The Color of Water Summary

In The Color of Water, author James McBride alternates between telling his life story and the life story of his mother, Ruth. Ruth ran away from her Jewish family and married James' father, with whom she had eight children. James grew up in a large household, where his mother was strict, but loving. Ruth died in her home on January 9th, 2010.

  • Ruth runs away from her overbearing father, washing her hands of her Jewish heritage. In her new life, she finds happiness with Dennis, an African American man with whom she has eight children.

  • After Dennis' death, Ruth struggles to support her family. She then remarries and has four children with her second husband.

  • Ruth is a demanding and yet loving mother who insists that her children get an education. James grows up in a large, busy household and has a strong connection with his mother. Ruth dies in Ewing, New Jersey in 2010.

Chapter 1 Summary

Note: The chapters in The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother alternate between the stories of Ruth and her son, the author. All the odd-numbered chapters are written in memoir form, with the mother telling her life story to her son. In the book, those chapters are presented in italics.

James McBride’s mother was born Ruchel Dwanra Zylska, an Orthodox Jew, in Poland on April 1, 1921. She no longer remembers the name of the town. When her parents came to America they changed her name to Rachel Deborah Shilsky, and she changed it once more, to Ruth, in 1941 when she left Virginia for good. She had to leave that name—and her past—behind her so she could really live. She has been dead to her family for fifty years.

Ruth is dead to them now. They want no part of her, just as she wants no part of them. Her son wants to talk to them, but Ruth tells him he would be better off watching The Three Stooges, for Tateh would “have a heart attack” if he saw his grandson James.

When Ruth marries her husband, James’s father, her family mourns for her. Orthodox Jews say kaddish and sit sheva when a loved one is lost, and they do that for their daughter. They pray, turn mirrors down, sit on boxes for seven days, and cover their heads. They have lots of rules but not a lot of love. Fishel Shilsky, Ruth’s father, is an orthodox rabbi who escaped from the Russian army and sneaked across the border to Poland. His marriage to Ruth’s mother was arranged. He always teases that he is quite slick at getting out of adverse situations, and it was true of him as long as she knew him. His family calls him Tateh, which means “father” in Yiddish. He wears the same clothes throughout his life, including a tallis on his shirtsleeve; he wears them until they are beyond wearing because he is cheap. He moves quickly when needed and is a hard man.

Ruth’s mother, Hudis, is the antithesis of her father. She was born in Dobryzn, Poland, in 1896; however, no one there would have any record of Hudis or her family. Any Jews who did not escape Poland before Hitler arrived there were eradicated during his regime. She is very pretty but was paralyzed on her left side by polio and suffers generally poor health because of it. Her left hand is crippled and useless, she is blind in her left eye, and she drags her left foot behind her as she walks. She is a shy, quiet woman; her children call her Mameh. She is the one person Ruth feels she did “not do right by.”

Chapter 2 Summary

A few months before he dies, James’s stepfather finds a blue bicycle on the streets of Brooklyn and walks it home. It is a huge, clunky, old-fashioned bike with a motorized horn. Riding a bicycle becomes one of his mother’s two new hobbies (playing the piano is the other). James is fourteen when the man he called Daddy died at the age of seventy-two.

Hunter Jordan is steady and quiet and gentle. He marries James’s mother, a white, Jewish woman with eight children. James is the youngest, less than a year old at the time. Hunter and Ruth have four more children, and he loves them all as if they were his own. He often jokes that he has enough kids to make a baseball team. One day this strong, healthy man has a stroke and is gone.

After his stepfather dies, James regularly skips school to go to the movies and fails every one of his classes. His older siblings are concerned, but James continues his bad behavior: smoking reefer, snatching purses, shoplifting, and more. After a day of such activities, James sees his mother riding her blue bicycle as he heads home. People gawk as she rides by, a middle-aged white woman (the only white face in their Queens neighborhood) grieving her loss as she slowly rides her ancient bicycle. James is embarrassed.

Her first husband, Andrew McBride, died fourteen years earlier, while Ruth was pregnant with James. Although she is still beautiful and wanted, she has no interest in getting married for a third time. The family has very little money after Hunter Jordan dies, but Mommy grows adept at dodging bill collectors, playing the piano, willing her children into college—and riding that bicycle. She is odd and utterly unaware of the danger that puts her in by resentful people, both black and white. Kids whizz by her throwing small firecrackers; others throw baseballs perilously close to her head. Ruth is unaware of it all, and her children regularly sit on their front stoop and watch out...

