Book Review: The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother

The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother
By James McBride
Riverhead Trade

These fine books provide a multitude of perspectives on the lives of persons of Black/white ancestry in the United States. Besides offering gripping tales of the difficulties encountered by mixed race people in a society stratified along Black/white lines, they offer important insights into the complexities of race. Although many, perhaps most, in this country view race relations through Black/white lenses, the realities of modern social life, as exemplified by the stories told in these books, are infinitely more complex.

Jane Lazarre’s Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness tells of the racial enlightenment of a Jewish woman who married an African American man. In this well-written memoir, Lazarre describes the anguish of a white parent watching how cruel a racist world can be to her own flesh and blood. She sees how the police treat her son as a young Black man, and therefore a suspected criminal, and listens while a speaker at his graduation from the Afro-American Studies department at Brown University proclaims that “you must always be better than white people, you must be exceptional in order to succeed in this society.” Lazarre slowly comes to the realization that her Black sons will have a dramatically different set of life experiences than her own. She also soberly explains how she felt the odd one out of the family when her oldest son proudly embraced a Black, and rejected a white, identity.

Raising Black sons transformed Lazarre’s racial sensibilities: “Being the white mother of Black children in a racist society is a strenuous process …. One must be educated, willing to cross over into an entirely new way of seeing things.” Lazarre thoughtfully analyzes her evolution from a colorblind view of civil rights nurtured by 1960s activism to her later understanding that race conscious remedies are necessary to combat the discrimination that she sees suffered by Black persons she loves. She emphasizes that most whites fail to understand the prevalence of racism in the modern United States: “whiteness … is being oblivious, out of ignorance or callousness or bigotry or fear, to the history and legacy of American slavery, to the generations of racial oppression continuing; to the repeated indignities experienced by Black Americans every single day …; to the highly racialized society that this country remains.”

One unexplored aspect of Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness concerns how interracial relationships come to be. Lazarre suggests more than once that simple fate resulted in her marriage to an African American man. One is left to wonder how an individual’s choice of a spouse — particularly one of a different race — in fact is influenced by society, race, politics, and personal sensibilities, as well as by mere chance and the amorphous emotion known as love. Interracial relationships in the United States historically have been viewed as political statements, whether it be slaveholders’ exerting horribly abusive power over Black women or Eldridge Cleaver’s controversial views about the dominance of white women through violence. Many informed observers agree that racial identity entails at least some personal choice. One wonders how one of the most important choices in many of our lives could be made independent of the identity formation process.

James McBride’s The Color of Water is an eloquent tribute to his exceptional mother, Ruth McBride Jordan, who raised twelve amazing Black children in a Brooklyn housing project. They grew up to be successful professionals, including a writer, doctor, psychologist, and the chair of the Afro-American history department at Pennsylvania State University.

Ruth McBride, the daughter of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi in Suffolk, Virginia, grew up with an abusive father who disowned her when she married an African American man who later became a minister. Her son James grew up in a Black neighborhood with his white mother who denied her whiteness and taught her children to ignore their race. His racial consciousness developed nonetheless as he experienced how Blacks live in this country. As a child in an all-Black neighborhood, he feels embarrassed by his white mother, whom he always loved dearly. James later feared for his mother’s safety during the Black Power movement of the 1960s.

In writing the book, James McBride discovered his mixed ancestry, including his Jewish roots in Virginia. He described the difficulties of acknowledging his whiteness given his “Black” physical appearance. As McBride notes, “being mixed is like a tingling feeling that you have in your nose just before you sneeze — you’re waiting for it to happen but it never does. Given my black face and upbringing it was easy for me to flee into the anonymity of blackness, yet I feel frustrated to live in a world that considers the color of your face an immediate political statement, whether you like it or not.”

The Color of Water also suggests that the choice of a spouse is not simply a decision of the heart. McBride’s rebellious mother married a Black man, one of the ultimate signs of racial rebellion before the Civil Rights revolution. His own wife, like him, is half Black, half Jewish. Both choices may be mere coincidence, but one wonders how that could be.

In writing Black, White, Other, Lise Funderburg interviewed 65 people of mixed Black, white heritage (like herself) to explore ” … the diverse ways that people experience a seemingly uniform heritage” The interviewees run the gamut of physical appearances, from light to dark skinned, from straight to kinky hair, from “white” facial features to “Black” ones. Funderburg brings these physical differences to life by including a small picture of each person. Besides recounting the more common experiences of mixed Black/white persons, Funderburg tells of the lives of the son of an African American serviceman and an Icelandic woman, the child of Irish and Nigerian immigrants, and the daughter of a Kenyan father and white woman, to name a few of the less common combinations described in the book.

The diversity of physical appearances is nothing compared to the variation in the individual responses to mixed ancestry. Some embraced a Black identity. A few others attempted to occasionally “pass” as White or tried to simply ignore race. Still others embraced a biracial identity highlighting the heritages of both parents.

Melancholy yet captivating tales of uncertainty and feelings of rejection permeate the individual reminisces. Many persons reveal moving stories about how families rejected the interracial marriages of their parents and their very existence. Some knew little about half of their family (often the white half) because that family had disappeared from their parents’ lives.

The rich complexities facing mixed race persons are revealed in the contrasting reactions to them by different communities. Whites treated some as “too Black” while some Blacks thought them “too light.” At the same time, some whites liked their “exotic” looks while some Blacks admired their fairer complexions Most, if not all, had first-hand experience with the “N” word and other racial epithets. Often, the racism experienced was less explicit, though almost as painful. For example, one junior employee wore a bow tie to the office only to be met with a “Good morning, Mr. Farrakhan” by a senior member of the investment firm. A few stories serve as chilling reminders of the depth of racial hatred in the United States, such as that of the white mother who rejected her Black son and tried to kill him with rat poisoning.

