The Color of Water is a biography written by James McBride about his Jewish-raised mother, Ruth. The book incorporates the point of views from both him and his mother in order to illustrate the several dimensions of the life of Ruth McBride Jordan, formerly known as Rachel Shilsky. Though the story is written in half from the point of view of James McBride himself, the author focuses his side of the story on his observations and experiences growing up with his mother.
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Ruth tells the story of her life as a Jewish-raised immigrant who went against her strict father’s rule and her responsibility to her family in order to live her life and to grow into her own person.
Being raised Jewish, Ruth had a very impersonal relationship with much of her family, except for her mother whom she endearingly called Mameh as the Jewish phrase for mother and her sister Dee-Dee. Her father, or Tateh, however, she was not very fond of for a multitude of reasons. One of her biggest bouts against her father, and is evident throughout the book, has to do with her idealization of a married couple. She believed that as a wife, her mother deserved for her husband to love her and care for her. It became evident that it wasn’t the case when Ruth reveals that her father neither loved nor cared for her father and that he was cold and demanding to her and the rest of the family. Ruth also reveals that as a child she was molested by her father, instilling a fear in her that left her with a low self-esteem and a low self-worth. This disdain and contempt towards her father became the root of many of Ruth’s internal struggles growing up. Whether or not she admits this to be the reason for her rebelliousness, Ruth begins to construct her own identity to stray away from her domineering father. She compares her struggles to the life of the African Americans she’s encountered and through that comparison, she was able to find herself able to relate to them more, thus igniting her affinity towards that community rather than her own. Though white-passing, Ruth feels more comfortable amongst the African American community and does not fear them the way the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants did even though her father clearly expresses his discontent with black people, denying any connection that Ruth with them.
The novel mentions the struggles faced by Ruth’s mother as well. Having immigrated to America through an arranged marriage to a man that does not love her, there is also the language barrier and ableism she faced. Much of the interactions between Ruth and her father were spoken in English purposefully by her father so that her mother wouldn’t have any idea what they were saying. Because of Ruth’s fear of her father, she’s unable to bring herself to translate the conversation to her mother. Being crippled in the legs, her mother often spoken about as a hindrance by her father, expressing that she is of no use to him. Despite these hardships, Ruth cared deeply for her mother and seemed to only be concerned with what her mother wants of her.
Despite her family’s wishes, she leaves home after graduating high school and marries twice, both times to back men. She thanks her first husband, James McBride’s late father Dennis McBride, for leading her to God and saving her from almost falling into prostitution. It’s through this marriage that she eventually assimilates and converts from the “white” Jewish ideals to the life of the black Christian community. James describes this conversion of his mother as the beginning of her new life because it’s with her first husband Dennis that Ruth has her first eight children, James being the 8th. In addition, Ruth is also able to transition from her impoverished life working in her father’s shop to being in a stable marriage with her first husband, even founding their own church.
James also describes the death of his father as part of the end of his mother’s life as he worries for her sanity all throughout his life. Because his father died while his mother was still pregnant with him, he never fully understood his identity as a child. Throughout much of his childhood, James ponders his racial identity and is perplexed by the fact the he and his mother don’t look alike. Even when asked, his mother would dismiss the question as if it did not matter what color either of their skin was, only that he was her son and that she was his mother. Ruth had a certain attitude with regards to race, as she did not want her children to be concerned with such matters that had nothing to do with God or school. James, however, is persistent on unpacking the truth of his racial identity and how it affects him and his mother. During the civil rights era with the rise of the Black Panther movement, James does, however, seem to understand that there is a certain divide between black and white. In elementary school, he began noticing that his classmates all look like their parents except for him. When being sent away for camp, he cries for his mother’s safety on the bus because he discovers that one of the kid’s father is a Black Panther and is under the assumption that the Black Panther wants to hurt his mother, leading him to punch the Black Panther’s son in the face.
James reveals his secret of the boy in the mirror that he described as having an ideal life. He his reflection as being his “true” self by creating an imaginary world that would help him cope with his own reality. He imagined the boy to have a better life in freedom; without hunger, without a white mother, and without having to share a bed. It’s because of this idealization that he began to hate the boy in the mirror, thus hating himself. This was James’s metaphor to act out his internal struggle between what he has versus what he wants in terms of upbringing and living situations.
James’s struggle with identity and lack of a present father figure leads him down a troubled path during high school. With his stepfather not present, and his mother having to split attention amongst 12 kids, James finds himself in a struggle with street crimes and drug addiction in his teen years. He tells the story of how he and a group of friends were chased down in a freight yard for stealing crates of wine, which eventually led to him stumbling home drunk with his sisters desperately trying to get him into the house without their mother seeing. However, his mother eventually found out and was waiting for him to wake up the next morning, before whipping him with her belt. He then states that his friends became his family and that his family were just house mates to him. Ruth then sends him to live with his sister Jack after finding that he’s been skipping school and his grades have been dropping. It’s during this time with his sister that he meets the Chicken man. After a getting fired from his job at the gas station, James expresses that he’s too smart for that place and that he shouldn’t have to deal with and of it. The Chicken Man then gives him a stern reality check saying that since James is black, it doesn’t matter how smart he is because he ended up in that place regardless. Through this conversation James realizes that he’s right and that he needs to use his intelligence to better his life, not use it as an excuse.
James then begins to embark on his journey to uncover his mother’s past and find out more about where she comes from. Because she’s a very private person, James takes it into his own hands to search for people from his mother’s past that can tell him more about his mother and by extension, learn more about himself. With a hand drawn map given to him by his mother, he discovers where his maternal grandfather’s old shop used to be and takes a break at the McDonald’s that has replaced the old establishment. It’s then that he meets Eddie Thompson, a man who knew of the Shilsky family and tells James about what his father was like. Eddie conveys to him the irony of his racist grandfather having a black grandson like him by telling him the story of the black kid he shot in his own store and how he would hustle many black customers of their money. After doing more research into his mother’s family, James finds himself overcome with emotion one night as he walked along the same wharf that Ruth’s mother had walked before. He begins to feel the same loneliness felt by his grandmother and as the sun rises, he feels his own rebirth but with a newfound determination. By learning where he comes from, he was able to find the motivation to not let his grandmother’s suffering be in vain.
It’s in the very end where both James and Ruth come together to acknowledge that despite all of the hardships faced by Ruth, she was able to send James and all 11 of his siblings to college where they would eventually graduate and some receiving graduate degrees. James owes much of his success to his mother’s resilience in life and decides to write The Color of Water as an homage to her life’s work, which Ruth claims to be the achievements of her children. Ruth was able to construct her own identity by following her own morals instead of what her strict Jewish father wanted for her. James took that as an inspiration to be proud of who he is and where he comes from. He even closes by describing his mother as “the president, CEO, and commander in chief” of the family and paints the scene of his siblings gathered together and interacting as if they were kids again.
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