The Color of Water: a Black Man’s Tribute

The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride serves as an opportunity for McBride to talk about his own story as a biracial child. Alongside this, just as if not more importantly, this book also serves as a platform in which he can honor his mother Ruth. Ruth McBride Jordan, a white Jewish woman raised 12 successful biracial children, while facing down an intense life that involved navigating through complex racial divides.

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In this essay, The Color of Water is going to be looked at from the lenses of different Ethnic Studies 101 concepts, in order to help it be relevant to the classroom setting. These concepts are controlling images and skin-color stratification.

With this being both of their stories, Ruth and James share chapters for most of the book. The basic structure is every other chapter is dedicated to James interview with Ruth and the rest of it from his own point of view, as the reader digs deeper into both of their lives. Looking first to Ruth’s story, she tells her son James that this project into her past life and family is futile, as many of those connections were lost a long time ago. Regardless, Ruth McBride Jordan reveals that she was born Ruchel Dwajra Zylska into an Orthodox Jewish family on April 1st, 1921. Her father was Fishel Shilsky, an Orthodox rabbi who defected from the Russian military, and her mother Hudis, was a Polish Jew who was not very healthy, their marriage ultimately being only beneficial for Shilsky who would gain both an American citizenship and financial stability at the expense of his family. Rabbi Shilsky came to the United States first and months after, the rest of his family, including a two year old Ruth followed. She began her life in the U.S. with the new name of Rachel Deborah Shilsky.

Growing up in the Jim Crow South in Suffolk where the KKK roamed free, Rachel saw bigotry up close and personal at school. Schools were segregated between not only African Americans and Caucasians, but even with their being separate Jewish schools as well. Since the world was the white man’s oyster, Rachel also had to eventually go to a white school due to the law and despite the color of her skin, faced bigotry for being Jewish. That’s when she unofficially first started going by the name Ruth. Despite all of this, including a life of problems and responsibilities at home, with a father who was abusive to his whole family, Ruth still had some opportunities to live the life of a young girl. This was through meeting her girl best friend Francis, and meeting her first boyfriend Peter. She would have secret rendezvous with Peter who was African American, for fear of retribution from the whites and/or the KKK, or her Jewish father who was most likely wanting to put her into an arranged marriage. As one of the very few men at that time who was ever sweet to her, it really didn’t matter to her what Peter’s skin color was. Ruth unfortunately got pregnant, frightening Peter, but thanks to the quick thinking of her Mom, went to New York to her Mom’s family. Ruth fell in love with the hustle and bustle of New York, but sadly got an abortion as well.

Returning home, she changed a lot as she reached the end of her high school education. In love with New York, Peter about to get married to an African American girl, and a potential arranged marriage waiting for her in the near future, Ruth was done and was prepared to leave for New York. One thing that always kept her back though, was her sick Mother. Although she wanted to, in the end, the last straw was when she couldn’t even bring herself to participate in her high school graduation ceremony at a Protestant church, despite Frances request due to her Jewish heritage. Without saying goodbye to anyone at all, she left for New York the day after. Working at her Aunt Mary’s leather factory, she met Dennis McBride. McBride was the author’s father. During this time, she would momentarily lose track of everything and almost become a prostitute in Harlem after getting entangled with a pimp, but Dennis shook her out of it with honesty and they soon after began to go out.

Ruth and Dennis were happy despite the harsh reality of interracial relationships in America but before being husband and wife, Ruth came home to see her Mother who was very ill one last time. The situation at home was getting much toxic as Rabbi Shilsky was already abandoning his old family for a white lady with kids. The way of the Jewish religion was lost, as not only was he shacking up with a gentile, but he was working on divorcing his wife without the proper Jewish authorities. The divorce happened, but everything else was the same and with all this craziness, Ruth decided that she had to leave despite her sister’s pleas. Arguably, this was the point in time where the name Rachel Deborah Shilsky died. By the 1940s, Ruth and Dennis were unofficially living as man and wife. Although she faced some resistance from the black community, it was the white community who offered harsh resistance. At one point, they were even ready to get rid of Dennis permanently. While bringing a man’s love into her life, thanks to Dennis, Ruth also was able to have the love of Jesus come into her heart and became a Christian.

