Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Color of Water (copy)

James is eight years old when he notices something different about his mom. As she stands alone, away from the other mothers, he sees it. “Mommy, are you white?”

“Why no child, I’m light-skinned.”

He then looks around to his brothers and sisters and notices their skin. Okay, that seems possible. Some of his brothers and sisters are dark and some are light.

Days later James decides to consult an older brother and his reply, “You’re adopted.” Adding insult to injury, “Your real mom is in jail.”

Fast forward to James’ junior year in college at Oberlin and he’s filling out forms requiring his mother’s maiden name. Right away James knows this is going to be like pulling teeth. His mother has always avoided questions about her background and this will be no exception.

After much hemming and hawing, Mrs. McBride Jordan reluctantly drops a bombshell. “My maiden name is Shilsky.”

Through the silent shock James fumbles out, “Can you spell that, Ma?”

“You’re in college,” she snaps. “You can spell. Figure it out yourself.”

James is just one of twelve siblings who struggle in the depressing conditions of New York City’s Red Hook Projects during the 1960s. It doesn’t help that his mother is the only white woman in the area. He worries for her safety, but she has three rules for her and her children’s success. Always put church and school first, and never tell anyone about your home life.

She may be evasive about her past, she may speak a different language when haggling with shopkeepers, she may even be poor and white, but Ruth McBride Jordan manages to see all twelve children through college. Her life is an incredible story and now that James has become a successful journalist it’s time to work that interview magic on Ma.

James is author James McBride and his moving memoir is titled, The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother.

1 comment: