Exploring Identity through the Lens of a Jewish Mother in ‘The Color of Water’
How it works
The novel “The Color of Water” by James McBride, is a beautiful heartfelt dedication to a white Jewish mother by her African American son. The novel educates the reader about James McBride’s life growing up with the life that was bestowed upon him, the life of a biracial Jewish man and the confusion that was his identity during an era in which people of color were held to a standard of stereotypes nothing more. The novel also covers the treacherous journey and growth of James’s mother Rachel (Jewish Original Name) abandoned her family, challenged their values, questioned their ideologies, ultimately leading to a forbidden love of a White Jewish woman and an African American man, which back in the day was unheard of.
The novel “The Color of water” accurately depicts the social situation of people of color back in the day with the constant discrimination, oppression, and struggle to thrive in a society that was against their whole identity. Nevertheless, both Rachel and her family overcame the adversities life threw at them, from poverty to racism, they were able to overcome the adversities life threw at them to obtain their idea of success regardless of their situation. More in depth, the book covers a wide variety of actual occurrences in the life of Ruth McBride and James McBride to further give the reader insight on the lives of two people who are connected by blood but thanks to society are totally different.
I personally enjoyed the book because I could relate both to Ruth and James on several levels. For example, Ruth and I both grew up in strict religious homes and once we started to have our perspective on topics that differed from our parent’s view, we were rejected as a family because of that. I also admire Ruth in a way because she had the audacity to stand up for what she wanted and believed in contrary to what her parents said. She made a life for herself when even her own family disowned her, well technically it was just her Father Fishel Shilsky.
In correlation with James, I too was held to such a high standard by my parents due to the achievements of my siblings, and this pressure like James was so much to handle at a young age I succumbed to vices like drugs, skipping class, and not caring about education due to the intense pressure on my shoulders to be of some sort of high standard when in actuality I am myself, not my siblings. I think it was such a coincidence that this book related to me so much given my current situation of battling with my own personal issues, this book gave me a new outlook on trials and challenges life gives you, it reminded to push on no matter what because hard work does pay off.
Regarding how it connects to ethnic studies in the novel “The Color of Water” has a variety of terms in use, like Racism and Anti-Semitism. Throughout the journey of Ruth McBride, she constantly encountered and dealt with very racist ideologies, especially from her very own father, also known as Tateh. Tateh was a Jewish Rabbi that was antagonized by black people. This showed thoroughly when Ruth decided to marry Andrew Dennis McBride a black man. Given the ideologies at this given point of historical occurrences of rejecting interracial marriages were common, however, the very fact that Tateh hated black people to the point of casting out his own daughter Ruth for the sole reason that her lover was black is just disgusting. Ruth also being Jewish in times of stereotypes that dictated Jews as evil and “Jesus killers” as used in the novel, experienced extreme cases of Anti-Semitism in her childhood. It was so extreme that most of her childhood was spent alone and her family getting a bad image within the community they lived in, solely because they were Jewish.
Ruth McBride also faced racism on the day due to having biracial kids, twelve to be exact. As a white woman parading around more or less twelve colored kids in the days of Jim Crow and racial segregation was unheard of. Ruth had daily run-ins with microaggressions by strangers in public spaces, like weird looks, rude comments, and in intense situations downright violence for being a mother of twelve beautiful people of color. Nonetheless, Ruth pushed through and instilled a work ethic, striving for success, and drive to pursue your dreams within her kids that ultimately all twelve of her kids had phenomenal achievements despite being poverty-stricken. In a way being a child of an immigrant, Ruth McBride strove for the American dream through her children which lead to them achieving the American dream of living in a house, having a good education, a family, etc.
Though the book covers all twelve of Ruth McBride’s children, it highlights the author’s life and his own battles of growing up Biracial with a White Jewish mother. As a child James McBride was riddled with a chronic identity crisis due to the fact his mother looked nothing like him. This bewildered James because as a black young man, he could never grasp that he could be a child of a white woman. James clearly saw the differences between his black classmates and their black parents and would question his mother on numerous occasions whether he was a legitimate child of his mother. This uncertainty fueled certain ideologies and mentalities within his teenage and young adult life. James never once felt like he was nothing but black because in societies eyes that’s all he was, they did not care about his Jewish side.
Given that his Mother Ruth never raised them Jewish, being African American was a crucial part in the identity of James McBride. He would think black thoughts like “white people are evil” and this would impact the image of his mother to the extent to which James felt ashamed for having a white mother. It wasn’t till later years when he took interest in the Jewish side of his heritage, the idea of his true genuine identity began to form. The entire novel was pivotal in the formation and reconnection with a side that he rarely associated himself with, his Jewish origins and heritage. With the research it took to assemble this novel, James was able to attain a part of history within his family that he never knew existed because his mother Ruth could not bring herself to talk about her past. With the reestablishment of a heritage that got last in translation within James, he was able to fully create this ideal image of himself and be satisfied with it. The novel “The Color of Water” purpose was to be the last step in solving James’s identity crisis, in a way that satisfies his mental needs of having a clear sense of self.
In conclusion, Ruth and James McBride have gone through a ton of adversity in life due to their race, lifestyles, and ideologies but through a strong will to push through and the rekindling of a lost identity Ruth and James McBride was able to create a life for themselves in a society that was totally against them. They did not let the world of negative energy discourage them because their will to be successful and a prospering citizen in America was stronger. The novel “The Color of Water” is a testament that one cannot know their own identity if they have no knowledge of their own history.