Color of Water

Excerpt from Color of Water by James McBride

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Chapter 4


When I was a boy, I used to wonder where my mother

came from, how she got on this earth. When I asked her

where she was from, she would say, “God made me,” and

change the subject. When I asked her if she was white,

she’d say, “No. I’m light-skinned,” and change the subject

again. Answering questions about her personal history did

not jibe with Mommy’s view of parenting twelve curious,

wild, brown-skinned children. She issued orders and her

rule was law. Since she refused to divulge details about herself

or her past, and because my stepfather was largely

unavailable to deal with questions about himself or Ma,

what I learned of Mommy’s past I learned from my siblings.

We traded information on Mommy the way people

trade baseball cards at trade shows, offering bits and pieces

fraught with gossip, nonsense, wisdom, and sometimes just

plain foolishness. “What does it matter to you?” my older

brother Richie scoffed when I asked him if we had any

grandparents. “You’re adopted anyway.”

My siblings and I spent hours playing tricks and teasing

one another. It was our way of dealing with realities over

which we had no control. I told Richie I didn’t believe him.

“I don’t care if you believe me or not,” he sniffed.

“Mommy’s not your real mother. Your real mother’s in jail.”

“You’re lying!”

“You’ll see when Mommy takes you back to your real

mother next week. Why do you think she’s been so nice to

you all week?”

Suddenly it occurred to me that Mommy had been

nice to me all week. But wasn’t she nice to me all the time?

I couldn’t remember, partly because within my confused

eight-year-old reasoning was a growing fear that maybe

Richie was right. Mommy, after all, did not really look like

me. In fact, she didn’t look like Richie, or David—or any

of her children for that matter. We were all clearly black, of

various shades of brown, some light brown, some medium

brown, some very light-skinned, and all of us had curly

hair. Mommy was, by her own definition, “light-skinned,”

a statement which I had initially accepted as fact but at

some point later decided was not true. My best friend Billy

Smith’s mother was as light as Mommy was and had red

hair to boot, but there was no question in my mind that

Billy’s mother was black and my mother was not. There

was something inside me, an ache I had, like a constant

itch that got bigger and bigger as I grew, that told me. It

was in my blood, you might say, and however the notion

got there, it bothered me greatly. Yet Mommy refused to

acknowledge her whiteness. Why she did so was not clear,

but even my teachers seemed to know she was white and I

wasn’t. On open school nights, the question most often

asked by my schoolteachers was: “Is James adopted?”

which always prompted an outraged response from


I told Richie: “If I’m adopted, you’re adopted too.”

“Nope,” Richie replied. “Just you, and you’re going

back to your real mother in jail.”

“I’ll run away first.”

“You can’t do that. Mommy will get in trouble if you

do that. You don’t want to see Ma get in trouble, do you?

It’s not her fault that you’re adopted, is it?”

He had me then. Panic set in. “But I don’t want to go

to my real mother. I want to stay here with Ma…”

“You gotta go. I’m sorry, man.”

This went on until I was in tears. I remember pacing

about nervously all day while Richie, knowing he had

ruined my life, cackled himself to sleep. That night I lay

wide awake in bed waiting for Mommy to get home from

work at two A.M., whereupon she laid the ruse out as I sat


at the kitchen table in my tattered Fruit of the Loom

underwear. “You’re not adopted,” she laughed.

“So you’re my real mother?”

“Of course I am.” Big kiss.

“Then who’s my grandparents?”

“Your grandpa Nash died and so did your grand-ma


“Who were they?”

“They were your father’s parents.”

“Where were they from?”

“From down south. You remember them?”

I had a faint recollection of my grandmother Etta, an

ancient black woman with a beautiful face who seemed

very confused, walking around with a blue dress and a fishing

pole, the bait, tackle, and line dragging down around

her ankles. She didn’t seem real to me.

“Did you know them, Ma?”

“I knew them very, very well.”

“Did they love you?”

“Why do you ask so many questions?”

