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The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother is the autobiography of James McBride first published in 1995; it is also a tribute to his mother. The chapters alternate between James McBride's descriptions of his early life and first-person accounts of his mother Ruth's life, mostly taking place before her son was born. McBride depicts the conflicting emotions that he endured as he struggled to discover who he truly was, as his mother narrates the hardships that she had to overcome as a white, Jewish woman who chose to marry a black man 1942.
Ruth had a very repressed childhood in Suffolk, Virginia. Her father, a failed rabbi who owned Shilsky's Grocery Store, made Ruth and her brother Sam work hard before and after school. They did their homework at the store when there were no customers at the counter. Ruth's father sexually abused her as a child. He did not allow her or her siblings to be friends with Gentiles or Blacks, but Ruth had a secret friend named Frances. They hung out at school and at her home secretly. Ruth also had a black boyfriend named Peter, something that was heavily taboo in a Jewish household at that time. Segregation was in action in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, so they met secretly. Ruth became pregnant by Peter and she was extremely scared of what would become of her and Peter. She hid her pregnancy for as long as she could, but soon her mother discovered it and sent her to stay with her aunt in New York for the summer.
Her Aunt Betsy helped Ruth get an abortion; Aunt Mary was mean but she gave Ruth a job in her leather factory where Ruth met a black man named Andrew Dennis McBride. Even though she didn't fall for him at first, she soon began to care about him more and more. They fell in love, married, and had eight children. Later on, Andrew fell dangerously ill and had to be hospitalized for his problems. Andrew McBride died of lung cancer before the birth of his eighth child with Ruth, James McBride. After the death of her husband, Ruth struggled to cope and deal with the responsibilities that come with having eight children. Later, Ruth remarried to another black man, Hunter Jordan, and had four more children. She never spoke of her Jewish upbringing or any of her family members.
James McBride grew up in a family of 12 children with a black stepfather, a mother whose past was a mystery until he went out and discovered it for himself. At first, he was in fear of his mother, causing him to obey whatever she told him too. As he got older, he began to oppose what his mother said. When his father died, he too had problems dealing with his passing. He dabbled in drugs, mainly weed, and his grades and behavior plummeted. To straighten him out, his mother and step-father sent him away to live with a relative. While living there, James still led a delinquent lifestyle, doing drugs and losing jobs many times. However, he eventually returns his normal self and returns to his mother. Later in his life, James decided to look into his mother's past in order to have an easier emotional transition into his future. He had always been confused about his racial identity, which led to outrageous behavior and a lack of commitment. His supportive family put him in check, and he was able to find music and activities that reformed his life and gave it new purpose.
The trade paper edition, published in February, 1998, was on the New York Times bestseller list for over 100 weeks (2 years), won the 1997 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Literary Excellence, was an ALA Notable Book of the Year, The New York Women's Agenda's first book for "New York City Reads Together" and has sold more than 1.5 million copies. It has been published in 16 languages and in more than 20 countries.
James spoke of the civil rights movement which foreshadowed his decision to lean towards the African-American side of his bi-racial identity. Many of his older siblings had also chosen to only acknowledge that they were African-American
This symbolized her constant need for movement in order to deal with her stress and depression.
When Ruth's mother sang the song "Birdie, birdie, fly away," she was referring to Ruth as the bird, able to move so swiftly and easily, while she referred to herself as the handicapped bird who deserved to be sacrificed and killed. This foreshadowed her death.