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.