James McBride, The Color of Water

This is one of my all-time favorite books. It was the first book I ever read concerning the experiences of a mixed race person, and what inspired me to seek out further mixed race literature. The corners of the pages of my copy are soft and frayed; the cover, bent and scratched, the spine, long ago cracked.

An Official Synopsis from Amazon:

The Color of Water tells the remarkable story of Ruth McBride Jordan, the two good men she married, and the 12 good children she raised. Jordan, born Rachel Shilsky, a Polish Jew, immigrated to America soon after birth; as an adult she moved to New York City, leaving her family and faith behind in Virginia. Jordan met and married a black man, making her isolation even more profound. The book is a success story, a testament to one woman’s true heart, solid values, and indomitable will. Ruth Jordan battled not only racism but also poverty to raise her children and, despite being sorely tested, never wavered. In telling her story–along with her son’s–The Color of Water addresses racial identity with compassion, insight, and realism.


  • “When I asked [my mother] where she was from , she would say, ‘God made me,’ and change the subject. When I asked her if she was white, she’d say, ‘No, I’m light-skinned,” and change the subject again.” (21).
  • “There was a part of me that feared Black Power very deeply for the obvious reason. I thought black power would be the end of my mother. …It frightened the shit outta me,  I thought to myself, these people will kill mommy. Mommy, on the other hand, seemed unconcerned.” (27).
  • “[Mommy] viewed the civil rights achievements of African Americans with pride, as if they were her own. And she herself occasionally talked about ‘the white man’ in third person as if she had nothing to do with him, and in fact she didn’t, since most of her friends were black women from church” (32).
  • “I had what black folks called ‘good hair’ because it was curly as opposed to nappy. I was light-skinned or brown-skinned, and girls thought I was cute despite my shyness. Yet I myself had no idea who I was” (91).
  • ” ‘Am I black or white?’ ‘You’re a human being,’ she snapped. ‘Educate yourself or you’ll be a nobody!’ ‘Will I be a black nobody or a white nobody?’ ‘If you’re a nobody,’ she said dryly, ‘it doesn’t matter what color you are’ ” (92).
  • “The question of race was like the power of the moon in my house. It’s what made the river flow…but it was a silent power, intractable, indomitable, indisputable, and this, completely ignorable” (94).
  • “They were all trying to be American, you know, not knowing what to keep or leave behind. But you know what happens when you do that. If throw water on the floor, it will always find a hole, believe me” (135).

Here’s a video of him speaking at the 2008 National Book Festival, speaking about Obama, his other book (Miracle at St. Anna), and his journey:


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