Constructing an Identity: James McBride and Richard Wright

May 21, 2019 by Essay Writer

The world is full of predispositions that favor the majority and hinder minorities. James McBride’s memoir, The Color of Water, and Richard Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy, both address the disadvantages that minorities face. In these narratives, Ruth McBride, James McBride, and Richard Wright are all surrounded by ignorant people who pressure them to conform to stereotypes. However, these individuals are able to combat the ignorance and construct their own identities using the power of education and knowledge. Through the growth of the characters in Black Boy and The Color of Water, it is evident that education is the key to self-discovery.

Ruth McBride is an immigrant from Poland, and she faces the pressure to conform to both her parents’ traditional ideologies and the standards of the American South. Ruth is considered an outcast by other whites in Suffolk, Virginia, because of her Jewish heritage. As a result, she is better able to identify with the African-Americans in her town, and she enters into a relationship with a black boy named Peter. Unfortunately, due to her own family’s racism as well as the popularity of the KKK, Ruth is forced to see Peter in secret. Ruth becomes pregnant with Peter’s child, and because such a pregnancy is deemed socially unacceptable, she is discreetly sent to New York City to live with her aunts. In describing Suffolk’s oppressive community, Ruth states, “It was always so hot, and everyone was so polite, and everything was all surface but underneath it was like a bomb waiting to go off” (McBride 184). Ruth learns the value of hard work and self-reliance because she is never afforded the luxury of sympathy, and she later passes her values of open-mindedness and education on to her children. Thus, Ruth’s new sense of self compels her to marry a black man despite her family’s threats to cut off all ties with her; it also drives her to convert to Christianity because, unlike Judaism, Christianity was never imposed upon her. Ultimately, Ruth is able to create her own identity by rejecting her family’s biases as well as her family’s religion.

As Ruth’s biracial son, James McBride struggles to understand his own racial identity. When James is a young boy, his mother sends him to school in a Jewish neighborhood in order to grant him the best education possible, but as a consequence, he is subject to racial prejudice and begins to resent his mother’s race. One of James’ early pressures to conform to a stereotype arises when his classmates urge him to dance; while he wants his classmates’ approval, he is torn because he knows that dancing for them would perpetuate the notion that all blacks can dance. After the death of his stepfather, James goes down a slippery slope by skipping school and turning to drug use and crime. When Ruth finds out about his bad behavior, she sends him to live with his sister in Louisville, Kentucky. There, James meets the corner men, who embody the dead-end life James would lead if he continues down his current path. Although James befriends these men, he realizes that he needs to work hard and educate himself in order to escape their fate. It is only after completing his education that James feels compelled to research his mother’s past, and in doing so, he is able to accept both parts of his heritage. He states, “I felt like a Tinkertoy kid building my own self out of one of those toy building sets; for as she laid her life before me, I reassembled the tableau of her words like a picture puzzle, and as I did, so my own life was rebuilt” (McBride 292). Although James has never been able to fit in with his mother’s race, the knowledge of her past is essential for the construction of his own identity.

Throughout Richard Wright’s life, his identity is defined by his determination to escape the cycle of poverty. Hunger is such a prominent part of Richard’s childhood that it is present in all of his early memories. As a child, he is hardly able to attend school because he must earn money in order to provide for his family. Despite the fact that his religious grandmother believes that stories are evil, Richard develops a love for reading, which shapes his personal philosophy and motivates him to create a better life for himself. After reading H.L. Mencken’s A Book of Prefaces, he states, “I had once tried to write, had once reveled in feeling, had let my crude imagination roam, but the impulse to dream had been slowly beaten out of me by experience. Now it surged up again and I hungered for books, new ways of looking and seeing” (Wright 249). Although his ascent from poverty continues to be an uphill battle due to racism and prejudice, Wright uses his reading as momentum to build his own identity. Therefore, Richard Wright’s reading is the basis for all of his beliefs and accomplishments.

Overall, the individuals who figure prominently in The Color of Water and Black Boy are able to overcome societal expectations through education and hard work. Ruth, James, and Richard all realize that they are not limited to the identities that are handed to them. There road of ignorance leads to a dead end, while the road of knowledge leads to infinitely many destinations.

Works Cited

McBride, James. The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother. New York: Riverhead, 1997. Print.

Wright, Richard. Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth. New York: Harper & Bros., 1945. Print.

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