As I stood on the Manhattan subway platform, I watched as a tall, dreadlocked black man prepared to play his steel drum for the throngs of tourists and commuters at the 34th Street Station. Not more than twenty feet away a young Hassidic man dressed in traditional dark clothes, a large brimmed hat from under which his curled hair spilled alongside his face. He regarded the musician with a mixture of curiosity and uncertainty
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The musician began a convoluted Caribbean style intro, which subsided to low ebb and suddenly burst into a joyous rendition of Hava Nagilah. The face of the young Hassidim beamed with surprised delight as the yellow shirted musician stomped his foot in time with the rhythm. They caught each other's eye and exchanged broad smiles.
That interesting exchange reminded me of just one aspect of James McBride's novel, The Color of Water, a biographical/autobiographical story, which examines the perpetual contradiction and conflict of blacks and Jews. But more importantly it is the story of growing up black with a Jewish mother who all but, renounced her born ethnic heritage and identity.
The relationship between Blacks and Jews in America has been a surreal love-hate thing. On the one hand mistrusting, disliking, and discriminating against the other. Yet on the other hand blacks and Jews have worked side by side to effect social, economic and civil rights change and shared in a history of enslavement.
This cleverly written book is in effect a dual-autobiography, presenting two clear and unique voices. Alternating between the words of Ruth McBride Jordan and her son James in every other chapter, the imagery of the primary and supporting players in these two people's experiences brings life to the stories. By alternating these viewpoints, James McBride underscores the similarities and contrasts the differences in their two separate experiences. He chronicles his discovery of himself and the discovery of who his mother really was. A woman, who was secretive about her life and history, but instilled incredible values and heaped immeasurable quantities of love on her children.
A Boy Grows in Brooklyn
James grew up with his family in a Red Hook, Brooklyn housing project and subsequently a small home in St. Albans, Queens. He was surrounded by eleven siblings in a home where money and regular meals were scarce, and hand-me-downs were plentiful. Ruth, who worked the swing shift as a typist at Chase Manhattan Bank, would smuggle home as much of the free food from the employee cafeteria as she could manage.
And despite the financial difficulties, a home bursting at the seams, and a (loving) step-father who was only present on the weekends, Ruth managed to see to it that her children had the best education possible.
In Ruth's words, she shares her life, born in Poland, Ruchel Dwajra Zylska, an Orthodox Jew. Her family immigrated to the States and settled in Suffolk, a small stereotypically segregated southern community in Virginia. Whites lived literally lived on one side of the tracks, the blacks on the other. And the Ku Klux Klan drove down Main Street to regularly remind everyone of their existence. Now called Rachel Shilsky, in an attempt to make her (and the family) assimilate into the American fabric, James McBride's mother lived a life filled with tension, unhappiness and fear. Her upbringing was as affection starved as her parents' loveless arranged marriage, and punctuated by mental and sexual abuse at the hands her father, a rabbi. Other than her gentile friend, she felt the most comfortable around the black folks she met, most of who patronized her father's store.
Her eventual flight to New York as a teenager brought her experiences, which in her naivete she was not equipped to handle. They simultaneously hurt, enlightened, shaped and strengthened her. She rebelled against most things she was expected to do and to be. After leaving Suffolk she changed her name to Ruth, met and fell in love with Andrew McBride, a handsome self-confident black man, and ultimately married him. Her marriage to James' father resulted in Ruth being disowned by her family who literally sat Shiva for her as if she were dead as she began to raise a family.
Ruth had lived on both sides of the fence. "Better" because she was white, hated by white folks in her small town because she was a Jew, ostracized because her husband and children where black. When her family abandoned her she eventually abandoned her faith and became a Christian. She co-founded a Baptist church with her husband and became a regular, if not odd fixture in the black community.
Search for Self...Search for Mom
At the same time James McBride recounts his personal search for himself. Why didn't his mother look like all the other moms waiting for their kids at the school bus stop? Why didn't she look like him? He needed more than her frequent vague response that she was "light-skinned."
His story weaves us through his life with colorful siblings who grew up, moved out, moved on and at the end seemed secure in their ethnicity as black men and women. All Ruth's children were instilled with the value of a good education. Though there were slip-ups in the perfect world Ruth tried to create for them ("orchestrated chaos" James recalls), including a sister who ran away at age 15 not to be see again until she was an adult. But James was not so confident about his heritage, often wondering where his mother came from. A smart young man, with good grades and musical skills, raised in a house where food was a commodity, he began to rebel. His life went from going someplace to going nowhere. His transformation brought him from promising student to militant to petty thief. Finally he reaches a point in his now more stable life where he needs to know more than the tidbits his mother would throw him when he asked about her background and family.
After confronting his paradoxically secretive and candid mother, she surprisingly begins to share her story.
The alternating narrative cleverly plays the somewhat parallel emotional and personal experiences against each other. Ruth and James' story spans an era from the 1930's to the late 1990's taking us through times where there is much hostility between blacks and whites. McBride attempts to understand his confused and rich ethnic heritage.
Each character, from his abusive grandfather and polio impaired grandmother to his highly lauded brother Dennis or rebellious sister Helen are portrayed without judgement and with honesty. Ruth's stories are frank, funny and poignant. She is a superb storyteller although at times she lacks the ability to be introspective. But those moments are few and far between. Her words, culled from hours of recordings made by her son are vivid and peppered with expressions, which expose her southern roots and African-American influences.
James paints equally vivid pictures but his a filled with greater emotion, from the stories of his older siblings tormenting their na´ve brother, to the moments he identified the place where his mother's home once stood.
His quest lets us explore the treacherous waters of race relations in the United States, where race is what sets you apart or makes you one with a particular group of people. For James and Ruth, their heritage was as much a source of pain as it was a source of strength and pride.
Despite Ruth's disavowing her Jewish roots, she found value in the lessons she learned as a young woman in a Jewish family. As much as she distrusted "white people" and particularly Jews, she sent her children to predominantly Jewish schools because she saw the work ethic, the constant effort to be the best something she could impart on her children.
And each of her children went on to become doctors, professors, writers, and musicians. Not to be outdone by her offspring, Ruth herself earned a Bachelor of Arts from Temple University at the age of 65.
Something to Take With Me
As a black father raising biracial children, this story reminded me (though I think about this everyday) of all the things I hope to instill in my daughters. The pride they need to have in both sides of their heritage. The value of family, the importance of self-esteem--not just ethnically, but as an individual with goals, and a unique voice to be shared with the world. I am happy our children will never have to worry about knowing their Caribbean/European roots.
Certainly, this is more than a story of racial ambiguity, conflict, contrast and pride. It is a story of the human experience and making the most of what is put on your plate. Even when you wish that plate was more amply filled.
In commemoration of Black History Month, Epinions reviewers have joined together to participate in a Black History Month Book Write-off. Our selections include works of adult and juvenile fiction, poetry, drama, biography, and non-fiction. Participating in this write-off are:
frazzledspice, jgibson2, jsgoddess, jnbmoore, brendamb, lunadisarm, nsgraham, hadassahchana, pippadaisy, caines (that's me), ed_grover, stephen_murray, Sloucho, and vemartin. Please check out their reviews and discover some excellent authors.
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