The Color of Water

by James McBride

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In The Color of Water, how does James's perception of himself change throughout the book?

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In the Color of Water, James McBride seeks answers about his identity. He wants to know where he is from and why he looks different from his family. His mother insists that he is a human being and that God does not see color, but she refuses to talk about her past. She gets upset when James brings up the subject of race, and she always changes the subject. As an adult, James finds out that Ruth was Jewish and black. She changed her name from Ruby to Ruth when she moved to New York City because she did not want anything or anyone from her past to follow her. James goes back to Suffolk, Virginia to meet people who knew his mother as a child and learn more about her past.

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Throughout the novel, The Color of Water, James McBride searches for his identity as a black child who is raised by his white mother. Ever since he was a child, McBride was confused about who he was and why he and his twelve siblings looked different from their mother. He never knew his black father because he died before he was born and his step father, who was also black, lived in a different household. Whenever he questioned his mother, Ruth, about his race or her own background, she would be very elusive or vague. She would claim that they were part of the “human race”, that God did not see color, and that education was more important than skin color.

However, growing up in the 1960s, he witnessed the growing tensions between blacks and whites in his neighborhood, and her answers did not suffice. He noticed how many white people were afraid of black people, especially with the growing popularity of the Black Panthers and Malcolm X, and that most of the heroes he learned about in schools were all white. Interestingly, he also noticed that his mother seemed oblivious to the fact that she was the only white woman in their black neighborhood, and he was often embarrassed and sometimes scared for her. All of these experiences led him to be very confused about his own identity and how he fit in a “white world” that seemed to be fearful of his own skin color.

As an adult, he finally convinces his mother to be open and honest about her upbringing. He learns that she was the daughter of Jewish immigrants living in the South and although they made a decent living running and owning a grocery store, she had a rather difficult, unhappy childhood. Her father did not love her mother and was very abusive and controlling over her as well as their children. She was forced to work in the grocery store at a young age and had to hide her relationship with a young black man because her father was racist and intolerant. She eventually fled to New York City to forget her past and reinvent herself. She then fell in love with a black Christian pastor who changed her life and showed her what love was supposed to be.

These revelations lead McBride down a path of self-discovery and acceptance as he traces his mother’s footsteps to her hometown of Suffolk, Virginia and reconnects with her old family friends and neighbors to learn more about her and her family. Learning of her true identity helps him accept the part of himself that he never knew because of her fear and denial. At the end of the novel, he feels privileged to be from two different cultures and to have a view of the world that is “not merely that of a black man but that of a black man with something of a Jewish soul” (p. 103).

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James McBride spends most of his life in a quest to discover his heritage, and he documents both his life and his journey in The Color of Water. He is thrust upon this quest by his need to understand his mother's past because only then will he understand some of his own inner turmoil and confusion.

In the beginning of the book, James says he was always consumed with the need to know more about his mother. Part of his curiosity stems from the fact that his father died just before he was born, and his seven older siblings teased him about being adopted. He naturally had questions, but when his mother consistently refused to answer them, James's need to know only increased. 

Though he is a pretty good student and young man, he always wants to know more about his mother's heritage. He asks Ruth all the time, but she never answers him. When his stepfather dies, James is now the oldest of five siblings and his mother goes rather crazy in her grief. Soon James is failing in school and living a rather illegal and unprofitable life. Others do not see much value in him, and this behavior continues until Ruth moves her family and James starts in a new school. In both failure and success, James is unsettled and wonders who he really is. This wondering causes him to be discontent and unsure about himself for most of his growing-up years.

Though he finally achieves success and even goes to college, James still suffers from his desire to make sense of so many things in his mother's life, things which will also help him understand himself. Finally, after his mother reveals just a little about her past, James is able to discover who his mother really is and the heritage from which she came. 

Eventually James is at peace, having discovered what he has longed to know for so many years. So many things now make sense to him, and he finally has a sense of peace about who he is. At the end of the journey, James's relationship with his mother is intact, and both of them are content with his knowing what she so valiantly kept hidden for so many years. 

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