In The Color of Water, James McBride goes through several phases of emotional connection to his mother and how she presents herself to the world. When he first becomes aware of how different she is, he is embarrassed. This is most clearly exemplified by his reaction to her tendency to ride her bicycle everywhere. To his mother, riding her bicycle symbolizes the freedom of movement against the chaos of the world, but to James, it’s just a weird way his mom showcases her quirkiness to the rest of the neighborhood.
But when James’s stepfather, the man he called Daddy, dies, his emotions toward his mother turn to anger. He does not know how to work out his feelings of loss for his stepfather, and on some level he resents his mother for not being able to prevent it, so he rebels against her reverence of education by skipping school and doing poorly when he does go. This pains his mother greatly and creates a riff between them, but she does not give up and renounce him like her father did to her. Instead, she shows her faith and pride in him is still sound when she helps him get a scholarship to take a European trip with the jazz band because of his burgeoning interest in music.
The writing of this book helps James come to his final emotional journey with his mother—understanding. Through his exploration of her past with her words to guide him, he comes to see how her upbringing and struggles before she had him made her the woman she is, and he is able to find comfort and commonality in those experiences because they mirror a lot of his own. Thus James comes full circle and feels like he’s finally become his mother’s child.