“I just want to know. Did they love you? Because your

own parents didn’t love you, did they?”

“My own parents loved me.”

“Then where are they?”

A short silence. “My mother died many, many years

ago,” she said. “My father, he was a fox. No more questions

tonight. You want some coffee cake?” Enough said. If getting

Mommy’s undivided attention for more than five

minutes was a great feat in a family of twelve kids, then getting

a midnight snack in my house was a greater thrill. I

cut the questions and ate the cake, though it never stopped

me from wondering, partly because of my own growing

sense of self, and partly because of fear for her safety,

because even as a child I had a clear sense that black and

white folks did not get along, which put her, and us, in a

pretty tight space.

In 1966, when I was nine, black power had permeated

every element of my neighborhood in St. Albans, Queens.

Malcolm X had been killed the year before and had grown

larger in death than in life. Afros were in style. The Black

Panthers were a force. Public buildings, statues, monuments,

even trees, met the evening in their original bland

colors and reemerged the next morning painted in the

sparkling “liberation colors” of red, black, and green.

Congas played at night on the streets while teenyboppers

gathered to talk of revolution. My siblings marched around

the house reciting poetry from the Last Poets, a sort of rap

group who recited in-your-face poetry with conga and fascinating

vocal lines serving as a musical backdrop, with

songs titled “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution” and “On

the Subway.” Every Saturday morning my friends and I

would pedal our bicycles to the corner of Dunkirk Street

and Ilion Avenue to watch the local drag racers near the Sun

Dew soft drink factory, trying to see who could drive the

fastest over a dip in the road that sent even the slowestmoving

car airborne. My stepfather hit that dip at fifteen

miles an hour in his ’64 Pontiac and I bounced high in my

seat. These guys hit it at ninety and their cars flew like birds,

barreling through the air and landing fifteen feet away,

often skidding out of control, sometimes smacking against

the wall of the Sun Dew factory before wobbling away in a

pile of bent metal, grilles, and fenders. Their cars had names

like “Smokin’ Joe” and “Miko” and “Dream Machine”

scrawled on the hoods, but our favorite was a gleaming

black, souped-up GTO with the words “Black Power” written

in smooth white script across the hood and top. It was

the fastest and its driver was, of course, the coolest. He

drove like a madman, and after leaving some poor Corvette

in the dust, he’d power his mighty car in a circle, wheel it

around, and do a victory lap for us, driving by at low speed,

one muscled arm angling out the window, his car rumbling

powerfully, while we whistled and cheered, raising our fists

and yelling, “Black power!” He’d laugh and burn rubber for

us, tires screeching, roaring away in a burst of gleaming

metal and hot exhaust, his taillights flashing as he disappeared

into the back alleyways before the cops had a chance

to bust him. We thought he was God.

But there was a part of me that feared black power very

deeply for the obvious reason. I thought black power would

be the end of my mother. I had swallowed the white man’s

fear of the Negro, as we were called back then, whole. It

began with a sober white newsman on our black-and-white

television set introducing a news clip showing a Black

Panther rally, led by Bobby Seale or Huey Newton or one

of those young black militant leaders, screaming to hundreds

and hundreds of angry African-American students,

“Black power! Black power! Black power!” while the crowd

roared. It frightened the shit out of me. I thought to

myself, These people will kill Mommy. Mommy, on the

other hand, seemed unconcerned. Her motto was, “If it

doesn’t involve your going to school or church, I could care

less about it and my answer is no whatever it is.”