(The entire section is 711 words.)

Chapter 3 Summary

Ruth’s parents, Fishel and Hudis, are united by a rov, a rabbi matchmaker who makes all the arrangements (including dowry) and prepares the marriage contract in accordance with Jewish law. There is no love in this union. Mameh’s family has all the money and position; Tateh sees her simply as his way to get to America. Her older sister and her husband are his sponsors when he comes to America; he is required to have sponsors to enter the country. He arrives first and sends for his family months later; once they get there, Hudis is no longer useful to him. Ruth keeps her transport papers with her for more than twenty years because she believed she could be sent back at any time. That is what her father tells them all—that he is a citizen but the rest of them could be deported back to Europe. Tateh is a cruel man. They live in constant fear of this threat, especially Mameh, who saw too many horrors when the Russian soldiers killed Jews and is glad to have escaped such terrifying acts.

When they first arrive, they stay in Manhattan with Mameh’s parents. Ruth loves this warm and loving couple. They are strictly Orthodox and keep a kosher house. Everything is eaten separately, no meat with dairy—and certainly no pork. The household is warm but strict in its Jewishness. Friday evening at sundown all activity ceases. The only thing a restless Ruth is allowed to do is read romance magazines, which she does for years.

When grandfather dies, everything moves quickly. He is laid out on the bed, and Ruth and her brother have to be lifted up to see him. All the traditions of mourning are kept, including sitting sheva, covering mirrors, sitting on boxes, and wearing black. He is buried that same night, and Ruth always thought it was too quick; she wonders if he is just joking. But in this family there are no questions, simply obedience. Ruth thinks maybe her claustrophobia stems from this moment of death because she did not really know what death was. Even the word “death” could not be said. From this moment, Ruth has a fear of death. Ruth always tells her children to kick or pinch her after they think she is dead to make sure she is really gone before they bury her. The thought of being buried alive scares her.

Chapter 4 Summary

James is always curious about where his mother came from. When he asks her, though, all she says is that God made her, then she changes the subject. When he asks if she is white, she tells him she is light-skinned—before she again changes the subject. Since their mother does not speak and their stepfather is not around to ask, the siblings piece together the little bits of information they gather. They tease James (as the youngest) about being adopted.

Often James wonders if they are right, for he looks nothing like his mother. In fact, all of his brothers and sisters are clearly some shade of brown, from darker to lighter, but his mother is clearly white. James has seen other light-skinned mothers and he has no doubt that they are black. He is certain his mother is white and is bothered that she refuses to “acknowledge her whiteness.”

Even his teachers seem to know his mother is white, which causes James more panic about being adopted. One night he waits up for his mother and questions her about their family. Mommy reminds him about Nash and Etta, his father’s parents. James remembers them as warm, brown, beautiful people. When he asks if they loved her, since her own parents did not, Ruth is silent for a moment. She then explains that her own mother died and her father “was a fox.” No more questions. As he eats a late-night snack, James has a clear sense that black people and white people do not get along.

In 1966, when James is nine, black power is part of everything he sees and hears. Malcolm X has died, and the Black Panthers are a dominant force in Queens. Talk of revolution is on the streets as well as in the McBride household. James and his friends regularly watch the local drag races and cheer for his stepfather and the other cars with the words “Black Power” written on them. Despite his cheering, James is also afraid of this movement because he is afraid for his white mother. When he sees angry demonstrations and acts of violence on the news, James...

(The entire section is 835 words.)

Chapter 5 Summary

Ruth’s father is like every other traveling preacher, except he is a rabbi. He is slick like all the other itinerant preachers, but he is not particularly smooth talking, and synagogues soon figure him out and send him on his way. Because of this, Ruth’s family does a lot of traveling when she is young. Orthodox Jews live their lives by contracts; they have contracts for everything. Often the family is paid by food, shelter, and hand-me-down clothes. In the midst of the moving, Ruth’s younger sister Dee-Dee is born. She is the last of Mameh’s children; Ruth is not sure whether her sister is still alive.

This odd Jewish family attracts a lot of attention, with a crippled mother and always on the move. Ruth is...

(The entire section is 527 words.)

Chapter 6 Summary

Mother loves God and goes to church every Sunday. She is the only white face in the crowd, and she sings every hymn with great energy and gusto, despite her horrible singing voice. In church she is known as Sister Jordan, and Rev. Owens overlooks her voice and appreciates her bringing all her children to church. He is a poor reader and struggles through every Bible reading, much to the children’s amusement. Sister Jordan, wearing her church dress and hat, chuckles and smiles and sometimes waves her hand, just like every other woman in the congregation.

Mother is a connoisseur when it comes to ministers, and she knows a good preacher when she hears one. Rev. Owens of Whosoever Baptist Church is not among her top five;...

(The entire section is 591 words.)

Chapter 7 Summary

Shilsky’s store is located at an intersection at the edge of town. To the left is the wharf, where boats from all over the world stop for layovers or for repairs before continuing their journeys. Sailors often come to the store and invite Ruth and her sister Dee-Dee to see their boats. Mameh always politely tells them no, but young, distrustful Dee-Dee admonishes them to leave—in Yiddish. The store gets quite a lot of traffic by the standards of the day.

One day as Ruth is sitting behind the counter, she sees a car full of men in white sheets drive by the store. Then more cars full of these masked men drive by, almost like a parade. Ruth does not know anything about the Ku Klux Klan, but as soon as the black...

(The entire section is 581 words.)

Chapter 8 Summary

James is one of what his mother calls the “Little Kids,” referring to the five youngest children out of twelve. They still have to go to bed early, believe in the tooth fairy, and obey the whims and orders of the older kids. Despite that, the kids are all best friends—until it comes to food. Because there is never enough food to go around, getting and consuming it is a primary objective in this household. Food is hidden, searched for, stolen, and sneaked; there are no secret places in which to hide the precious commodity. They learn to eat in all kinds of positions because there is not enough room at the table for all of them to sit at once. Mother gets her dinner free at the bank where she works, so she brings home as much...

(The entire section is 966 words.)

Chapter 9 Summary

In Suffolk there are three schools: the black school, the white school, and the Jewish schul. Tateh is the head of the schul, and he conducts Bible studies with all the students and cantoring (singing) with the boys. He also circumcises baby boys and butchers cows in a kosher manner; he has a special set of knives for each activity. He relishes his bloody butcher’s duties. After watching her father butcher cows, Ruth cannot eat meat for many years.

It is the law that children have to attend school, so Ruth attends the white Gentile school. Tateh is derisive about the education she is getting and pays for private tutoring in sewing, knitting, and record keeping. Although he is tight with his money in...

(The entire section is 393 words.)

Chapter 10 Summary

In the 1960s, if the family has any money, Ruth takes her children to the Lower East Side of Manhattan to shop for school clothes. She says that is where the deals are: 
“The Jews have the deals.” This is confusing to James because he only knows of Jews in the Bible. When they shop, Ruth and her dark-skinned brood cause the Hasidic Jew merchants to stare in wonder. Their mother drives a hard bargain for everything she buys, and often the merchants cluster together in a corner and discuss the situation in Yiddish. Ruth makes certain they know she understands what they are saying—and she tells them so in Yiddish. This causes her children to stop and gaze at her in wonder. They ask her where she learned this language. She...

(The entire section is 1297 words.)

Chapter 11 Summary

The only thing Tateh dislikes more than Gentiles is blacks, and particularly black men—and Ruth falls in love with a black man. It is not something she plans or designs, for it is a circumstance fraught with difficulties. Not only will it make her father angry, but in the South it is almost certainly a death sentence for a black man to touch a white woman. Ruth simply wants what other girls want: love, nice clothes, a date. Instead, her life is the store, and it does not satisfy her. She and Dee-Dee buy romance magazines in town and read them by candlelight on the Sabbath. This is Ruth’s only picture of what married life should be because her own family does not reflect love in any way. Tateh does not love Mameh, and their...

(The entire section is 598 words.)

Chapter 12 Summary

Hunter Jordan Sr. raises James as his own son. His real father, Andrew McBride, died before James was born, so Hunter Jordan is the only father James knows. His stepfather is a furnace fireman whose job it is to maintain the huge boilers that heat the projects in which the McBrides live. He and Ruth meet several months after McBride died. Ruth is selling church dinners in front of their building, and he comes regularly to purchase a meal from her. He finally asks her to the movies, and Ruth says her eight children also go to the movies. He teases her about having enough kids for a baseball team, and soon the two marry and add four more to the brood. No one in the household, including Hunter Jordan, differentiates between the...

