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The Color of Water by James McBride

The story of a boy's struggle to identify himself through his mother. James McBride's memoirs is presented with the dignity, humor, and insight he gains as he uncovers his mother's past. Ruth Shilsky McBride Jordan's story is the riveting tale of a Polish Jew who immigrates to America in 1923. This rabbi's daughter marries a Black man, starts Baptist church, and puts twelve children through college.


Questions for Discussion

  1. The memoirs of James McBride are presented from two points of view, his and his mother’s. Which story do you prefer? Explain why.  

  2. Between 1860 and 1900 approximately 14 million immigrants, primarily from Europe, settled in the Northeast and Midwest. The Shilskys arrived 1923 and settled in Virginia. What were the conditions for immigrants there? What was the state of racial relations?  

  3. Explain how Ruth’s relationship developed with Dennis McBride.  

  4. Give examples from the text of how African Americans and immigrants were stereotyped by members of their own groups. How did Ruth’s family treat new immigrants? Who were the “greenborns”? Was there an African American counterpart during slavery?  

  5. The abject poverty of James McBride’s family is discussed in the book. How id Ruth manage the economics of the family? What good business strategies did she use? Would they work today?  

  6. Incest is often hidden by families. What is the psychological impact of this denial on the victim? Presently, what do we know about eh coping mechanisms that victims develop?  

  7. Describe the procedure Ruth Shilsky McBride used to get her children into some of the best schools in New York. What happened to the children’s education when the family moved to Delaware? What was Ruth’s educational philosophy?

  8. How important was personal identity for James? Was race, ethnicity, or religion important to other McBride children?  

  9. Explain how Ruth demonstrated a “double-consciousness” at her high school graduation. Did one culture dominate the event?  

  10. Discuss the interfaith perspective of the memoirs, including a Jewish woman who co- founds a Black Baptist church.  

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