Color of Water – James McBride

James McBride was born to an African-American father and Polish Jew mother. When his father died even before his birth, his mother remarried Hunter Jordan whom James McBride considered his “Daddy”. The atmosphere in the family home was chaotic but very stimulating. Some of the older children were under the influence of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. This brought them into conflict with Ruth who as a firm mother represented white control. Ruth was determined to send her children to the best schools so that they would have chances she did not have as a child.

Relevance of the Title

The one strength that Ruth valued more than anything was her faith in God. As a child, James often asked his mother whether God was black or white. The answer his mother always gave was that God had no color; he was like water. She said “God is the color of water”. The author used these words in the title.

Main Themes

Past and Present

Ever present in the story is the conflict between the past and the present. Both James and his mother Ruth know that the past is important to understand the present and the future, there is a lot they want to forget or at least not acknowledge as it is too disturbing. For Ruth there is the immigrant cultural heritage, Judaism, paternal sexual abuse, association with colored people and Christianity – all these are important influences that have shaped her outlook. For James, it is growing up in 60s and 70s, being part of a large family, schooling and having a white mother. They both do not want to be limited by their past; welcoming the future is the way for both Ruth and James.

Racial and Religious Prejudices

Ruth and James encounter racial and religious prejudices all their lives. Ruth came from Europe as a Polish Jewish immigrant in 1923 when she was just two years old. Though Jews were being persecuted all over Europe, she still faced discrimination in US. Her father ran general store in a colored majority area. They lived there as they could not afford the white neighborhoods. He overcharged his black customers and make racially abusive comments. Ruth married an African American preacher and added another layer of prejudices that she had to encounter. James too found exclusion as the child of white-black parents. At home too, the influences of the period were felt which manifested itself as challenging the mother’s authority simply because she was white.

Characters

Ruth McBride

The book Color of Water is essentially the story of Ruth McBride who had to overcome several social prejudices in order to follow her heart. When she was a young girl, she suffered sexual abuse from her father who though he was a rabbi, was a pervert. He abused and overcharged the local blacks. Ruth understood that unless she escaped from home, she would never be able to come into her own. When she was just seventeen, she moved to New York where she met and married Andrew McBride, an African American preacher. Ruth converted to Christianity and helped her husband establish a church. She had eight children by McBride. When she was pregnant with her eighth child, he dies of cancer. Ruth went through a difficult time providing for her children. Even more difficult was ignoring taunts and criticism from white and black communities. Her staunch belief in Christianity helped her immensely. She then married another colored man who proved to be a great father to all her children. She ensured that all her children received the best education. So they went to the best schools which were Jewish schools.

James McBride

James was the last son born to Ruth from her husband Andrew McBride. In some way, this made him special. For a long time, James was confused by his mother’s white skin. In the whole family, she was the only with white skin. It took some time to understand how his mother was different. For sometime after his step-father’s demise, James fell into substance abuse. But when he understood his mother’s individuality and resolve, he decided to change and find purpose in life. He made writing and music his main work.

Summary

Color of Water was written by James McBride as a tribute to his mother; it also works as his autobiography. Ruth had a difficult childhood. She came to America as a two year old accompanied by her father who was a rabbi, her mother and siblings. Her father was a pervert who abused his daughters. Finding the atmosphere at home unbearable, she left home when barely seventeen. Her family broke off all ties when she decided to marry an African American priest. She converted to Christianity and established a church along with her husband. They had eight children with James being born a few months after her husband’s untimely death. Finding it difficult to singlehandedly raise eight children, she approached her estranged family for help. But they did not respond favorably.  Sometime later, she married her second husband, Hunter Jordan who proved to be an excellent father to all twelve children.

Ruth’s life was one of battling prejudices. While living in New York the sight of the white woman with twelve colored children in tow attracted rude comments and sniggers. But that did not faze her. She instilled in the children the desire to excel in whatever they did. The adolescent children came under the sway of the Black Power movement. Accepting the authority of the white skinned mother contributed to conflict in the household. But later, especially to James, his mother became a figure of inspiration. At a time when students were dropping out of universities, all twelve of them went on to do well in their chosen fields.  Though many of his siblings pursued science as a discipline, James chose journalism and music. Like his mother, James also turned to God with increasing passion in adulthood.  Ruth remained close to her children and grandchildren. For all who came in touch with, she was a figure to emulate.

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