The Color of Water: Theme Analysis
Color of Water details and reflects on racial prejudice from a first-person point of view, first in the life of the Jewish mother, Ruth McBride Jordan, and then in the life of her black son, James.
Ruth was born as Rachel Shilsky and fled Poland with her parents as a child, when Jews were being persecuted and exterminated by both Russians and Germans. When Rabbi Shilsky wants to scare his family in America he threatens to send them back to Europe where the Jews are subject to constant terrorism. The young Ruth, however, finds racial hatred in America as well. When her family moves to Suffolk, Virginia, she is ridiculed at school and shunned for being Jewish. She develops sympathy for the black community who come into her father’s store. Their situation is far worse than hers, for the Ku Klux Klan regularly visits the black ghetto murdering people, whose bodies show up in the river. When Ruth becomes pregnant by her black boyfriend, both know his life is in danger, and she has to go to New York for an abortion. Interracial marriage was impossible in the South of the 1930s.
Ruth is drawn to African Americans in New York as well because of their warmth and generosity, in contrast to her loveless Jewish home. Andrew Dennis McBride, the man she marries, is a black Baptist preacher. Even in New York, they are afraid because of their interracial marriage, which was shocking to people in the 1940s. They have to be careful. Ruth has to leave the white world behind and become black, because African Americans are more willing to accept her. She likes that they don’t judge her. James says of his mother that she is “a black woman in white skin” (p. 260). With her twelve black children, she creates a self-sufficient world with them while they are young. They are taught to shun outsiders and play with each other. Whenever she goes out with them, she ignores the stares and insults, but the young James is sensitive and becomes ashamed of having a white mother until he learns her story as an adult.
James represents a later generation’s struggle with racism: “The question of race was like the power of the moon in my house” (p. 94). James is the young black teen during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. His older siblings are enthralled with the idea of Black Power, but James is torn because he fears for his mother’s life. Only the fact that she is a fearless immigrant Jew and eccentric saves her in the New York housing projects. Little James is torn in his soul because of his mixed heritage, not knowing who he is or where he belongs. Can he hate whites when his mother is one? He is uncomfortable being the “token black” in the white schools his mother sends him to. He spends a rebellious few years on the street, taking drugs and robbing people, angry but not knowing why he is angry. He likes hanging out with African Americans on the Corner in Louisville, Kentucky, who are complete in themselves, without reference to whites. His meeting with Chicken Man there turns him around. Chicken Man is an old black wino, a philosopher who shows James what his life will be like if he continues to be angry and confused about his racial identity. When Chicken Man ends up with a knife in his belly, James gets the point. He accepts his family’s strategy for getting beyond racial struggle by focusing on religion and education. In college, he tells his classmates that racism will be a thing of the past by the time they graduate, but “Instead it smashed me across the face like a bottle when I walked into the real world” (p. 204). It is only after he makes a pilgrimage into his mother’s past that he is able to reconcile his biracial background and learn to live with it, “privileged to have come from two worlds . . . a black man with something of a Jewish soul” (p. 103).
Search for Identity
The search for identity is a constant theme in American society. Although society itself favors conformity, the American Dream is about the freedom to achieve individuality. Ruth Shilsky, like other immigrants, wants to be American and wants to be herself rather than repeating her parents’ lives. Ruth comes from an Orthodox Jewish tradition that does not allow for anything except obedience to its ancient prescriptions that seem irrelevant to her in twentieth-century America. Even after fifty years of being cast out of that tradition by her family because she violated its rules, Ruth is able to tell her son in detail what the customs were, how to eat kosher and how Jews worship and mourn their dead. It was a past that she was always running from and trying to suppress.
The search for identity is closely connected to rebellion. Ruth refuses to accept her family’s harsh and stifling life, tied to their store, rules, and money. She sees the hypocrisy of her father’s strict religion and his hatred of blacks. She longs for love and acceptance. With her warm and adventurous soul, she loves the Harlem social life, the large black families, the equality, the music and art. In her family, she is an invisible nobody, a poor relation, used by her father and the protector of her handicapped mother. Ruth’s husband, Dennis, loves and accepts her for herself. She becomes his partner and begins a church with him, converting to Christianity. In extreme guilt over her mother’s death, it is Christ who accepts her and forgives her. She forges her own strange life, the only white in a black community, but she triumphs as the matriarch of an outstanding family.
From his earliest childhood game of playing with his mirror image, James is trying to understand who he is and where he belongs. His brother teases him that he is adopted by Ruth, that his real mother is black and in jail. He gets tidbits from older siblings about his mother, but it is all rumor. He is constantly puzzled by her behavior and her teachings, such as, “Never, ever, ever tell your business to nobody” (p. 13). James asks his mother if he is black or white, and she avoids the question by telling him, “Educate your mind” (p. 13). He asks if God is black or white, and she replies God is no color. James does not feel at home in a white school where the kids want to see him demonstrate how blacks dance. He does not fit with the black punks he tries to run around with. Even as a black jazz musician and successful reporter who works with whites, he feels something is incomplete, and “the part of me that wanted to understand who I was began to irk and itch at me” (p. 205). He notes “there were two worlds bursting inside me trying to get out,” which meant he “had to find out who my mother was” (p. 266). He thus takes on the difficult task of writing the memoir and forcing his mother to reveal her past.
His epiphany comes when he visits Suffolk and contemplates the tragic life of his Jewish grandmother, Hudis. His “own humanity is awakened” when he realizes “There’s such a big difference between being dead and alive” (p. 229). The greatest gift is to give life to others; the greatest sin is to take away life. From then on, he is a unified person, a human being.
Beyond race and creed, there is the redeeming virtue of family love. It is such a powerful force that Ruth would risk being outcast by her birth family in which there is no love, for a family of mixed race she creates with her husband Dennis out of courage and devotion. Her Jewish family performs the ceremony of the dead (kaddish) for her when she marries a black man. This official excommunication is a heavy burden for her; she has no choice but to hide her Jewish past from her children. The old Ruth dies when her mother dies. With Dennis, she must be reborn as a Christian but constantly fearing because of the prejudice against interracial marriage. There is never enough money; the children are always hungry and overcrowded, sleeping four to a bed “like slabs of meat” ( p. 10).
But worse than starving for food, she tells her son, is to starve for love: “We had no family life,” she says, “That store was our life” (p. 41). Because of Fishel Shilsky’s cruelty, the children run away. The son, Sam, was “like a shadow” and ran away at fifteen (p. 61). Ruth, who was sexually abused and terrified of her father, leaves at eighteen, even though her mother and sister beg her to stay. She never sees them again. Her rich New York aunts turn their backs on her when she is a struggling widow. She turns instead to the black church, community, and her children.
James recounts, “We thrived on thought, books, music, and art, which she fed to us instead of food” (p. 94). “We did not consider ourselves poor or deprived” (p. 95). His brothers and sisters were his best friends; they shared musical instruments, clothes, and even toothbrushes. The chaos of the house was a “three-ring circus” (p. 68) without privacy, but it was a stimulating and creative place, with chess and monopoly games, music, and wild talk about the black revolution that was coming. All this was the true and lasting legacy of Ruth and Dennis McBride who remained in love for the sixteen years they were together until he died of cancer. Dennis was a talented violinist turned preacher and Ruth claims, “he was the kindest man I’ve ever known” (236). Though whites thought she had lowered herself, Ruth says “My world expanded because of Dennis” (234). This reaches fruition when they start the New Brown Baptist Church together, the high point of Ruth’s life. Their family love becomes part of a loving congregation of African American people in the housing projects, who become her lifelong friends.