The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother
By James McBride
Riverhead Books New York 1996 314 pages
Just as the title indicates, this book focuses on McBride’s white Jewish mother who never identified with white people. She loved Black people, married Black men, and was extremely proud of and educated her many Black children who all grew up to be working professionals. It is a fascinating story because you have such deep description of a real person: her history, her words, her actions, her beliefs. It is also heartwarming that an adult male child took such a great interest in the inner world of his mother. His love for her is great and enduring.
There is a short intro where McBride says his mother was “the daughter of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi [who] married a black man in 1942” (xvii). His mother will not reveal where she was from or if she were Black [she was not]. She educated all her children who didn’t even know her maiden name when they were grown.
Whenever the text is in italics it indicates that McBride’s mother is speaking. She begins the narrative with “I’m dead.”: “They want no parts of me and me I don’t want no parts of them.” “I was born an Orthodox Jew on April 1, 1921…in Poland” (1).
Mother says her mother’s name was Rachel Shilsky and “is dead as far as I’m concerned. She had to die in order for me, the rest of me, to live.” “My father’s name was Fishel Shilsky and he was an Orthodox rabbi” (2). When Mother married a Black man they mourned as if she were dead.
2 The Bicycle
The author always thought of his stepfather as Daddy. “He married my mother, a white Jewish woman, when she had eight mixed-race black children, me being the youngest at less than a year old. They added four more children…” “…a stroke, and he was gone” (6).
“Hunter Jordan, my stepfather, was dead. Andrew McBride, my biological father, had died while she was pregnant with me fourteen years earlier.” “The image of her riding that bicycle typified her whole existence to me. Her oddness, her complete nonawareness of what the world thought of her, a nonchalance in the face of what I perceived to be imminent danger from blacks and whites who disliked her for being a white person in a black world. She saw none of it” (8).
“She was the commander in chief of my house, because my stepfather did not live with us.” “Matters involving race and identity she ignored” (9).
“‘C’mon,’ she said, ‘I’ll walk you to the bus stop.’ Surprise reward. Me and mommy alone. It was the first time I remember ever being alone with my mother.
“It became the high point of my day, a memory so sweet it is burned into my mind like a tattoo, Mommy walking me to the bus stop…” (11).
“Gradually, as the weeks passed and the terror of going to school subsided, I began to notice something about my mother, that she looked nothing like the other kids’ mothers. In fact, she looked more like my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Alexander, who was white. Peering out the window as the bus rounded the corner and the front doors dlew open, I noticed that Mommy stood apart from the other mothers, rarely speaking to them. She stood behind them, waiting calmly, hands in her coat pockets, watching intently through the bus windows to see where I was, then smiling and waving as I yelled my greeting to her through the window. She’d quickly grasp my hand as I stepped off the bus, ignoring the stares of the black women as she whisked me away.
“One afternoon as we walked home from the bus stop, I asked Mommy why she didn’t look like the other mothers.
“‘Because I’m not them,’ she said.
“‘Who are you?’ I asked.
“‘I’m your mother.’
“‘Then why don’t you look like Rodney’s mother, or Pete’s mother? How come you don’t look like me?’
By kindergarten McBride sees that his mother looks different than the other mothers. She won’t discuss it.
Text in italics again. It is a description of the traditions of his mother’s Jewish grandparents.
4 Black Power
“When I asked her if she was white, she’d say, ‘No. I’m light-skinned,’ and change the subject again” (21). There are secrets.
“Yet Mommy refused to acknowledge her whiteness. Why she did so was not clear, but even my teachers seemed to know she was white and I wasn’t. On open school nights, the question most often asked by my schoolteachers was: ‘Is James adopted?’ which always prompted an outraged response from Mommy” (23).
“I thought black power would be the end of my mother” (26).
“Her motto was, ‘If it doesn’t involve your going to school or church, I could care less about it and my answer is no whatever it is.’
“She insisted on absolute privacy, excellent school grades, and trusted no outsiders of either race. We were instructed never to reveal details of our home life to any figures of authority: teachers, social workers, cops, storekeepers, or even friends” (27).
“She and my father brought a curious blend of Jewish-European and African-American distrust and paranoia into our house. On his end, my father, Andrew McBride, a Baptist minister, had his doubts about the world accepting his mixed family” (28).
“…represented the best and worst of the immigrant mentality: hard work, no nonsense, quest for excellence, distrust of authority figures, and a deep belief in God and education. My parents were nonmaterialistic. They believed that money without knowledge was worthless, that education tempered with religion was the way to climb out of poverty in America, and over the years they were proven right.”
“Mommy’s contradictions crashed and slammed against one another like bumper cars at Coney Island. White folks, she felt, were implicitly evil toward blacks, yet she forced us to go to white schools to get the best education. Blacks could be trusted more, but anything involving blacks was probably slightly substandard” (29).
McBride describes his mother’s personality and society back in 1966. He speaks of civil rights leaders and his mother identifying as Black. McBride always fears that his mother will be hurt by Black people. “The incident confirmed my fears that Mommy was always in danger” (34).
McBride is always in mortal fear that his mother will be hurt or killed.
5 The Old Testament
McBride had grandparents and an aunt he never knew. In italics:
“We attracted a lot of attention when we traveled because we were poor and Jewish and my mother was handicapped. I was real conscious of that. Being Jewish and having a handicapped mother. I was ashamed of my mother, but see, love didn’t come natural to me until I became a Christian” (38).
“His marriage was a business deal for him. He only wanted money. That and to be an American. Those were the two things he wanted, and he got them too, but it cost him his family, which he ran into the ground and destroyed” (41).
Mother was sexually abused by her father: “Of course I had something to run from. My father did things to me when I was a young girl that I couldn’t tell anyone about. Such as getting in bed with me at night and doing things to me sexually that I could not tell anyone about. When we’d go to the beach in Portsmouth, he’d get into the water with me, supposedly to teach me how to swim, and hold me real close to his body near his sexual parts and he’d have an erection. When we’d get back to the beach, Mameh would ask, ‘Are you getting better at swimming?’ and I’d say, “Yes, Mameh,’ and he’d be standing there, glaring at me. God, I was scared of him” (42).
