Rachel Smalter Hall's Reviews > The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother

The Color of Water by James McBride
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's review
May 16, 2011

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bookshelves: american, memoirs-and-bios
Read from May 16 to 24, 2011

In my job at the library I've been moderating a monthly book group, which has given me the chance to try out some titles that aren't usually on my radar. Earlier this year we read The Post-American World and Black Elk Speaks, and more recently I got to read James McBride's The Color of Water.

It made for a really short and sweet read. McBride, a black jazz musician and writer from New York, wrote it in tribute to his white Jewish mother, who lived a pretty eccentric and difficult life. Her story is actually pretty dark, involving a lot terror, violence and abuse at the hand of a patriarchal and misogynist father, yet McBride somehow manages to tell it all so gently. In fact, I found it a little too gentle, and would have liked for him to take a few more risks in exposing the heart of this far-from-usual story.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this memoir is McBride's discussion of identity politics as he and his dozen-or-so siblings all struggled to define themselves in relation to their bi-racial parents during the heyday of the Black Panther movement. Again, this is another place where I wish McBride had been a little more gutsy.

Ultimately, he strikes a very positive, inspiring note in loving tribute to his mother, and it works. I'd call it a safe, gentle read for groups who are interested in discussing race and/or abuse, but in a controlled and structured way.

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