McBride, James: The Color of Water

Your correspondent had arrived post-haste from another function (though only slightly the worse for wear, in his opinion) and had been rewarded for being last to arrive with the least comfortable chair. It backed on to an aspidistra, which did at least serve to keep him awake for some of the time. It was quickly apparent that another member had been sampling a bottle or two of Kiwi Pinot Noir, lending a remarkable vigour to his contributions…

Introducing the “The Color of Water” (1996) the proposer said he had been reorganising the books in his house when he had come across this one, which he had much enjoyed at the time of its publication. Re-reading it he had remained impressed, but new issues emerged. It was remarkable how different your perspective could be on re-reading a book.

The book was written in a simple, easy style. It dealt with interesting aspects of US life, and in particular of US minorities  – such as life in the Jewish community and the difficulties and dangers that Ruth faced in having relationships with a black man. It described very well how the family worked with its amazing twelve children and the poverty they had to overcome.

The device of interweaving the author’s own story with that of his mother was very effective. But, on re-reading, he was struck by the fact that the mother that was portrayed was fairly cold – there was little warmth or love – although it was an impressive account of an impressive woman. And he was also now struck by the fact that the book told us little about the dynamics of the relationships between the twelve children. It was a factual, clinical account of how life moved on, with only a limited sense of love or protection. He had still enjoyed it on a second reading, but felt a degree of disappointment that the book was perhaps overly analytical.

Much of the discussion that followed was of the characters, the problems they faced, and their possible motivations, and relatively little was about the book per se, suggesting that McBride had done a good job of making his characters come alive.

One reader had found the interweaving of the two stories clumsy, and had subsequently re-read the mother’s story by itself, which he found much more satisfactory. Others, however, felt that the structure was well-crafted, and admired how McBride sometimes brought the stories together in time, then let them drift apart and come together again. One found that the style of modern American prose-writing tended to grate. Thus McBride telling his own story grated on him, but it did not grate when he was reading the story of his mother.

Some felt the characters were not very sympathetic, and it was difficult to empathise with them. Others, however, felt they could empathise with the mother in her battle to keep her vast family together with little support after her two husbands had died, and empathise with the author as he struggled with being a black man with a white Jewish mother. Both the story of McBride and the story of his mother had elements of the “misery memoir” formula, which had proved so popular in recent years.

One reader had not realised for a while that the story was autobiographical, but on doing so found the book – and the jaw-dropping problems the characters faced – much more compelling. Some were pleased to find humour in the book, such as Ruth avoiding traffic lights in Harlem after being told to avoid red light areas.

For some the fact that the author was a journalist had helped him deal with the very difficult subject of writing about his own mother and childhood. The book did teeter at times on the verge of sentimentality, and also on the verge of the Bible Belt confessional, but generally managed to avoid the traps. The device of putting the mother’s story in her own words helped to distance the author from it. McBride’s journalistic skills made the book readable and kept sentimentality under check. However, his journalistic approach equally limited the book in terms of its depth and ability to create empathy.

The character of Ruth the mother provoked much debate. Was she really a loving mother? When you had twelve children there would be little time for demonstrations of affection given the over-riding priority of keeping the family fed, clothed and going to school. For some her drive to get her children to go to university was the way in which she expressed her love.  Others felt Ruth drove her children to university without consideration of what might suit them as individuals.

Where did the drive for education come from? Was it simply cultural, reflecting her Jewish and/or immigrant belief in the power of education? Or was it also a feeling that she needed to prove that – having married a black man – her children were in no sense inferior or disadvantaged? President Obama’s white mother – who had also married a black man – had similarly driven him very hard to succeed at university. And was another motivator for Ruth the feeling that her own mother, disabled and abused by her husband, had failed? The proud way in which McBride sets out a table detailing the qualifications gained by each of the siblings suggests that, for him too, university qualifications were a key measure of success.

His mother had been lucky in the quality of the two husbands she had found, but unlucky in the ruthless way she had been cast aside by her original family. They, by saying the prayer of Kaddish, had indicated she was dead to them. Some of us were shocked by this ruthlessness. Others pointed out that casting out those who strayed from the norms was how a group – in this case the Jewish people – could retain a coherent identity. And his mother could show ruthlessness too – in not returning to see her dying mother, and in failing to keep her promise to her sister to stay. Perhaps Ruth had inherited more of her personality from her father than she would have liked to acknowledge.

Ruth had only died in January 2010. It was intriguing, and pleasing, that the sales of the book must have meant her latter years had been spent in much greater material comfort than in any other part of her life, and allowed her to travel widely.

Ruth was characterised as an extremely private person. We were told it had been very difficult to get her to open up, but were given no other information on the writing process. The reader did not know the extent to which her story reflected what she had actually said – presumably in taped interviews – or to what extent it reflected her son’s imaginings of how she would have felt. Had she actually read the draft book and exercised a right of veto? One of us, at any rate, thought he could detect the rhythms of a black person’s speech in her story, which might imply that the speech of her husbands had influenced her and that much of the wording was verbatim.