“Folks will run with that, won’t they? They’ll say, ‘Oh, she felt low, so she went on and married a nigger.’ Well, I don’t care. Your father changed my life. He taught me about a God who lifted me up and forgave me and made me new. I was lucky to meet him or I would’ve been a prostitute or dead. Who knows what would’ve happened to me. I was reborn in Christ. Had to be, after what I went through” (43).
6 The New Testament
Mom went to and brought her kids to Black churches. Mom LOVED church.
A little part that reminds me of me: “…about fifteen feet back from the sidewalk, with a sign above the door that was done by a painter who began his lettering without taking into account how little space he had. It read: WHOSOEVER BAPtist Church” (49).
“…like ‘We’ve Come This Far by Faith’ or ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus,’ she would bow down her head and weep. It was the only time I ever saw her cry. ‘Why do you cry in church?’ I asked her one afternoon after service.
“‘Because God makes me happy.’”’Then why cry?’
“‘I’m crying ‘cause I’m happy. Anything wrong with that?’” (50).
“All my siblings, myself included, had some sort of color confusion at one time or another, but Richie dealt with his in a unique way. As a boy, he believed he was neither black nor white but rather green like the comic book character the Incredible Hulk. He made up games about it and absorbed the character completely into his daily life…”(52).
There is talk of the KKK. In italics: “It seemed to me death was always around Suffolk. I was always hearing about somebody found hanged or floating in the wharf. And we were uneasy too, my family, because in the South there was always a lot of liquor and drinking…” (58).
“They didn’t complain about it. Who would they complain to? The cops? The cops wouldn’t ride back there, you crazy? They were scared to or didn’t want to. But what always struck me about black folks was that every Sunday they’d get dressed up so clean for church I wouldn’t recognize them. I like that. They seemed to have such a purpose come Sunday morning. Their families were together and although they were poor, they seemed happy. Tateh hated black people. He’d call the little children bad names in Yiddish and make fun of their parents, too. ‘Look at them laughing,’ he’d say in Yiddish. ‘They don’t have me in their pocket and they’re always laughing.’ But he had plenty money and we were all miserable. My brother Sam, he couldn’t take it and ran off as soon as he got big enough” (61).
Sam was the author’s uncle. “He didn’t know a soul in Chicago and made it there on his own. Mameh was beside herself with that letter. ‘Write him back,’ she told me. ‘Write him back now and tell him to come home.’ so I did. I wrote Sam and told him to come home, but he never did come home and I never did see him again.
“He joined the army and got killed in World War II, my brother Sam. I didn’t find out what happened to him till long after the fact, when your daddy died in 1957. I had seven kids and was pregnant with you and I called one of my aunts to ask for help and she said, ‘Your brother died in the war.’ I asked her what happened, and she said,’ Stay out of our lives. You’ve been out. Stay out.’ And she hung up on me, so there was nothing I could do for Sam but pray for him” (63).
8 Brothers and Sisters
Stories of what would go on in the house while Mommy was gone. When Helen was 15 she ran away.
When Mom was in grade school nobody liked her for being Jewish. She had one friend, Francis. People were poor, but Mom’s family always had enough to eat. Her dad didn’t mind paying for private tutors.
“…communicated the sense to us that if we were lucky enough to come across the right Jew in our travels–a teacher, a cop, a merchant–he would be kinder than other white folks. She never spoke about Jewish people as white. She spoke about them as Jews, which made them somehow different.”
“It was in her sense of education, more than any other, that Mommy conveyed her Jewishness to us. She admired the way Jewish parents raised their children to be scholastic standouts, insulating them from a potentially harmful and dangerous public school system by clustering together within certain communities, to attend certain schools, to be taught by certain teachers who enforced discipline and encouraged learning, and she followed their lead” (87-8).
“She invariably chose predominantly Jewish public schools…”
“We grew accustomed to being the only black, or ‘Negro,’ in school and were standout students, neat and well-mannered, despite the racist attitudes of many of our teachers…” (89).
“Ma, what’s a tragic mulatto?” I asked.
Anger flashed across her face like lightning and her nose, which tends to redden and swell in anger, blew up like a balloon. “Where’d you hear that?” she asked.
“I read it in a book.”
“For God’s sake, you’re no tragic mul–What book is this?”
“Just a book I read.”
“Don’t read that book anymore.” She sucked her teeth. “Tragic mulatto. What a stupid thing to call somebody! Somebody called you that?”
“Don’t ever ever use that term.”
“Am I black or white?”
“You’re a human being,” she snapped. “Educate yourself or you’ll be a nobody!”
“Will I be a black nobody or just a nobody?”
“If you’re a nobody,” she said dryly, “it doesn’t matter what color you are.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” I said.
She sighed and sat down. “I bet you never heard the joke about the teacher and the beans,” she said. I shook my head. “The teacher says to the class, ‘Tell us about different kinds of beans.’
“The first little boy says, ‘There’s pinto beans.’
“‘Correct,’ says the teacher.
“Another boy raises his hand. ‘There’s lima beans.’
“‘Very good,’ says the teacher.
“Then a little girl in the back raises her hand and says, ‘We’re all human beans!’”
She laughed. “That’s what you are, a human bean! And a fartbuster to boot!” She got up and went back to cooking while I wandered away, bewildered. (92-3)
“The question of race was like the power of the moon in my house. It’s what made the river low, the ocean swell, and the tide rise, but it was a silent power,, intractable, indomitable, indisputable, and thus completely ignorable. Mommy kept us at a frantic living pace that left no time for the problem” (94).
“Now the others began to act out, and the sense of justice and desire for equal rights that Mommy and father had imparted to us began to backfire. Kind, gentle, Sunday school children who had been taught to say proudly, ‘I am a Negro,’ and recite the deeds of Jackie Robinson and Paul Robeson now turned to Malcolm X and H. Rap Brown and Martin Luther King for inspiration. Mommy was the wrong color for black pride and black power, which nearly rent my house in two” (96).
“The extended black family was Mommy’s hole card, and she played it as often as the times demanded because her family was not available to her.”
“I’m dead. They’re dead too by now probably. What’s the difference? They didn’t want me to marry on the black side.”