She insisted on absolute privacy, excellent school

grades, and trusted no outsiders of either race. We were

instructed never to reveal details of our home life to any

figures of authority: teachers, social workers, cops, storekeepers,

or even friends. If anyone asked us about our

home life, we were taught to respond with, “I don’t know,”

and for years I did just that. Mommy’s house was an entire

world that she created. She appointed the eldest child at

home to be “king” or “queen” to run the house in her

absence and we took it from there, creating court jesters,

slaves, musicians, poets, pets, and clowns. Playing in the

street was discouraged and often forbidden and if you did

manage to slip out, “Get your butt in this house before

dark,” she would warn, a rule she enforced to the bone. I

often played that rule out to its very edge, stealing into the

house at dusk, just as the last glimmer of sunlight was

peeking over the western horizon, closing the door softly,

hoping Mommy had gone to work, only to turn around

and find her standing before me, hands on hips, whipping

belt in hand, eyes flicking angrily back and forth to the

window, then to me, lips pursed, trying to decide whether

it was light or dark outside. “It’s still light,” I’d suggest, my

voice wavering, as my siblings gathered behind her to

watch the impending slaughter.

“That looks like light to you?” she’d snap, motioning

to the window.

“Looks pretty dark,” my siblings would chirp from

behind her. “It’s definitely dark, Ma!” they’d shout, stifling

their giggles. If I was lucky a baby would wail in another

room and she’d be off, hanging the belt on the doorknob as

she went. “Don’t do it again,” she’d warn over her shoulder,

and I was a free man.

But even if she had any interest in black power, she

had no time to talk about it. She worked the swing shift at

Chase Manhattan Bank as a typist, leaving home at three P.M.

and returning around two A.M., so she had little time for

games, and even less time for identity crises. She and my

father brought a curious blend of Jewish-European and

African-American distrust and paranoia into our house.

On his end, my father, Andrew McBride, a Baptist minister,

had his doubts about the world accepting his mixed

family. He always made sure his kids never got into trouble,

was concerned about money, and trusted the providence of

the Holy Father to do the rest. After he died and Mommy

remarried, my stepfather, Hunter Jordan, seemed to pick

up where my father left off, insistent on education and

church. On her end, Mommy had no model for raising us

other than the experience of her own Orthodox Jewish

family, which despite the seeming flaws—an unbending

nature, a stridency, a focus on money, a deep distrust of all

outsiders, not to mention her father’s tyranny—represented

the best and worst of the immigrant mentality: hard work,

no nonsense, quest for excellence, distrust of authority figures,

and a deep belief in God and education. My parents

were nonmaterialistic. They believed that money without

knowledge was worthless, that education tempered with


religion was the way to climb out of poverty in America,

and over the years they were proven right.

Yet conflict was a part of our lives, written into our

very faces, hands, and arms, and to see how contradiction

lived and survived in its essence, we had to look no farther

than our own mother. Mommy’s contradictions crashed

and slammed against one another like bumper cars at

Coney Island. White folks, she felt, were implicitly evil

toward blacks, yet she forced us to go to white schools to get

the best education. Blacks could be trusted more, but anything

involving blacks was probably slightly substandard.

She disliked people with money yet was in constant need of

it. She couldn’t stand racists of either color and had great

distaste for bourgeois blacks who sought to emulate rich

whites by putting on airs and “doing silly things like covering

their couches with plastic and holding teacups with

their pinkies out.” “What fools!” she’d hiss. She wouldn’t be

bothered with parents who bragged about their children’s

accomplishments, yet she insisted we strive for the highest

professional goals. She was against welfare and never

applied for it despite our need, but championed those who

availed themselves of it. She hated restaurants and would

not enter one even if the meals served were free. She actually

preferred to be among the poor, the working-class poor

of the Red Hook Housing Projects in Brooklyn, the

cement mixers, bakers, doughnut makers, grandmothers,

and soul-food church partisans who were her lifelong

friends. It was with them that she and my father started the

New Brown Memorial Baptist Church, a small storefront

church which still stands in Red Hook today. Mommy

loves that church and to this day still loves Red Hook, one

of the most dangerous and neglected housing projects in

New York City. On any given day she’ll get up in the

morning, take the New Jersey Transit train from her home

in Ewing, New Jersey, to Manhattan, then take the subway

to Brooklyn, and wander around the projects like the Pope,

the only white person in sight, waving to friends, stepping

past the drug addicts, smiling at the young mothers pushing

their children in baby carriages, slipping into the poorly lit

hallway of 80 Dwight Street while the young dudes in

hooded sweatshirts stare balefully at the strange, bowlegged

old white lady in Nikes and red sweats who slowly hobbles

up the three flights of dark, urine-smelling stairs on arthritic

knees to visit her best friend, Mrs. Ingram in apartment 3G.