(The entire section is 613 words.)

Chapter 13 Summary

Ruth knows her mother is aware of her condition. Mameh has very little responsibility, but she watches out for her daughters, and she knows Ruth is in trouble. She has long been aware of Ruth’s unhappiness and has been sending her to New York to stay with her family as often as she can. All of these relatives are rich, and most of them want little to do with their niece cousin from the South, the daughter of a crippled sister. Despite this, Ruth enjoys her time in New York because so much is happening and everyone is too busy to care about one’s race or religion.

Ruth stays with Aunt Laura, Aunt Mary, or her grandmother. Aunt Laura is older, lives in Manhattan, and is fabulously rich; in her house, Ruth must ask to...

(The entire section is 438 words.)

Chapter 14 Summary

James’s mother grieves wildly after her husband’s death, though she gives away all his tools, his clothes, and his hats so as not to be reminded of him. Her routine remains the same, but her “fire” is gone. She often daydreams, and she cries when she thinks her children cannot see her. Hunter Jordan’s gold Pontiac sits in front of the house for a long time, and Ruth vows she will learn to drive it. Instead, she rides her crazy old blue bicycle and plunks away at the piano. Her playing is excruciating for James so he leaves, and there is no one at home to stop him anymore.

James’s grades plummet immediately because he leaves every morning but never goes to school. He was a good student in ninth grade; in...

(The entire section is 1208 words.)

Chapter 15 Summary

After her abortion, Ruth writes to her father and tells him she does not want to return to Suffolk. For her junior year, she enrolls in Girls Commercial High School, right down the street from Bubeh’s home, and she has to work very hard. It soon becomes clear that she will not be able to graduate on time if she stays at this school, so Ruth returns home to finish high school. One of the first things she does is tell Peter she cannot see him anymore. He tells Ruth he loves her, and she is swayed because she still loves him deeply.

Not long after that, two black women enter the store. They are talking about Peter. One of them says Peter is getting married soon because he got some girl pregnant, and Ruth is stunned. She...

(The entire section is 566 words.)

Chapter 16 Summary

On a Saturday morning several weeks after James returned from Louisville and a few months after Hunter Jordan died, Ruth wakes her son and tells him they are going driving. With his two-year-old niece in his arms, James follows his mother to Daddy’s car. As far as James knows, his mother has never driven before and is afraid. Ruth knows everything possible about the public transportation system and uses it religiously (which means she is late to nearly everything), but it is time for her to drive. She wants James to teach her, though he has only driven illegally.

By this time, James is beginning to take Chicken Man’s words to heart. He knows he is no smarter, no wiser, and no bolder than any of those men back on the...

(The entire section is 837 words.)

Chapter 17 Summary

When Ruth gets to New York, she works at her Aunt Mary’s leather factory and lives with her grandmother, Bubeh, who now lives in the Bronx. Things are different now because Ruth is no longer a child who needs help. Aunt Mary has become obese and is even more demanding of her, and Ruth feels some sympathy for Mary’s husband, Uncle Isaac. He is henpecked and browbeaten by his wife and turns to alcohol for his escape, but he becomes vulgar and mean after he drinks.

Meanwhile, Aunt Mary is carrying on with her best friend’s husband. He is a tall, handsome gentleman who comes to Aunt Mary’s factory twice a week and they have private time behind her locked door. Ruth knows this because Aunt Mary sends her to the store...

(The entire section is 881 words.)

Chapter 18 Summary

In the summer of 1974, Ruth walks into her kitchen in Queens and announces they are moving to Delaware. Seven of her children are in college or graduate school; five are still at home. None of the children is in a financial condition to help her mother keep up with the repairs on the house. It takes weeks to pack, and James is eager to go. If they stay in New York, it is likely he will have to spend an extra year in high school to graduate; James also needs to break away from his former friends. He hopes things will be different in Delaware and offer him a fresh start. The younger girls, on the other hand, want to stay. When they explain their reasoning at a family meeting, Mother is convinced and announces they will no longer be...

(The entire section is 1001 words.)