“But if you’re black already, how can they be mad at you?” (99)
“…and going out with Mommy, which had been a privilege and an honor at age five, had become a dreaded event. I had reached a point where I was ashamed of her and didn’t want to the world to see my white mother. When I went out with my friends, I’d avoid telling her where we were playing because I didn’t want her coming to the park to fetch me. I grew secretive, cautious, passive, angry, and fearful…” (100).
“As I walked home, holding Mommy’s hand while she fumed, I thought it would be easier if we were just one color, black or white. I didn’t want to be white. My siblings had already instilled the notion of black pride in me. I would have preferred that Mommy were black. 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. I don’t consider myself Jewish, but when I look at Holocaust photographs of Jewish women whose children have been wrenched from them by Nazi soldiers, the women look like my own mother and I think to myself, There but for the grace of God goes my own mother–and by extension, myself. When I see two little Jewish old ladies giggling over coffee at a Manhattan diner, it makes me smile, because I hear my own mother’s laughter beneath theirs. Conversely, when I hear black ‘leaders’ talking about ‘Jewish slave owners’ I feel angry and disgusted, knowing that they’re inflaming people with lies and twisted history, as if all seven of the Jewish slave owners in the antebellum South, or however few there were, are responsible for the problems of African-Americans now. Those leaders are no better than their Jewish counterparts who spin statistics in marvelous ways to make African-Americans look like savages, criminals, drags on society, and ‘animals’ (a word quite popular when used to describe blacks these days). I don’t belong to any of those groups. I belong to the world of one God, one people. But as a kid, I preferred the black side, and often wished that Mommy had sent me to black schools like my friends. Instead I was stuck at that white school, P.S. 138, with white classmates who were convinced I could dance like James Brown. They constantly badgered me to do the ‘James Brown’ for them, a squiggling of the feet made famous by the ‘Godfather of Soul’ himself, who back in the sixties was bigger than life. I tried to explain to them that I couldn’t dance. I have always been one of the worst dancers that God has ever put upon this earth. My sisters would spend hours at home trying out new dances to Archie Bell and the Drells, Martha Reeves, King Curtis, Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, and the Spinners” (104).
Problems with color out in society.
“If there was one thing Tateh didn’t like more than gentiles, it was black folks. And if there was one thing he didn’t like more than black folks in general, it was black men in particular. So it stands to reason that the first thing I fell in love with in life was a black man. I didn’t do it on purpose. I was a rebellious little girl in my own quiet way, but I wasn’t so rebellious that I wanted to risk my own life or anybody else’s life. They would kill a black man for looking at a white woman in the South in those days. They’d hang him. And the girl, they’d run her out of town” (107).
“I was never asked out for a date by anyone in school. I loved to dance and had long legs, and I once auditioned for a dance musical at school and made it, but some of the girls made such a fuss over having to dance next to a Jew that I dropped out of it. During gym class when we’d pick tennis partners, the girls would pick and pick until I’d be standing alone. If Frances wasn’t around, I wouldn’t get picked. I’d like to say I didn’t care about my classmates, and what they thought of me” ((108).
“None of the boys in school would even bother with me. So after a while I had me my own friend, and he didn’t care that I wore secondhand clothes or was Jewish. He never judged me. That’s the first thing I liked about him, in fact that’s what I liked about black folks all my life: They never judged me.”
“I loved that boy to death and he loved me. At least, I thought he did. Who cared that he was black? He was the first man other than my grandfather who ever showed me any kindness in my life, and he did it at the risk of his own because they would’ve strung him up faster than you can blink if they’d have found out. Not us the Ku Klux Klan but the regular white folks in town would’ve killed him. Half of them were probably the Klan anyway, so it was all the same. You know death was always around Suffolk, always around. It was always so hot, and everyone was so polite, and everything was all surface but underneath is was like a bomb waiting to go off. I always felt that way about the South, that beneath the smiles and southern hospitality and politeness were a lot of guns and liquor and secrets. A lot of those secrets ended up floating down the Nansemond River just down the road from us. Folks would go down to the wharf and throw out nets for crabs and turtles and haul in human bodies. I remember one of our customers, Mrs. Mayfield, they found her son out there, he wasn’t more than seventeen or so. He’d been killed and tied to a wagon wheel and tossed into the wat until he drowned or the crabs ate him. You know a crab will eat anything. You have never seen me eat a crab to this day and you never will.”
“Well, Peter and I were having our regular little secret rendezvous, carefully arranged. We’d meet in the yard or the passage behind the store, or he’d write a note and slip it to me secretly. If the store was closed he’d slide the note under the front door. On the Sabbath, Friday nights, it was a thrill for me to pretend I was going downstairs to the kitchen and then creep into the store to pick up the torrid love notes he slipped under the door. He would pledge his love for me no matter what and write out the plan for our secret meeting. At the appointed time he’d come by and pick me up in a car and I’d get into the back seat and lie flat so I wouldn’t be seen. He had friends that lived out in the country in isolated areas, and that’s where we would be together.
“You know, my whole life changed after I fell in love. It was like the sun started shining on me for the first time, and for the first time in my life I began to smile. I was loved, I was loved, and I didn’t care what anyone thought. I wasn’t worried about getting caught, but I did notice that Peter’s friends were terrified of me; they stayed clear anytime I came near them. They’d walk away from me if they saw me walking down the road coming toward them, and if they came into the store, they wouldn’t even look at me. That started to worry me a little but I didn’t worry much. Then after a while, my period was late. By a week.
“Then another two weeks.
“Then it never came.
“Well, the whole thing just started to unravel on me then. I was pregnant and couldn’t tell a soul. The white folks would have killed him and my father would have killed him. I had maybe just turned fifteen then. There wasn’t a person I could tell. I’d wake up in bed in a sweat, and go outside to the back balcony to hide my tears from my sister. I did consider telling Frances, but that was too much to ask. This was 1936. I mean, what I did was way, way out as far as white folks were concerned” (112).
