Lately I’ve been drawn to memoirs. It’s not really a genre I’ve ever purposefully considered reading before but in the last few months I’ve been handed a few to read, with the disclaimer, “You’ll be moved.” Outside of literature I’ve always been drawn toward documentaries about peoples’ lives as well as watching the Biography channel on television. I’ve never read someone’s biography and wondered what the difference was between writing a book about yourself, and calling it a biography, as opposed to writing a book about your life and calling it a memoir. Apparently a memoir is a sub-genre of the biography that is based more on memories, which can be subjective, as opposed to facts in a chronological order, a biography. From the two memoirs I’ve read, there is an element in the writing that makes it feel almost fictional and provides an escape due to the unbelievable or exceptional circumstances the ‘characters’ find themselves in.
I read this book, The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride, on our honeymoon. Sitting on a beautiful beach and relaxing was the perfect way to soak in the incredible story of the dedicated love of one extraordinary mother. The narrative alternates between the perspective of the author, James, and his mother, Ruth, as she reflects on her past. As the title suggests, Ruth is a white Jewish daughter of a Rabbi, who seriously steps out of the socially accepted norms of the time and marries a black man after moving to New York. For this she is disowned by her Jewish family.
McBride mirrors his own personal struggles with his identity issues and racial tensions, with that of his mothers as the story alternates between his childhood and hers. He addresses issues of rejection from a community of people he and his mother belonged to, as well as finding acceptance in unusual places. There is rejection from the black kids in the neighbourhood who don’t see him as being ‘black enough.’ There is rejection from Ruth’s Jewish family when she left her parents home. But for both, there is also acceptance among those who see past colour and race, and simply work on the basis of love. Ruth is fully embraced by the church community where her first husband established a congregation. McBride finds all the recognition he needs from his siblings, his various work colleges, through his readers and ultimately through his mother.
McBride conveys such a deep respect and love for his mother in this memoir. It is also evident that by digging into her past and allowing herself to reveal her secretive history, he came to a greater understanding of who he was. He also conveyed vividly the kind of vigorous strength that exists to face all hardship, and that no matter what, a mother’s love for her children goes beyond what society says or tries to impress upon people; that is has a force far greater that the colour of ones skin.