The Color of Water by James McBride

The story of James McBride, a black man with a white mother, was recommended to me and my students by my colleague Chris who came in last year to do a book talk about a book he loved. I had never heard of the story, even though memoir is my favorite genre.


How McBride knits together his own lived experience alongside his mother’s is both beautiful and envious. I am so jealous of actually being able to understand the woman who gave me life and to speak that story into the world. There is so much I don’t know, won’t know, will never know. I still have so many unanswered questions about who my own parents are and how they became who they are. And I am a white middle-class woman with white middle-class parents. Ruth McBride Jordan gave her son, and ultimately me, an enormous gift in allowing curious eyes and ears into her past.

I’m not sure what compelled Ruth to live the rebellious life she lived- against her Jewish upbringing, societal norms about interracial marriage, and skin color. I actually wonder if she was too colorblind – raising 12 black children without really acknowledging the meaning of her white skin. But she was given a strong lens for seeing the humanity of people and a strong heart for Jesus.

I love when she tells her son, “I was ashamed of my mother, but see, love didn’t come natural to me until I became a Christian.” Her faith is inspirational because I don’t believe she uses it as a crutch or excuse- through many hard seasons, she has this ability to just be who she is and who she wants to be. I wonder if she was a four on the Enneagram. She also tells James, “A marriage needs love. And God. And a little money. That’s all.” How true, how very true.

I think this book was a good narrative for me as I am beginning to learn more about intersectionality and what it means- here with race, religion, and gender. It was also a good reminder that opening up old wounds can bring healing, and that the tension between the past and the present is something we all experience.

Read this book before bed – the chapters alternate between Ruth and James, and each contains gorgeous, little pearls: firm, shiny treasures produced within the gentle tissue of two humble living beings.

I’m really excited to hear what the ninth graders think of this story.


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