The complexities of romance for mixed-race persons and their parents demonstrate that the old adage that “love conquers all”is far from true. Divorce among the parents was common. The added stresses caused by an interracial relationship and raising mixed race children almost certainly played a role. In addition, many candidly admitted that race influenced the choice of a loved one, and that they felt more comfortable with Blacks or other mixed-race persons. One gay than considered his preference for white men: “I don’t think sexual preference is a political thing. Well, it can be …, how can one ever absolutely say that on some unconscious level it isn’t?” One interviewee worried aloud about how she viewed interracial relationships: “I always look at interracial couples … and say, `When there’s a black man and a white woman, is the white woman less attractive?’ This is terrible, but I think about status” Such thoughts, though they run through peoples’ minds, rarely enter our public discussion of race because of the volatile, potentially incendiary issues raised.

Gender-specific experiences recurred in the experiences of the mixed race persons interviewed by Funderburg. Many mixed Black women never felt that any white men had any romantic interest in them. A number of light-skinned African American women expressed that they felt less than accepted by other Black women. Some thought that some Black men liked them simply because their whiteness made them a “trophy.”

Much academic literature has focused on how society, not biology, constructs races, and on the role of the individual in adopting an identity. Many of the mixed Black/white persons interviewed by Funderburg, even the “whiter” ones, however, suggested that they had little choice but to identify as Black. One remarked: “Who I am inside has been there since I have memory. I suppose that there’s choice where I would clearly be choosing to pretend to be something else. But that really isn’t choice from my perspective.” Other stories reveal the possibility for choice within limits One woman’s older sister told her as a child that her white father, whom she had never met, was Puerto Rican. Embracing her Latina/o “roots,” she learned Spanish and, as a teen, proudly wore a Puerto Rican flag on her jeans Later, she learned that her father in fact was white, a shocking revelation that left her identity in shambles.

Each of these books reflects the importance of physical appearance in how society responds to mixed-race people. The darker the skin, the more arduous the individual journey and the more common the treatment by whites as African American. At the same time, the fairer persons experienced different identity problems, such as uncertainty about where they belonged. They felt scrutinized by some African Americans because of their white physical appearance, and by whites who treated them as Black because of their “Black look.” They were not quite white, but not really Black either.

Generational differences in the experiences of mixed-race persons are readily apparent. While white men often had children with African American women in the days of slavery, today the relationships often are between Black men and white women, as illustrated by the autobiographies of Lazarre and McBride. This sea change has resulted in different responses by mixed-race persons to issues of racial identity. While mixed-race persons of generations past often attempted to hide the fact that they had a white parent, the common modern response is to acknowledge their mixed heritage, as seen in Funderburg’s anthology.

Racial identity also combines with class and gender to influence individual identity and status in the United States. The intersection of race, class, and gender greatly influences life experiences. In evaluating the impact on one’s life, it is impossible to isolate or quantify the influence of these factors.

In the end, we must ask what this all means for those interested in improving the status of racial minorities. Lazarre’s book, in effect, tells whites that they must acknowledge white privilege and the modern impact of racism on this Nation, rather than view it as a historical artifact. McBride apparently advocates rugged self-determination as a means of defeating racism and poverty. Funderburg’s anthology of stories suggests that society needs to better understand the complexities of racial mixture, racial classification, and the very concept of “race” itself. Readers no doubt will have their own views about the efficacy of these prescriptions.

The books, which focus on the experiences of persons of mixed African American/white descent, highlight some of the complexities of race relations in the United States. Black/white persons, however, represent just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to racial mixture. In a multicultural, multiracial United States, race relations isn’t just Black and white Asian Americans and whites, Latina/os and whites, and Native Americans and whites, all have higher rates of intermarriage than African Americans and whites. Intermarriage between minority groups also occurs and is increasing. The physical appearances of the products of these interracial relationships differ from the variations found among mixed Black/white persons. Not surprisingly, the experiences of persons in these groups differs from those analyzed in the trio of books.

For Latinas and Latinos, racial mixture long has been a simple fact of life Mexico, for example, celebrates mestizaje, the mixture of Spanish and the indigenous peoples. Mexican philosopher Jose Vasconcelos even talked of a raza cosmica (cosmic race) created by the combination. Due in part to intermarriage, Mexican-Americans in the United States are incredibly diverse, physically and otherwise. As former United States Ambassador to the United Nations and Secretary of Energy designate Bill Richardson demonstrates, intermarriage makes it impossible to judge whether a person is Latina/o by surname alone.

This all does not mean that marriages between Anglos and Latina/os never face resistance. Intermarriage rates vary regionally in the United States, with intermarriage much less common along the racially-stratified border between the U.S. and Mexico than in the interior of the country. Because of these and other differences between the constituent races, one could expect the mixed Mexican/Anglo person to have a different set of life experiences than Black/white people

One can only wonder what the future will bring with increasing rates of racial mixture in the United States. The political fracas over the multiracial category considered by the Bureau of the Census suggests that the rise of mixed-race people will not instantly result in racial harmony. The legal impact of mixed race persons also raises vexing questions. How, for example, should affirmative action treat persons of mixed white/Black (or mixed Latina/o, Asian American, or Native American) background? As white? Black? Something else? Should the anti-discrimination laws protect mixed-race people? Such difficult questions will need to be addressed in the 21st century. Put simply, the untidiness of race is unlikely to go away, with or without mixed-race persons.

Kevin Johnson is Associate Dean of the School of Law at the University of California/Davis.

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