In today’s society, the idea of race makes our world go round. It allows us to have an identity- making us who we are. But, imagine if you didn’t have that identity of race. Imagine living in a gray area in between where you couldn’t really define yourself. That feeling of not knowing is exactly what James McBride experienced for most of his life; being half white & half black, being Christian with some Jewish roots. The Color of Water unravels the story that’s centered around who James McBride’s mother was and how the avoidance of her upbringing affected his identity growing up. This novel dives into the consequences that can occur from running away and avoiding your identity.
The Color of Water tells the story of James McBride, living in the world being black and white. It exploits his confusions over how being black and white could affect him in society. He tells the story of his life, having an unsaid identity crisis deep within him. His parents made him who he was, but never knew anything about what made his parents who they were. His father died before he was born and his white Jewish mother never spoke about her past, simply saying “Never ever tell your business to nobody (McBride 13). His mother raised him in a fast-paced, protective bubble, keeping him away from the direct set of discrimination that he was bound to experience. His mother tried very hard to separate race from their lives, and that caused confusion for him as he started experiencing the world in society. As James grows up and figures out his life, he still has that ache in him- that ache that came from ignoring the realities of race that he never experienced as a child. He just kept running from it, just like his mother had in her day. This novel dives in about James McBride’s life and switches points of view to his mother is telling James the story of her life for the first time. As she tells her story, it’s as if we are James and, we are finally putting the missing pieces of his life into one, finally making himself whole.
Throughout the novel, James has this confusion over his identity of being black or white. As he says, he understood as a child very clearly that “black and white folks didn’t get along, which put him and his mother in a pretty tight space” (McBride 25). Black people didn’t feel that he was black, and white people didn’t feel that he was white. He was stuck in the middle of two worlds and didn’t know where to run to. During his childhood he delved into the idea of tragic mulatto (McBride 92) because that was exactly what he was feeling- having the inability to fit into the “white world” or the “black world”. It was hard for James to construct his identity because he didn’t fit perfectly on either side. When he turned to his mother as a child for answers she would always contradict herself. James states, “Mommy’s contradictions crashed and slammed against one another like bumper cars at Coney Island. White folks, she felt, were implicitly evil towards blacks, yet she forced us to go to white schools to get the best education. Blacks could be trusted more, but anything involving blacks was probably slightly substandard” (McBride 29). He couldn’t have possibly known who he was or who to trust because there was never a clear answer in his household, and that affected him later on in his life as he went on into the real world.
There were complications that came with being multiracial, and James didn’t know how to sort that out within himself. When James was a child he said, “There was a part of me that feared black power for the obvious reason. I thought black power would be the end of my mother. I had swallowed the white man’s fear of the Negro whole” (McBride 26). At the beginning of his life he was scared to reside with blacks out of the fear for his mother. Even though his siblings and himself admired black activists, he thought that if he supported them, then he’d be saying that he hated his mother. But as James grew older, he started to surround himself with black power in college, and he mentions “I was standing with a group of black students where one said, “Forget these whiteys. They’re all rich. They got no problems”. And I said, “Yeah man I hear you”, while inside my pocket was a folded letter of an old white lady who had always gone out of her way to help me… It hurt me a little to stand there and lie.” (McBride 187). As a child, and as a young adult, James felt like he couldn’t fully commit himself to the black world. During this time it was as if James was experiencing his own form of internalized oppression- sort of feeling oppressed by feeling that he must conform into this hatred of all white people if he wanted to support black power, even though he really doesn’t feel that way. James felt like he had to lie about disliking white people because that’s how black people are “supposed to feel”. But, some of those white people- his mother included, have helped him in ways no other has in his life. Because of this, it made him feel that he wasn’t a part of the “black world”.
