James McBride's novel The Color of Wateris an autobiographical account of growing up as one of twelve children in a family with a white, Jewish mother and a black Christian father and stepfather. As McBride grows up and struggles to find his identity, it becomes clear to him that he must discover and understand his mother's heritage. That is the core of the book; however, James is raised in predominantly black neighborhoods just on the cusp of change in the area of civil rights.
His mother, Ruth, was adamant about keeping family business in the family. While she sends her children to predominantly white schools because she wants a better education for them, she also finds her support system and cultural identity in the black neighborhood. Race matters in that sense, but most of her children understand Ruth does not want any race battles to be fought in her home. Education and family are the only two things that matter.
Dennis is the oldest son, and he sets a high standard for the other children to follow. He becomes a doctor, but he also becomes involved in the Civil Rights movement. While his siblings know about his activities, his mother does not, which is just how Dennis wants it.