“You know, the thing was, I was supposed to be white and ‘number one,’ too. That was a big thing in the South. You’re white, and even if you’re a Jew, since you’re white you’re better than a so-called colored. Well, I didn’t feel number one with nobody but him, and I didn’t give a hoot that he was back. He was kind! And good! I knew that! And I wanted to tell folks that, I wanted to shout out, ‘Hey y’all, it really doesn’t matter!’ I actually believed folks would accept that, that they’d see what a good person he was and maybe accept us, and I went through a few days of thinking this, after which I told him one night, ‘Let’s run off to the country and get married,’” (113-4).
Momma was never liked by the boys until one black boy came along. He was nicer to her than anyone and they fell in love. 1937. She got pregnant and didn’t know what to do. This could cost them their lives.
“His name was Hunter Jordan, Sr., and he raised me as his own son.
“As a small boy, I was never quite aware of the concept of ‘father’” (117).
“He married her and made the baseball team his own, adding four more kids to make it an even twelve. He made no separation between the McBride and Jordan children, and my siblings and I never thought of or referred to each other as half brothers and sisters; for the powerless Little Kids, myself included, he was ‘Daddy.’ For the midlevel executives, he was sometimes ‘Daddy,’ sometimes ‘Mr. Hunter’” (118).
“His father was a black man, a railroad brakeman, and his mother a Native American, so he had a lot of Indian in his face: brown skin, slanted brown eyes, high cheekbones, and a weather-beaten outdoor look about him, a very handsome dude” (120).
James had a pretty great stepdad who eventually died of a stroke.
13 New York
“My mother knew I was pregnant and in trouble” (129).
“She just went about it in that matter-of-fact way my mother’s family did things. She made a few phone calls, found a Jewish doctor in Manhattan, and took me to his office, where I had an abortion. It was a horrible, painful experience and the doctor used no anesthesia” (134).
Just as Momma’s family was neither immigrant nor American, Mommy was neither black nor white. (In her soul she was black.)
14 Chicken Man
When James’s stepfather died both he and his mom lost it. James drops out of school. He begins smoking weed and stealing.
“It did not help. My friends became my family, and my family and mother just became people I lived with” (140).
“I was numb. I felt I was getting back at the world for injustices I had suffered, but if you sat me down and asked me which injustices I was talking about, I wouldn’t have been able to name them if my life depended on it…I had no feelings. I had smothered them. Every time they surged up, I shoved them back down inside me the way you stuff clothing in a drawer and shut it. Reefer and wine helped me to forget any pain, and as the pain and guilt increased, my problems with drugs worsened” (142).
“The men did not seem to be afraid of the police, nor did they dislike them. Their lives just seemed complete without the white man. I liked that. Their world was insular, away from the real world that I was running from. They called me ‘New York’…I turned fifteen on the Corner but could act like I was twenty-five, and no one cared. I could hide. No one knew me. No one knew my past, my white mother, my dead father, nothing. It was perfect. My problems seemed far, far away” (147).
“‘And nobody’ll give a damn neither!’ Chicken Man snapped. ‘Everybody on this corner is smart. You ain’t no smarter than anybody here. If you so smart, why you got to come on this corner every summer? ‘Cause you flunkin’ school! You think if you drop out of school somebody’s gonna beg you to go back? Hell no! They won’t beg your black ass to go back. What makes you so special that they’ll beg you! Who are you? You ain’t nobody! If you want to drop out of school and shoot people and hang on this corner all your life, go ahead. It’s your life” (150)!
James is getting a taste of true street life.
After Moma aborted Peter’s baby in high school, she moved away for a year. During that time peter got another girl pregnant. Mama’s heart was broken.
“Oh, that messed me up. I told him I didn’t want to see him anymore and walked back through the black neighborhood, into the store, and went upstairs and cried my heart out, because I still loved him. I went through this entire ordeal and here he was getting busy with somebody else. The fact that he was black and the girl he was marrying was black–well, that hurt me even more. If the world were fair, I suppose I would have married him, but there was no way that could happen in Virginia. Not in 1937” (154).
Mom’s father never cared for Mom’s mom.
“I wasn’t going to have an arranged marriage like my parents did. I’d rather die first, which I did do in a way, because I lost my mother and sister when I left home” (155).
Moma’s Jewish father forbid her to go into the Protestant church for her graduation ceremony. Mama left the next day for N.Y.C.
James begins to turn around although he was still seeking solace in drugs in order to distance himself from his mother’s suffering.
“I wanted to give up weed, but I couldn’t. Weed was my friend, weed kept me running from the truth. And the truth was my mother was falling apart.
“Looking back, I see it took about ten years for Mommy to recover from my stepfather’s death. It wasn’t just that her husband was suddenly gone, it was the accumulation of a lifetime of silent suffering, some of which my siblings and I never knew about. Her past had always been a secret to us, and remained so even after my stepfather died, but what she had left behind was so big, so complete that she could never entirely leave it: the dissipation of her own Jewish family, the guilt over abandoning her mother, the separation from her sister, the sudden, tragic death of his first husband, whom she adored. While she never seemed on the verge of losing her mind, there were moments when she teetered close to the edge, lost in space. Even in my own self-absorbed funk, I was worried about her, because as my siblings and I slowly got to our emotional feet, Mommy staggered about in an emotional stupor for nearly a year. But while she weebled and wobbled and leaned, she did not fall. She responded with speed and motion. She would not stop moving. She rode her bicycle. She walked” (163).
“…her Orthodox Jewish ways had long since translated themselves into full-blown Christianity. Jesus gave Mommy hope. Jesus was Mommy’s salvation. Jesus pressed her forward. Each and every Sunday, no matter how tired, depressed, or broke, she got up early, dressed in her best, and headed for church. When we kids grew too old and big for her to force us to go, she went alone, riding the F train from Queens to Brooklyn to New Brown Memorial, the church she started with my father. Church revived her, filled her up, and each Sunday she returned a little more renewed, until that Saturday afternoon she announced she was going to drive my stepfather’s car” (165).
“Rachel Deborah Shilsky could drive a car and pull a trailer behind it, but Ruth McBride Jordan had never touched a steering wheel before that day in 1973, and you can make book on it” (168).
