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by Gail Arnoff, adjunct professor, John Carroll University 

The first time I read The Color of Water, I was deep in the woods of Otter Creek, a lovely wilderness in West Virginia. In my hammock strung between two trees, with the musical creek flowing just below our campsite, I began to read. From the first page I was fascinated by the story of James McBride and his mother, Ruth Jordan McBride. I didn’t climb out of the hammock until hours later, when I’d finished the book. That summer I was planning a seminar, “Questions of Identity,” for Case Western Reserve University and was looking for pertinent memoirs. I knew immediately that The Color of Water would make the reading list.  

color of water

In the past eight years I have introduced McBride and his mother to more than 135 students. The Color of Water tells the story of Ruth, born an Orthodox Jew, who leaves her family to marry an African American man and is, according to Orthodox Jewish tradition, then considered to be dead. When her husband dies she is pregnant with her eighth child (James). She then marries another African American man and has four more children before he dies. With very little money but an unusual amount of “chutzpah” (nerve), Ruth gets her children into the best schools and sees them all graduate from college. Then Ruth, her maternal job done, earns her own degree in social work. Although McBride writes that his mother had “little time for games, and even less time for identity crises,” my students — most of them in their first year of college — are at a perfect age for questioning who they are. Reading The Color of Water not only provides a forum to discuss race, religion, and identity, but also models a way for them to tell their own stories and those of their family.

While teaching at Ohio State University, McBride wrote a story he felt compelled to tell. I ask my students to write a story in a similar urgent vein about themselves or someone else in their family. One student wrote about a brother’s suicide attempt; for this paper he spoke to his brother for the first time about what had happened, a family secret that was never discussed. Another wrote about her father’s desertion of the family when he returned to Colombia. Other students took a lighter tack, describing humorous family stories. When I first present the assignment, some worry that their story won’t be significant, and certainly not as dramatic as that of McBride’s family. Once I assure them that any story they choose to tell will be significant, I am amazed at the papers they write.

At the end of the semester, many of the students choose The Color of Water as their favorite book. Some years I change of few of the titles in the syllabus, but I have no plans to eliminate this memoir.

In 2014 I began facilitating discussion groups for Books@Work, a program which brings professors and books into various workplaces. For one session I met with mentors and parents from the Intergenerational School. Without knowing much about the participants, I decided to use The Color of Water.  In each of four sessions, we discussed a topic illuminated by the Jordan/McBride family, as well as our own. I began by asking each person to tell us where she came from, and I suggested that the group members could interpret that in any way. By the time we had gone around the room we knew that we were women of all ages, of various educations and several religions. And we discovered that we all had stories to share.

We talked about Ruth’s refusal to reveal anything about her background; childrearing; and racial and religious exclusion. In the last session, we discussed the burden of family secrets – in the book as well as in our own families.  Most of all we talked about our identity, and the places from which it comes. So many passages in the book triggered discussions, including McBride’s own declaration: “Now, as a grown man, I feel privileged to have come from two worlds. My view of the world is not merely that of a black man but that of a black man with something of a Jewish soul….[When] I look at Holocaust photographs…I think to myself, There but for the grace of God goes my own mother—and by extension, myself.”

The Color of Water is a marvelous text for young people and adults, an evocative opener of discussion. I never tire of teaching this book. Italo Calvino defines a classic as “a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” On each reading—and there have been many—I find something new in The Color of Water. James McBride offers us lovely writing, as well as a memorable family story which I feel privileged to share with my students.

IMG_8206_adj_4x6Gail Arnoff received her B.A. from Western Reserve University and her M.A. from John Carroll University, where she currently teaches in the English Department. She also facilitates a seminar, “Questions of Identity,” in the SAGES program at Case Western Reserve University.

Writer and radio host Michael Eric Dyson posed a simple question to Walter Mosley midway through their Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture forum:”Do black people have the freedom to be individuals in America?”

Mosley, 62, paused to acknowledge the gravity of the question. “I would not give up being black in America,” he responded. “We are America. We got the culture, we got the music, we got the art — and we don’t really know it.”

Mosley, best known for his “Easy Rawlins” detective series, now 10 books deep, has enjoyed a successful and sustained career.  He was born in California to a Jewish mother and a black father (the pair was denied a marriage license in 1951.)  Their only child, who has lived in New York City since 1981, identifies with both sides of his family. He credits his daily writing regimen for his high output — he averages close to two published books per year. His 1997 crime novel Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned won the Anisfield-Wolf book award for fiction.

Mosley delved into his beginnings as a writer and the early resistance he encountered to featured a black male protagonist. Mosley recalled an agent telling him: “White people don’t like to read about black people, black women don’t like black men, and black men don’t read, so who’s going to read your book?”

During the lighthearted yet introspective discussion, the duo covered a range of topics—from President Obama’s handling of race to the questions of literary celebrity and hype. Watch the full conversation below and let us know what you think.

Few writers have made the kind of spectacular, multimedia splash onto the literary scene the way James McBride has.

McBride, 56, first attracted attention in 1996, for his memoir, The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother. It sat atop the New York Times bestsellers list for two years, selling more than two million copies and winning an Anisfield-Wolf award for nonfiction. His first novel, 2002’s The Miracle of St. Anna, enjoyed a movie adaptation from director Spike Lee, for which McBride adapted the screenplay.

But Song Yet Sung received a quieter reception in 2008. “Only eight people read it, and I have 11 brothers and sisters so that’s saying something,” he quipped at his recent appearance at the Hudson Library & Historical Society in Ohio.

It’s safe to say McBride has rebounded nicely with The Good Lord Bird. A picaresque story built around abolitionist John Brown, the story is told through the eyes of runaway slave Henry Shackleford, a boy passing as a girl. It won the 2013 National Book Award in November; McBride was so surprised he carried his dinner napkin up to the lectern, where he had to improvise an acceptance speech.

“In jazz, lots of people play the same songs,” McBride told the Daily Beast. “But it’s the way you play it is what distinguishes you from the next man or woman who plays it.”

Indeed, music informs McBride’s writing, and vice versa. An accomplished tenor saxophonist, McBride has traveled with jazz legend Jimmy Scott and composed songs for Anita Baker. For his last two books, McBride has married the literary with the musical on tour with what is now the Good Lord Bird band. The quintet performed funky, jazz-infused renditions of enduring gospel hymns, often packing auditoriums and driving audience members to their feet. Others sway in their seats.

Watch this clip of the band’s performance at the New York Public Library.

McBride, who earned a conservatory degree at Oberlin College in 1979, noted the connection he felt with John Brown, who worked for a time at Oberlin, and whose father was a trustee.

“History depends on who’s telling it — and why,” he said. The novel “seemed a way to thrust Brown into the reality of now.”

It’s almost hard to believe 1997 Anisfield-Wolf winner James McBride when he talks about his failures. His 2002 novel, Miracle at St. Anna, was turned into a movie Spike Lee a few years later and his debut, The Color of Water, was on the New York Times bestseller’s list for two years. But in this deeply personal and highly observant video, McBride shows us the true honesty that keeps readers coming back again and again.