Author James McBride explores the intersecting roles of race, family, and community in The Color of Water, his memoir of growing up in a biracial family. As this is his memoir, self-identity is developed primarily through reflecting on his own experience, but he learned that his mother’s journey was also particularly relevant.
As one of twelve children, coming of age for McBride meant asserting a definite role in a highly hierarchical structure, which the children, more than their parents, enforced. In an unusual family dynamic for the time, McBride’s mother was white, and his father was black; after his father died, she remarried, and her second husband was black as well. Because of segregation, they lived in a black neighborhood, and his mother rarely associated with other white people.
While the question of race was generally paramount in James’s mind, his mother downplayed it. She gained acceptance in their community, in part because of communal recognition for her strong role in raising the children. Despite acknowledging the differences in their appearance, his mother preferred not to talk about skin color, noting when she did that each of the children was a somewhat different tone and emphasizing their similarities to water, which constantly changes color.
In the turbulent 1960s, as James’s coming of age coincided with the Civil Rights Movement, he became intensely aware of race. Venturing out of his community, he first came to understand how these issues affected his position as a black man navigating a primarily white world. But he also had to confront the unusual situation of his own family, which included hard questions that he posed to his mother. As she told him of her difficult childhood and revealed that she was Jewish by birth and upbringing, he realized what huge steps she had taken in leaving home, converting to Christianity, and loving and marrying an African American pastor. James’s own journey to self-identity depended heavily on trying to understand his mother’s earlier life as well.