The Color of Water





The Color of Water

Race has been a controversial subject in many parts of the world. It has inspired the writing of many books, with many individuals seeking to understand its implications. For James McBride, his memoir “The Color of Water” is an attempt to eliminate the confusion that clouds his racial identity by understanding the history of his own mother Ruth McBride. James is the 8th child in a family of twelve children who were raised in Brooklyn in a housing project. Despite witnessing the premature death of her reverend husband, Ruth saw all her children go to college through sheer force. Her fundamental tenets were founded on the crucial nature of the church and academic excellence, in which case it is not surprising that most of her children earned graduate, as well as professional degrees. Ruth got married to a black man leading to her excommunication by her family as such an act was considered taboo. With her husband Denis, she established a Christian church named New Brown Memorial Church. They had seven children together, but Denis died when Ruth was pregnant with James, her eighth child. Afterwards, Ruth got married to Hunter Jordan, her second husband, with whom she had four other children.

While James uses her mother’s history to give insights into his curiosity on her racial identity, it is easy to see how varied events influenced Ruth’s actions.

One of Ruth’s most dominant reactions to the expectations of the people is defiance. When she was young, Ruth is said to have defied her abusive father in varied aspects. Her refusal to embrace Judaism was the epitome of defiance. She states that she refused to embrace it mainly because it had been forced into her rather than having her look for it. In essence, this is the same reason as to why she chose to embrace Christianity and went on to open a Christian church. In fact, she confides that her decision to embrace Christianity was triggered by the fact that she had gotten into it by her own volition rather than having it imposed on her. Moreover, her effort to convey to her children the crucial nature of self-sufficiency is influenced by her early childhood. Since she had been suffocated by the harsh religious and familial rules as a young girl, she naturally treasured the freedom that came with independence and education.

In addition, her decision to have an affair with a black man named Peter was an act of defiance against her father’s racist opinions. It is noteworthy that she blacks could be killed for even approaching a white woman, while the woman would be disowned and considered dead to her people. However, Ruth not only had an affair with a black man but also went ahead to get married to one and even have children with him. The author thought that her mother intrinsically yearned to be black just like other people in the church. He thought that maybe God loved black people more that the white people and asked his mother whether God was white or black. Ruth, however, replied that God is a spirit and, therefore, had the color of water rather than a white or black color (McBride 50). The importance of this insinuation goes beyond the fact that the title is derived from it. It outlines the fact that Ruth, unlike her Jewish and Polish people never considered skin color as significant. She would channel her love to people for their goodness or goodness, rather than their race. In essence, she strives to instill this aspect in her children, an aspect of love that is shown in James’s efforts to write the story of her white mother.

Apart from defiance, Ruth the conversion of Ruth from Judaism to Christianity is essentially a submissive act towards the expectations of her husband. While the husband may not have pestered her to change her religion, he was constantly teaching her about Christianity, which in essence means that he in one way or another expected her to take up the religion.

Another way that Ruth reacts to the expectations of the people is by being indifferent. This is shown by the dominant behavior that Ruth has taken; riding her bicycle. After the death of her second husband, Hunter, Ruth took up the habit of cycling through the predominantly black neighborhood where they lived. Initially, James felt embarrassed about this behavior, which led him to seek logic for Ruth’s peculiarity or strangeness. However, when he grew up, he came to view the habit as his mother’s way of showing indifference to what others thought of her. It is noteworthy that many people were appalled by the fact that Ruth had gotten married to a black man and even gone ahead to have children with him. In addition, she used to relate and socialize more with her black friends than her white workmates. In fact, she is said to have been living a black woman’s life in Harlem when she was working in strenuous, poorly paid jobs. In essence, her indifference to their opinions was extended to the personal front when she took up the bicycle riding habit.

The book also outlines her angry reaction to the expectations of other people when she sends her son James to buy a bottle of milk in the store, only for the store man to sell him sour milk. Ruth sends him back to return the packet and come with fresh milk, but the store man refuses to take the sour milk back. When Ruth accompanies James to the store, not only does the store man refuse to take the bottle back but he also makes an unsavory remark about her having black kids. Ruth reacts to this remark angrily by throwing the bottle of milk to the man, smashing his cigarette cabinet. It is evident that the shopkeeper would not have expected her to have a black child, something that seems to irk Ruth, to the point of reacting violently.

In conclusion, while “The Color of Water” is essentially the memoirs of a black man trying to understand or have a clear insight into his mother’s racial identity, it is predominantly a chronicle of the white woman’s life. James McBride uses the story to outline the struggles of his mother in a racially segregated society. It is noteworthy that Ruth’s behavior is predominantly defiance against the norms and expectations of her family, as well as the community. Her decision to take up Christianity rather than Judaism and get married to a black man, something that would attract harsh punishment, was a reaction to the expectations of her family. In addition, she showed indifference to the opinions of the society by taking up bicycle riding, as well as socializing with the black people, unlike her racist father. She encouraged her children to be independent as a way of getting them to enjoy a life of freedom that her childhood lacked.

Works Cited

James, McBride. The color of water: a Black man’s tribute to his white mother. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996. Print.

BookRags Literature Study Guide: The Color of Water by James McBride (writer).Web. 24 Mar. 2012. <>

SparkNotes. The color of water: character analysis. Web. 24 Mar. 2012. <>

BookBrowse. The color of water: summary. Web. 24 Mar. 2012. <>

GradeSaver. The color of water: summary. Web. 24 Mar. 2012. <>