Finding Yourself: Emotions and Origins in The Color of Water

Growing up in a multiracial family can be confusing, especially if one’s family history has been kept a secret for years. This is the problem for James McBride, whose lifelong struggle of self-identity kept him from truly understanding and accepting who he was and where his family came from. The Color of Water depicts the life of James McBride, a Jewish African American young man who is in search of his self identity, and his mother, Ruth McBride, a devout Christian woman who was born and raised as a Jew but refuses to tell her children about her troubling past. James demonstrates that in order for one to be able to find their self-identity, they must first understand where they come from.

Raised by his white mother, James often spent most of his childhood feeling confused about his identity because of his mother’s secretive past. His mother, Ruth, chose to never speak about her childhood or her family, and instead focused on promoting religion, education, and privacy to all her children. “She insisted on absolute privacy, excellent school grades, and trusted no outsiders of either race. We were instructed never to reveal details of our home life of any figures of authority: teachers, social workers, cops, storekeepers, or even friends” (McBride 27). Ruth’s teachings took a toll on James growing up because he was taught to never open up to anyone. Trying to deal with his confusion, James resorts to creating a fictional version of himself, who he talks to by looking at himself in the mirror. He creates this imaginary version of himself because he wants to see what his life would be like if his life was simpler. “To further escape from painful reality, I created an imaginary world for myself. I’d lock myself in the bathroom and spend long hours playing with him. He looked just like me. I’d stare at him… I would turn to leave, but when I wheeled around he was always there, waiting for me. I had an ache inside, a longing, but I didn’t know where it came from or why I had it. They boy in the mirror, he didn’t seem to have an ache. He was free. I hated him” (90-91). James feels resentment towards “the boy in the mirror” because he wishes he could be like him, free of any worry or confusion. The boy that James creates is what James wishes his life could be like: simple, instead of confusing.

During his teenage years, James becomes angry and starts acting out in order to cope with the pain of not understanding who he is. He chooses to go down the wrong path; turning to drugs and alcohol and ditching school to the point that he decides to become a dropout. “I was obviously hiding, and angry as well, but I would never admit that to myself. The marvelous orchestrated chaos that Mommy has so painstakingly constructed to make her house run smoothly broke down” (140). Ruth eventually cannot deal with it anymore, and sends him to stay with his sister, Jack, and her husband in Kentucky. In order to feel accepted by the older men there, James starts to spend his free time at a local hangout spot known as, “the Corner.” Spending time on the corner let James free his mind of all his troubles, “I turned fifteen on the Corner but I could act like I was twenty-five, and no one cared. I could hide. No one knew me. No one knew my past, my white mother, my dead father, nothing. It was perfect. My problems seemed far, far away” (147). The Corner became James’ place to get away from his identity issue. While there, he felt like he fit in with everyone else which was the exact opposite of how he felt when he lived with his mother.

However, James finally came to the realization that acceptance from the men on the Corner was not the acceptance he had been searching for. Hanging out on the corner was only a temporary solution for a much bigger problem. James’ mentor, and one of the men that hung around the Corner, Chicken Man, helps James come to this realization. He tells James that he [James] is not as smart as he really thinks he is, or else he wouldn’t be hanging around The Corner wasting time, “Is that how you want to end up, goin’ to jail? Because that’s where you’ll end up, doing time and hanging on this corner when you get out. Is that what you want for yourself? ‘Cause if you do, you can have it. Go on” (149-150). Hearing this, James tells Chicken Man that he is actually a very smart young man, to which Chicken Man replies, “Everybody on this corner is smart. You ain’t no smarter than anybody here. If you so smart, why you got to come on this corner every summer? ‘Cause you flunkin’ school! You think if you drop out of school somebody’s gonna beg you to go back? Hell no! They won’t beg your black ass to go back. What makes you so special that they’ll beg you! Who are you? You ain’t nobody! If you want to drop out of school and shoot people and hang on this corner all your life, go ahead. It’s your life!” (150). Hearing this, James first disagrees with Chicken Man’s statement, but soon discovers that he was right, and moves back to live with his mother in New York, even though that means going back to dealing with his identity crisis. As James starts becoming an adult, he begins to look into his mother’s past. He uncovers all the secrets that his mother had kept from him and his siblings for years. He finds out where Ruth spent most of her childhood years, and heads out there to find some answers. After interviewing a few people, James finds out that his mother was born a Jew and had a very tough childhood because of her father, the local rabbi. While James feels terrible that Ruth lived in such troubling circumstances, he feels like part of him is now filled because he finally knows where his family comes from. “The uncertainty that lived inside me began to dissipate; the ache that the little boy who stared in the mirror felt was gone” (229). James does not feel like he did when he used to talk to the boy in the mirror. Now, he feels like that little, confused boy is gone because he knows the truth and has finally found his identity.

Although it took years for James to find out where his family came from, he finally discovered all the secrets that Ruth had been keeping from him and his siblings. James would not have been comfortable with himself if he did not uncover his family history like he did. He filled the void that he had been dealing with throughout his whole life, and discovered who he was as a person and his identity. James’ story proves that if one wants to find one’s self-identity, understanding of one’s origins is essential.

