James McBride’s memoir The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother not only tells the story of his own life but also tells the story of his mother’s life. The book looks at the author’s life experiences as a person of mixed race, his struggle with his own identity, and the discrimination that his mother, Ruth, endured from individuals due to her religion, as well as the injustices she faced from her own father due to her relationship with men of a different race and religion.
While the notion of discrimination based on race, religion, or ethnicity may seem simplistic, this memoir recounts the plethora of instances where mother and son were faced with great injustices. The title notes that the book is a “Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother” and that it is. While James McBride looks back on his own life, the book is clearly centered around the life of his mother and the impact that she has left on his own. At times, the book can be confusing as it jumps from time period to time period and from James’ point of view to Ruth’s.
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While reading The Color of Water I was consistently looking at the situations in life of James and Ruth from a social justice perspective. However, before I discuss the complex issue of social justice and its relationship to the injustices of the book, I must first define what social justice is. Social justice essentially refers to the concept in which all individuals of a society are treated fairly and receive a proportionate amount of the benefits of society. To be precise, BusinessDictionary. om, cites social justices as “fair and proper administration of laws conforming to the natural law that all persons, irrespective of ethnic origin, gender, possessions, race, religion, etc. , are to be treated equally and without prejudice. ” As I will outline, there are countless instances in James McBride’s memoir in which the concept social justice was certainly not practiced. Looking at this memoir though the lens of social justice proved to be quite rewarding.
The first chapter of the book is titled “Dead”, in reference to the disownment of Ruth by her own family. Not only did they disown her but they considered to her be dead in their eyes. The reason for this pseudo death was Ruth’s marriage to James’ biological father, a black man named Andrew Dennis McBride. It’s important to understand that Ruth came from a strict Jewish family; the main perpetrator of the discrimination against Ruth is her rabbi father, who is referred to as “Tateh” meaning father in Yiddish.
In Contrast to her family’s staunch racist views, which were a reflection of societal views of the early to mid-twentieth century, the memoir shows Ruth as a woman ahead of her time who marginalized race and treated people equally, practicing social justice. This is demonstrated throughout the book, especially in chapter two when James asks Ruth “How come you don’t look like me? ” and she simply responded by saying that she did look like him because she was his mother and drifted away from the topic by saying that he should focus on school.
Furthermore, evidence of Ruth’s reluctance to look at people based on race is exemplified in chapter six when James asks her “what color is God’s spirit”, to which she replied “It doesn’t have a color, God is the color of water. ” James’ confusion about his own identity is clear, especially in chapter four titled Black Power. James struggles with a desire to have unity with blacks at the height of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the love that he has for his white mother. Another injustice exposed in the book is the arranged marriage of Ruth’s parents. Ruth states that their marriage had nothing to do with love.
Ruth’s father basically exploited her mother due to her family’s relative wealth and the fact that she was his “ticket” to America to escape another injustice that he and other Jews in Poland were facing from Russian soldiers. However, the anti-Semitic injustices that Ruth’s family experienced in Poland did not end when they came to America, outlined in chapter five, especially when the family moved to Suffolk, Virginia after her father learned of the opportunity of an open synagogue there. Ruth describes that in Suffolk people loved anything new or different except for Jews.
In school she was taunted and called “Christ Killer” and “Jew Baby. ” She also noted the presence of the Ku Klux Klan in Suffolk on page 44 and the atrocities they perpetrated against blacks. Eventually, “Tateh” gave up on being a rabbi and opened at store in a predominately black section of Suffolk. At the store “Tateh” forced his children to work long hours. What is even more shocking is when Ruth describes in great detail the sexual molestation she endured from her own father, which caused her to develop of very low self-esteem and a hate for him.
The second half of the book continues with more injustices faced by James and his family. In chapter ten, James’ brother Richie is arrested for a drug crime, that he did not commit and was haggled by the policemen because he had $90 of college money in his pocket, another example of the rampant racial profiling of the time period. Ruth’s father’s narrow-mindedness is shown again as she recalls her high school graduation that he forbid her to attended because part of the ceremony was to take place in a Gentile church.
Ruth originally defied her father, but could not go through with it when she approached the threshold of the church. In the books final chapters, James talks about how he began looking into his mothers past; he went to Suffolk with the address of his mother’s old house and the name of her childhood friend. In Suffolk he spoke with this childhood friend and even entered the synagogue that his mother’s family attended. This shows me, that as he grew older James began to finally discover the heritage of his mother that when he had questioned her as a child about she ignored, shrugging it off as irrelevant.
In between James’ chapters about his visit to Suffolk, Ruth discusses the harassment that she and James’ father were subject to as an interracial couple in 1940s Harlem. It was during this time that Ruth converted to Christianity and eventually established a church with her late husband. The Epilogue seems symbolic to me, since it involves James’ coworker who is the son of a Holocaust survivor, the Holocaust being a cataclysmic injustice, invites James and Ruth to a Jewish wedding. Ruth agrees to attend and enters a synagogue for the first time since being a child.
It is here where it seems Ruth has embraced her own heritage, a heritage that her son had embraced soon before. It seems that by the end of the memoir everything has come full circle. Both Ruth and James, while still haunted with the injustices faced, have come to grips with their heritage, which has made them who they are. While, I personally can’t imagine the hardships that a multi-racial person faced not long ago in our country’s history, I can admire and appreciate the immense difficulty and struggle that a person has between two different groups of people that they love.
While things in terms of racial and religious discrimination are less out in the open as they were just decades ago and progress has been made, people still face the injustices of being treated differently simply because they don’t look like the predominant group in a society. James McBride’s memoir shows that regardless of race or religion we are all people and we all have the same feelings and desires in life and that while being of multi-racial background may have been seen as a detriment to him in the past, it appears to me that it has enriched his life and made him a very strong willed individual.
The Color of Water is about much more than one issue; rather it is a glimpse at the life of a son and his mother, the discrimination that they both faced from family and strangers alike, and a multi-racial man learning to come to grips with his identity as person of two ethnic backgrounds, which African Americans and Jews seem extremely different, they ironically both faced the same type of discrimination. While being of mixed race made life difficult, by the end of the memoir it became evident that James embraces both sides of his background because both have shaped the man he is today.