Summary of Chapter 6: The New Testament
James begins by saying, “Mommy loved God” (p. 45). She is the only white person at the Whosoever Black Baptist church. “Sister Jordan” was accepted by the congregation. James’s sister Helen is the church pianist there. James does not like the emotional testimonials. Even his mother cries in church. She tells James that God is not black or white; He is a spirit, “the color of water” (p. 51). His brother Richie however, does not like that Jesus is pictured as a white man and stops going to Sunday school.
Commentary on Chapter 6: The New Testament
We see the contrast of Ruth’s Jewish life to her life in a black Baptist church. She describes her Jewish life as emotionally depressed, but there is plenty of emotional outlet in her Christian church. James remarks, “Mommy’s tears seemed to come from somewhere else, a place far away, a place inside her that she never let any of us children visit” (p. 50). He instinctively knows that there is pain inside his mother, and her church and God are her consolation. Only when he gets her to agree to a doing the memoir do the tears surface in her narrative.
Summary of Chapter 7: Sam
Ruth tells of their store in Suffolk, Virginia. It was at the edge of town near the river wharf where ships from the world laid over to make repairs. Sailors used to approach her and her sister Dee-Dee in the store, but their mother protected them. One day while sitting behind the store counter, Ruth sees a parade of the Ku Klux Klan riding through town in their white robes. The black customers slipped out of sight. The Klan rode through town in broad daylight, and no one cared. Ruth is scared too because Jews are almost as unpopular as blacks, and there is frequent violence in the town. Her father keeps a loaded pistol under the counter. Her father hated blacks and overcharged them.
This was the Depression and people were so poor they hunted and fished to get enough to eat. If one got sick, that was it, because no one could afford doctors. The black people bought something called “BC powder” for ailments, which had cocaine in it. The blacks lived in shacks with no bathrooms or running water. Though in utter poverty, they seem happy to Ruth, who notices they always dress up to go to church. They laughed and loved their families.
Her brother Sam by contrast was miserable. He was sensitive and shy, but her father worked him cruelly in the store day and night. After supper Sam and Ruth had to memorize the Old Testament. Her father insulted Sam, and finally he ran off at the age of fifteen. He went to Chicago and got a job. They never saw him again. He died in World War II.
Commentary on Chapter 7: Sam
This portrait of Suffolk in the Depression gives a good basis for understanding Ruth’s later escape to New York. The racial tension is so oppressive Ruth says, “It seemed to me death was always around Suffolk. I was always hearing about somebody found hanged or floating in the wharf” (p. 58). The Klan is allowed to perpetuate its violence in broad daylight. Ruth fears for her own safety as a Jew, but also from her father who molests her. Home is not secure with the threat of her father’s own violence hanging over her and her brother. Ruth is unusual in that she relies on her own perception more than the prejudice that is drilled into her. She sees the black people as warm, friendly, and happy despite their desperate lives. She envies them their family life, since hers is so hellish. The trauma of this early life is registered by her brother’s running off at such an early age and never being seen again
Summary of Chapter 8: Brothers and Sisters
James tells the experience of having eleven siblings: “Mommy’s house was orchestrated chaos” (p. 65). His brothers and sisters were his “best friends” (p. 65) except when they fought over food. They were always hungry and hiding food from each other. Sometimes they ate peanut butter from the jar. Other times they ate bread dipped in syrup. Mommy loaded up her purse at the cafeteria at work, and the kids would grab her purse when she returned. She could not cook or keep house, since she had been brought up to tend her father’s store. All the boys slept in one room, all the girls in another. They would sneak into each other’s rooms for monopoly games or secrets. “Four of us played the same clarinet” (p. 68).
None of these details was important to Mommy. She focused on school as a top priority. Dennis, the oldest was in medical school and was the family hero. Even so Dennis was also “at war with the system” (p. 71) and participated in the black revolution going on in the 1960s.
All of James’s sisters were pretty, but Helen was rebellious. She sat up at night arguing with the other siblings about African American rights. She left home at fifteen, and Ruth was beside herself. She finally located Helen living with some hippies and begged her to come home, but she wouldn’t.