As a boy, I often found Mommy’s ease among black

people surprising. Most white folks I knew seemed to have

a great fear of blacks. Even as a young child, I was aware

of that. I’d read it in the paper, between the lines of my

favorite sport columnists in the New York Post and the old

Long Island Press, in their refusal to call Cassius Clay

Muhammad Ali, in their portrayal of Floyd Patterson as a

“good Negro Catholic,” and in their burning criticism of

black athletes like Bob Gibson of the St. Louis Cardinals,

whom I idolized. In fact I didn’t even have to open the

paper to see it. I could see it in the faces of the white

people who stared at me and Mommy and my siblings

when we rode the subway, sometimes laughing at us,

pointing, muttering things like, “Look at her with those

little niggers.” I remember when a white man shoved her

angrily as she led a group of us onto an escalator, but

Mommy simply ignored him. I remember two black

women pointing at us, saying, “Look at that white bitch,”

and a white man screaming at Mommy somewhere in

Manhattan, calling her a “nigger lover.” Mommy ignored

them all, unless the insults threatened her children, at

which time she would turn and fight back like an alley cat,

hissing, angry, and fearless. She had a casual way of ignoring

affronts, slipping past insults to her whiteness like a

seasoned boxer slips punches. When Malcolm X, the supposed

demon of the white man, was killed, I asked her

who he was and she said, “He was a man ahead of his

time.” She actually liked Malcolm X. She put him in nearly

the same category as her other civil rights heroes, Paul

Robeson, Jackie Robinson, Eleanor Roosevelt, A. Philip

Randolph, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Kennedys—

any Kennedy. When Malcolm X talked about “the white

devil” Mommy simply felt those references didn’t apply to

her. She viewed the civil rights achievements of black

Americans with pride, as if they were her own. And she

herself occasionally talked about “the white man” in the

third person, as if she had nothing to do with him, and in

fact she didn’t, since most of her friends and social circle

were black women from church. “What’s the matter with

these white folks?” she’d muse after reading some craziness

in the New York Daily News. “They’re fighting over this

man’s money now that he’s dead. None of them wanted

him when he was alive, and now look at them. Forget it,

honey”—this is Mommy talking to the newspaper—

“your husband’s dead, okay? He’s dead—poop! You had

your chance. Is money gonna bring him back? No!” Then

she’d turn to us and deliver the invariable lecture: “You

don’t need money. What’s money if your mind is empty!

Educate your mind! Is this world crazy or am I the crazy

one? It’s probably me.”

Indeed it probably was—at least, I thought so. I knew

of no other white woman who would board the subway in

Manhattan at one o’clock every morning and fall asleep till

she got to her stop in Queens forty-five minutes later.

Often I could not sleep until I heard her key hit the door.

Her lack of fear for her safety—particularly among blacks,

where she often stuck out like a sore thumb and seemed an

easy target for muggers—had me stumped. As a grown

man, I understand now, understand how her Christian

principles and trust in God kept her going through all her

life’s battles, but as a boy, my faith was not that strong.

Mommy once took me to Harlem to visit my stepsister,

Jacqueline, whom we called Jack and who was my father’s

daughter by a previous marriage and more like an aunt

than a sister. The two of them sat in Jack’s parlor and talked

into the night while Jack cooked big plates of soul food,

macaroni and cheese, sweet potato pies, and biscuits for us.

