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Sunday, May 09, 2010

The Color of Water

The Color of Water by James McBride. A book review.
   In one sense, it is a remarkable story about a mother who married two good men and raised twelve children, among them medical doctors, university professors, journalists and musicians. In another, it is a story of faith, as Ruth McBride goes on, with her husband, to co-found a Baptist church in New York. Yet it is made all the more noteworthy because Ruth was a white, Jewish woman, and both her husbands were black. In the ultimate sense, therefore, the most redemptive part of this story may be how God raised her above prejudice—Jew against gentile, white against black, black against white, even dark-skinned blacks versus light-skinned—and gave her, her twelve children, and her grandchildren a wonderful gift.
   Ruchel Dwara Zylska, the daughter of a failed itinerant Orthodox rabbi, fled her native Poland with her family in 1921 and settled in Suffolk, Virginia. Her father was a cruel man who abused his crippled wife and mistreated his daughter. Along with this harsh treatment, she and her family were ostracized in the South because they were not white, but “Jews.”
   Working long hours in her father’s mercantile store in a black community, she began to identify with the black children her age, also marginalized and discriminated against. Ruth Shilsky (her Americanized name) fled persecution once again when, at seventeen, she moved to New York. There she met Andrew Dennis McBride, a violinist from North Carolina studying music. He was a deacon and choir member at a Harlem church, where she began attending, and where something else happened:
   In 1942, Ruth said to Andrew Dennis McBride, “I want to accept Jesus Christ into my life and join the church.”
   Dennis said, “Are you sure you want to do this, Ruth? You know what this means?”
   I told him, “I’m sure.” I was totally sure.
When it became apparent that Ruth intended to marry Dennis, her Jewish family sat shiva for her, proclaiming her dead to them. From that moment on, her community was the black community of her husband and her soon-to-follow children.
   The author, James McBride, tells his own story beside hers. Her vivid recollections, dictated reluctantly at first, match perfectly James’s story of growing up with “the strange, middle-aged white lady riding her ancient bicycle.” In places the story is hard (both of Ruth’s husbands die, leaving her with eight and then twelve children to raise; James faces the hurdles of inner-city gangs and drugs), and finding their way was hard for both James and Ruth. Yet it is a powerful story of God’s grace. James became
a jazz musician, journalist and author, and Ruth earned a B.A. in Social Work at age 65.
   The evocative title comes from a conversation between mother and son:
[O]ne afternoon, on the way home from church, I asked her if God was black or white.
A deep sigh, “Oh boy…God’s not black. He’s not white. He’s a spirit.”
“Does he like black or white people better?”
“He loves all people. He’s a spirit.”
“What’s a spirit?”
“A spirit’s a spirit.”
“What color is God’s spirit?”
—Wayne Steadham

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