As Christians and leaders in the church, Ruth was adamant that they needed to get married and after some hesitance, Ruth and Dennis were secretly married by their reverend friend. Through this happy marriage, although it was financially rough at times, eight kids were born and even a church was started by Dennis who got his divinity degree. Unfortunately it wasn’t to last and Dennis passed away due to cancer. Although there was an outpouring of supporting from their tribe, coworkers, church members, and Dennis family, Ruth’s Jewish family had at this point decided that she was dead to them. Ruth ultimately would remarry another good working class man, a man who was ready to help take care of her family, and that man would be James McBride’s stepfather, Hunter L. Jordan, Sr.

Picking up from there, the autobiography part shows that James stepfather and Ruth added four more children. James grew up with 11 other siblings. With their working mother raising them by herself, since their father/stepfather was gone much of the time, a mini Darwinian system was formed within their home to maintain a sense of order. The older and stronger you were as, the more power you had over your more weaker younger siblings as important decisions were being made every day over who got to eat, and who got to sleep in the best spots. Their mother would intervene to offer her insights on spiritual matters and to warn them not to talk to strangers or to put them to bed, but never to seriously talk about topics like race and identity. With no doubt, the older class of siblings questioning her before James on race, she did her best to squash any questions when asked about race and identity at all. This is despite the questions they must have all had on how their skin colors were different from one another. A confused James was worried enough to think that he was adopted.

Despite the lack of dialogue on race and identity, it was everywhere as there were judgment filled eyes constantly on this biracial family. There were contradictions as well to Ruth, as it was weird for a white person to be so comfortable with the African American community, and at times seemed to identify with their struggles and successes. However, she couldn’t keep Black Power away from her household in a time where Malcolm X was not a distant figure, even admired by Ruth herself, and the Blank Panthers was in their prime. The twelve McBride and Jordon kids saw and experienced firsthand the politics of breaking down and revolting against the white power system, and they brought the culture of Black Power back home through cultural things like rap music. However, James also feared that Black Power would also mean his Mother being persecuted and killed for the color of her skin. James was caught up in the narrative of the media, which Ruth didn’t help with making sure all her kids, including James trusted no one at all, period, from all races except for their mini Darwinian society at home.

Following the orthodoxy of the sixties, the older McBride Johnson children rebelled. From affairs, secret civil rights activities, pregnancies, to running away, to teen marriages, and dealing with the police, ultimately Ruth did her best to make sure that the younger ones would not follow this trend. This failed as James McBride revolution began with the death of his stepfather when he was 14 due to a stroke. While his mother retreated into coping through piano and riding her bike, James began to abandon school, steal, drink, and abandon his family for his friends, which meant abandoning a grieving Ruth who was struggling financially. This was until one day, like Dennis McBride once talked sense into his future wife while she was close to being a prostitute, the alcoholic Chicken Man, who was street smart and a resident guru of the Corner told James to stop while he could. It was a key moment as at that point, James had come far enough that he was even ready to murder.

Eventually, James would find three escapes from a dangerous life. First his Mom would move them out to Delaware in the early seventies, allowing James a fresh start. The second was music, tenor sax and trombone keeping him away from trouble. Third was that, he was able to go to college, being the eight child to go to college, a great track record for Ruth as all the kids before James were already seeking further education. James McBride became a reporter and would work on what would become The Color of Water, which involved digging into the Jewish parts of his family. Talks of Ruth’s family were very few, and interactions with the Jewish community in general were also very few as he lived in his own mini Darwinian society at home. However, James was raised on the understanding that Jewish people were not white people, and his mother insured that a certain level of exposure existed as he and his siblings would go to public schools that had a large Jewish student body.

With Ruth ready to open up, James was ready to do some investigation, although he did not have much as his Mom did not remember the names of anybody else from Suffolk, Virginia except her family and Frances. While digging, he found out family history like his mother’s name changes, as well as learning about his grandfather’s racism toward people of color. Pondering on his discoveries like his grandmother’s resting place, and mysteries like Rabbi Shilsky’s final resting grounds, he felt sympathy toward his Aunt Gladys, his mother’s sister who had lost her whole family to death, or outright abandonment by Rabbi Shilsky and unfortunately her sister Ruth. At times, James deliberately cut off different leads for the sake of his mother, this included not searching for his Aunt Gladys, and not showing her the tape with a greeting from Aubrey Rubenstein, Ruth’s former rabbi. At other times, his journey was able to bring joy, like when he helped Frances and Ruth reunite.

