The Color of Water: Character Profiles
Aunt Betsy (Betts)
Aunt Betts is Ruth McBride’s aunt and Hudis’s sister. She lives in New York, is beautiful and wealthy, and generally snobby toward Ruth, although she helps Ruth when she needs an abortion. She refuses to help Ruth after she marries a black man.
Aunt Mary is another sister of Hudis, a businesswoman who runs a leather factory in New York. She employs the young Ruth when she moves to New York but treats her harshly. It is at the factory she meets Dennis McBride, who is also employed by her aunt. Aunt Mary is another family member who shuns Ruth after her marriage to a black man.
Big Richard is the husband of Jaqueline (Jack), a daughter of Dennis McBride by another woman. Jack's husband. Big Richard is a tough but easy-going guy who introduces James to all the working black men on "the corner" in Louisville, Kentucky, where James goes in the summers.
Reverend Abner Brown
Reverend Brown is the minister at Metropolitan Baptist Church in New York. He marries the McBrides and when they start their own church they name it New Brown Memorial Church after him.
Bubeh is Ruth's maternal grandmother, who lives in New York. She is one of the few Shilskys who cares about Ruth. Bubeh lets Ruth stay with her in New York and acts proud of her. While Bubeh tries to insist on the traditional Jewish ways, she also gives Ruth freedom and love.
Chicken Man is an African American drunk that James meets on “the corner” in Louisville. A street philosopher, he imparts his wisdom to James, encouraging him to avoid a dead-end to his life by hanging out on the street. James is looking for father figures after his stepfather dies.
Frances is a Gentile and Ruth's only childhood friend in Suffolk. Frances is sweet and accepting of Ruth, even though she is from a Christian family. Ruth's few good memories of Suffolk revolve around this friendship. Frances is loyal, and they reconnect as friends in old age, when James begins research for the memoir.
Jack or Jaqueline is James's older stepsister, who is much loved by Ruth and her children. James lives with Jack in Louisville, Kentucky, for three summers during his teenage years. James regards her as sweet and fun, but she is also serious: she warns him about his drug abuse and petty crime. Jack's opinion matters to James, and eventually he heeds her advice to return to school.
Hunter Jordan is Ruth's second husband and James's primary male role model. Hunter treats him as his own son. Hunter is a mechanic for the New York City Housing Authority. He meets Ruth shortly after her first husband's death, marries her, cares for her eight children and has four more children with her. Like Dennis, he is conservative and old-fashioned. He shares Ruth's ideas of the importance of God, family, and education. He dies of a stroke when James is a teenager, causing the family to fall apart for a few years.
Rachel (Ruth) Shillsky McBride Jordan
Ruth is the central figure in this memoir, the tough Jewish mother of James and eleven other children. A Polish Jewish immigrant, she gives up her own tradition to embrace the world of her beloved black husband, Dennis McBride. Dennis is her inspiration to lead a spiritual life, to become Christian, and to put her family first. Ruth is intelligent, determined, and never looks back. She teaches her children the importance of work, school, and God. Born in Poland in 1921, she comes to America with her Jewish immigrant family. Her father is a rabbi, and the family travels from town to town trying to make a living. When they settle down in Suffolk, Virginia, her father opens a general store. They live above the store, located in the mostly black section of town.
Ruth's father, Tateh, is a racist, and overcharges his black customers. Ruth sympathizes with the black people in her town. She hates the violent atmosphere. She herself is the subject of racial prejudice in the white South. To escape her loveless background she goes to New York and marries a black man, Andrew Dennis McBride, and becomes a Christian. She has eight children with Dennis, who dies while Ruth is pregnant with her son James. The family lives in Harlem and later Brooklyn in the housing projects. Ruth is forced into poorly paid jobs and knows only black people, and essentially lives the life of a black woman. After Dennis dies, she marries another black man, Hunter Jordan, and has four more children with him.
