The Color of Water

The Color of Water Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on James McBride's The Color of Water. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of James McBride

James McBride was born to his mother Ruth McBride-Jordan just months after his father, Andrew McBride, died of lung cancer. The eighth of twelve children, McBride spent a lively but poor childhood in Brooklyn and Queens with his siblings, mother, and stepfather. McBride attended Oberlin College where he studied communications, and then Columbia University where he received a journalism degree. Although in his early professional career McBride struggle to navigate his love of writing and his love of music, he eventually found a balance between journalism and his work as a saxophonist and composer. He’s written five books and two screenplays to date, and has written for The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, and National Geographic.
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Historical Context of The Color of Water

The book spans almost seventy years, beginning in the 1920s when McBride’s mother’s family immigrated to the United States, part of a larger pattern of Jewish and Eastern European migration that began in the late 1800s and continued until 1924, when the United States instituted harsh immigration quotas. Ruth McBride-Jordan’s childhood is deeply influenced by the scarcity of the Great Depression, as well as pervasive anti-Jewish sentiments, which were most prevalent in Germany in the early to mid 20th century, but existed in America as well. The Great Migration of African Americans from the rural south to Northern cities, which lasted from the 1910s to the 1970s, helps explain the demographics of the Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods in which James McBride grows up, as does “white flight,” or the mass exodus of wealthier white people from cities in the 1960s and 70s. This book also takes place against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, which gained traction in the 1950s and led to the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and the legalization of interracial marriage in 1967.

Other Books Related to The Color of Water

Although James McBride’s family history is unique, readers looking for other contemporary memoirs exploring their writer’s racial history can try Alex Hayley’s Roots, an exploration of his family genealogy tracing back to 18th century Africa. The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr, and We The Animals by Justin Torres chronicle tumultuous childhoods and complex family dynamics like those in McBride’s twelve-child household. Related fiction includes Jesmyn Ward’s Sing Unburried Sing, which navigates between the past and present as it tells the story of a mixed-race boy coming of age on a road trip to the north, and Toni Morrison’s intergenerational epic Song of Solomon. McBride has also written numerous other books, including his short story collection, Five Carat Soul, and the National Book Award winning historical fiction novel The Good Lord Bird.
Key Facts about The Color of Water
  • Full Title: The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother
  • When Written: 1982-1996
  • Where Written: United States
  • When Published: 1996
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Setting: Eastern United States
  • Climax: Ruth’s decision to leave Virginia for New York for good
  • Antagonist: Poverty, racism, anti-Semitism, Ruth’s father
  • Point of View: First person (both James McBride and Ruth McBride-Jordan)

Extra Credit for The Color of Water

Chronicles of Brooklyn. James McBride worked with acclaimed filmmaker Spike Lee on the 2012 film, “Red Hook Summer.” The two co-wrote the film, which is the sixth in Lee’s “Chronicles of Brooklyn” series, a portrayal of life in the neighborhood in which both Lee and McBride grew up.

Famous Friends. McBride is an occasional member of the band the “Rock Bottom Remainders,” a musical group made up of writers and creators. His band mates have included Stephen King (It, The Shining, The Green Mile), Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club), and Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible, The Bean Trees).