James McBride Explores his Mothers and his own Identify

James McBride explores his mother’s and his own identify in her novel “The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother.” He writes from the point of view of whatever age is at during that part of the story. Navigating through his childhood and his interview with his Jewish mother. He talks about not only his childhood struggle with not knowing his identity or his mother’s identity, but also discusses issues of poverty, racism, and just his childhood stories of growing up in New York.

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Something to note, James grew up to be a Journalist, Author and a Musician, and his mother passed away in 2010.

The story starts with Ruth talking about how she’s dead to her family (pp. 1), I think this chapter set the tone for the rest of the book. It gives some insight into why Ruth never wants to talk about race, or her family history to James. She goes into greater detail later in other chapters, which help to explain why Ruth seems to hate everyone. She also talks about her father molesting her, and I think this is something that sets the tone to why she cut off her previous life (pp. 42). It was interesting to read Ruth’s interview chapters because James’ chapters that talk about his mother always talk about Ruth never wanting to talk about her life.

James is telling his story and his mother’s story, going back and forth from his mother’s past to his own life and recollections of his childhood. James is eighth of 12 kids, he talks about his childhood almost from a child’s point of view. Explaining his struggles growing up poor, and in a predominantly black neighborhood with a white mother. Or his fear of the black power movement, in fear that his mom would be killed because she’s white (pp. 27). James’ underlying identity confusion is written in a way that he tells stories that illustrate his search for his identity without having to blatantly say it. James is constantly trying to understand his identify as a black Jewish man. Through his eyes as a child, it seems that that is his black identity, but through learning through his mother’s interviews, he learns about his Jewish identity. It wasn’t till the chapter “Finding Ruthie” that he discovers his Jewish identity through his lens, not his mother’s. James talks about Malcom X and the black panther movement, and his fear that black power would be the end of his mother. But it was interesting that Ruth really enjoyed Malcom X, even though Ruth was a Christian and white while Malcom X was Muslim and Black. James’ sister Helen decided to join the movement and ran away. It almost seems like she was running away from her identity, whereas James wanted to learn about his identity, both black and Jewish.

Another really important part of this book is the way he and his mother address racism, though Ruth is white, she was Jewish and grew up in the south. She gave really good insight into the racism in America during that time, and James’ stories help to illustrate America’s racism and how it is still extremely prevalent. Ruth’s father was racist, she ran away and was dead to her family for falling in love with a black boy. She tells the story about her first pregnancy and how if anyone found out who the father was that he would have been killed, this was something really important to mention as it explains historically how racist America and the south is. Then we learn about Ruth needing to buy a church because the owner would not sell it to a black man, this is also important to highlight because at a point in history, African Americans couldn’t buy homes and property and it was actually legal at the time. Ruth’s stories highlight some historical racism but in the point of view of someone who grew up during this time not just a textbook. But James’ also experienced racism in his life as well, he went to a predominantly white school where they’d call him awful things, I think these stories really highlight the issue of racism in America and how it’s still extremely prevalent.

The story ends with all of the kids’ accomplishments, all of them went to college, though not all finished. James eventually became a journalist, author and a musician, which is important that he found his identity and all 3 of those professions are creative and places where you discover a lot. Also, I think it’s important to think of this as a memoir, not just a story, this was a gift to her mother, it’s a compilation of stories, but it’s like one big thank you for life, and for everything she helped him discover. Including his identity, as a black Jewish man. Also, the insights and historical lesson that were talked about by both Ruth and James are something to note. It’s another way to learn about America’s history, it’s written by the people who lived through it and experienced it.

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