A Century of Influence

Ruth Jordan McBride was born 100 years ago today. She may have left this earth 12 years ago, but her legacy lives on in her twelve children and many grandchildren.

I was born an Orthodox Jew on April 1, 1921, April Fool’s Day, in Poland. I don’t remember the name of the town where I was born, but I do remember my Jewish name: Ruchel Dwajra Zylska

Ruth Jordan McBride

American author, James McBride, has published seven books, but his most renowned is his memoir, The Color of Water. Published in 1996, The Color of Water, spent two years on the New York Times Best Sellers list, sold millions of copies, and is still read by countless high school and college students every year. Its popularity remains because of the compelling story James relates of his own life raised in Queens as one of twelve black children born to a white, Jewish powerhouse of a woman. The book’s unlikely premise entices people to pick up the book, its amazing story engages them, and its message encourages them to share it with others.

I have been teaching this modern classic since the early 2000s. We had a well-worn classroom set in our English department because The Color of Water was a text for all classes. One year, the state of Maryland where I was teaching, decided to choose The Song Yet Sung, MeBride’s second fiction novel as the Maryland ONE Book that year. This brought James McBride to Washington County, MD on a speaking tour. My AP Language class loaded a bus to head to another high school to meet the author of one of their favorite books. He was casual, personable, and kind; he signed each book, answered each question, and no doubt created life-long fans. I had the privilege of enjoying a few moments alone with him while those teachers in charge of the event started the festivities. I must admit that I resisted “fan-girling” and simply talked about life, his work, and especially his mother. I asked if she would ever consider joining him on a book tour. “She thinks this all is crazy,” he said, “it’s just not for her.” After the event, I asked him to sign all three of my books which he did and then thanked me for teaching my students and encouraged me to continue.

I left the high school English classroom to teach theatre in 2014, and then I left k-12 all-together in 2019, but I will always be a teacher. In January of 2020 I started working in the adult education department of Savannah Technical College. After going virtual during the days of COVID, I started a little book club for my GED students who needed to increase reading comprehension. The book club has grown, and I have added The Color of Water to our book options.

This morning I was leading the first meeting of a new book club for The Color of Water. I like to help my students dive into the text by reading the first chapter or two aloud. When I read Ruth’s date of birth, it was surreal that she was born 100 years ago today! Today! Not yesterday, not next week… today. It really was quite a moment for my students. What a coincidence that we happened to be reading about Ruth on the day that would have been her 100th birthday. I can’t help but wonder if James and his siblings got together to celebrate this momentous occasion. Of course, Ruth would think that was silly.

My book clubs at Savannah Tech are made up of students of varying ages, ethnicities, and socio-economic levels, but they all find it easy to relate to this mother whose primary goal in life was to keep her children alive, healthy, educated, and most importantly, in church.

The media in America talks about our variety of races and recently seems to encourage more division than unity in our neighborhoods. I just know what I experience in my own life, and when my Zoom book club made up of women whose white, black, and brown faces on my computer screen were talking about a white Jewish woman raising her twelve black children in Queens in the 1960s, we all could relate to something. They spoke to each other and asked each other questions about being white women, black women, immigrant women, and just women.

One moment in particular from a book club session early this year stands out in my mind. We were having a conversation about the Black Power movement in the early 1970s (chapter 4). Since I am older than my students (usually), I talked about my memories of that movement from my childhood. I grew up in a predominantly white suburban neighborhood, so most of my memories came from what I saw on television and the changes in fashion that the movement encouraged. One of my students who is black asked me a question, “Were you frightened?” That question opened up a dialogue that was real and honest and full of love, respect, and kindness.

One afternoon on the way home from church I asked her whether God was black or white.

A deep sigh. “Oh boy… God’s not black. God’s not white. He’s a Spirit.”

“Does he like black or white people better?”

He loves all people. He’s a spirit.

“What’s a spirit?”

“A spirit’s a spirit.”

“What color is God’s spirit?”

“It doesn’t have a color,” she said. “God is the color of water. Water doesn’t have a color.”

Ruth is still teaching all of us. Happy Birthday in heaven, Mrs. McBride! Thank you for your faithfulness to God and your love for your children. You may have left us but your stories and your lessons remain.