The Color of Water

by James McBride

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What does James value in The Color of Water by James McBride?

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James McBride's autobiography, The Color of Water, recounts his search for answers he did not get from his mother when he was growing up. Late in her life, his mother, Ruth, shares just a little of her past with James, and he begins a quest to discover his mother's heritage--and of course his own. She eventually tells her own story, which is recounted in the odd-numbered chapters of the book.

Clearly the most significant thing that James values is the truth about his mother's past. While James knows about his father's family, his rather eccentric mother says nothing about her life before marrying James's father. This might not be a significant omission for some people, but for James it is the driving force for much of his life.

James always had questions about his rather quirky mother, a woman who lived her life boldly as if she were black though she was clearly white. While Ruth insisted on the best educations for her children (usually in Jewish schools), she consistently gave them conflicting messages about Jews. So many things about his mother were confusing to James, and he always felt that if he could discover his mother's past he could better face his own future. 

James is called a "tragic mulatto" by someone at school, contributing to his identity confusion. As he becomes a teenager, this confusion results in failing grades and a rather criminal life. Though he eventually recovers and goes on to become a successful adult, he is only satisfied after his questions have been answered. This need to know his heritage prompts him to value what he discovers.

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In The Color of Water by James McBride, what does James value (find important) in his life? Include quotations from the book to support ideas. This should list three examples of what he values.

Three things that James McBride values are his mother, his siblings, and learning the truth about his biracial identity. The entire book, as the subtitle indicates, is a tribute to his mother.

One place where McBride reveals how much he values his mother is in a part of her narrative that he includes. While she and his father were married, she never traveled to North Carolina, because they feared the family would be attacked. After his death, she takes his body home to be buried. She later tells James,

I sat on that train and said to myself, “I’m gonna take him home. I will take him home to see him buried,” and no white man nor black man would have stopped me and I swear to God Almighty, had anyone stood before me to prevent it I would have struck them down.

McBride was one of twelve children. Although the siblings competed, they also supported each other. One place where he shows that he values his siblings is when they come to meet him after school when he has been waiting for his mother to appear. The children he sees coming

were a motley crew of girls and boys, ragged with wild hairdos and unkempt jackets, hooting and making noise, and only when they were almost upon me did I recognize the faces of my elder siblings and my little sister . . . . I ran into their arms and collapsed in tears as they gathered around me, laughing.

After McBride publishes his first, well-received essay about his mother, he considers the idea of doing a book. While he wants to tell his mother’s story, he also centers on the ways it will help him understand his own identity.

I decided to delve further, partly to get out of working for a living and partly to expel some of my own demons regarding my brown skin, curly hair, and divided soul.

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