The Color of the Water by James Mcbride
” I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” This quote is from Martin Luther King. Jr’s speech of I Have A Dream. He is an American civil right movement leader famous for having a voice in equal right for all people and all races. This is very relevant to the book, Color of the Water as it talks about a lot on discrimination in the narrator’s childhood to adulthood.
The autobiography and biography, The Color of the Water is written by James Mcbride. This memoir shows the trials that the author’s mother, Ruth and the author, James himself have to face including conforming to the society and discrimination because of their race and religious belief in the neighborhood. This book shows two different perspectives of both Ruth and James. Ruth had to face the notion of a white married to a black is disgraceful and disgusting and the discrimination against the Jews. Her son, James also had to face prejudice as well. As a child from interracial family, James had a lot of conflicts on his identity and race due to either outside influences or influence from his family. Growing up with no clarification or any realization on how bad discrimination are against black people, Jewish people and white people who married interracially, interracial children often get easily confused on why they are treated as they are. As a child with a white mother and black father, James doesn’t realize how forbidden family with mixed blood are. Due to Ruth is determined to refuse to speak about anything not related to religion and education, James lacked the knowledge of the prejudice around the neighborhood. ” I remember a white man shoved her angrily as she led a group of us onto an escalator…I remember two black women pointing at us, saying, ” Look at that white bitch,” and a white man screaming at Mommy somewhere in Manhattan…”(31) Even though Ruth herself is a white woman, several white men harassed her just because she is seen with black children and she is also harassed by black women cursing at her.
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The society sees interracial relationship as a bad thing and the mindset against different culturally and socially- defined relationship is especially strong during the time period. Ruth just ignored the harassers but it didn’t satisfy James at all. He was bewildered by the harassment and may have wondered why they deserved all of that and felt strange with how his mom dealt with these mockers. ” The merchant looked at he, then at me. Then back at her. Then at me again. The surprise written on his face changed to anger and disgust, and it took me completely by surprise. I thought the man would see Ma, think they had something in common, then give her the dough and we’d be off… I thought it would be easier if we were just one color, black or white. “(102-103) Since James doesn’t know well enough about the prejudice in the neighborhood especially towards interracial family, he thought that the white man would return the money for the spoiled milk but because of the perceptions on interracial, the man refused to return the money. This bewildered James because he thought that the man is only being prejudice towards him and now that his white mother is here to return the milk, the man would immediately return it to the white woman. This is the time when he realized that being in an interracial family in that period of time is very dangerous. There will be times where children from a family with different races will have conflicts about their races on whether they should be part of one race or the other race. ” I didn’t want to be white. My siblings had already instilled the notion of black pride in me. I would have preferred that Mommy were black.”(103) This quote came from the part right after Ruth confronted the shopkeeper for selling spoiled milk to James and was looked down upon because she had a black child in which Ruth retaliated by throwing the milk at the shopkeeper. James was frightened and embarrassed to the point that he just wanted to leave without making any commotion. This made him afraid of being a white woman’s child. He wanted Ruth to be black instead. They went wild, but even as I sat down with their applause ringing in my ears, with laughter on my face, happy to feel accepts, to be part of them, knowing that I had pleased them…I feel the same ache I felt when I gazed at the boy in the mirror. I remembered him, and how free he was, and I hated him even more.”(105) James wanted to fit in to the white kids in his school. He is only black kid in the class and he doesn’t feel he is accepted because of his race so he tried to please the kids in his class and make himself feel more happy. He is conforming to the idea that being white is better than being black. The boy in the mirror represents his heart desire which is being a part of white and black culture and being a more free and happier him where he doesn’t need to care about standing out from being a black kid in a class full of white kids.
