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The Color of Water by James McBride Essay (Book Review)

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Updated: Jul 20th, 2020

This book is a story of James McBride and his experiences with the mother, Ruth McBride. James had a hard time while growing up as he was inquisitive on racial identity, yet his mother never wanted to share racial information with him. As a result, James asked his mother too many questions about her identity, but she gave insufficient answers.

This caused lots of confusion to James as he never got to realize his real racial identity. After he had grown, James decided to pay tribute to his mother by sharing her experiences together with his own experiences in a book. He wrote his personal encounters as a child with a mixed race, together with his mother’s persuasive narrative.

Ruth McBride, then known as Rachel Deborah, belonged to a Jewish family in Poland that later moved to America. Her father was a rabbi, and he travelled to different parts of the world, with his family, in search of employment. However, he later neglected his family when he could not find a job and forced them to find a home in Virginia at a small town called Suffolk.

At some point, he abused Ruth sexually and engaged in an affair with another woman, despite being a married man. As a result, Ruth thought that his father was an exceedingly cruel man. She considered him as uncaring, violent and disloyal to his wife, who had physical disabilities. She also thought of him as a hypocrite who was full of racism.

Ruth opted to join any religion that would totally draw her away from Judaism as she hated her father deeply. She deserted Judaism and became a truly powerful woman. She led her family against the norms to grand success. Most outstandingly and paradoxically, her son linked their achievements to her Jewish customs. Although Ruth escaped from the Jewish origin, she instilled Jewish norms in her children, which made them thrive in life.

Ruth lived when segregation was rampant in schools as the Jews together with blacks became discriminated. She experienced intolerance and mockery in school since other children were Protestants while she was a Jew. Besides, Ruth experienced discrimination in school due to the status of her family. Her mother was a cripple, and she could not speak English. She also suffered from visual impairment as well and this embarrassed Ruth.

Following high school graduation, Ruth transferred to New York City. She went back to Suffolk when her mother became sick, although, she refused to stay. After travelling back to New York, she found a lover and, after a while, she got married to Andrew McBride, a black man. It is at this point that she learnt that her Jewish family had disowned her.

Ruth later transformed to Christianity to cope with her grief and guilt sentiments. She began a new life with McBride despite many criticisms due to their interracial marriage. Together with her husband, they founded a Baptist Church, where Ruth’s husband became the first minister in the church. They had seven children, but when Ruth was pregnant with James, her husband died of terminal cancer.

Ruth mourned and sought help from family members and friends but in vain. Finally, she found another man called Hunter Jordan, and she remarried. Jordan acted as James’s father, and the couple got four other children. Ruth and Jordan instilled church and school significance to these children, and they grew up with discipline and love. The children were bright in academics and Ruth suggested that they should attend Jewish public schools. Later, she advised them to leave school so that they could learn to survive in the outside world.

James started drinking alcohol and became rebellious, towards his mother, to cope with grief and his confusion on racial identity. He was a teenager then, and his performance in school began to drop. He moved to in Louisville, where he worked before winning a scholarship to study music. Later, he took a degree in journalism and began a career in writing, jazz performance and composition.

One reason why James wrote “The Color of Water” was due to his persistent confusion about his mother’s identity. By tracing her past, living at Suffolk, and interrogating his mother, he gives the reader a spectacular skylight into the days of a woman and a family that endured and succeeded, outshining religious and racial segregation all for family, society, love and friendship. He demonstrates how he and his mother Ruth experienced prejudice in their lives.

Ruth experienced mockery and segregation as a Jew residing in the South and afterwards as a white female living in black environs. Similarly, James saw the cruel treatment and the unfair labeling of black people in his neighborhood and family. Eventually, both James and Ruth learnt not to discriminate others simply due to their race, or religion.

In conclusion, McBride writes sincere memories of his personal encounters as a child with a mixed race, together with his mother’s persuasive narrative. He shares his experiences of poverty, violence, drugs as well as his professional success and self-realization. McBride‘s book is relevant to readers of all races. It is a memorable meditation on identity and race and a dramatic representation of growing up in a community full of discrimination.

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