James McBride writes his autobiography in The Color of Water, and in it he chronicles his search for his mother's heritage. James is one of twelve children, and his father dies before James is born; he later has a stepfather who died. All of this makes Jame's upbringing a little different than most; however, it is his mother and her unique background which makes James's growing-up years so distinctive.
First of all, James's mother is obviously a white woman, but she lives as though she is a black woman. This creates a sense of confusion for all of the children, as well as neighbors, teachers, and classmates. When anyone asks her about race, she refuses to answer.
Second, James's mother insists that all family business be kept private, and she is intensely strict on this matter. She does not even tell her own children anything about her own past until much later in her life.
Third, James's mother is Jewish but actively imparts a mixed view of Jews. While she insists her children attend Jewish schools because she thinks they are superior to public schools, she is derisive of Jews based on the common stereotypes. Such mixed messages are confusing to her children, and especially James.
Finally, James's mother is a rather eccentric woman. She works hard but is more committed to giving her children a superior education than she is to feeding them edible food. Her unconventional life before she had children carries over into the way she parents her children.
Clearly James's upbringing was impacted by his unique mother, which is why he does not achieve any real peace until he uncovers the mystery of her heritage.