A person that doesn’t need to care about anything except for being happy and carefree. He missed the times when he’s not as aware of discrimination as in the past. By deciding to keep her own past and not talk about her past from her children, Ruth made her children confused about their own mixed blood causing them to have identity crisis. Ruth, also known as Ruchel Dqajra Zylska, was a former Jew and a daughter of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi. Her family forced Judaism on her. She feels as if she’s been trapped, unable to break free from the Judaism practices, which cause her resent religion. In order to obtain freedom of her own, she decided to abandon her Jewish identity altogether, pursue Christianity and kept her past as a secret from her children. ” When I was a boy, I used to wonder where my mother came from, how she got on this earth. When I asked her where she was from, she would say, ” God made me,” and change the subject.. We traded information on Mommy the way people trade baseball cards at trade shows, offering bits and pieces fraught with gossip..”(21-22) Ruth refused to talk about her past even when her children were asking about it and even changing the subject everytime. This made the children more curious to the point that they traded information on their mother.
Due to Ruth not telling her children about her origin, it made the younger children like James to be more confused why he is different from other people. ” I asked her whether God was black or white…”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.”(50-51) This showed that James is progressively getting more overwhelmed by the differences from black and white. He tried to ask his mom for more clarification and answer to all his questions but Ruth did not explain clearly enough and the reason why she did not want to talk about it is because she wanted to shield the ethic and cultural sides that stunted from her growth in identity in her childhood. Due to the pain it brought her, she refused to talk about her own past. James’ mother, Ruth believed that education and religion is very important in one’s life. Even since young, Ruth was taught that religion is very important. Even though she is a Christian now instead of being a Jew in the past, she still firmly believed that without religion, it’s not going to get you in life. Due to these circumstances, she wanted her children to have a good life with a good education and religion because of her lack of education from her childhood and her love for Christianity. Sometimes, Ruth’s own opinion may differ from her own beliefs. Mommy’s contradictions crashed and slammed against one another like bumper cars at Coney Island. White folks, she felt, were implicitly evil towards blacks, yet she forced us to go to white schools to get the best education. Black could be trusted more, but anything involving blacks was probably slightly substandard”(29) During the 90s, there’s a lot of discrimination in United States. Schools for white are obviously better than school for blacks. Ruth believed that a better education equals a better future life so she is very adamant on going to a better school but this instead made James more confused because of her contradictions against herself. ” … happy people did not seem to cry like she did. Mommy’s tears seemed to come from somewhere else, a place far away, a place inside her that she never let any of us children visit, and even as a boy I felt there was pain behind them.”(50) Christianity seems like an outlet for Ruth to let go of her past but everytime she visit the church, it always made her have flashback of her past when she was still a child of a rabbi. This opens up a flood gate which she can’t help to stop. James at the age where he questions everything and observative of his surroundings. He had a feeling that Ruth is crying because of her past. He got the wrong impression that Ruth wants to be black like everyone else. This shows the lack of knowledge about his mom’s past. Growing up in a neighborhood full of white and a house full of mixed, James as a growing teenager had many conflicts in his identity as an interracial child. Social media had a huge part in James’ life as it had an significant impact in trends and racism. ” I had swallowed the white man’s fear of the Negro… It began with a sober white newsman on our black- and- white television set introducing a new clip showing a Black Panther rally, led by Bobby Seale or Huey Newton or one of those young black militant leaders, screaming to hundreds and hundreds of angry African- American students”(26-27) Due to watching the news, it influenced James that all blacks especially in Black Panther are dangerous and hates white people. This made him very worried for his mother who is a white woman. ” He’s a Black Panther… I wanted to warn Mommy. Suppose the Black Panther wanted to kill her?… turned to the Black Panther’s son sitting behind me and punched him square in the face with my fist”(36)
Ever since James saw the news on Black Panther, he have a fear of black people even though in the society, he’s also considered as black. Due to the news about Black Panther, he is convinced that the father who is from Black Panther will most definitely end up killing or hurting Ruth. He was panicking and trying to save’ his mom that he feels so disorientated from his determination to get his mom away from the Black Panther’s member and confused with his identity. As the bus is driving away from his mom, he punched the kid who claimed that his father is in Black Panthers out of fear for his mom’s safety and panic. Having influenced from social media, society conformity towards discrimination at the time and his own family, James had trouble finding his own self worth during his childhood. As he grow up, he slowly realized that there’s discrimination in his world but he learned to accept all of his culture and racial identity. He became fully aware of his lineage and welcome his genealogy.