'Color of Water': grief, inspiration, God

January 21, 1996|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,sun staff

"The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother," by James McBride. Riverhead Books. 228 pages. $22.95 This book's subtitle should read: "A Black Man's 'loving' tribute ..." Ruchel Dwajra Zylska, known in America as Rachel Deborah Shilsky and, finally, known to all as Ruthie, is an amazing woman. The daughter of a rabbi and merchant, her youth remained a secret until her son sought out her past in his adulthood.

Mr. McBride, a former staff writer for the Boston Globe, People magazine and the Washington Post has written a wonderful story that goes beyond race. Though race was a defining force in the experiences of mother and son, there was much more. There was faith, love, determination.

Rachel Shilsky died when she left Suffolk, Va., for New York City. But Ruthie lived. Lord, how she lived. Twice married to black men, she raised 12 children - all of whom went on to college - and founded an all-black Baptist church with her first husband in the living room of their home in the Red Hook housing project.

There are two stories here. Mr. McBride's richly detailed memoir of growing up with his gang of brothers and sisters alternates with Ruthie's earthy, honest remembrance of a Jewish girl who became a devout Christian. The stories echo one to another, past to present, mother to son.

The McBrides are a raucous brood, as vicious, funny and caring as any group of siblings. Mr. McBride's search for self is complicated by his being a mixed child coming of age in the racially charged era of the 1960s and '70s. It is largely an internal quest. The world sees him as black.

Ruthie is ever present. She is a relentless force, virtually unbending, always demanding, never revealing the story of her life.

"We traded information on Mommy the way people trade baseball cards at trade shows," Mr. McBride writes, later saying, "Mommy's contradictions crashed and slammed against one another like bumper cars at Coney Island."

She dragged her children to every free cultural event she could find, put them in the best public schools - no matter how long the transit ride.

Mr. McBride leaves it to Ruthie to tell her story. It has the feel of oral history, as if he had set a tape recorder before her and let her talk. Growing up a Jew in the South of the 1930s, she was already an outcast. And when she married a black man, she was forever cast out from her family.

"I stayed on the black side because that was the only place I could stay," she said. "The few problems I had with black folks were nothing compared to the grief white folks dished out."

Those problems and griefs still exist. Mr. McBride does not offer any solutions, only the inspiring story of one family's success and the woman who made it possible. For Ruthie, however, the solution is quite simple: "It's not about black or white. It's about God and don't let anyone tell you different."

M. Dion Thompson is a features writer at The Sun, he wa assistant bureau chief in the Anne Arundel bureau. He also worked at the Miami Herald.

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