Ruth McBride Jordan: Triumph Over Adversity

Color of Water

At all times, strong character and leadership skills have inevitably brought the person to success. James McBride, an American saxophonist and writer, in Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, discloses to the reader the remarkable personality of his mother, Ruth McBride Jordan. Born Rachel Deborah Shilsky, a Polish Jewish girl immigrated to America with her family. In 1942, she married an Afro-American man, then became a widow, married another one, became a widowed again, and had to raise her twelve children alone. Her whole life was full of racial, religious, economic, and cultural prejudices and difficulties to overcome. The more I read, the more fascinated I became by the ability of this woman to keep on her inner discipline, hard work, and genuine love for her children, God, and people whatever happened. I think it is possible to achieve what Ruth McBride achieved (or even more) in the today’s society, because her life triumph was not a product of a happy coincidence or luck but a result of her determination, leadership skills, and faith in God, as well as education and concentration on life’s blessings and compassion instead of racism and difficulties. All these qualities helped the woman raise her children successfully and live her life with hope and dignity.

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The reason I am sure Ruth (or a person like her) would succeed in the today’s society is the fact that she was a leader and a fighter, who was determined not to become a victim. In her early years, the woman was sexually abused and molested by her father, ridiculed at school for being a Jew, forced to work long hours in the family store in Virginia and, finally, fell pregnant from a black guy at the age of fifteen. Nevertheless, even when the situation seemed hopeless, she never thought of suicide. Ruth was a rebellious and a “running-type person” (McBride 123), both literally and in a figurative sense, but she ran because of the necessity to survive. After the abortion and disappointment in love, the woman decided to leave Suffolk for good, to avoid the arranged marriage, alike to the one that her parents had and that caused so much unhappiness to her disabled mother, Mameh. This decision was hard and painful to her as she dearly loved her mother and her younger sister, Dee-Dee. Ruth left her family for a chance to have a new and better life, but the guilt for leaving them had been haunting her for years. She traveled to the New York City, to work at her Aunt Mary’s leather factory; there, she met Andrew Dennis McBride and fell in love with him. Naturally, they experienced a lot of prejudice because of their interracial relationship that was shocking for Dennis’s relatives and friends, but the couple did not care. It was very brave as most people in such situation would just hide. As for Ruth and Andrew, they started to live together, got married and she bore him eight children though he got ill and died before the birth of the eighth, the narrator. The modern society, unlike the one at those times, offers some benefits and help for lonely women with children, but still today, most American families prefer to have no more than two children. Ruth McBride was a remarkably courageous person to have eight and then four more offsprings from her second husband, Hunter Jordan. She also loved him deeply and, after his death, “staggered about in an emotional stupor for nearly a year” (McBride 381), she grieved so much that her children thought that she was emotionally falling apart. Still, Ruth did not give up. The woman fought with her sorrow by riding a bicycle through the black neighborhood where she lived. She walked, took long bus rides, attended the church and kept moving as if her life depended on the action. Still having five children to raise, she was “spinning in crazy circles” (McBride 424) and learning how to run a family.

Ruth McBride Jordan’s remarkable leadership skills and self-discipline would have been precious in the today’s society that is full of great possibilities but weak people. As for her time, to accomplish a seemingly impossible task of bringing up twelve children mostly alone, Ruth established in her house the “King/queen system” (McBride 240). The eldest child at home was the king or queen, and other had to obey him; this hierarchy helped to give the eldest child a feeling of responsibility and others a sense of order and rank. Her house was the entire world for her kids, and within its borders, “she issued orders and her rule was law” (McBride 76). She acted as a chief surgeon, war secretary, religious consultant, chief psychologist, and financial adviser for her children. Ruth was incredibly chaotic and disorganized in the household and an awful cook but still, all her children had their meals and went to bed in time. She could fall asleep for two minutes and be instantly awakened only by selective noises, such as the cry of a baby (this feature reminds me my mom.) She was always busy and did not have much time for long talks with her children. Nevertheless, she had enough time and self-discipline to do what was important to them, and her children often found her in the morning sleeping at the kitchen table, her head resting on someone’s homework, exhausted after the night job and long subway rides. She was strict but fair: those who had bad marks at school or returned home after dark were beaten with her belt. Still, they all adored her as a mother and respected her as a leader.

