The Color of Water: A Discussion of Personal Identity in America

Untitled - Liora Meyer

I read “The Color of Water” by James McBride because it was on my English teacher’s list of “books you should read in high school but probably didn’t.” After reading the book, I agree with her, based on the book’s themes of identity and family. The book is “a black man’s tribute to his white mother.” The memoir follows the parallel childhoods of James and his mother Ruth. McBride wrote the memoir based on a series of interviews with his mother, in which he finally learned of her mysterious past.

Ruth McBride Jordan was born Rachel Shilsky, a Polish immigrant and Orthodox Jew. Ruth’s family sat shivah – the ritual mourning observed after a death – for her when she married a black man. James tells the story of his childhood in tandem with his mother’s as he is growing up as a mixed-race child in the seventies, grappling with questions of identity and race.

Ruth’s childhood trauma influenced her perspectives on race and religion She came from a broken family with a disabled mother and an abusive father. She grew up in the South, but she rejected the racism she encountered there. James, meanwhile, grew up as one of twelve children in the neglected Red Hook housing projects in Brooklyn. To Ruth, Judaism was stifling; it felt like an obligation, something her father imposed on her. She converts to Christianity as a young woman, and her children are raised Christian.

Ruth could not find a caring community among Jews or whites. She felt comfortable in the black community and praises frequently how welcoming and open-hearted the black people she encountered in her life were. James and his siblings grew up in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in New York City, and yet he remembers his childhood as happy, if chaotic. James, who does not have Ruth’s history, is able to go deeper than her and recognize that there are kind people and vindictive people in every community; it is a part of the human condition.

At first, I was uncomfortable with the discussions of religion in the text. James seemed to be judging the Orthodox community, which he really knew nothing about. As the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that he understands the complexity of issues of race and religion and does not let his mother’s experiences define his perspective on the Orthodox community as a whole. Ruth finds salvation in Christianity. It is what saves her from her dark past and helps her move on and take care of her family. She instills the importance of church in her children, and James has grown up to be a faithful Christian. However, he reflects that “I don’t belong to any of these groups. I belong to the world of one God, one people.” (104)

This reflection from an older, wiser James drives home the message of the novel: that race and religion are superficial labels disguising our common humanity. What Ruth wanted her children to understand, and what James wants the readers to understand, is that it does not (or at least should not) matter the color of your skin or where you pray. What really matters is family and community, finding support and giving support in return.

As a native of New York City, it takes more effort to avoid diversity than to encounter it. And yet, when I look around the school cafeteria, the subway, or the streets, too often I see cliques segregating themselves into racial or ethnic groups. It’s tragic, because people who do not expose themselves will never understand all the beautiful ways I have broadened my horizons just by having conversations with my friends and peers. Some of my most memorable conversations involved comparing Jewish and Hindu weddings, debating Jewish and Muslim prayer rituals, and of course, swapping recipes. I strive to find diverse and embracing communities in my own life, while remembering and contributing the experiences from my roots – as a Jewish girl, as the child of immigrants, as a whole and complex person with a unique story to tell.

Accompanying Photo: “Untitled” by Liora Meyer
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