Discerning Racial “Color”: Ruth’s Role in The Color of Water

In The Color of Water, Ruth, a Caucasian young woman, gravitates toward Black men because of the rejection, lack of love, paternal neglect, and sexual abuse she encountered at the hands of her own father, and because of the first love of her life Peter, was a black man. Fishel Shilsky, Ruth’s father, repels his daughter by fear which he instills in her and her siblings. Fear erects barriers to the relationship. Because of fear, self-expression is inhibited and feelings of love and affection are withheld. Shilsky, a Jewish rabbi, is a rigid, pedantic, martinet who inspires terror in Ruth because he quickly gets infuriated at her blunders. She dreads the constant drill to memorize passages of scripture. She must endure the “scolding that makes you feel worse than the hitting”(62) and statements like “you’re stupid., you’re nothing but a fool, a sinner” (62). Ruth cowers for “he put the fear of God in her”(80). She “is afraid of Tateh and has no love for him at all” (42). The domineering attitude, the totalitarian, despotic control over his own wife and children and the utter disregard for their feelings alienate Ruth and pushes her away from her own people and white men by extension.

The sexual abuse which Ruth has to endure in silence compounds the crime against her father and widens the gap between them both. Her father even gets in to bed with her at night. His imperious, authoritative presence, and choler forbid that Ruth disclose the secret, incestuous affair. The pedophiliac estranges his daughter even more and consequently Ruth is forced into the arms of a black man, Peter, who genuinely cares for her and who shows her love, kindness, and affection. Ruth’s heart and home are deprived of love and she describes herself as one “starving for love and affection” (83). Ruth never feels liked as a child therefore the isolation with which she struggles becomes evident when the first man outside of her family who shows her kindness becomes the one into whose arms she runs and becomes the father of her first child. Child molestation undeniably cuts a deep wound in Ruth’s life and drives her from her own circle.

Ruth’s family dwells in a small town in the South called Portsmouth where her father runs a store in the Black district of the town. Although her father does not permit any interaction between his family and Blacks besides that of transacting business at his store, Ruth takes an objective and independent scrutiny of Blacks and what she discovers, fills her with wonder. The many injustices, the exploitation, the discrimination, lynching, the Klu Klux Klan attacks, and dire poverty that Blacks must face put them in Ruth’s sympathies and endear them to her. Because Blacks are the targets and victims of such abuse, alienation, injustice and terror, Ruth feels empathy and affinity to Blacks.

Ruth realizes some admirable qualities in black people, which draw her such as their easy going nature, sense of humour, confidence, solidarity and kindness. She then compares her family to the Black family. “We were miserable” (62), Ruth has a scarred family life and childhood experience. The family unit is in shambles and its members are disunited. Ruth never speaks of any strong bond with parents or siblings so she suffers in solitude. She admires the black family so it is no surprise that she gravitates towards Blacks. She observes that “their families were together and although they were poor, they seemed happy” (61). Ruth’s Jewish family disowns and disinherits her when they learn of her intentions to marry a Black man, Andrew Dennis McBride. Ruth’s Black in-laws, after Dennis’ death, adopt her as their own daughter and love her as such and “that’s why (she) never veered from the black side” (247). When her family says ‘kaddish’ and disown her, they refuse to support her and her kids even when she turns a widow. In the situation of neglect, the Blacks in the community become her family. She (stays) on the Black side because that (is) the only place (she) could stay” (232). Ruth’s second husband, Hunter Jordan is like the rest. He is a “good, good man…without bitterness and hate” (248), and a god-fearing man. He stands by his wife and children and support the family.

At public school, whites do not accept Ruth and label her as an outsider, foreigner and immigrant. She does not feel accepted in the white circle and although she is American, she is made to feel like an alien. Pervasive rejection and maltreatment lead her to the Black circle with which she feels belonging. Because of prevailing Anti-Semitic feeling and the Jews’ own exclusiveness, Ruth’s inter-racial relationships suffer. Her white school friends never include her in their social circle and her father imposes the directive that his Jewish children cannot play or associate with “gentiles” or non-Jews. Thus Ruth feels torn and confused yet, in black people she comes to find something essential which she lacks – love.

Black men distinguish themselves from Ruth’s father, Shilsky. Peter, the first love of her life, she describes as the “first man other than my grandfather who ever showed me any kindness in my life” (111). Peter “never judges” (109) her. Unlike her father, he has a sense of humour that makes her laugh all the time. No one prior to Peter shows an interest in her. His tenderness, kindness, wit and easy humour are all traits which her father sorely lacks yet which draw her to Peter. Ruth and Peter communicate unimpeded while Peter conveys his love for her. Likewise, the salient attractive qualities in Dennis are his kindness, easy-going nature and sense of humour. She describes Dennis as “the kindest man she has ever met to this day”(171). Furthermore, Dennis is thoughtful, solid and spiritual. He teaches her about God not like her father did. He never compels her to adopt his faith. The Black men in her life are the total antithesis of her father. The solidarity, unity, intimacy and general happiness in the home are qualities which Ruth desires in her own family and magnetize Ruth to Blacks and Black men.

The spirituality of Blacks is another enviable aspect for which Ruth longs. At the Black Baptist Church, she feels at home with the people and the liturgy which are pregnant with feeling, vigor, vitality and which connects her to Providence. The genuineness of Black religion (Christianity), dedication to church and family, and a unique, close relationship with God captivate and magnetize her to the Black circle. On the other hand, she describes Judaism as a religion filled with dry rituals which hold no meaning for her. Memorization of scripture, the drought of fulfilling relationships, and the hypocrisy of her father as a rabbi repulse her from Judaism. Dennis teaches her of a Divine God who “lifts her up and who forgives”(247). As a youth , she becomes struck by the ceremonious attire, the importance, and the solemnity that Black folks hold concerning going to church on Sunday. Ruth observes that “every Sunday, they’d get dressed up so clean for church, (she) won’t recognize them” (61).

Works Cited:

McBride, James. The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother. Riverhead Books, New York. The Berkley Publishing Company 2006.