17 Lost in Harlem
“I don’t know what drew me there–maybe because I’d lived around black folks most of my life, or because I’d heard so much about it. In those days, nobody in New York City went to the Village to have fun. Harlem was the place. White and black came to Harlem to party. There weren’t heavy drugs and crime like there is now. It was different. People were flowing up to Harlem in droves, from the South, from Chicago, from everyplace. Harlem was like magic” (171).
“Nobody would hire me. Why would a white girl hang around Harlem unless she was up to something bad” (172)?
“I would stay in the little room he rented for me for a few days, then go back to Bubeh’s, then go back there to my little room again. Bubeh was getting very suspicious now, but she was very old then, she slept a lot, you know, and she had diabetes, and I got over on her the way my grandkids get over on me now. I told her anything, you know, and after a while it got so that I couldn’t see my grandmother anymore and keep doing what I was doing, hanging out in Harlem. I had to break away and not go back home to her, because Bubeh reminded me too much of what I was and where I came from. I needed to move into Harlem completely and make enough money to stay there and e cool and wear the fancy dresses and the clothes. So one day I asked Rocky, ‘When do I get to make money like your other girls?’ I knew what I was saying. I wasn’t blind. But what was love to me? What did I know about love? And sex? I wanted to be swinging, but Rocky said, ‘You’re not ready to get out there yet. I’ll tell you when you’re ready’” (175).
If Mama hadn’t had friends looking out for her she likely would have become a prostitute. She returns to her grandmother’s.
18 Lost in Delaware
“In June 1974, Mommy walked into the kitchen of our house in Queens and said, ‘We’re moving to Delaware. Pack up the house.’ She had five kids at home and seven who were away at college” (177).
“My mother is the only individual I know who can fall asleep instantly for two minutes–deep REM sleep, complete with snoring–only to be awakened instantly by certain select noises” (178).
Culture shock: “…the promised land of Macy’s, Gimbels, and Ohrbach’s, entertaining them for free at museums, parades, block parties, and public concerts, Wilmington was a land of suburban shopping malls, high school marching bands, blond prom queens, small-town gossip, and an inner city from which whites were fleeing as fast as their Ford Pintos could take them. We were shocked by the racial division of the city and surrounding county, where most of the black kids attended understaffed and underfunded city schools while whites attended sparkling clean suburban schools with fantastic facilities. The segregated schools came as a complete surprise to Mommy, who had not even considered that problem, and the southern vibe of the city–anything south of Canal Street in Manhattan was the South to us–brought back unpleasant memories for Mommy. She hates the South” (180).
“But mommy did not have that insight, and from that moment on she hated Delaware. ‘We’re really moving back to new york now,’ she said” (181).
We see James’s life changing in Deleware and how he feels about white people.
“It hurt me a little bit to stand there and lie. Sometimes it seemed like the truth was a bandy-legged soul who dashed from one side of the world to the other and I could never find him” (187).
“She had few friends there. The black folks found her to be awkward. The white folks bored her. But there was no quick and easy escape.
“College was my way out. My eldest brother’s wife, Becky, had gone to Oberlin College in Ohio and she told me I should apply because they had a great liberal ars school, a conservatory of music, and most of all, scholarship money. My high school grades were sour, my SATs low, but my musical and writing abilities were strong and I had good recommendations” (188).
A sad parting from Mama as James leaves for college. This is her eighth child in a row to go to college.
19 The Promise
Dennis the violinist.
“…Aunt Mary’s leather factory and we started going out, he brought me by there and said, ‘I want y’all to meet a friend of mine,’ and their eyes kind of popped out when I walked into the room.
“This was around 1940 and black and white didn’t do what me and Dennis were doing, walking around and such. Some folks did it, but it was all secret, or they were good-time, partying folks like Rocky’s friends at Small’s Paradise. But Dennis was a Christian man and a serious man and so were his friends. This was no joking matter to them.”
“She was the grandchild of slaves. When I first came to North Carolina and walked into her house, she said, ‘I just hope you excuse me for looking at you so hard, because I’ve never had a white person in my house before, and I’ve never been this close to a white person before.’ And I said, ‘All right,’ and she was my friend till she died. I’ll never forget her as long as I live. She lived to be nearly a hundred. We wouldn’t have made it without Aunt Candis. She came up from North Carolina and cared for y’all after Dennis died, because I was grieving and lost and I couldn’t move. I couldn’t move. She took the train all the way up to New York from North Carolina and took care of all eight of you, including you, James, and you weren’t but a tiny child. She had never been to the city before. She’d never seen so much cement and so many tall buildings in her life. Your stepfather, he bought her a big gold watch after he married me and she left to go home to North Carolina. He said, ‘That’s some woman,’ and he was right. She was some woman” (195).
“So I did my own thing. I moved in with Dennis and I didn’t regret it. He continued to work for my Aunt Mary while I was living with him, and she never knew it” (196).
A father she grew up with but never really knew.
“She tried to ignore that, too, as long as she could, and I don’t think she knew for a while because Tateh was always a little strange anyway, you know, and secretive. He never told us anything, like where he was born, or if he had any family or relatives. Every summer he’d disappear for a few weeks to Europe. He’d say, ‘I’m going to see my landsman,’ and off he’d go on a steamer to France someplace. ‘Landsman’ in Jewish is somebody from your hometown. We’d run the store in his absence, me, Dee-Dee, and Mameh. To this day I don’t know exactly where he went, but a few weeks later he’d strut into the store, put down his bags, and say, ‘Where’s my money?’ We’d give it to him and he’d sit down and count it. Even before he took off his jacket, he’d count his money. He knew just how much he was supposed to earn a week, more or less. He was serious about his money.”
“…say our prayers to begin the Sabbath, and Tateh would pack a bag of groceries and throw them in his car while Mameh watched him. He’d say to her in Yiddish, ‘I’m going out.’ Then he’d say to me in English, ‘I won’t be back till Monday. Open up the store Sunday morning.’” (198).
Mama’s parents getting divorced and how hard it was on the family.
20 Old Man Shilsky
As a young adult in Boston facing prejudice. Learning about his grandfather; not a pretty picture.
