The Color of Water
Born in Poland in 1921, Ruth Jordan was a Jewish immigrant to the United States. Her family traveled around the country as her father tried to capitalize on his distinction as a rabbi. The family could not make a living this way, and eventually settled down in Suffolk, Virginia, and opened a general store. They lived above the store, which was located in the mostly black section of town.
Ruth's father, Tateh, was racist, and overcharged his black customers. Ruth resisted her father's prejudices and sympathized with the black people in her town. She recognized that the Ku Klux Klan, and the white population in general, fostered a tense, violence atmosphere. As a Jew, Ruth found herself excluded from the white world of the South, and felt she could partially identify with the hardships of her black neighbors.
Ruth's adult life differed greatly from her life with her family in Suffolk. She married a black man, Andrew Dennis McBride, and became Ruth McBride. She had eight children with Dennis, who died while Ruth was pregnant with her son James. The family lived in Harlem together for years. In Harlem, Ruth lost the privilege she had enjoyed in the South. She worked at draining, poorly paid jobs. She socialized exclusively with black people, and essentially lived the life of a black woman.
Ruth converted from Judaism to Christianity after her move to New York. She became increasingly involved with local churches, and eventually opened her own church with her husband. Ruth's parents had forced Judaism on her, causing her to resent religion. She embraced Christianity because she discovered it on her own. After her separation from her family, Ruth needed some source of relief from the guilt she felt, and she found that relief in Christianity's emphasis on the power of forgiveness.
James is Ruth's son, and the narrator of The Color of Water. He wrote this volume in order to discover himself. By delving into his mother's past, as well as his own past, he hoped to find a better understanding of his racial, religious, and social identity. This purpose guides the book's tone and content. James recounts the events of his life and inserts anecdotes and experiences that express his sense of being lost, of not knowing his past.
Questions about his own racial identity plagued James's childhood and early adolescence. James persistently expressed his curiosity to his mother, but saw race as secondarily important. When the racial changes of the 1960s swept through New York, James had difficulty reconciling the rise of black power with the fact that his mother was white. James was constantly embarrassed by his mother's whiteness, because it signified her difference from his peers and their parents. As James grew older, however, he began to accept his mother more easily, embracing her quirks and eccentricities rather than resenting them.
After his stepfather died, James fell into a phase of drug use and crime. As he matured, he began to understand the consequences of squandered time and intelligence. His friends in Louisville, Kentucky, warned him of the potential consequences of his behavior. He had always liked music and writing, and he began to invest himself more seriously in those activities. James began to mature not only out of concern for his own future, but also because he felt increased responsibility to his family because of his stepfather's death.
Andrew Dennis McBride
Although Dennis died while Ruth was pregnant with James, he is a palpable force in the lives of both James and Ruth. A strong, kind man from North Carolina, Dennis provided the stability and faith Ruth needed after a difficult early life with her parents and harsh beginnings in New York City. He was a violinist with an incredible passion about music, a passion that James's musical tendencies would later echo. He gently guided Ruth toward an acceptance of the Christian faith. Ruth describes Dennis glowingly, and we sense that theirs was a true love.