What then of the twelve siblings, and the lack of information about how they interacted? The probable explanation was that McBride still had to live with his siblings, and relationships might have been badly damaged by too candid an exposition.  Would there be a pecking order between the siblings based on degrees of darkness of skin, wondered one? Not with the mother’s system of the oldest child being her deputy as “king” or “queen”, so that age, not colour, would determine the pecking order.

What of McBride himself? He sketched out an intriguing account of his rebellion against authority – perhaps exacerbated by the difficult family background – and subsequent recovery. He was clearly very able in both the writing and musical worlds, but found it difficult to sustain any job for long. As with his mother the Christian religion had become a big part of his life. And it was very impressive that his father had set up a church that started simply as a table in his house. It was of interest that that the Church had played the major role if providing leaders for the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., reflecting the Church’s importance for the black community.

The success of the book must have been of life-changing importance to McBride, as it was to his mother. He had said of his book: “I thought it would be received well in the black community but it’s sold much better in the white Jewish community,” he said. “Most of my readers are middle-age, white, Jewish women….”. The memoir spent over two years on The New York Times bestseller list, and is said now to appear on high school and university course lists across America. In 2003, he published a novel, “Miracle at St. Anna”, drawing on the history of the overwhelmingly African American 92nd Infantry Division in the Italian campaign from mid-1944 to April 1945. The book was adapted into the movie “Miracle at St. Anna”, directed by Spike Lee, in 2008…

At this point your amanuensis must have dozed off despite the attentions of the aspidistra, because I have no idea what was said until I woke to a Pinot Noir infused cry aimed at me:

“Like a hippo and a giraffe, and DON’T put that in the blog!”

Don’t ask me what that was about, but the temperature had become distinctly hot. Political Correctness had retired for the night, and the conversational ball was whizzing back and forwards as if in a tennis match…

“ Such waste in the NHS! All the hip replacement aids never need be returned…” …“The private sector controls costs much better – why they even halve – or quarter – the incontinence pads!”

 “And homeopathy deserves no public support!”… “But it cured both my daughter and a cat!!”

 “It’s not surprising that all twelve children did so well, because they were the product of mixed race marriages, who are likely to be better looking, stronger and more clever through the mixing of the genes….”

“Ah yes, that’s well known in science – ‘hybrid vigour’ – look at Obama. And Tiger Woods ”…..  “Oh nonsense… there are lots of great golfers who are not hybrids like….err…err… Phil Mickelson….”…

 “But maybe too much hybrid vigour in Tiger?”

“East Africans produce great distance athletes, while West Africans are the sprinters and footballers”… “Is that why Hibs have just signed an East African?”

 “Immigrants are always among the most enterprising and able members of their population , which is one of the reasons they attach such importance to education on arrival”…. “Nonsense, it’s having to struggle hard that makes them successful, not being immigrants…”

“If Scotland has lost its most enterprising for generations, are we now a dysgenic society?”

“Fruitcakes, I tell you! Fruitcakes!” (the Pinot Noir was talking again…)


  1. One of our number was, coincidentally, involved in sending a Home Secretary to visit the Red Hook Housing Projects in Brooklyn, which feature in the book. His interest was in their community justice system, and the visit was instrumental in leading to a community court experiment in the North West of England.
  1. HYBRID VIGOUR. Wikipedia: “Heterosis is a term used in genetics  and selective breeding. Heterosis, or hybrid vigour or outbreeding enhancement, is the increased function of any biological quality in a hybrid offspring. It is the occurrence of a genetically superior offspring from mixing the genes of its parents. Heterosis is the opposite of inbreeding depression, which occurs with increasing homozygosity. The term often causes controversy, particularly in terms of the selective breeding of domestic animals, because it is sometimes believed that all crossbred plants or animals are genetically superior to their parents; this is true only in certain circumstances: when a hybrid is seen to be superior to its parents, this is known as hybrid vigour. When the opposite happens, and a hybrid inherits traits from its parents that makes it unfit for survival, the result is referred to as outbreeding depression. Typical examples of this are crosses between wild and hatchery fish that have incompatible adaptations…. (not to be confused with Heterotic string theory)”.                            

 All quite clear, then?

 DYSGENICS. Wikipedia: “Dysgenics (also known as cacogenics) is the study of factors producing the accumulation and perpetuation of defective or disadvantageous genes and traits in offspring of a particular population or species. The term dysgenics was first used as an antonym of eugenics  — the social philosophy of improving human hereditary qualities by social programs and government intervention. The word “dysgenic” was first used, as an adjective, about 1915, by David Starr Jordan, describing the “dysgenic effect” of World War I. Jordan believed that healthy men were as likely to die in modern warfare as anyone else, and that war killed only the physically healthy men of the populace whilst preserving the disabled at home. Dysgenic mutations have been studied in animals such as the mouse and the fruit fly”.

 But not the giraffe or the hippo?