The Color of Water is an autobiography written by James McBride based on the life and struggles of his Jewish mother, Ruth Deborah Shilsky, born Ruchel Dwajra Zylska in Poland, as she grows up in America. In the book, we see the transformation from a woman who purposely neglects her past and is scared to share it with her son, to a woman who faces self-doubt head-on and expresses her inner self. Ruth has dealt with diversity her entire life. She has been an outsider growing up in white schools, an outsider in her neighborhood, and even an outsider in her own family. James sees the quirks that engulf his mother, and he cannot help but feel ashamed of her in public. He later understands why she has to be strong for the entire family to keep them safe. We also see the identity struggles of James as he grows up knowing little of his mother’s past.
Throughout the entire book, we see instances of the search of an identity for James. He is always at battle with who he is and his mother’s appearance in his everyday life. He internalizes this enough to be shamed by his mother’s language she learned as a little girl. During the beginning of the book in chapter 4, James is always told by his brother Richie that he is adopted and he turns to himself to question whether he was adopted or not. He does not believe that he is a spawn from the woman he knows as a mother. He internalizes the way he feels at this moment, and in turn, he creates an imaginary world in which a boy who looks exactly like him but he was jealous of the freedom this boy that he did not have.
Tateh brought horror to anyone who knew him. Every person asked about him said something negative and terrible about him; everyone except his wife, whom he left and cheated on. Tateh brings racism to the forefront of his storefront. Living in that time, Jews were not allowed to own property in certain areas.
For this reason, he was forced to open his store on the colored side of town. As colored customers entered the shop, he would charge them almost double the price just because they were colored. In chapter 20, when James goes to Suffolk to find any relatives of his mother, and he runs into Eddie Thompson, Eddie says, ” Well… he disliked black folks. Moreover, he cheated them. Sold them anything and everything for as much as he could.” Tateh kept a gun in his store to protect against shoplifters. He eventually used the gun to shoot a boy for fussing with some crackers. Eddie says he was a hateful man, which is partly why he was a racist. We can also see when he tells her not to come back home if she will be marrying a black man, that he does not want his daughter to affiliate with black people, he goes to lengths to set her up with his Jewish friend’s sons, but she is not interested. To him, a relationship is a deal, not a notion based on love and affection.
Ruth shows the reader that she likes to keep to herself and the reader is left to guess whether that is because she is afraid of making friends or she does not have the time. James talks about how his mother is a woman of contradictions, and she could say one thing but believe another, but she was a strong woman. We can see that by raising her children, she gained wisdom and knowledge from every one of them. They even brought her some reminiscence of her childhood back into her life. When Rosetta ran away from home and frightened Ruth, she is reminded of the way she left her mother with nothing. Ruth does not affiliate herself with outside matters, and as a Jewish woman in a predominantly black community she would stick out anywhere she went. She feels though she is not apart of any race. She even tells her children that she is “light-skinned.” Ruth has dodged the topic of race in her child’s lives because of the business in her life. She has no time for such matters. She has led her children to believe she has nothing to do with race in the community.
Later in chapter 5, as James is going off to camp, he sees a member of the Black Panther Party. This man scares James because he believes the Black Panther Party will kill his mother, he says, “A Black Panther? Near my mommy? I had swallowed the media image of them completely”(McBride). Here he is saying that the image the news reports were all negative of the party and that he was afraid of the outcome that man might bring. He internalizes the ideals the media has influenced him, and it makes him scared of the fact that the black panther party is known for being violent.
In chapter 23, Dennis and Ruth want to open their church. They begin the process in their room at the Red Hook Community. Ruth says, “then we went out and invited our neighbors from Red Hook to come to a prayer meeting at our house on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings. Mrs. Ingram and your godparents were the first ones to come” (McBride). They then found a building nearby that they would like to use as the church. The owner was racist, so Ruth had to go by herself to get the ownership. She said, “I went over there and signed the lease myself, and when the man saw me and your father and your godfather walking in there the next day carrying paint cans he wanted his building back, but it was too late” (McBride). There is an underlying tone of white privilege in this scene because the owner would not sell it to Dennis, the black man, but would gladly sell it to his wife, the white woman.
The book indulges in the life of a mixed Jewish-African-American boy going through life finding himself in the few words his mother shares with him at a time. The reader is taught some valuable life lessons and shares in the experiences of his mother Ruth as she painstakingly recalls her entire life immigrating to America as a young Jewish girl and marrying two black men against her father’s will.