Color Blind

By Lise Funderburg

Time Out New York
May 22-29, 1996

In a country where mystery novels crowd bookstore shelves and the subject of race appears to be the publishing world’s latest cash cow, combining the two would surely promise success. In two new memoirs about race and family secrets, that promise is fulfilled in one, horrendously broken in another.

James McBride’s memoir seems at first glance to be the greater disappointment. In The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, McBride shifts between the oral history he has collected from his mother — the child of a Southern white Orthodox rabbi — and his own memories of growing up in Brooklyn, where he was taunted for his light skin but identified simply as black.

That hybrid format may sound mannered, but McBride’s mother has a voice that jumps off the page from the beginning. “I’m dead,” she says. “You want to talk about my family and here I been dead to them for 50 years. Leave me alone. Don’t bother me. They want no parts of me and I don’t want no parts of them. Hurry up and get this interview over with. I want to watch Dallas.”

Ruth McBride Jordan (nee Ruchel Shilsky) has for the first time in her life agreed to talk about her past. Ever since she married McBride’s father and converted to Christianity, she has been excised from her Jewish family. Throughout the author’s childhood, silence was Jordan’s response to questions about where she was from and why she was so light-skinned. She passed for black, raising her children in the Red Hook housing projects and reigning over the small church she and her first husband started nearby. In fact, she had little time to reminisce: She outlived two husbands and raised 12 children mostly on her own.

Many oral historians over-introduce their subjects, contextualizing all the interest out of them, but not here. An accomplished journalist and musician, McBride recognizes the forceful melody of his mother’s voice; he transcribes her, then gets out of the way. In his own sections he writes about moments of joy and chaos and great sorrow, all with honesty and affection. He might have contained himself to a longer introduction and epilogue, giving his mother the heart of the book (she steals it anyway), but the alternating voices tease the reader along, mimicking McBride’s mother’s reluctance to divulge her history.

Although the author promises at the start to explore his own relationship to the white, Jewish side of his family, he skirts a full interrogation. He’s significantly more successful talking about the bridges and gulfs between her white and black worlds.

Success, of course, is subjectively measured. But why does the bookflap of author Marsha Hunt’s new memoir note — along with her two novels and her role “in the hit musical Hair” — that “Mick Jagger is the father of her daughter, Karis”? Such is the red flashing light that should warn readers away from Repossessing Ernestine: A Granddaughter Uncovers the Secret History of Her American Family. Hunt does not actually uncover much history, although she does locate a grandmother who was presumed dead by her family. She, Ernestine, spent half a century in a mental institution for unknown reasons, although Hunt shares many guesses, including a misdiagnosis of postpartum depression. Since Ernestine barely speaks, Hunt is left to her own limited imagination.

It’s bad enough that supposition replaces substantive revelation. But the greater crimes of this book are Hunt’s awful writing (“[Ernestine’s] body is a penitentiary and she is the chain gang”) and her incessant navel gazing (“Trying to help [Ernestine], I discovered that I’m weaker and more selfish than I thought I was”).

Hunt makes embarrassingly facile comments about race in America”[The porter’s] almond eyes were as dark as midnight. He would have let me lean on him had I dared ask. Stranger though he was, we were American descendants of slavery and therefore shared some deeply rooted complexities which bound us to each other despite our being strangers.” Only on the surface (a plane with which Hunt seems all too familiar) are The Color of Water and Repossessing Ernestine connected, as they consider the blurring of America’s color line. As Hunt’s white-looking grandmother exemplifies, however, appearances can be deceiving.

The Color of Water ($22.95) is published by Riverhead. Repossessing Ernestine ($24) is published by HarperCollins.