Even though James experienced this tug of war with his identity, it was still very clear that white people had the power, which was evident throughout the novel. The idea that white people didn’t think that he or his siblings were white, affected them because even though they were half white and their mother was full white, that didn’t mean they were put in the same category. When Ruth was telling her story to James she mentions a time when they wanted to rent out a property for a church, but the white owner was discriminating and wouldn’t sell it to Dennis because he was black. So, Ruth went and signed the lease herself because her skin color allowed her to do so ( McBride 240). They had to go to these lengths because of white privilege. It was like that back then for Ruth, and it was still alive when her children were growing up as well. James’s older brother Richie was pleaded guilty to go to jail over a false crime. But, once Ruth ran up to the white judge and he noticed she was white and that Richie was her son, he released Richie into her custody and dropped the charges (McBride 98). The contemporary whiteness that has evolved its way into the present was very clear throughout the novel and affected James’s identity because these experiences made it very clear to him that he was not a part of the “white world” either.
A common theme throughout the novel was the avoidance of race. Because Ruth and Dennis being together seemed to be so taboo back then and still misunderstood in James’s generation, it seemed rational for them to not want to raise their children on a basis of race. According to James, “The question of race was like the power of the moon in my house. It’s what made the river flow, the ocean swell, and the tide rise, but it was a silent power, intractable, indomitable, indisputable, and this completely ignorable. Mommy kept us at a frantic living pace that left no time for the problem” (McBride 94). In their household, everyone is a human being, and that was that. No if’s, and’s, or but’s. Dennis and Ruth built their values saying that all you need is knowledge and God- then the rest will fall into place. In their household there was no white or black, there was just people. They didn’t raise their children with the knowledge of racism and discrimination. But, even though James’s parents created a world of a non-racial household, that didn’t mean that the outside world was like that. So in turn James says “As we grew up and fanned into the world as teenager and college student,we brought the outside world home with us, and the world that Mommy had so painstakingly created began to fall apart” (McBride 95). The consequence of shielding racism from their children has caused a strain on their relationships when they “brought it home with them”, and has also keep them naive and confused about race when they actually went out into the world.
Throughout this whole novel, the main idea was James McBride being unaware of his identity because he didn’t know his history of how he came to be today. By the end of the novel, he comes to an epiphany and says “I had to find out more about who I was, and in order to find out who I was, I had to find out who my mother was” ( McBride 266). By finally getting to hear his mother’s story, he was able to understand why he was raised in the way that he was raised. He got to understand how his mother’s upbringing had a connection to his own, and he could finally make sense out of his life.
Throughout his mother’s upbringing she experienced so much in her life that caused her to act the way that she did when she was raising her kids. The value that she held of “people are just people” was created in her mind starting from childhood because she experienced so much discrimination throughout her upbringing. Growing up, there was discrimination all around her, everywhere she looked. There was even discrimination against herself because she was Jewish. As she said in the novel, “I even changed my name to try to fit in more… Nobody liked me… You were different from everyone and like by very few” (McBride 81). Ruth had immigrated from Russia, and her name was changed to be more Americanized- but that didn’t stop kids from being malicious to her. The white people around her didn’t consider her to be white at all. There was even a point in the novel where there was white sections where Jews couldn’t own property (McBride 81).She was discriminated against growing up because of her Jewish roots. Also, while being with Dennis, she was discriminated against as well. She stated ” I walked into the hallway of our building and this black woman punched me right in the face… Dennis went to speak to her when he got home from work. “That white woman don’t belong here”, she said” (McBride 231). This black woman was prejudice towards Ruth, thinking that she was a white woman, which automatically meant bad news in her mind. Ruth couldn’t fit into any race. This is where James and Ruth can relate because they were never really considered to be a part of any race. Because race was something that separated them, Ruth decided to not raise their kids with the knowledge of race. She didn’t want them to experience discrimination as she has during her lifetime.
Finally getting the knowledge of his mothers past was the glue to put the pieces of his life together into one. He now can proudly say, “Now, as a grown man, I feel privileged to have come from two worlds. My view of the world is not merely that of a black man, but that is of a black man with something of a Jewish soul” (McBride 103). Even with all the confusion and consequences of not knowing his identity, he was able to prevail once he finally got the missing pieces that was his mother’s past. James McBride finally stopped running, and once he did he was able to truly find himself, which he couldn’t have done if it weren’t for his mother.