The Color of Water revolves around James McBride’s mother, who has two identities: One is Rachel, the frightened Jewish girl who flees her painful past to reinvent herself in New York City’s black community. Rachel’s way of raising her children turns out to be a reflection of her otherwise repudiated Jewish cultural background. This side of McBride’s mother establishes her home as a place of learning and moral instruction and, despite the domestic chaos of her household, maintains strict rules and high expectations for her children both intellectually and ethically. Her other identity is Ruth, a jubilant Baptist and an eccentric but loving mother, who allows her twelve children to assume she is a light-skinned black woman. A strong and spirited matriarch, the Ruth her children know is sustained through many crises by both her personal resourcefulness and her deep religious faith. Despite her strength, however, a layer of Ruth’s personality retains the sorrows and regrets of her childhood.
The other major figure in The Color of Water is Ruth’s troubled but curious son James, who senses that he must recover the world his mother abandoned if he is to complete his own sense of identity. The process of releasing his mother from her grief and guilt-filled silence and his discovery that he is indeed biracial allows James to reconcile different aspects of his personality that he has always seen as opposed. Most important, while affirming his sense of himself as a black man, James’s journey into his mother’s past convinces him that he also possesses something of a Jewish soul.
James discovers that he must recognize both his African American and his white family background if he is to construct a coherent American identity. This need to acknowledge the complex and plural historical roots of American identity forms a core theme of the book. Related to this understanding of identity is the importance of family history and memory: Both mother and son recover aspects of themselves through their excavation of a buried past. As part of this journey of self-discovery, McBride includes the context of America in the twentieth century, weaving his family’s personal story into such events as Jewish immigration, the Great Depression, and the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960’s, all of which contributed to both Ruth’s and James’s sense of themselves and their place in the world.
The theme of moving beyond racial exclusivity is indicated by the title of the novel, which speaks to a transcendent color-blind ideal. A related theme is the experience of doubleness, which is suggested both thematically and structurally and which shapes the self-understanding of both mother and son. Each has two identities, one that connects to the white Jewish world and one that connects to a black Baptist community. Both mother and son ultimately recognize both of their identities as components of an integral self. Beyond the issue of cultural identity, however, is the larger story of an extraordinary woman who never allowed the numerous obstacles she faced to prevent her from doing a superior job of raising her children. The Color of Water is a tribute to James McBride’s extraordinary mother and to the wisdom of her belief in the values of education, family, and religious faith.