he 10th Anniversary Edition of James McBride
’s tribute to his mother, The Color of Water
, includes an afterword by the author and an update on Ruth McBride Jordan, an 84-year-old (in 2005) lady in Ewing township, NJ, who took yoga three times a week and volunteered regularly to run reading groups at a local library, feed the homeless, and help homeless pregnant teenagers. But that’s far from all she’s accomplished or experienced in her life. Her son’s tribute is not only a recognition of the fact she raised 12 mixed-race children and sent them all off to college; it’s a detailed account of a strong women who taught her children to take every punch life directs your way and come up fighting every time.
Not that Ruth McBride Jordan immediately bounced back whole each time she suffered a blow. Young James and his siblings were well aware when their mother drew dangerously near the edge, especially after losing a second beloved husband. James writes that he realized looking back it took his mother ten years to recover from the death of his step-father.
James looks back not only at what he remembers as the black son of a Jewish white mother; through pages of his mother’s own feisty words he reconstructs her life and the lives of those closest to her, especially in the years she lived in a small country town in Virginia.
What I looked for throughout this book were clues to how James coped with his mixed-race identity, especially in the absence of his black father, who died before he was born, and with an incredibly strong-willed mother who insisted on personal privacy and thoroughly ignored outside opinions of herself and her family. Luckily others in his life, like his oldest sister, Jack, did discuss with James racial identity in particular and identity in general: “You have to choose between what the world expects of you,” she mentored wisely, “and what you want for yourself.”
Young James never once wants to be white; he wishes his mother were black so she—and he—could fit into their black community first in the Red Hook Housing Project in Brooklyn, then in their neighborhood in Queens. His questions were many, and his frustrations often evident. In college, he listened to friends insult white people and struggled to find a balance between loyalty to his mother and other white people who’d helped him through the years, and his own feelings of injustice he’d witnessed and experienced as a person of color:
“Sometimes it seemed like the truth was a bandy-legged soul who dashed from one side of the world to the other and I could never find him.”
Like his mother, who dealt with many of her life’s most painful situations through some kind of movement, James realized in early adulthood he had a hard time remaining in one place, one job, for very long:
“I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to be a writer or a musician, not knowing that it was possible to do both. In some ways I was caught between the worlds of black and white as well, because I’d discovered after college and graduate school that the earnest change-the-world rap sessions me and my schoolmates had that lasted till four A.M. didn’t change the world one iota. … Boston was not an easy place to have a racial identity crisis either. Its racial problems are complicated, spilling into matters of class, history, politics, even education. It was more than I wanted to face, and I had to run.”
James notes it took him eight years of vacillating between music and writing to realize he could successfully do both. It took him even longer to come to terms with his identity:
“Given my black face and upbringing it was easy for me to flee into the anonymity of blackness, yet I felt frustrated to live in a world that considers the color of your face an immediate political statement. It took years for me before I began to accept the fact that the nebulous ‘white man’s world’ wasn’t as free as it looked…. Yet the color boundary in my mind was and still is the greatest hurdle. In order to clear it…I ran for as long as I could.”
The research for this book changed his life, and he realized early on it needed to be done:
“The little ache I had known as a boy was no longer a little ache when I reached thirty. It was a giant, roaring, musical riff, screaming through my soul like a distorted rock guitar with the sound turned all the way up…. There were two worlds bursting inside me trying to get out. I had to find out more about who I was, and in order to find out who I was, I had to find out who my mother was.”
In the end, no one lives happily ever after because this is a story of life, not a fairytale. Yet James offers plenty of hope for readers of mixed-race descent, and for the rest of us who look forward to a future when racial lines are much more blurred and much less divisive:
“The plain truth is you’d have an easier time standing in the middle of the Mississippi River and requesting that it flow backward than to expect people of different races and backgrounds to stop loving each other, stop marrying each other, stop starting families, stop enjoying the dreams that love inspires. Love is unstoppable.
“Love rules the game.”