Andrew (Dennis) McBride
Dennis is Ruth's first husband and James's biological father. Dennis is a violinist from North Carolina whom Ruth met while working at her aunt's leather factory. He is gentle, cultured, and strong. He becomes a minister and Ruth shares his religious passion, starting a church with him. He fathers eight of Ruth's twelve children. He dies from lung cancer at the age of forty-five. Although Dennis dies while Ruth is pregnant with James, he is the main force in the lives of both James and Ruth. He expands Ruth’s horizons and gives her faith in God. She is never sorry for any hardship as his wife because they truly love one another.
Helen is James's older sister and Ruth's daughter. Helen is a strong-willed and pretty girl who runs away from home at the age of fifteen. She has a conflict with her white mother and whites in general during the politically charged 1960s. She eventually returns home with a nursing degree and a baby.
James is the author and main narrator of the memoir, which details moments of his own life in order to highlight his mother’s. He inherits his father’s musical talent, studying the saxophone. James is a writer, journalist, jazz musician, and composer. After a lot of questioning about his place as a half-blood, he learns to trust religious faith, family unity, and humane values. As a young man, he expresses his anger and confusion after his stepfather’s death by taking drugs and turning to petty theft. He writes the memoir to discover himself. By delving into his mother's past, which she had hidden from her children, as well as his own past, he hopes to find a better understanding of his racial identity. Questions about race consume him in childhood and early adolescence. He asks his mother, but she tries to keep him focused on religion and education. The changes of the 1960s make it hard for him to embrace the idea of black power when his mother is white. He becomes embarrassed by his mother's whiteness. As he grows up, he begins to admire his mother as he researches her past as a journalist.
Peter is Ruth's first black boyfriend in Suffolk, Virginia. Ruth was attracted to him because she was starved for love and affection, but such a liaison was life-threatening in Virginia. They see each other secretly and when Ruth becomes pregnant, she wants to marry Peter. He convinces her that he would be lynched if anyone found out. Ruth’s mother sees the situation and sends her to New York where Aunt Betsy helps her get an abortion. When she returns and finds Peter engaged to a black girl, she is furious because she still loves him.
Rocky is a light-skinned black man of fifty who owns the Hi Hat Barbershop in Harlem. He hires Ruth as a manicurist but turns out to be a pimp who is looking to train her as a prostitute. Dennis saves her from going down that road.
Rabbi Fishel Shilsky
Fishel Shilsky is Ruth's father, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi who has a hard time making a living at it in America, so he becomes a merchant with a general store and sells his goods to the black community whom he cheats. “Tateh” is racist and uncaring towards his family, driving the children away. He is particularly cruel to the elder son, Sam, working him day and night in the store. He despises his handicapped wife and treats her with contempt though she is a good wife to him. He sexually abuses his daughter Ruth. He tells Ruth never to return home if she marries a black man. Fishel has an affair with another woman, a non-Jew, in front of his wife, and later gets a divorce and moves away with the woman and her children.
Gladys (Dee-Dee) Shilsky
Dee-Dee is Ruth's younger sister, Gladys. Dee-Dee is a shy, pretty girl, less strong-willed than Ruth. She has fewer conflicts with her father than Ruth does, and she is more Americanized from a young age. While Ruth always envies her, later in life she realizes that Dee-Dee had suffered the most. Dee-Dee begs Ruth in tears not to leave home, and Ruth promises but then breaks her promise, leaving the young fifteen-year-old Dee-Dee alone and unprotected. Dee-Dee never forgives Ruth and will not see her when they are grown up.
Hudis is Ruth's mother (“Maneh”), who suffers from polio and is partially paralyzed, though she has a pretty face. She is obedient to her husband, kind and loving. Not speaking English, she depends on Ruth to translate for her. When Ruth leaves to live her own life in New York, the mother, desperately ill, quickly dies. Hudis’s parents and sisters are well-to-do and live in New York but never pay attention to her because she is poor and handicapped. Hudis is kind to the black patrons of the store, and Ruth felt that her mother was good to her. She suffers terrible guilt at her mother’s death, feeling she has let her down. She does not feel forgiven until she becomes a Christian.
Sam is Ruth's brother, two years older than Ruth. The father is particularly hard on the sensitive boy, expecting him to work full time at the family store while attending school. Sam runs away from home and writes his mother from Chicago. He is killed in the army during World War II.