“‘Well…he just disliked black folks. And he cheated them. Sold ‘em anything and everything and charged ‘em as much as he could. If you owed him five dollars he’d make you pay back ten. He shot ol’ Lijah Ricks in the stomach. Lijah brought that on himself though, went in the Shilskys’ store fussin’ over some sardines and crackers and wouldn’t pay. Shilsky shot him in the left or right side, I can’t remember which. He didn’t kill him, but he was a hateful one, Old Man Shilsky. His own wife was scared of him’” (209).
James goes to Suffolk where his mom grew up. It is difficult to hear more stories of his mean ol’ grandpa.
21 A Bird Who Flies
“There was no life in Suffolk for me. I packed what few things I wanted and tried to talk to Dee-Dee before I left, but she wouldn’t talk to me. ‘You promised you wouldn’t go,’ she said, and she walked away from me. As I left the store to walk downtown to the bus station, Mameh handed me a bag lunch and kissed me and I was out the door and gone. I never saw her or Dee-Dee ever again. Tateh didn’t say a word to me as I walked out” (214).
“I began to yell at him and we argued. Here he was having divorced Mameh and he was still using her against me. Then he said, ‘I know you’re gonna marry a shvartse. You’re making a mistake.’ That stopped me cold, because I didn’t know how he learned it. To this day I don’t know. He said, ‘If you marry a nigger, don’t ever come home again. Don’t come back’” (215).
“…he heard Aunt Mary say that my mother was sick and had been brought up to a hospital in the Bronx. I right away went out and called Aunt Mary and asked if she knew where Mameh was. She said, ‘You’re out of the family. Stay out. We sat shiva for you. You can’t see her.’ Well, that just hurt me to the bone. That night I told Dennis, ‘I’ve got to see her.’ He said, ‘Ruth, your aunt Mary made it clear that you’re not welcome up there’” (216).
“That’s why she gave me that passport. I’ve always held that to this day, that guilt, that I left Mameh, because all her life I was the one who translated for her and helped her around. I was her eyes and ears in America, and when I left…well, Sam had gone, and Bubeh had died, and her husband treated her so bad and divorced her, and her reasons for living just slipped away. It was a bad time” (217).
The story of when grandpa died.
22. A Jew Discovered
Interactions with white Jews: “Like most of the Jews in Suffolk they treated me very kindly, truly warm and welcoming, as if I were one of them, which in an odd way I suppose I was. I found it odd and amazing when white people treated me that way, as if there were no barriers between us. It said a lot about this religion–Judaism–that some of its followers, old southern crackers who talked with southern twangs and wore straw hats, seemed to believe that its covenants went beyond the color of one’s skin. The Sheffers, Helen Weintraub, the Jaffes, they talked to me in person and by letter in a manner and tone that, in essence, said ‘don’t forget us. We have survived here. Your mother was part of this…’” (224).
“The Shilskys kept to themselves. Your Uncle Sam, he joined the air force and got killed in a plane crash in Alaska” (226).
“The Shilskys were gone. Long gone” (228).
“It suddenly occurred to me that my grandmother had walked around here and gazed upon this water many times, and the loneliness and agony that Hudis Shilsky felt as a Jew in this lonely southern town–far from her mother and sisters in New York, unable to speak English, a disabled Polish immigrant whose husband had no love for her and whose dreams of seeing her children grow up in America vanished as her life drained out of her at the age of forty-six–suddenly rose up on my blood and washed over me in waves. A penetrating loneliness covered me, lay on me so heavily I had to sit down and cover my face. I had no tears to shed. They were done long ago, but a new pain and a new awareness were born inside me. The uncertainty that lived inside me began to dissipate; the ache that the little boy who stared in the mirror felt was gone. My own humanity was awakened, rising up to greet me with a handshake as I watched the first glimmers of sunlight peek over the horizon. There’s such a big difference between being dead and alive, I told myself, and the greatest gift that anyone can give anyone else is life. And the greatest sin a person can do to another is to take away that life. Next to that, all the rules and religions in the world are secondary; mere words and beliefs that people choose to believe and kill and hate by. My life won’t be lived that way, and neither, I hope, will my children’s. I left New York happy in the knowledge that my grandmother had not suffered and died for nothing.
“In 1942 Dennis and I were living in a room in the Port Royal on 129th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, and one night after work I walked into the hallway of our building and this black woman punched me right in the face. She hit me so hard I fell to the floor. ‘Don’t disrespect me!’ she said. She was a raving lunatic. I never even knew who she was. I somehow got off the floor and she chased me up to our room and I slammed the door on her and waited for my husband to get home. Dennis went to speak to her when he got home from work. ‘That white woman don’t belong here,’ she said. That’s what she told him. Dennis didn’t attack her. He just said, ‘Leave my wife alone,’ and she did. Even though we were not married, we considered ourselves husband and wife.“
“Some black folks never did accept me. Most did, but there were always a few running around saying ‘Nubian this’ and ‘Nubian that’ and always talking bout Africa and all this. Well, I’m a mother of black children, and nobody will ever deny me my children, and they can put that in their Nubian pipe and smoke it. All this Nubian. If you want to go back to Africa, James, well, you can go. I don’t see the point in your going when you have your family here. But if you feel you want to go to Africa to find your roots I won’t stop you. I’ll still be your mother when you come back. And you’ll still be my son.
“There was no turning back after my mother died. I stayed on the black side because that was the only place I could stay. The few problems I had with black folks were nothing compared to the grief white folks dished out. With whites it was no question. You weren’t accepted to be with a black man and that was that. They’d say forget it. Are you crazy? A nigger and you? No way. They called you white trash. That’s what they called me. Nowadays these mixed couples get on TV every other day complaining, ‘Oh, it’s hard for us.’ They have cars and televisions and homes and they’re complaining. Jungle fever they call it, flapping their jaws and making the whole thing sound stupid. They didn’t have to run for their lives like we did. Me and Dennis caused a riot on 105th Street once. A bunch of white men chased us up the street and surrounded Dennis and tried to kill him, throwing bottles and hitting and kicking him until one of them made the rest of them stop. He said, ‘Get out of here while you can!’ and we ran for it. See, most interracial marriages did not last. That’s what Dennis would say when we argued. I’d say, ‘I’m leaving,’ and he’d say, ‘Go ahead. Go ahead. That’s what people want us to do. That’s what they expect.’ And he was right” (231-2).