Commentary on Chapter 8: Brothers and Sisters
James paints a mixed picture of their family life. On the one hand, all the siblings are close and best friends. There is a lively and creative environment for them to grow in. On the other hand, the double problem of poverty and racism takes its toll. The children have to come to terms with their racial background on their own in the sixties because Ruth will not discuss it with them or talk about her own background. The older boy Dennis makes his own heroic way by tackling the establishment, first by getting into medical school, and second, through political action. Helen, however, just rebels. It is not clearly spelled out, but having a white mother while she was rebelling against whites must have been confusing to her. Ruth’s anguish at seeing her brother’s pattern of leaving home at fifteen replay in her own daughter’s case was heartbreaking and perhaps nothing she could have remedied. Ruth is never sorry for her choice to marry a black man, but she and her children have to live the consequences, whether or not she is willing to discuss them with the children.
Summary of Chapter 9: Shul
Ruth continues her memories of Suffolk where there was a white school, a black school, and a Jewish school in the synagogue where her father taught Hebrew. He would also circumcise babies, and he had a special set of knives to kill animals in the kosher way. Ruth describes how he would kill a cow and how she could not eat meat for years. She concludes: “I was terrified of my father” (p. 80). Ruth attended the white elementary school where Jews were hated. This is when she changed her name from Rachel to Ruth. She felt despised: “that feeling that nobody likes you, that’s how I felt, living in the South” (p. 81). Ruth did not have Jewish friends either because her father was a storekeeper for the blacks. Her only friend was a gentile girl named Frances. She was forbidden to play with gentiles but snuck over to Frances’s house where she was always welcome, but she could not eat the food there because it was not kosher. Ruth took money from the cash register so she and Frances could go to the movies.
Ruth tries to explain to James that everyone was poor then in the Depression, but it wasn’t the same kind of poor as today because you didn’t need money as much. Both black and white people were poor. Many people went crabbing on the wharf or caught turtles to eat. Ruth says she never starved for food until she got married, but at home she was always starved for affection.
Commentary on Chapter 9: Shul
Ruth’s account of growing up in the South shows she is familiar with racial prejudice from an early age. All her life she is dealing with being a Jew or being married to a black man and the mother of mixed race children. This could account for why she ignores racial insults, and why she avoids discussions of race. She just wants to live her life and is tired of the conflict of constantly thinking about race. For her children, it is a different matter. It is not a matter of persecution as much as of identity, of knowing what side of the fence they are on, white or black? Ruth’s chapters are about being in a racial minority, while James struggles with racial identity.
Summary of Chapter 10: School
James parallels his mother’s account of schooldays with his own account of school. He tells the amusing tale of going to Delancey Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to shop for school clothes. His mother tells the children that the Jews have the deals. James has heard of Jews in church, but says to his mother he didn’t know Jews were still around. She says, oh yes, they are around. Then she proceeds to haggle with the merchants in Yiddish.
His mother never speaks of Jews as whites, so over the years, James begins to see them as non-white. In the 1960s, many Jews are for civil rights. Though Ruth will not speak of her Jewish heritage, she uses it to get scholarships for her children through synagogues. It is in her insistence on the best education for her children, that Ruth conveys her Jewishness to them. She forces “every one of us to go to predominantly Jewish public schools” (p. 87). She takes the opportunity of busing the kids across town, but James dislikes being a “token Negro” in his classes (p. 89). At this stage, James is shy and passive. He consoles himself with piano and clarinet lessons in school. He also creates an imaginary world for himself, reads a lot, and goes to church. Girls think he is cute, but he is still confused, and when he asks his mother if he is black or white, she says “You’re a human being” (p. 92).
Ruth keeps the children busy so they will not question their racial identity, but James says that as they grew up, “the world that Mommy had so painstakingly created began to fall apart” (p. 95). One by one the children rebel and seek their own lives. James recalls being ashamed of his white mother as a child, but he also remembers many times when she stuck up for her children and protected them from the white world.
Commentary on Chapter 10: School
It isn’t only James’s imagination that there is a hidden aspect to his identity. His mother may reject her Jewish background, but she retains many Jewish characteristics. She knows how to haggle in Yiddish for a bargain. She acts like a Jewish mother in managing her children’s lives and in insisting on the best education for them. She wants them to be superior. She makes them attend Jewish schools. She likes the way Jewish parents protect their children and keep them away from harm. James begins to see Jews as non-whites.
All during his childhood, James is ashamed of his white mother and wishes she were black. As an adult looking back, he appreciates coming from two racial worlds, but it takes him a lifetime of struggle to get to that point.