The novel, The Color of Water, written by James McBride follows the story of the author as he not only discovers his own identity but also explores his eccentric mothers past. The memoir jumps from interviews with his mother about her upbringing, to stories of his childhood as well as ending off in present time where we discover James is a journalist writing a novel about his mother’s life. James himself being a biracial man whose mother is Jewish and therefore he struggles throughout his life to understand not only his own, but also his mothers identity. McBride touches on various topics revolving around race, racial/ethnic identity, immigration as well as religion.
The novel opens with an interview from his mother, Rachel Shilsky or as she was known in her homeland of Poland Ruchel Dwajra Zylska, where she discusses both of her parents. Her father(Tateh) was an Orthodox rabbi by the name of Fishel Shilsky and her mother(Mameh) Hudis, a gentle handicapped woman who was also a devout Jew and only spoke Yiddish. Her parents moved to American, more specifically Virginia with Ruth when she was young where they settled and opened/worked in a convenience store. Mameh and Tateh were married through arranged circumstances, her mother being a sincere Jewish wife which drove Tateh to continuously take advantage of her even to the point of committing adultery later on in their marriage. Not only did her father exploit her mother for her loyalty but he also sexually abused Rachel through her time as a little girl. Aside from manipulating his family, Tateh also manipulated his primarily black customers through raising the price of goods within their store. This racist and abusive behavior is what drove Rachel to leave her family behind at 15 years old and move to Harlem where she met her later African American husband, Dennis McBride and changed her name to Ruth. In leaving to marry a black man Rachel not only decided to escape the Jewish faith, but to begin a life outside of the South where she then had a loving marriage with Dennis, resulting in 8 children and a Christian religious background. Despite their hardships as an interracial couple, Ruth describes this time in her life as some of the happiest and full of love. Through her acceptance into the Christian faith together Ruth and Dennis opened the New Brown Memorial Church in Brooklyn where Dennis would minister until his death to cancer in 1957 while she was pregnant with James.
After Dennis’s death Ruth eventually healed and met her second husband Hunter Jordan who was also an African American man. Ruth and Hunter had four children together, resulting in twelve kids all together. Although Dennis was James’s biological father, he referred to Hunter as his dad throughout his upbringing in Brooklyn. James describes his childhood as one of chaos but structure from his mother’s guidance. His mother stressing the importance of education, saving money with food/clothing and never revealing too much about her thoughts on race, religion as well as her childhood. Growing up in a large family with his parents constantly at work, the older children became the rulers of the house and guided the younger siblings in their home life. As James grew up and his step father passed away his mothers rule began to unravel around him and he began to slack off with his education, leading to his decision to begin to steal and use marijuana to the point of addiction. During this dark period of time he had an epiphany that his life would go nowhere if he continued on the sae destructive path so he decided to return back to school and pursue an education revolving around music and journalism. After graduation from high school he attended Oberlin college to pursue journalism and in his later life decided to understand his mother’s life through interviews for a memoir. At the end of the novel we see the educational accomplishments of all of Ruth’s children and how they all prevailed despite their various hardships regarding a lack of money as well as racial biases.
A prevalent theme throughout the novel was race as well as racial identity. Not only was Ruth a Jewish woman, ostracized for her religion but she married and had children with African American men ostracized for the color of their skin. Deciding to shield her past from her children generated a lack of racial understanding and awareness for her children to endure. James describes, “given my black face and upbringing it was easy for me to flee into the anonymity of blackness, yet I felt frustrated to live in a world that considers the color of your face an immediate political statement whether you like it or not, ” (262). Being a biracial man during the time of the KKK and civil rights, James was utterly lost in a world that did not accept half of who he was. Through hypodescent he was forced to identify as a black man to society despite his conflicting Jewish/white half of his identity to which he did not understand. In order to cope with his identity confusion he ignored it, just as his mother decided to do for all of her children as well as herself. Ruth’s denial and disregard towards her past is mainly due to her disgust towards her father, mainly his discriminatory actions towards blacks. Ruth explaining, “If there was one thing Tateh didn’t like more than gentiles, it was black folks. And if there was one thing he didn’t like more than black folks in general it was black men in particular, ” (107). Through Ruth’s decision to pursue a black man to start a family, her Jewish family that she left behind mourned her desertion through the Jewish ritual of kaddish and shiva to which Rachel died and Ruth was able to fully live.
Another theme throughout the novel was immigration, and the hardships Ruth and her family had to endure as immigrants from Poland to the United States. Towards the beginning of the novel James describes, ” Mommy had no model for raising us other than the experience of her own Orthodox Jewish family, which despite the seeming flaws- an unbending mature, a stridency, a focus on money, a deep distrust of all outsiders, not to mention her father’s tyranny- represented the best and worst of the immigrant mentality: hard work, no nonsense, quest for excellence, distrust of authority figures, and a deep belief in God and education,” (29). Although Ruth was almost ashamed of her Jewish upbringing, it did affect the way she held herself as a mother and adult figure. She often describes how her mother did not speak English and that she would often have to translate for her, further preventing her from becoming fully Americanized. Ruth felt shame and experienced prejudice being of the Jewish faith, forcing her to develop a tough exterior as an adult especially within her interracial marriages as well as her conversion to following the Christian faith.
Overall, the novel depicts the life of an immigrant woman from the Jewish faith who hid her life from her children until she could no longer. McBride not only touches on his personal experiences involving race and religion but also discovers his own mothers identity crisis to which he was unaware of his entire childhood. A lack of understanding evidently paved way for identity confusion for James and his siblings, in a time period built upon racial discrimination of African Americans. The novel delves into topics surrounding racial and religious identity disarray and takes the reader on a journey of acceptance and self discovery.