“Dennis was a deacon and he sang in the church choir. And it was a mighty, mighty choir too. What a time it was. Those were my glory years” (234).
“All his friends from North Carolina who lived in Harlem would come see him. They’d holler up to our window. ‘Dennis…Denis!’ and he’d invite them in and give them our last food or the shirt off his back if they asked. He came from a home where kindness was a way of life. I wanted to be in this kind of family. I was proud to join it, and they were happy to have me.”
“There were a lot of stares and whispering and pointing and silly questions when we went to the marriage bureau to get our license. The clerks were very nasty and no one wanted to write up our paperwork, but we didn’t let those fools ruin our marriage. We got the license and Rev. Brown married us in his private office at the church. I had told him the truth about me and Dennis not really being married and he said, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll marry you and be quiet about it.’” (236).
“‘We have to be strong. You know what people will say about us, Ruth. They’ll try to break us up.’ I said, ‘I know. I’ll be strong,’ and over the years we were tested, but we never split up or even spent a night apart except when he took the kids to North Carolina to see his parents. I never could go south with him because of the danger. The first time I went south with him was the last time, when I took his body down there to bury him” (237).
“Our family grew so fast, before I knew it me and Dennis and four kids were cramped in that one room. So we applied to get an apartment in the Red Hook Housing Projects in Brooklyn” (239).
“I loved that man. I never missed home or my family after I got married. My soul was full.”
“With his little salary, we could barely afford to feed our kids–we had gone from four kids to five to six to seven. I mean, after a while they just dropped like eggs and we loved having them…” (240).
Prejudice is experienced even in life-or-death situations.
“A sinking feeling like I was going right down into blackness. The children woke up and they were huddled together crying and I started to cry. Part of me died when Dennis died. I loved that man more than life itself and at times I wished the good Lord would have taken me instead of him, because he was a much better person for living than me. He just had so much more to give the world than me. He brought me new life. He revived me after I left my family, brought me to Jesus, opened my eyes to a new world, then passed on himself. Lord, it was hard. Very hard to let him go. I was angry at him for dying for a while afterwards, angry that he left me with all those kids, but more than that, I missed him” (244).
“I was thirty-six then and had been with Dennis nearly sixteen years and I’d never functioned without him” (245).
“I was on my own then, but I wasn’t alone, because like Dennis said, God the Father watched over me, and sent me your stepfather, who took over and he saved us and did many, many things for us He wasn’t a minister like Dennis. He was different, a workingman who had never been late for work in the thirty years that he worked for the New York City Housing Authority, and he was a good, good man. I met him after you were born and after a while he asked me to marry him, and Aunt Candis said, ‘Marry that man, Ruth. Marry him!’ and she’d clean the house spotless and cook up these splendid meals when your stepfather came by, to make me look good. He thought I was making up those tasty yams and pork chips and I can’t cook to save my life. When I told him the truth, he said it didn’t matter, that he wanted to marry me anyway, even though his brothers thought he was crazy. I had eight children! But I wasn’t ready to marry. I turned him down three times. I took you down to North Carolina to show you to Dennis’s parents, Etta and Nash, in late ‘57–they only lasted four or five years after their only child died–and when I told Grandma Etta I was thinking of marrying again, she said, ‘God bless you, Ruth, because you’re our daughter now. Marry that man.’ That’s how black folks thought back then. That’s why I never veered from the black side. I would have never even thought of marrying a white man. When I told your stepfather about how my sister and Aunt Betts treated me, he spoke about them without bitterness or hate. ‘You don’t need them to help you,’ he said. ‘I’ll help you for the rest of my life if you’ll marry me,’ which I did, and God bless him, he was as good as his word” (246-7).
The story of Daddy Dennis dying and how the stepfather took over a family of eight kids.
Chapter 24: New Brown
New Brown in the Red Hook Housing Projects. “This is Mommy’s home church. This is the church where I got married. This is the church my father Andrew McBride built” (250).
“He left behind no insurance policy, no dowry, no land, no money for his pregnant wife and young children, but he helped establish the groundwork for Ma’s raising twelve children which lasted thirty years–kids not allowed out after five o’clock; stay in school, don’t ever follow the crowd, and follow Jesus–and as luck, or Jesus, would have it, my stepfather helped Mommy enforce those same rules when he married her. The old-timers at New Brown used to say god honored Rev. McBride. The man died without a penny, yet his children grew up to graduate from college, to become doctors, professors, teachers, and professionals all. It was the work, they said, of none other than Jesus Christ Himself” (251).
This is what extraordinary mothers and fathers can do.
Living in certain past memories while avoiding others:
“For years, Mommy rarely talked about my father. It was as if his death was so long ago that she couldn’t remember; but deep inside she saw her marriage to him as the beginning of her life, and thus his death as part of its end, and to reach any further beyond that into her past was to go into hell, an area that she didn’t want to touch. In order to steer clear of the most verboten area, the Jewish side, she steered clear of him as well. Her memory was like a minefield, each recollection a potential booby trap, a Bouncing Bettery–the old land mines the Viet Cong used in the Vietnam War that never went off when you stepped on them but blew you to hell the moment you pulled your foot away” (253).
How Mom morphed into the new era of New Brown Church.
Chapter 25: Finding Ruthie
“‘No way, I spent all my life running from the South. Don’t put me in the South.’
‘Okay. New York,’ I said. ‘You lived there forty years. You still love New York.’
‘Too crowded,’ she sniffed. ‘They bury them three deep in New York. I don’t want to be smushed up under somebody when I’m buried.’
‘Where should we bury you then?’
“She threw up her hands. ‘Who cares?’”
“Doctors found squamous cell cancer in a small mole they removed from Ma’s face, a condition caused by too much exposure to the sun. Ironically, it’s a condition that affects mostly white people. To the very end, Mommy is a flying compilation of competing interests and conflicts, a black woman in white skin, with black children and a white woman’s physical problem” (260).
