'Color of Water' shows how far we've come

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Last year, the Kalamazoo community was absorbed in a discussion about the plight of the working poor through "Nickle and Dimed," by Barbara Ehrenreich.

The year before that, we were engaged in a debate over how far an overweening big government can limit individuals' rights in a communitywide reading of Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451."

This week, we're intrigued by the issue of interracial marriage and James McBride's memoir, "The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother." It is this year's selection for the Kalamazoo Public Library's Reading Together program, which will feature a lecture and concert by the author in Kalamazoo this week.


Although racial issues have been simmering on a back burner since 9-11 while the war in Iraq has captured Americans' attention, it is still important to stop now and again to gauge the nation's progress in race relations and to have a heartfelt discussion.

McBride's book does that. And a four-day series on the issue of interracial marriage and multi-racial children in this week's Kalamazoo Gazette, starting today, explores interracial relationships here, talking with people who have been in such marriages for years or decades.

McBride's book is an affectionate remembrance of his mother, an Orthodox Jewish woman born in Poland and raised in Virginia, who met and married a black Christian reverend and had eight children by him. After her husband's death, she married another black man and had four more children.

But McBride's book isn't mere sentimentality. Through his mother's recollection, it takes an unflinching look at racism and anti-Semitism in mid-century America. Ruth McBride -- born Rachel Shilsky, the daughter of an itinerant rabbi -- is held at arm's length by her gentile neighbors and disowned by her family for moving to New York and marrying a black man.

Yet she is a woman determined to thrive in her marriages and raise her children. She saw to it that all 12 graduated from college.

Her determination is repeated in the stories of local older interracial couples who had to endure rejection from family members, landlords, neighbors and others but still maintained their marriages.

Today, those who marry outside their own races don't face the legal obstacles, social rejection or public scorn of those who went down that path a generation or two ago, though certainly their relationships often still are met with resistance. Mixed-race children are no longer outcasts, automatically denied by their white relatives.

Still, subtle discrimination endures and puts additional pressures on interracial marriages that same-race marriages don't face. And mixed-race children still sometimes face discrimination.

But McBride's "The Color of Water" reminds us that American society has come far in race relations. And through determination, we can go further still.


© 2005 Kalamazoo. Used with permission