The Color of Water takes place on two parallel timelines. In the first timeline, which spans the early 20th century up until 1957, Ruth, James McBride’s mother, tells the story of her family’s immigration to America, her childhood, and her early adulthood in New York City. In the second timeline, told in alternating chapters, James tells his own life story, beginning in 1957, and ending with the book’s release in 1996.
While growing up, James McBride never knew where his mother had come from. When he asked her if she was white, she simply replied that she was "light-skinned", triggering a long-standing confusion about his own racial identity. As an adult, McBride offers the reader his story by alternating between his mother's voice and his own.
Ruth McBride Jordan was born in Poland to an Orthodox Jewish family that immigrated to the United States when she was two. Her name then was Rachel Deborah Shilsky, and her father was a traveling rabbi who abused his family and forced them to settle in the small Southern town of Suffolk, Virginia. It was a violent time: schools were racially segregated, and there was pervasive discrimination against both blacks and Jews.
Tateh, Ruth's father, opened a grocery store, and became rich off of his black customers. Ruth suffered from teasing and discrimination as a Jew in the largely Protestant school, and the house in which she was raised was bereft of love. Her own mother had been crippled on the left side from polio when she was younger, and became a source of embarrassment to Ruth because she could not speak English and was visibly handicapped. Ruth was her mother's "eyes and ears" in America.
After graduating from high school, Ruth moved to New York City and began working in her aunt's leather-goods factory. She returned to Suffolk when she learned that her mother was sick, but in the end refused to stay. Upon resuming her life in New York she fell in love, and in 1942 she married a black man named Andrew McBride. By the time Ruth learned that her mother had died, she had been disowned, considered to be "dead" by her Jewish family.
She converted to Christianity to deal with her feelings of grief and guilt, and ultimately found a new life in the religion. She and her husband raised eight children after moving from Harlem to Brooklyn's Red Hook Housing Projects, where they founded the New Brown Memorial Baptist Church. Her husband became the church's first reverend, and Ruth refers to him as a man of "vision".
James was born after his father died at the age of 45 of lung cancer, and he recalls the "orchestrated chaos" of his childhood. Ruth remarried a man named Hunter Jordan, who became like a father to James, and gave Ruth four more children. The importance of school and the church was instilled in each of the children, and they were strongly disciplined and well-loved. Ruth insisted that they go to Jewish public schools and perform well, as they were the "token" black students in the classrooms. As each of the children grew older, Ruth insisted that they go away for school so that they could learn to survive and flourish.
When Hunter Jordan died James was 14, and he began rebelling against his mother, drinking and doing drugs. Soon, his grades began to plummet. When Ruth moved the family to Wilmington, Delaware, however, James started afresh and eventually won a scholarship to Oberlin College to study music. Afterwards, he pursued a journalism degree at Columbia and initiated a career in both jazz composition and performance and writing. At the root of his decision to write The Color of Water was his continued confusion about his mother's identity.
In pursuing her past, visiting Suffolk, and interviewing his mother, he offers the reader a stunning window into the life of a woman and a family that suffered and triumphed, transcending divisions of race and religion in favor of love, family, friendship, and community - powers that bridge the basic human desire to understand how another has come to be the way that they are.
Almost every scene in The Color of Water takes place against a backdrop of anti-Black racism in America. Much of the book occurs during the Jim Crow era and the Civil Rights Movement, a time where black Americans were regarded as second-class citizens and policed through a series of racist laws and restrictive social norms. This affects the opportunities, self-esteem, and even human rights of the central black characters, but also affects characters like Ruth, who is white but lives in close proximity to blackness, and as a result must deal with bigotry from those who do not understand why a white woman would marry a black man and raise a mixed-race family. The text critiques racist attitudes, but also explores the internalized racism of some of its black characters, and the ways in which black and white people can overcome strict racial boundaries through love and friendship.
Another theme recurring in the novel is family. Family is usually a source of love and comfort, but it can also be a source of great pain. In The Color of Water, family means not just one’s biological relations, but also a large web of friends and loved ones. Ruth’s immediate family is made up of her siblings, her mother and father, and a network of aunts and uncles. Although they offer her the most basic life necessities—food, water, a place to sleep—Ruth does not feel loved or cared for by many of her blood relations. In contrast, Ruth values her assembled families, which are made up of friends, members of her church, and her husbands and their relatives who give her the love she lacked as a child. The book suggests that family at its core is about compromise and sacrifice, and the willingness to give up some personal comfort to help another in need.
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