The Color of Water: Essay Q&A
1. How does Ruth’s life in Suffolk, Virginia, describe the “Jim Crow” South?
During Reconstruction (1865-1877), after the Civil War, the United States tried to restructure American society by abolishing slavery and amending the Constitution (the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments) to give civil rights to four million former slaves. State governments were organized to give blacks the vote, to give them schools and positions in government. By 1877, however, white supremacists in the South had reasserted their power and states’ rights to enact “Jim Crow” laws that led to segregation of the races and deprived African Americans of their civil liberties. Blacks were forbidden from mixing with whites and had their own churches, communities, schools, movie theaters, and stores. The terrorism the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups visited on African Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was largely countenanced by both Southern and Northern whites. D. W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation, released in 1915, clearly casts the Ku Klux Klan as heroes restoring order to the South and shows blacks as evil. There were hundreds of lynchings and other hate crimes against African Americans, who had virtually no legal recourse.
Rachel (Ruth) Shilsky saw this firsthand when she was growing up in Virginia in the 1930s. She describes seeing the Ku Klux Klan riding through town, and witnessing the fear of the black people. There were always dead black bodies being fished out of the river, and raids on their homes in the ghetto. The Shilskys were looked down upon because they were Jews, and because their store served the African American population. Ruth’s father overcharged the customers and hated them. Her mother helped Ruth escape to New York when she became pregnant by her African American boyfriend. Ruth wanted to marry Peter when she found herself pregnant, but he explained he would be lynched if anyone found out. Ruth and Peter were criminals in Virginia for violating the miscegenation laws and could have gone to jail or have been targets for racial violence. Ruth is young and starved for love when she starts going with Peter, not thinking of consequences. She describes, however, that when he would take her to his house in the ghetto, his friends were afraid and avoided her. Once she is pregnant and finally understands he could be killed, she is terrified. She submits to the abortion in New York as the only solution.
2. Did the civil rights movement give African Americans greater freedom?
The 1960s is a phenomenon described by the young James in the book as overheated discussions between older siblings about Black Power, and by his brother Dennis’s civil rights involvement. The question of race that had always simmered in the McBride house boiled over during this period, as it did in the whole country. The efforts towards desegregation in the South were escalating, and there was much violence as protesters were thrown in jail or killed on the streets. The civil rights of African Americans were dearly bought, with many lives lost. When the civil rights movement began to take shape, African Americans were still barred from registering to vote in the South or running for office. Segregation made it impossible for African Americans to mingle with whites in any public place. The federal court ruled segregation in schools unconstitutional in 1954, but it was still a fact. If African Americans were arrested and thrown in jail, it was common for them to be beaten and held without charges. African Americans had little opportunity for employment except as domestics or laborers or farmers. Few received a college education and black professionals were rare.
In 1955, Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama, broke the rule that blacks had to sit in the back of the bus and was arrested. It was the spark that set off demonstrations and sit-ins by African Americans everywhere to win their civil rights. In 1962, when African American James Meredith tried to attend the University of Mississippi by federal court order, two people were killed and twenty-nine marshals shot trying to protect him. In 1963 the Children’s Crusade, with thousands of black high school student protesters attacked by fire hoses and police dogs in Birmingham, was shown on TV and roused public outrage. The 1963 march on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, was attended by 200,000 people and made a huge impact on public awareness, yet it was not until July 2, 1964, that President Johnson was able to get the Civil Rights Act passed. This bill barred discrimination in public places. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 suspended poll taxes, literacy tests and other measures that kept African Americans from voting. Within months, a quarter of a million African Americans registered, and within four years, voter registration in the South doubled, and African Americans entered the political scene as a new force.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his nonviolent methods of creating change, but his death in 1968 was part of a decade of assassinations: President John F. Kennedy in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965, Dr. King and Senator Robert Kennedy in 1968. Meanwhile, there were race riots in northern cities like New York and Philadelphia and later in Watts, Los Angeles. Black militancy was born in the Black Power groups, and Malcolm X’s ideas of black self-sufficiency appealed to many younger African Americans, impatient with slow change. Though Ruth McBride was not political, she supported the civil rights movement. James mentions that he asked his mother who Malcolm X was, and she replied, “He was a man ahead of his time” (p. 32). The fact that all Ruth’s black children attend college and become professionals testifies to the victory of those sacrifices, yet James reports being surprised to emerge into the workplace after college and to find racism still very much alive.
3. How does the Shilsky family history fit into the great European Jewish emigration to America?
The Shilskys came from Poland in 1923. For the Jews in Russian Poland, many hardships contributed to a third of the Jewish population coming to America, the largest Jewish immigration that had ever taken place. The Russian Tsar had confined Jews to the Pale of Settlement, a region covering part of Poland, Byelorussia, the Ukraine, and Lithuania. Economically the people were squeezed out of their professional roles and wealth, and jobs became more menial and harder to find. Universities were closed to Jews. Famine, cholera, and starvation were common. Pogroms, or violent attacks, by Cossacks, troops loyal to the Tsar, disrupted and destroyed the towns. Conscription into the Russian army was one way the Tsar broke up the families, for a Jewish boy would be forced to serve, thus taking him away from his religious practices. Ruth’s father ran away from the Russian army.