“Take this home to the kids, Ruth,” Jack told Ma. We put

the food in shopping bags and took it on the subway without

incident, but when we got off the bus in St. Albans

near our house, two black men came up behind us and one

of them grabbed Mommy’s purse. The shopping bag full of

macaroni and cheese and sweet potato pies burst open and

food flew everywhere as Mommy held on to her purse,

spinning around in a crazy circle with the mugger, neither

saying a word as they both desperately wrestled for the

purse, whirling from the sidewalk into the dark empty

street like two ballerinas locked in a death dance. I stood

frozen in shock, watching. Finally the mugger got the

purse and ran off as his buddy laughed at him, and Mommy

fell to the ground.

She got up, calmly took my hand, and began to walk

home without a word.

“You okay?” she asked me after a few moments.

I nodded. I was so frightened I couldn’t speak. All the

food that Jack had cooked for us lay on the ground behind

us, ruined. “Why didn’t you scream?” I asked, when I finally

got my tongue back.

“It’s just a purse,” she said. “Don’t worry about it. Let’s

just get home.”

The incident confirmed my fears that Mommy was

always in danger. Every summer we joined the poor

inner-city kids the Fresh Air Fund organization sent to

host families or to summer camps for free. The luckier

ones among my siblings got to stay with host families, but

I had to go to camps where they housed ten of us in a

cabin for two weeks at a time. Sometimes they seemed

closer to prison or job corps than camp. Kids fought all

the time. The food was horrible. I was constantly fighting.

Kids called me Cochise because of my light skin and curly

hair. Despite all that, I loved it. The first time I went,

Mommy took me to the roundup point, a community

center in Far Rockaway, once the home of middle-class

whites and Jews like playwright Neil Simon, but long



since turned black, and it seemed that the only white person

for miles was my own mother. The camp organizers

set up a table inside where they removed our shoes and

shirts and inspected our toes for athlete’s foot, checked us

for measles and chicken pox, then sent us outside to board

a yellow school bus for the long journey to upstate New

York. As I sat on the bus peering out the window at

Mommy, the only white face in a sea of black faces, a black

man walked up with his son. He had a mustache and a

goatee and wore black leather pants, a black leather jacket,

a ton of jewelry, and a black beret. He seemed outstandingly

cool. His kid was very handsome, well dressed, and

quite refined. He placed his kid’s bags in the back of the

bus and when the kid went to step on the bus, instead of

hugging the child, the father offered his hand, and father

and son did a magnificent, convoluted black-power soul

handshake called the “dap,” the kind of handshake that

lasts five minutes, fingers looping, thumbs up, thumbs

down, index fingers collapsing, wrists snapping, bracelets

tingling. It seemed incredibly hip. The whole bus

watched. Finally the kid staggered breathlessly onto the

bus and sat behind me, tapping at the window and waving

at his father, who was now standing next to Mommy,

waving at his kid.

“Where’d you learn that handshake?” someone asked

the kid.

“My father taught me,” he said proudly. “He’s a

Black Panther.”

The bus roared to life as I panicked. A Black Panther?

Next to Mommy? It was my worst nightmare come true. I

had no idea who the Panthers truly were. I had swallowed

the media image of them completely.

The bus clanked into gear as I got up to open my

window. I wanted to warn Mommy. Suppose the Black

Panther wanted to kill her? The window was stuck. I tried

to move to another window. A counselor grabbed me and

sat me down. I said, “I have to tell my mother something.”

“Write her a letter,” he said.

I jumped into the seat of the Black Panther’s son

behind me—his window was open. The counselor placed

me back in my seat.

“Mommy, Mommy!” I yelled at the closed window.

Mommy was waving. The bus pulled away.

I shouted, “Watch out for him!” but we were too far

away and my window was shut. She couldn’t hear me.

I saw the Black Panther waving at his son. Mommy

waved at me. Neither seemed to notice the other.

When they were out of sight, I turned to the Black

Panther’s son sitting behind me and punched him square

in the face with my fist. The kid held his jaw and stared

at me in shock as his face melted into a knot of disbelief

and tears.