Skip to content

The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother
by James McBride


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.

 Color of Water cover

"Black Power," "Dennis," from The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride , © 1996 by James McBride. Used by permission of Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

"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 Mommy.

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 grandma Etta."
"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 bit, 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 1942 Dennis and I were living in a room in the Port Royal on 129th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, and one night after work I walked into the hallway of our building and this black woman punched me right in the face. She hit me so hard I fell to the floor. "Don't disrespect me!" she said. She was a raving lunatic. I never even knew who she was. I somehow got off the floor and she chased me up to our room and I slammed the door on her and waited for my husband to get home. Dennis went to speak to her when he got home from work. "That white woman don't belong here," she said. That's what she told him. Dennis didn't attack her. He just said, "Leave my wife alone," and she did. Even though we were not married, we considered ourselves husband and wife.

Some black folks never did accept me. Most did, but there were always a few running around saying "Nubian this" and "Nubian that" and always talking about Africa and all this. Well, I'm a mother of black children, and nobody will ever deny me my children, and they can put that in their Nubian pipe and smoke it. All this Nubian. If you want to go back to Africa, James, well, you can go. I don't see the point in your going when you have your family here. But if you feel you want to go to Africa to find your roots I won't stop you. I'll still be your mother when you come back. And you'll still be my son.

There was no turning back after my mother died. I stayed on the black side because that was the only place I could stay. The few problems I had with black folks were nothing compared to the grief white folks dished out. With whites it was no question. You weren't accepted to be with a black man and that was that. They'd say forget it. Are you crazy? A nigger and you? No way. They called you white trash. That's what they called me. Nowadays these mixed couples get on TV every other day complaining, "Oh, it's hard for us." They have cars and televisions and homes and they're complaining. Jungle fever they call it, flapping their jaws and making the whole thing sound stupid. They didn't have to run for their lives like we did. Me and Dennis caused a riot on 105th Street once. A bunch of white men chased us up the street and surrounded Dennis and tried to kill him, throwing bottles and hitting and kicking him until one of them made the rest of them stop. He said, "Get out of here while you can!" and we ran for it. See, most interracial marriages did not last. That's what Dennis would say when we argued. I'd say, "I'm leaving," and he'd say, "Go ahead. Go ahead. That's what people want us to do. That's what they expect." And he was right.

See, a marriage needs love. And God. And a little money. That's all. The rest you can deal with. It's not about black or white. It's about God and don't let anyone tell you different. All this Jungle fever! Shoot! The Jungle fever goes away, honey and then what are you gonna do? I say that now in hindsight, because Dennis was afraid to marry me at first. We were acting as husband and wife and having so much fun I didn't care that we weren't married. Our little room on 129th off Seventh was smack dab in the middle of all the action in Harlem. There were parades and dignitaries marching all up and down Seventh Avenue and back in those days. Adam Clayton Powell used to stand on a podium right on 125th Street and make political speeches. Malcolm X, too. On Saturdays we'd go to the Apollo Theater, and if you got there by eleven A.M. you could sit there all day through three shows. They'd start with newsreels on the war, comedy shorts, cartoons, or sometimes a movie western with Hoots Tebicon, or a musical with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Then at one P.M. they played the Apollo theme song, "I Think You're Wonderful," and the bands would bust loose, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Louis Jordan, Billie Holiday, Billy Eckstine. Those musicians worked like slaves, three shows a day. Then on Sunday we'd go to the Metropolitan Baptist Church on 128th and Lenox Avenue to hear Rev. Abner Brown preach.





Talk About This

Share This

Upcoming Films