The Color of Water

by James McBride

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What is the major conflict in The Color Of Water by James McBride?

The major conflict in The Color of Water is racism and the effects it has on the characters.

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The major conflict in The Color of Water has to do with racism in America and how it affects all the characters as they attempt to go about their lives.

James McBride 's book is about the life of his family, including his white mother and black father. At a...

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time when interracial relationships socially taboo, they faced a lot of prejudice for deciding to be together. Though her children are half-black and half-white, they face the same prejudices that other black people in America face as they grow up. They also at times experience issues due to living in poverty.

Eventually, James finds out that his mother had a difficult past: her father was abusive. She grew up in Virginia when things were still segregated and became pregnant in a relationship with a black boy, which wouldn't have been accepted at all by the community. She moves to New York, has an abortion, and finds that she prefers spending time around the black community there. She finds them more accepting and welcoming to her. Eventually, she marries her first husband.

James is, at times, embarrassed by his mother. He has to deal with issues of being a child with parents of different races, especially one who often doesn't have the financial resources to overcome systemic barriers. But he and his siblings take to heart the lessons taught by their parents and others and (aided by their own personal drives) are able to be successful.

Ruth sees people as beyond color as she ages. She won't admit to her children that she's white and says that God is the color of water. She wants them to see themselves as more than their racial identity, even if the great majority of the world will never be able to do so.

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The conflicts in The Color of Water are different for each of the characters. Rachel’s main conflict comes out of her love for Peter. Peter is a black man while Rachel is white; at the time the story takes place blacks and whites were not even meant to be friends or even associates. Not only was their love for each other forbidden, Rachel becomes pregnant with Peter's child. A white woman being pregnant with the child of a black man could have gotten them both hung in the South at that time. Being pregnant and loving a man she should not even have a conversation with is the conflict that Rachel is faced with in the story. Sadly her story does not have a happy ending. Rachel’s mother finds out about the pregnancy. Her mother does not seem angered by this; in fact she sends Rachel to stay with her aunt in New York because they are more tolerant there. Rachel tells her aunt about the pregnancy as well, and her aunt has a drastically different approach to the situation as she procures an abortion for Rachel. After the abortion Rachel returns home only to find that Peter, the black man that she loved, had gotten another girl pregnant. As you can imagine she is depressed at the thought that he obviously did not love her as she thought, but she is also relieved because while her conflict was not resolved happily, it was resolved. 

James is another character to face a major conflict in his life. His conflict revolves around the choices he makes as he is growing up, and how making poor choices and falling in with a bad crowd can upset your life. In his story James drops out of school and starts hanging with some bad kids. At first the situation does not at seem so bad; they were just a bunch of kids smoking Marijuana, drinking, and listening to music. The situation changes quickly as he and his new group start robbing liquor stores and stealing women’s purses for money. James seems very much stuck in this circle of stealing and drinking until his mother is able to pull him out. When James’ mother finds out that he has not been attending school she sends him away to live with his sister. While living with his sister he meets the Chicken Man, who is able to help James change.

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What types of conflict are presented in The Color of Water by James McBride?  

Arguably the main conflict in the story is racial conflict. Ruth, a white Jewish woman, chooses to marry Peter, an African-American man, in defiance of her family's wishes. Ruth's family cannot accept her choice of husband, and they disown her immediately. Sadly, this was by no means an uncommon reaction at that time. In those days, people from different races weren't supposed to associate with each other, let alone fall in love and get married. Yet Ruth has made the brave decision to follow her heart, and she's determined to do so whatever society and her family may think.

James is conflicted in his identity. As the son of a white mother and an African-American father, he struggles to define himself racially. One of the ways he attempts to do this is by embracing the ideology of Black Power. At the same time, he's profoundly uneasy about the radical movement's consequences for his white mother. What part will she play in the racially-segregated society that forms the basis of the Black Power ideal?

In turn, James' conflict over his identity manifests itself in all kinds of bad behavior, such as skipping school, committing petty crimes, and hanging out with the wrong crowd. James' juvenile delinquency can be seen as his way of gaining street cred—a way of constructing his own identity as a child of the ghetto. In due course, James will have to realize that this identity is not who he really is. But before he reaches that moment of epiphany, he'll have to go through many more struggles with himself.

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