The cover of the paperback edition of James McBride's The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother (Riverhead $12) is headed by a quote from a now-defunct woman's magazine called Mirabella that says: "The Color of Water [will] make you proud to be a member of the human race." It's the sort of blurb publishers dream of, but what is it saying? Like maybe you weren't proud to be a member of the human race before you started reading the book? And what's the missing word (or words) signaled by the bracket around the "will"? That pushy little "will" has been supplied by the publisher to give additional emphasis to Mirabella's claim. And what about the person who feels "proud to be a member" while reading The Color of Water and then goes out the next day and abuses a child or blows up a government building or votes for a piece of legislation that's going to inflict further hardship on a family like the one described in the book?
If there's anyone you should be proud of after reading this book it's the author, his amazing mother, and his 11 siblings. One of the book's many virtues is that it avoids inflated phrases like the one I've been carping about.
Now here we are in Princeton with numerous copies of The Color of Water available at the Princeton Public Library as part of the "Princeton Reads" community reading program. All this month groups will be meeting to talk about the book, which was published ten years ago. The author himself will be talking about it at the library this Thursday evening. His memoir has obvious resonance in Princeton with its proud African American population represented by the Witherspoon neighborhood and the "we've-come-a-long-way" symbolism of our library's location on the corner of a street named after Princeton native Paul Robeson.
Keeping Mirabella's claim in mind, you can say Princeton has a right to feel proud that this book and this author are being so widely read, admired, and discussed here. But reading James McBride's memoir made me curious to take another look at James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son, which I hadn't read in years. I'd forgotten that Baldwin lived in the Princeton area for a time in the early 1940s; he was just out of high school and had never ventured beyond New York City and Harlem. Here's some of what he had to say about his year in New Jersey:
"I knew about jim crow but I had never experienced it. I went to the same self-service restaurant three times and stood with all the Princeton boys before the counter, waiting for a hamburger and coffee; it was always an extraordinarily long time before anything was set before me, but it was not until the fourth visit that I learned that, in fact, nothing had been set before me: I had simply picked something up. Negroes were not served there, I was told."
Baldwin found that "it was the same story all over New Jersey, in bars, bowling alleys, diners, places to live. I was always being forced to leave." Since he was someone "who had always acted" as if he thought "a great deal" of himself ("I had to act that way"), the impact of this constant rejection was cathartic and helped light the fire that illuminates his best work. "That year in New Jersey lives in my mind as though it were the year during which I first contracted some dread, chronic disease, the unfailing symptom of which is a kind of blind fever, a pounding in the skull and fire in the bowels."
Speaking of pride in human achievement, think about what Baldwin did when he turned his fever into literature and produced a life's work worthy of a place in the Library of America.
Born in 1957, more than 30 years after Baldwin, James McBride grew up in the era of Black Power and Black Pride. It's no surprise that his writing has little in common with that of the author of Notes of a Native Son. He has none of Baldwin's "fire in the bowels." What he accomplishes in The Color of Water is the maintaining of a balance between the emotional content of his material and the weight of his prose. He doesn't rage and he doesn't pontificate. He doesn't rhapsodize or sentimentalize. He doesn't twist your arm. He lays it right on the line. He has a remarkable story to tell and he tells it well.
His most impressive achievement is the portrayal of his mother, which works because he respects that fine balance between emotion and perception and because he allows her to speak with her own voice in first-person chapters interspersed with chapters written in his own jaunty style. For all purposes, Ruth McBride Jordan (born Rachel Deborah Shilsky) is the book's co-author as well as its subject. A lesser writer might have attempted to glorify or create a sentimental stereotype of this rabbi's daughter who was born in Poland and raised in Virginia. McBride keeps his pride in check and reminds us of her flaws and frailties; she's a terrible housekeeper, and not much better as a cook; she doesn't walk but "waddles." Our first image of her is in the author's fond if embarrassed recollection of the "strange, middle-aged white lady" riding an ancient, clunky blue bicycle in a neighborhood where she was "the only white person in sight." Our last image of her comes in the book's concluding sentence, which shows her turning away from the synagogue she'd been staring at ("lost in thought"): "her bow-legged waddle just the same as it always was." By giving the book this closing touch, McBride inadvertently (or maybe knowingly) evokes one of the century's (and the human race's) most memorable images: that of Charlie Chaplin's indomitable bow-legged tramp waddling into the sunset.
If The Color of Water makes you feel good about humanity, it also gives you reason to feel the opposite. What is more inhumane a young black man being refused service in a restaurant by a waitress who is only stating by rote her employer's edict, or what happened to Ruth McBride when she was declared "dead" by members of her own family for marrying a black man and leaving Judaism for Christianity? And because she was "dead" (they actually sat shiva for her), she was denied a visit to her dying mother.
Most of the book's humanity is on the African-American side. The author's father and stepfather are both admirable men, either of whom might have provided material for an interesting book had McBride had the opportunity to sit down with them with a taperecorder the way he did with his mother. And while his maternal grandfather, Rabbi Shilsky, is, to put it mildly, an unsympathetic character, he is also one reason why the book does justice to the "only thing worth writing about," according to William Faulkner: "the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself."
McBride states it his own way in a 2003 interview: "If you're not going to say anything to people that gets them through the day and comes from your heart and has some kind of spirituality, you shouldn't do this. You have to live honestly. When I run out of good things to say to people, that's when I'll stop writing."
James McBride will visit the Princeton Public Library's Community Room this Thursday, March 16, at 7:30. His mother may not be present, but she's not far away. She lives in Ewing where she once ran (maybe she still does) a reading club at the library.
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