Ruth did her best to give children a good education as a key to open all the doors and instilled in them the right moral concepts and the faith in God in order to help them overcome problems. It was a winning recipe, actual at any time. The woman kept her children “at a frantic living pace” (McBride 231) and always wanted them to go somewhere – to school, to relatives, to free cultural events, to college. Usually, at six-thirty in the morning, they were leaving their home and going in all directions throughout the New York City, sometimes traveling an hour and a half in one direction to get to the best school. She sent her children to educational institutions for white people, and white classmates often mocked them just for being Afro-Americans, and the teachers put them lower marks for the same reason. As a Jewish, Ruth, of course, was aware of the racial prejudice, as her classmates from Suffolk called her “Christ killer” or “Jew baby” (McBride 116) and never made friends with her, except Frances. Nevertheless, she valued the good education above all, so her children had to learn to adapt to this world. “What’s money if your mind is empty? Educate your mind!” (McBride 100) –kept repeating Ruth like a mantra to her children. She usually chose schools situated a long way from home, as she did not want her kids to be fooling around in the neighborhoods and always insisted only on excellent grades. As it is obvious from her motto, “If it doesn’t involve your going to school or church, I could care less about it and my answer is no whatever it is” (McBride 100), education was like the second religion for her. As for the first one, Ruth McBride Jordan always kept hope and was a highly religious person. Born Jewish and converted to Christianity, the woman had an unwavering faith in God, which helped her in her life’s troubles. The only time the narrator saw her crying was in the church while listening to her favorite religious hymns. Together with the first husband, Ruth even opened the New Brown Memorial Church in their living room. She always took great pride in her children’s relationship with God: every Easter, they played musical instruments or recited stories from the Bible for the whole church congregation. Her children dreaded these events but still they received strong religious beliefs. Finally, education made Ruth’s children productive members of the society, and religion saved them during tough times (for example, in James’s teenage years.)

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The other Ruth’s trait, essential for the success without time limits, was her concentration only on important things: she ignored racial insults, did not care what people talked about her and her children, and was never afraid for her physical safety. Being a white woman with black children in New York during the 1960s when African-Americans were fighting for their equality was not easy: she constantly faced discrimination for her race and for the race of her children. James remembers their travels by subway when both black and white people constantly pushed, laughed, and pointed at Ruth. Her strategy was simple – not to pay attention, “Whenever she stepped out of the house with us, she went into a sort of mental zone where her attention span went no farther than the five kids trailing her…” (McBride 244). The only exception was when people became a threat to her children; then she would “fight back like an alley cat, hissing, angry and fearless” (McBride 98). Her primary aim was to raise own children as good people, and she put all her efforts into its achievement. The only time she seemed to lose her control was the incident with sour milk she wanted to return: after some particularly offensive remark from the merchant, she threw the opened quart of milk into his face. Her children sometimes felt ashamed of her and preferred her to be also black. As for Ruth, she never acknowledged to them her whiteness, preferring the term “light-skinned” and completely ignored any racial questions. She taught them that the God was neither black nor white but transparent, “the color of water” (McBride 141). When her children asked her directly whether they are black or white, her answers were short and clear, “You are a human being…Educate yourself or you’ll be a nobody!” (McBride 227). She never cared to make friends with neighbors or to socialize. Ruth never felt worried about her physical safety, often being the only white person surrounded by Afro-Americans in the neighborhood, in the church, in the crowd meeting a school bus. She was ready to defend herself (for example, in the incident when she fought with two muggers for her purse) and her children. While her son, James, remembers his feeling of a constant danger for her, Ruth was fearless. She never focused on negative sides of the life, maybe simply not having time for these trifles.

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An essential message of The Color of Water is that everyone faces obstacles in life, but everyone also has enough strength to overcome them. This life-asserting story motivates and inspires the readers to personal achievements. The fascinating triumph of James McBride’s mother is that, despite all the hardship of race, religion, and poverty, she concentrated only on the true values: family, raising her children, giving them proper education, and religion as a way to love people and life and succeeded. She was a leader, determined never to give up. Today, the society has changed, but it is still not ideal and offers new challenges. I am sure that personal qualities of Ruth McBride Jordan, such as resolute character, leadership skills, drive, discipline, aspiration for education together with the steadfast love for her children and God, are sufficient to overcome any barriers and achieve success in the today’s society, as well.

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