Identity issues for James
“If it takes as long to know Jesus as it took to know you, I think, I’m in trouble. It took many years to find out who she was, partly because I never knew who I was. It wasn’t so much a question of searching for myself as it was my own decision not to look. As a boy I was confused about issues of race but did not consider myself deprived or unhappy. As a young man I had no time or money or inclination to look beyond my own poverty to discover what identity was. Once I got out of high school and found that I wasn’t in jail, I thought I was in the clear. Oberlin College was gravy–all you could eat and no one telling you what to do and your own job to boot if you wanted one. Yet I laughed bitterly at the white kids in ragged jeans who frolicked on the camps lawn tossing Frisbees and went about campus caroling in German at Christmas. They seemed free in ways I could not be. Most of my friends and the women I dated were black, yet as time passed I developed relationships with white students as well, two of whom,–Leander Bien and Laurie Weisman–are close friends of mine today. During the rare, inopportune social moments when I found myself squeezed between black and white, I fled to the black side, just as my mother had done, and did not emerge unless driven out by smoke and fire. Being mixed is like that tingling feeling you have in your nose just before you sneeze–you’re waiting for it to happen but it never does. Given my black face and upbringing it was easy for me to flee into the anonymity of blackness, yet I felt frustrated to lie in a world that considers the color of your face an immediate political statement whether you like it or not. It took years before I began to accept the fact that the nebulous ‘white man’s world’ wasn’t as free as it looked; that class, luck, religion all factored in as well; that many white individuals’ problems surpassed my own, often by a lot; that all Jews are not like my grandfather and that part of me is Jewish too. Yet the color boundary in my mind was and still is the greatest hurdle. In order to clear it, my solution was to stay away from it and fly solo” (261-2).
“…I wore my shirt and tie like an imposter. I wandered around the cities by day, stumbling into the newsroom at night, exhausted, to write my stories. I loved an empty city room, just the blinking terminals and a few deadbeats like myself. It was the only time I could write, away from white reporters, black reporters, away from the synergy of black and white that was already simmering inside my soul, ready to burst out at the most inopportune moments. Being caught between black and white as a working adult was far more unpleasant than when I was a college student. I watched as the worlds of blacks and whites smashed together in newsrooms and threw off chunks of human carnage that landed at my feet. I’d hear black reporters speaking angrily about a sympathetic white editor and I’d disagree in silence. White men ruled the kingdom, sometimes ruthlessly, finding clever ways to gut the careers of fine black reporters who came into the business full of piss and vinegar, yet other white men were mere pawns like myself. Most of my immediate editors were white women, whom I found in general to be the most compassionate, humane, and often brightest in the newsroom, yet they rarely rose to the top–even when compared to their more conservative black male counterparts, some of whom marched around the newsrooms as if they were the second coming of Martin Luther King, wielding their race like baseball bats” (263).
“It was a devastating realization, coming to grips with the fact that all your life you had never really known the person you loved the most. Even as a young boy I was used to Mommy hiding her past, and I grew to accept it, and the details of her past got lost as my own life moved forward, which is probably how she wanted it anyway. I never even seriously broached the subject with her until 1977, when I was in college and had to fill out a form that for some reason or other required Ma’s maiden name. I called her long-distance, in Philadelphia, to find out, and she was suddenly evasive” (266).
“I felt like a Tinkertoy kid building my own self out of one of those toy building sets; for as she laid her life before me, I reassembled the tableau of her words like a picture puzzle, and as I did, so my own life was rebuilt.
“Mommy has changed, changed from the time she adopted Christianity back in the 1940s. What’s different is that she can face the past now. After years of saying, ‘Don’t tell my business,’ she reached a point where she now says, ‘It doesn’t matter. They’re all dead now, or in Florida,’ which in her mind is the same as being dead. ‘I’ll never retire to Florida,’ she vowed. Riding past a graveyard one day, she looked over and remarked, ‘That’s Florida Forever.’
“Ma settled in to get her college degree in social work from Temple University at age sixty-five. She enjoyed the intellectual back-and-forth, the study, reading different authors–I’d forgotten how bright she was. The constant learning and yearning for knowledge was what helped her finally move away from the bustle of Philadelphia to settle into the quieter, safer suburb of Ewing with my sister Kathy. For a few years, she used her degree to work as a volunteer in a Philadelphia social service agency that helped pregnant, unwed mothers; then she moved on to run a weekly reading group for literate and illiterate senior citizens at the local Ewing library, which she still does today. But that’s not enough to keep her busy. Every day she rises, spirits her two grandchildren off to school and drives around central New Jersey, haggling with merchants at flea markets, taking yoga classes in sweats and Nikes, tooling along in a 1995 Toyota at twenty-seven miles an hour in a fifty-five-mile-an-hour zone, holding up traffic on Route 1 listening to Bernard Maltzer on WOR-AM or the Howard Stern show. (‘Grandma laughs when Howard Stern talks dirty,’ my niece Maya whispers.) Sometimes she’ll get up in the morning and disappear for days at a time, slipping away to her old stomping grounds, the Red Hook Housing Projects, to go to church and see her old friends there. She loves Red Hook. Despite the fact that my siblings often urge her to stay out of the projects, she won’t. ‘Don’t tell me how to live,’ she says. She’s always been slightly out of control, my mother, always had the unnerving habit of taking the ship into the air to do loops and spins, then fleeing the cockpit screaming, ‘Someone do something, we’re gonna crash!’ then at the last dying second slipping into the pilot’s seat and coolly landing the thing herself, only to forget the entire incident instantly. She wouldn’t recall it for you if you showed her pictures of herself doing it. She wipes her memory instantly and with purpose; it’s a way of preserving herself. That’s how she moves. Her survival instincts are incredible, her dances with fire always fun to watch. ‘Ruthie,’ my sisters affectionately called her. ‘Ruthie’s crazy’” (271).
“Like any family we have problems, but we have always been close. Through marriage, adoptions, love-ins, and shack-ups, the original dozen has expanded into dozens and dozens more–wives, husbands, children, grandchildren, cousins, nieces, nephews–ranging from dark-skinned to light-skinned; from black kinky hair to blond hair and blue eyes. In running from her past, Mommy has created her own nation, a rainbow coalition that descends on her house every Christmas and Thanksgiving and sleeps everywhere–on the floor, on rugs, in shifts; sleeping double, triple to a bed, ‘two up, three down,’ just like old times” (277).