he begins to realize that his mother is different from other mothers, he asks her "Is God Black?" "NO" she answers. "Well is he white?" Mom replies in the negative. Still the young boy persists. "Well what color is he?" "The color of water." I just loved that image, and fell in love with this family.

As he lovingly recounts his search for his mother's family, and helps her confront a past she has repressed, he comes to an acceptance of his Jewishness, his multi-cultural roots, and gives us a picture of an exceptional family. In the epilogue he gives us a breakdown of the incredible achievements of them all. Every one of the 12 graduated from college. There are two doctors, school teachers, musicians, journalists, nurses, artists, and the mother completes her degree in her late 60's.

It's a tribute any mother would be proud to have her son write.


  1. I have said it before...I have sworn off memoirs. But I must say this sounds interesting.

  2. I need to read more of McBride's work. I hear that his 'Miracle at St. Anna,' although fictional, is also quite good.


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