The penultimate read for my first Cannonball go-around was selected by an astute member of my book club. As race has risen to the forefront of our culture once again, she thought it would be interesting to read and discuss a book about…race. The Color of Water by James McBride is the biography/autobiography of McBride’s mother and himself. I should mention that McBride’s mother is Jewish and McBride’s father is Black. I was interested to see how he would develop the narrative and what point he was trying to make.
Interestingly, he didn’t seem to have a bias in the narrative. He just told about his mother’s and he’s experiences and leaves any conjecturing to the readers. He arranges the book in a circle, of sorts. He alternates chapters between his memories and his mother’s history. He begins his experiences with his home life and going to school for the first time. His mother’s experiences are told through her own voice. It seems that McBride interviewed his mother to learn about her past and it’s her responses that are recorded in the chapters focusing on her life. Towards the end of the novel, the two experiences link up and McBride continues telling the narrative on his own.
I like the alternating experience because I always believe people should tell their own stories. I also feels like it gives a more intimate feel that he takes the time to speak with his mother about her past, rather than turn her history into facts and details. And I liked how he shows the link between our past and our present and ultimately how the two create our future. McBride’s purpose for writing the novel seems to be his way of working out what his future will look like. He describes that he was always confused why his mother didn’t look like his friends’ mothers. He would ask her why she didn’t look Black and she always deferred. He then asked what God looked like and she said he was the color of water.
This answer not only becomes the title of the book but a complicated answer to help him on his journey of finding out who he was. Interestingly enough, his mother converted from Judaism to Christianity before meeting McBride’s father. They met at the church they were attending and the rest, as they say, is history. However, converting to a new religion doesn’t erase your past. And this was something that McBride was always curious about but could never get his mother to talk about. Once he finally convinced his mother to open up, he went back to her hometown and tracked down some of the people from his mother’s past.
There’s no real ideological conclusion to the novel. No big insight on race. But I think maybe that’s what McBride is trying to say. That just like families, we can’t choose what race we are, but we can choose who we are as individuals; our race shouldn’t define us. While he identified with the Black community, his mother never truly left her Jewish roots behind. She just decided that it wouldn’t define her and she would make herself at home in the Black community and become part of the neighborhood.
I wish we could live in a society where your race doesn’t determine how people treat you, what type of education you receive, or how well you will do in your job. While we’ve made strides to de-emphasize race, we still have room for improvement. I think it will take more people like Mrs. McBride who choose to not see people for their race but the people that they are. If we all take this example, the world would be a better place.