Fishel Shilsky was a rabbi, or religious teacher, who studies and teaches Orthodox Jewish law, the predominant tradition of the East European Jews. The ancient oral tradition was written down once Jews began dispersing all over the world, and rabbis taught and interpreted through their study to other Jews. The Torah, or Jewish scripture, along with the Talmudic commentaries on religious practice and the codified Mosaic law in the Mishna and Gemarah, are the sources for Orthodox Jewish lifestyle. Every detail and aspect of life is covered in Rabbinical writings (called halakha, or the way). In the Polish Jewish village, which was closed to outsiders, the father as head of the house, and rabbi as respected teacher, were expected to be upholders of the prescribed practices. Shilsky is criticized in Suffolk for giving up his holy calling to go into business, but it was hard for him to make a living in a secular country.
Later Reform movements in Judaism softened the strictness of the laws to fit contemporary living. The complex way of life described by Ruth, where the Jews keep to themselves, keep Sabbath, and eat in the kosher way, prevented Jews from integrating easily into American society. Ruth tells of her aunts in New York who want money and position in America: “They were all trying hard to be American, you know, not knowing what to keep and what to leave behind” (p. 135). Even Rabbi Shilsky gives up his religion when he divorces and marries a non-Jew.
4. What is the history of interracial marriage in the United States?
Anti-miscegenation laws (laws banning interracial marriage) were in effect in many states since the colonial days, until 1967 when the Supreme Court ruled such laws were unconstitutional. Miscegenation meant the sexual mingling of the races, and it was a felony. Such a law was in effect in Virginia at the time Ruth got pregnant by her black boyfriend, making her a criminal. Virginia was the first state to rule against interracial marriage in 1664, so it had a long tradition. Often, even the mere suggestion of a black man looking at a white woman, however, was an excuse for a lynching. This is why the black friends of Ruth’s boyfriend avoid her when she visits.
“Miscegenation,” or mixture of the races, was a term invented during the Civil War to undermine the Abolitionist movement that was working to free the slaves. It put fear into the national mind that if slaves were freed, there would be white and black intermarriage. Such laws did not stop white slave owners from having children with their black slave women. People looked the other way at the mulatto children of rich landowners, but these children were illegitimate. Miscegenation was a crime in the South, but many Northern states also enacted such laws. In fact, most states had such laws on the books. New York was one of the few states that never had a law against interracial marriage, although the sentiment against it could still be strong, as Ruth recounts the time white men chased her and Dennis in the street. It was so difficult to face the prejudice that Ruth admits, “most interracial marriages did not last” (p. 232).
The idea of the separation of the races was slow to give way in the United States. Even the most famous black artists were often subject to harassment for mingling with whites. Miles Davis, for instance, one of the most influential black jazz musicians of the twentieth century, still suffered the indignity of being beaten by a policeman in 1959 for appearing with a white woman in public. After World War II, states began to overturn their miscegenation laws, starting with California in 1948, declaring such laws were unconstitutional. Not until the 1960s, however, with the civil rights movement, did the idea of racial integration and multiculturalism begin to replace that of a separate and dominant white culture as the American norm. Interestingly enough, it was the state of Virginia where the issue finally played out in the case of Loving v. Virginia. The Lovings were a Virginia interracial couple, who went to Washington D. C. to marry but were arrested when they returned home to Virginia. The Supreme Court ruled that the choice of a marriage partner is a basic civil right and overturned all miscegenation laws designed to uphold white supremacy in 1967. The same year the movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner with Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, and Sidney Poitier, broke the ice on what had been a forbidden topic in the media, with a black man marrying a white woman.
5. Why was there greater racial tolerance in New York than in other places?
New York City has always been known for its pluralism and cultural diversity. It is a main port of entry for immigrants from all over the world, who stay and contribute to the rich metropolitan atmosphere. It was founded in 1624 as New Amsterdam by the Dutch, known for their religious and political tolerance, and their values were transplanted to the new world. The myth of the American melting pot, which imagined the races of other countries were blended together into a new American stew, made New York an attractive place for newcomers to live.
Ruth is enthusiastic about living in New York after the narrowness of life in Virginia: “New York was an eyepopper for me. Plus everyone seemed too busy to care about what race or religion you were. I loved it” (p. 130). Here she discovers Harlem in 1939: “In those days, nobody in New York City went to the Village to have fun. Harlem was the place. White and black came to Harlem to party” (p. 171). Harlem was the trend-setter for the jazz age. Ruth recounts spending all day at the famous Apollo Theater listening to Duke Ellington and Count Basie and Billie Holiday. Black and white mixed in Harlem, and there, Ruth and Dennis fit in. On Sundays they went to a black Baptist church where Ruth became a Christian and was accepted. They encountered their share of prejudice, but they did not break the law by being married.
Ruth felt at home in both the black and Jewish sections of New York. Her son James tells of being dragged by his mother to Delancey on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where the Jewish merchants lined the street. There he was amazed to hear her haggle with the vendors in Yiddish. He mentions that his mother took them to every free concert and museum in the city. Every one of the children knew the transit system intimately and could get around town to events and to school. Thus, though the McBrides were poor, they did not feel poor. They lived in a rich cultural and creative center with a lot of support through the church, and in the Red Hook housing project, they were part of a multicultural community.