Issues surrounding race remain a daily topic of news and conversation in the United States. We hear it on the radio and read it in newspapers. I notice people talking about it almost every day as a substitute teacher in the diverse Minneapolis public schools. While there are so many great voices to listen to, the story of Ruth McBride Jordan and her family offers an incredibly unique perspective on the topic.
Her story gets told through the lens of her son, James McBride, who wrote about his journey to discover the details of his mother’s identity. Originally published in 1995, McBride's award-winning The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list and has been read around the world. Over 20 years later, the book remains as powerful and important today as when it was written.
TAKING THE HIGH ROAD
The book alternates between McBride’s life and memories and those of his mother as she tells them to him. A Jewish immigrant born in the 1920’s, Ruth married a black man (and another, when he died) and raised twelve black children in New York City. Each child had to work through the complications of being raised by a white mother in a black neighborhood deeply involved in the Black Power movement of the 60’s and 70’s. After graduating from college and working for several years, eighth child James decided to uncover his mother’s mysterious past to satisfy “the part in [himself] that wanted to understand who [he] was (205).”
McBride’s dedication reads, “I wrote this book for my mother, and her mother, and mothers everywhere.” Upon reading the work it is easy to understand why he was compelled to write a tribute to her. Ruth is a strong, hard-working woman who embodies the principle of taking the high road when it comes to hate and ignorance. Both she and her children are often the targets of cruel and mocking comments from those around them, but she dismisses these comments, teaching her children to value religion and education and rising above anything that would bring them down or even distract them.
THE COLOR OF WATER
As a child, McBride asks his mother whether God’s spirit is black or white. “God is the color of water. Water doesn’t have a color,” she compellingly answers (51). Later, in middle school, McBride asks her about his own skin, saying, “Am I black or white?” Her snappy reply is, “You’re a human being. Educate yourself or you’ll be a nobody!” (92). While they often bewildered or did not satisfy her children, her answers to their questions ultimately pointed them in the right direction.
Ruth had embraced Christianity as a young adult, and it became foundational in her life. While being interviewed by her son, she tells him that nobody expected her first marriage to last, but it did. “A marriage needs love,” she says. “And God. And a little money…. It’s not about black or white. It’s about God and don’t let anyone tell you different” (233). Ruth’s faith in God gives her the strength and peace needed to go on in the face of difficult times, like losing both of her husbands, raising a family with little means, and navigating through the biases of the world around her. She believes that God loves and forgives her and will never let her down, and teaches her children the same.
NOTHING HOLDING HER BACK
Ruth’s choices are not governed by skin color, and it stands out. Instead of being held back by society’s norms, she makes her own decisions based on what she wants for her family. She marries men who are good to her and share her values. She makes friends with people who are kind. She sends her children to schools where they will receive the best education, and she shops at places she can afford. It is as if she simply doesn’t have much time to waste on giving racism the dignity of a place in her thoughts. When someone treats her family unfairly, such as the white grocer who tries to sell them spoiled milk, Ruth lets her anger show, throwing the milk at the back counter; but most of the time she pays little attention to those who disapprove.
In The Color of Water, neither McBride nor his mother place blame on any one person or group. Ruth’s Jewish rabbi father is abusive to his wife and children. Ruth’s entire family drops contact with her when she marries a black man. All along, whites and blacks alike have rude things to say. When Ruth moved into an apartment with her first husband, their black neighbor punched her in the face and said she didn’t belong there. “Some black folks never did accept me,” Ruth says, though she adds that most did, and more blacks accepted her marriage than whites (231). These and other unpleasant people and situations are depicted with honesty, but not bitterness. Ruth raises each of her twelve mixed-race children to go on to attend prestigious schools and become doctors, teachers, veterans, and professionals.
Ruth McBride Jordan passed away in 2010. Because of her determination to make a good life for her children, raise them to be good people who value accomplishments and kindness, and to reject the stereotypes around her, Ruth, a poor and little-known woman, lived a life that defied racism. McBride’s memoir and tribute to her is a beautiful narrative on the themes of race, family, religion, and vividly illuminates some of the challenges of growing up in a mixed family or community while displaying the unifying, transcendent power of rejecting the labels from racism and hate.
Though her story is inspirational, may we pray and work for a time where people like Ruth no longer have to overcome the difficulties set out by racism and hate.
Phoebe Hamel lives with her husband in Minneapolis, MN where they are both K-12 substitute teachers. She graduated from Moody Bible Institute - Spokane in 2016 with a B.A. in Intercultural Studies. Phoebe enjoys reading, writing, and doing volunteer work with Somali adult literacy training.