The Color of Water

by James McBride

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James McBride's exploration of identity and use of imagery in The Color of Water


James McBride explores identity in The Color of Water through his dual narrative of his mother's and his own life, highlighting themes of race, religion, and self-discovery. He uses vivid imagery to depict the struggles and triumphs of navigating a biracial identity, effectively capturing the complexities of his heritage and personal growth.

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How does James McBride come to terms with his identity in The Color of Water?

It would not be a stretch to say that the entirety of The Color of Water is an effort on the part of McBride to come to terms with his racial identity, as well as the highly unusual circumstances of his upbringing. Part of his method of doing this is making the incredibly bold artistic choice of writing close to half of the narrative from the point of view of his mother. While this may seem like a presumptuous choice at first glance, it is actually a poignant and intimate effort on the part of the writer to understand his own identity as a black man in the United States. He does this to relate it to the the contentious and often difficult to understand choices that his mother made regarding her own race and her relationship with her black husband, as well as the black community in general.

Much of McBride's difficulty with coming to terms with who he is stem from his mothers attempts to "pass" as a light-skinned black woman, as opposed to simply being honest and unashamed of who she is. While she means well for herself and everyone around her, her dishonesty creates a confusion of values for a young McBride. Certainly, it can be difficult to take pride in who you are if the ones that created you do not. However, McBride does eventually learn the value and liberation that come with being honest about one's identity.

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How does James McBride come to terms with his identity in The Color of Water?

James McBride’s autobiography, The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, was first published in 1995 and describes McBride’s struggle to come to terms with discovering self-identify, specifically through making connections from his life to his mother’s life as she overcame hardships related to her 1942 marriage to a black man as a white, Jewish woman.

In the United States of America, difficult racial tensions led to the rise of the “Black Power” movement. This movement puts one’s race as a major pillar of their identity. As McBride tries to learn what it means to be a black man in America, his mother tries to pass as a light-skinned black woman, versus being honest about her identity as a converted Jew from Poland. His mother’s dishonestly and lack of communication with regard to her race makes it more difficult for McBride to develop his own self-identity.

Half of the autobiography is written in his mother Ruth’s voice, and this ongoing conversation that exists between McBride and his mother is really what eventually allows him to come to terms with “who he is as a person.” This conversation allows McBride to revisit and reconcile previous events in his own life which have sewn seeds of doubt about his identify over the years. In essence, honesty and openness eventually free McBride from his confusion and self-doubt.

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How does James McBride come to terms with his identity in The Color of Water?

The Color of Water is James McBride's autobiographical story of growing up in an extraordinarily non-traditional household. The entire book recounts his journey from confusion and disquiet about who he is to a relative peace with his circumstances. Young James hasmany things in his life which make him different from others, and many of them are puzzling to him because his mother, Ruth, reveals next to nothing about her past. It is only as Ruth tells her story that the questions in James's life get answered and he is able to, as your question says, "come to terms with who he is as a person."

James is one of twelve children and grows up in a chaotic household run primarily by his rather eccentric and disorganized mother. Though she was relentless about her children's educations, the rest of their lives were in disarray. His father was black and his mother, Ruth, was white, though she lived her life trying to make the world see her as a light-skinned black woman--and all of this in the midst of significant racial tensions and the rise of "Black Power." Ruth was born a Jew in Poland but ended her life as a Christian woman. She never spoke of her Jewishness to her children. All of these elements combine to create James's crisis of identity.

Ruth's virtual silence about her own identity created dramatic questions and doubts in James about his own identity. So much of his life was just not quite right, and he eventually realizes that he must learn his mother's story in order to answer the questions of his own life, race, and identity.

He is right. As Ruth tells him bits and pieces of her life and as he discovers other facts on his own, James comes to reconcile the confusing elements of his life. In the end James knows he is the biracial son of a Christian father (and stepfather) and has a converted Jew for a mother.

The specific answer to your question is that he comes to terms with his identity only as he learns about his mother's identity; it is only then that the disconcerting elements of his life make sense. That is why half the story is written in Ruth's voice and words while the other half is written from James's point of view.

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How does James McBride's use of imagery impact The Color of Water?

The Color of Water, by James McBride, is the story of McBride's journey to learn who he is by discovering the places from which he came. That does not seem like a particularly difficult task except that his mother is a compilation of contradictions and she refuses, for most of his life, to speak a word about her past. His mother, Ruth, tells her own story in alternating chapters of this book.

Many terrible things happen in this novel, both to Ruth and to McBride; McBride's use of imagery creates a believable story which captures our sympathy but also reveals the quirkiness and exceptionality of McBride's family.

Consider the following quote as an example of McBride's effective use of imagery to help the reader understand what this journey was like for him:

I felt like a Tinkertoy kid building my own self out of one of those toy building sets; for as she laid her life before me, I reassembled the tableau of her words like a picture puzzle, and as I did, so my own life was rebuilt. 

This is an astounding and relatable picture of what it must have been like for McBride to only have scattered bits of information about his mother's life with which he had to reconstruct his mother's past and discover his heritage.

When Ruth's second husband dies, she is distraught and brokenhearted but still has to maintain a household and take care of her young children. McBride describes his mother's grieving process this way:

Mommy staggered about in an emotional stupor for nearly a year. But while she weebled and wobbled and leaned, she did not fall. 

What a wonderful use of imagery to depict a woman on the verge of surrendering to her grief but holding on and finally getting through it. 

This is a fascinating story; what makes it poignant and satisfying to read is McBride's effective use of imagery. 

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