Eventually In the end, to Ruth, her Jewish side is long gone. However in the present she no longer chooses to hide from her past, shown when she returned to Suffolk, Virginia when she went to and her eventual willingness to be interviewed by her son. She made sure that in The Color of Water, it listed all of her children’s education and career accomplishment, as that was her life’s work. Work built from Ruth McBride Jordan choosing to abandon her Jewish side for her African American side. Although at times she may question her own mortality as she gets older, Ruth remains active. She even got a college degree in social work, while still scolding James when he does what she considers stupid things, like quit several of his journalism job. James faces new questions and issues, from career fulfillment to the blurring of lines between racial divides when it comes to privilege, but regardless of any grown up problems he and his accomplished siblings may have, they will no matter what, always continue to respect the power of their mother.

When looking at this book, one Ethnic Studies concept that can be applied is controlling images. As Race & Racisms puts it as, “gendered depictions of African Americans in the media that shape people’s ideas of what African Americans are and are not” (Golash-Boza 109). The reader can see this in The Color of Water in the 1960s, when James McBride was exposed to Black Power from the perspective of the media. He saw a Blank Panther rally in which one of leaders was, “screaming to hundreds and hundreds of angry African-American students, “Black power! Black power! Black power!” while the crowd roared. It frightened the shit out of me. I thought to myself, These people will kill Mommy” (McBride 27). In context, James is a biracial child with his mother Ruth being a white Jewish woman, and his father Dennis being African American, making this a unique example of controlling images.

Even as a person of color whose father is African American, James was affected by the media’s presentation of Black Power. He automatically assumed that the passion of the activists and the call to action of “Black Power!” meant a cry for a race war. That there would be violence and that violence would also endanger his mother, whose skin color was white as African Americans sought the power that they never really had. The media made sure only particular images like rallies with shouting and anger are being shown, which would worry regular folks at home, whether they are black or white as nobody wants blood in the streets. On contrast, a more preferable approach would have been a more detailed coverage of groups like the Black Panther’s, and their activities in assisting the community, or actual speeches by Black Power activists that would dispel the myth of white extermination, and show a larger movement toward both racial and societal justice.

Another way this book can be applied is through the concept of skin-color stratification. Race & Racisms says it is, “in which resources such as income and status are distributed unequally according to skin color” (Golash-Boza 118). An interesting example of this is in The Color of Water in the way Rabbi Shilsky, the grandfather of the author and the mother of Ruth treated African American customers while running his shop, “Shilsky’s Grocery Store”. Shilsky was very paranoid about people stealing from him, notably African Americans and was even prepared to shoot them, but as Ruth said during her interview, “He was robbing these folks blind, charging them a hundred percent markup on his cheap goods, and he was worried about them stealing from him!” (McBride 59). In this grocery store, the same goods were being sold to both African American and white customers in Suffolk, Virginia. It’s skin-color stratification because in the case of African Americans, they were unfairly overcharged tremendously in order to get the same thing a Caucasian in the white part of the community would have gotten for no doubt a more sensible price. Shilsky purposefully made sure that the African American community would have to give up more in order to get what they wanted from him.

For this essay, the two concepts that were applied were skin-color stratification and controlling images. In the case of skin-color stratification, it was Rabbi Shilsky purposefully targeting his African American customers for financial gain. On the other hand, they had to pay up more than their white counterparts, in order to get the same necessities to live off of. For controlling images, it was when little James McBride was shown a select clip of a Black Panther rally by the media, built an assumption based on the anger and passion he saw without any context, that his mother as a white person was in danger by groups like the Black Panthers. Ultimately, in terms of classroom relevance, these two concepts find a bridge in economic justice. Those in control, the economic elites will make white workers seem more important than the other workers in the case of Rabbi Shilsky overpricing African Americans over White Americans, or will scare them as they did with painting the Black Panthers fight for social justice as dangerous, but ultimately they are tactics to divide and conquer, and working class solidarity needs to prevail for the benefits of all workers.

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