Chapter 19 Summary

After she terminates her relationship with Rocky, Ruth leaves the fast life and settles into a more mundane lifestyle. She takes a job as a server in a diner. After several weeks Dennis seeks her out and they begin dating. Dennis is different from any of the other men Ruth has been around—he is more serious and thoughtful, more solid. He came to New York in his mid-twenties to pursue his music, which is later than most who make their way to the city. He is an only child and his mother needed him at home; she finally understood his need to study and play music in a place that would make him better. He plays the violin and composes mostly religious and classical music. He is also a fine singer and regularly sings at church.


(The entire section is 871 words.)

Chapter 20 Summary

In November 1982, James is driving to Virginia at four o’clock in the morning. He has just dropped off his ex-girlfriend, a black model with a two-year-old son. Ruth does not like her because she is likely to ruin her son’s future. At the age of twenty-four, James is a reporter for the Boston Globe; this is a prestigious job for a young, black man. His best friend at work is an old, white guy who is the paper’s jazz critic, and spending time with him reignites James’s passion for music. James is having an identity crisis. He wonders whether he should pursue writing or music—he does not know if he can do both. Boston is a racially charged town, where issues of class, politics, education, and history are full of...

(The entire section is 765 words.)

Chapter 21 Summary

While Ruth is still in Suffolk in the summer of 1941, Mameh receives a letter from her family in New York. They say they have three rooms worth of furniture and ask if she wants it. Bubeh lives in a three-room apartment; this is their way of telling her Bubeh is dead. The letter is in English (which Mameh cannot read) and addressed to Tateh. After he reads it, he tosses the letter to Ruth and tells her to read it to her mother. Ruth waits until the evening to do so, to spare her mother a day of sadness at the store. Mameh sits in the rocker and remains silent and motionless, with tears slipping down her face. In bed that night, Tateh weeps for her dead mother; Ruth has never forgotten that sound.

Ruth does not stay in...

(The entire section is 555 words.)

Chapter 22 Summary

In August 1992, James is standing in front of the small synagogue in Suffolk where his mother and her family once attended services. When he was a boy, Jewish holidays were nothing more than days off from school; now they are part of his family’s heritage. While he is standing there, some police officers come by and watch him carefully. A black man loitering anywhere is still likely to attract the interest of the police in Virginia, and James is sure his explanation—that his grandfather used to be the rabbi here—is not likely to be believed. He sits on the front steps with his tape recorder and his notebook.

James’s long search for the Shilsky family ends here. He has scoured records and knows his grandmother...

(The entire section is 700 words.)

Chapter 23 Summary

Ruth and Dennis are living in an apartment in New York in 1942. One night after work, Ruth is walking down the hallway of her building when a black woman punches her in the face and tells her not to disrespect her. Dennis talks to her later, and she explains that a white woman does not belong here. Dennis calmly tells her to leave his wife alone, and she does. (They are still not married, but they consider themselves husband and wife.) After Tateh’s death, Ruth chooses to stay on the “black side” because that is the only place she can be. The few problems she has with blacks are minimal in comparison to the “grief white folks dished out.” With them it is simple: if she chooses to be with a black man, she is white trash...

(The entire section is 1275 words.)

Chapter 24 Summary

In October 1994, New Brown Memorial Baptist Church, the church Andrew McBride founded, is celebrating its fortieth anniversary. New Brown is Mother’s home church and the church in which James eventually gets married. James’s father never saw his dreams for New Brown fulfilled, but when James looks through his father’s old, brown briefcase he catches a glimpse of the kind of man his father was. He was a man constantly thinking. The briefcase contains references to many great thinkers and inspirational people as well as notebooks of sermons and Bible verses. James also finds the phone numbers of doctors his father had hoped could help cure his cancer, but of course none of them could. Andrew McBride left no insurance policy or...

(The entire section is 590 words.)

Chapter 25 Summary

When James is helping Mother write her will in June 1993—something she does not want to do—they talk about her burial arrangements. She insists she does not want to be buried in New Jersey, though she is now living there with her daughter Kathy. James tells her they will bury her in Virginia, but she says she does not want to go back there. James is sure she will want to be buried next to her first husband in North Carolina, but she is adamant that she has had enough of the South. Although she spent forty years of her life in New York, she says it is too crowded. When pressed, Ruth throws up her hands and says it is all nonsense and “who cares?” Ruth has had a cancerous mole from her face removed, and now she is thinking...

(The entire section is 619 words.)