Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In The Color of Water, James McBride tells the life stories of himself and his mother, Ruth McBride Jordan, in alternating chapters. James persuades his mother to reveal her early identity as Rachel Deborah Shilsky, born in Poland into an Orthodox Jewish family. After her family immigrated to the United States, her authoritarian father Tateh abandoned his career as an itinerant rabbi to run a grocery store in the largely African American section of Suffolk, Virginia. Ruth tells James that her father, although scrupulously religious, was a brutal, racist man who intimidated his meek, disabled wife and his two children—especially Ruth, whom he also abused sexually.

Rachel Shilsky is sent to New York for an abortion after she becomes pregnant by her African American boyfriend. She soon moves permanently to Harlem, changing her name to Ruth as a way to close the door on her painful past. Her father officially disowns her when she marries an African American man, Andrew “Dennis” McBride, but she is happy to become a part of the Harlem community, especially a favorite black Baptist church. Eventually, the deeply religious couple moves to Brooklyn, where they found their own Baptist church. In Brooklyn, Ruth gives birth to her eighth child, James, and after Dennis dies, she marries another African American, Hunter Jordan, with whom she has four more children. With no interest in domestic order or domestic arts, Ruth instead instills in her children the value of learning. After her second husband dies, she finds a way to educate them on a bank clerk’s wages, sending all of them to college and some to graduate school.

Ruth will not discuss her race with her children, suggesting that her skin color is unimportant, and informing them that God is neither white nor black but “the color of water.” Nevertheless, the Black Power movement of the 1960’s leads James to feel increasingly concerned about Ruth’s safety and status in the black community: Even though his mother will never admit she is white, James is sure this is the case. The combination of the freewheeling 1960’s and his confusion about his mother’s identity lead James to leave school, to keep bad company, and to steal and take drugs. Although he eventually goes to college and becomes a professional journalist, James still feels that many of his remaining problems are related to the mystery of who his mother really is.

After he persuades his mother to tell him her story, James visits Ruth’s hometown in Virginia, where he meets members of the Jewish community who welcome him warmly, allowing him to feel he is on his way to resolving a number of other conflicts in his life. As he stands outside the town’s synagogue, where his grandfather once conducted services, James no longer sees his mother as a source of anxiety or embarrassment but embraces her heritage as a part of his identity. In the end, James accepts his mother’s two selves: the sad and angry Rachel Shilsky, who nevertheless retained her culture’s respect for learning and right conduct, and the independent and indomitable Ruth McBride, whose joyful and generous spirituality became the bedrock of her new life.