Some mother's son

23rd January 1998 at 00:00
The Colour Of Water By James McBride Bloomsbury #163;9.99.

I grew up in Waspish middle America knowing there was something different about my father. He pronounced his w's like v's and wice wersa. He wore socks with sandals -- in fashion terms, as un-American as being a Commie. And his communication skills were more akin to the Tartar than the lanky all-American dads in television sitcoms who laughed as they spoke.

Because his past was rarely spoken about - and when it was, it was through suppressed tears - I drew on my imagination to create the Poland of my father's youth. It was vital for me, for my sense not only of who he was but who I was.

James McBride, writer, composer, musician and author of The Colour of Water -- a Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother, grew up knowing there was something strange about his mother. For the first 30 years of his life,he and his 11 mixed-race brothers and sisters would ask her about her past and she would tell them to mind their own business. Her secrecy deprived them of half their history, half their identity.

Then, ten years ago, she finally spilled the beans. And what beans they turned out to be. James McBride's response to learning the full story of Ruth Jordan McBride, aka Ruchel Shilsky, has been to write a book about family love and hatred, race and poverty - but, most of all, about identity.

Although written in a sometimes pedestrian style, the two parallel narratives of his family's story, in Ruth's voice and his own, are compelling and haunting. This is not the story of a great woman's epic fight against adversity. It is of an ordinary, quiet, loving woman in difficult circumstances, doing what she believed to be right for her children. Her strength and perseverance, her belief in her children and her determination to give them the best against all the odds is simply inspiring.

Ruchel (Ruth) Shilsky, was two years old when she emigrated with her Orthodox Jewish family from Poland to the US. It was hardly the promised land, but Ruth's father, a failed itinerant rabbi, found his true calling as a grocer in Virginia. Alongside her disabled mother, Ruth and her sister slaved away in the shop, watching their father take advantage of their black customers and denigrating their beloved mother.

He was also sexually abusing Ruth, an ordeal that she kept secret from her long-suffering mother. And outside the home, as she told me in interview, "I was so shunned. People would call me 'Jew baby' and other things whenever I passed."

Despite everything, she found love in the arms of a black boy during secret meetings. When the inevitable happened at the age of 15, her unworldly but wise mother calmly sent her off to New York where an aunt arranged an abortion. Her father never knew a thing about it.

She left home for good a few years later and headed for New York. With her freedom and independence and living the high life in Harlem came total separation from her family. Apart from one brief visit, she never saw her mother again. The guilt has never left her.

The final nail in the coffin of her past came with her marriage in 1942 to black preacher Andrew McBride, James's father. On hearing the news, her father said kaddish for her - the prayer for the dead. In return, she renounced her Jewishness.

Poor but happy, they raised eight children. She "accepted Christ" and together they set up a church. Soon after McBride's death she married Hunter Jordan, a black maintenance man, with whom she had another four children.

Despite grinding poverty, Ruth was ferocious in her determinati on to give her children a good education, and that meant sending them out of their neighbourhood to get it. James and his siblings would leave home at 5.30 to travel to state schools many miles away where, as he puts it, "she knew there were a lot of Jewish teachers and kids. If there were, she thought they must be good schools".

Her intuition paid off. All 12 of her children graduated from college and some did postgraduate degrees. Today these children of the housing projects of Brooklyn are doctors, scientists, teachers, academics. And this book has made James a best-selling author (appearing for 40 weeks on the New York Times' bestselling paperback list).

McBride's admiration for "mommy" runs throughout the book. "Her children's achievements are her life's work".

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today