Families & Systems: Andrea’s Reflections on The Color of Water, by James McBride

At Bridges Together, we talk so much about creating opportunities for generations to come together. And we encourage people to do that within their own families.

colorofwaterLast week, I was engrossed in the book The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride. I was blown away. I’m an avid reader of printed books – and I often pass them along, carefully selecting the next recipient. However, this one is a keeper full of dog-eared pages and highlighted text.

Of course I was touched by the search for racial identity and questions of “who am I,” especially since I am the white mother of four beautiful brown-skinned sons – young men whom our world would classify as black, negating my very role in their conception and lives.

But the story turns into a search for meaning and cultural identity. And above all else, a son’s desire to understand his mom, and her story, which only became clear when he came to understand his grandparents and their stories. This search for meaning can be extremely painful and abundantly healing. He writes about his mom:

She opened the door for me but closed it for herself long ago, and for her to crack it open and peek inside was like eating fire. She’d look in and stagger back, blinded, as the facts of her own history poured over her like lava. As she revealed the facts of her own life I felt helpless, like I was watching her die and be reborn again (yet there was a cleansing element, too)…

I felt like a Tinkertoy kid building my own self out of one of those toy building sets; for as she laid her life before me, I reassembled the tableau of her words like a picture puzzle, and as I did, so my own life was rebuilt.  

What powerful writing and imagery!

Putting on my “executive director of an intergenerational organization” hat, I think the following line epitomizes that we are trying to help create. McBride is speaking about people who grew up in the projects before the 1980s.  He says:

They grew up privileged, not deprived, because they had mothers, fathers, grandparents, neighbors, church, family, a system that protected, sheltered, and raised them.

Little by little, Bridges Together is trying to help recreate those systems, especially the elders that watched out for and mentored the youth, and the young ones who helped their grands (as my father-in-law would say).

The Color of Water will be placed on the shelf with other books I hold most dear – including Dances with Luigi: A Grandson’s Search for His Italian Roots by Paul Paolicelli, a memoir about one of my paesano’s search for his heritage.

I wonder…

  • If any of my sons will choose to read these books and how he might interpret them
  • Where my children’s journeys for understanding their roots will take them – and me
  • When our country will be able to celebrate, honor and support the life-giving love of two people – and hold most dear the lives created out of that love.

I wonder…

And hope….

And pray.



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