As a child, James struggled with questions about his mother's skin color and background, at times even entertaining the notion that he had been adopted. His mother met with his inquiries with indirect answers. James's early life coincided with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and he encountered the symbols and rhetoric of black power. This societal force left him conflicted over love for his mother and the desire to feel a solidarity with his peers and neighbors. His mother largely ignored these issues, emphasizing that school, church, and family were to take priority, and that one's private life should remain private. James comments on his mother's often contradictory opinions, which she formulated as a result of her Orthodox Jewish upbringing and her experiences as a white woman, and a convert to Christianity, living among black people. He describes his perpetual surprise at his mother's ease and comfort among black people. Her fearless persistence, inspired by her Christian faith, enabled her to transcend the negative remarks and incidents to which she was subjected as a result of her unusual choices in life. James recalls his concern that racial tensions posed a real and tangible threat to her safety. He remembers boarding a bus headed to a Fresh Air program. A Black Panther, whose child was also on the bus, was standing next to James's mother, waving goodbye. James sensed that the Black Panther would harm his mother, and he attempted, and failed, to call out to warn her. Feeling desperate and angry, he punched the Black Panther's son in the face.
Ruth describes her childhood as a poor Jewish immigrant in the United States. Her father's repeated attempts and failures to make a living as a rabbi meant her family had to relocate constantly. In 1924, Ruth's younger sister Gladys, nicknamed Dee-Dee, was born in Springfield, Massachusetts. An opportunity for her father to open a synagogue in Suffolk, Virginia, first brought the Shilskys to the South, where Ruth endured significant prejudice against Jews. When her father accepted that he had failed as a rabbi, Ruth's family opened a store in the mostly-black section of Suffolk. Shilsky's Grocery Store became the centerpiece of family life for Ruth. Her father forced Ruth and her siblings work ceaselessly in the store. Ruth also describes the secret sexual abuse her father inflicted upon her. This violation resulted not only in a loveless father-daughter relationship, but also in Ruth's overall low self- esteem. Despite the horror of the relationship with her father, she points out that she also has vivid positive memories of her childhood, particularly of the preparation for and celebration of Jewish holidays with her mother.
In Chapter 6, James describes his mother's embrace of Christianity and black parishes and the emphasis she placed on religion in raising her children. He tells the story of how his older brother, Billy, whose memory was one of his greatest assets, drew a blank when it came his turn to recite a Biblical passage on Easter Sunday. Ruth refused to take the incident lightly, beating her son for his forgetfulness. The source of this book's title appears in this chapter when James remembers asking his mother a question about race. He asked, "What color is God's spirit?" and Ruth replied, "It doesn't have a color . God is the color of water." James's siblings underwent similar periods of curiosity and doubt regarding race. For example, his brother Richie asked his Sunday school teacher why Jesus is always portrayed as a white man.
Throughout his childhood, James finds himself in a constant state of confusion and curiosity regarding his family's background. When he asks his siblings about his race or his background, they tease, lie, or dismiss him. When he asks his mother about herself, she avoids the question or answers curtly. James attempts to negotiate these conflicting loyalties. He feels protective toward his mother, but at the same time, he lives in a mostly black neighborhood where the political atmosphere moves him to embrace the revolution.
Ruth's description of her childhood in Suffolk enables both James and the reader to understand how she decided to live her own life. Living among black people and interacting with them every day at the family store, she witnessed their lives and their struggles. She saw her father treat them badly, just as her father treated her badly. Her minority status as a Jew meant Ruth suffered from exclusion, prejudice, and hardship, although she points out that black people suffered greater degradation than Jewish people. Ruth resisted her father's racist beliefs, just as she resisted many aspects of her father's personality and his treatment of his family.
James's divided racial consciousness is partly a product of the political climate of his youth. James's peers and the political movement they embraced held up whites as enemies. James found himself attempting to follow his natural love for his mother, and differentiate her from other white people. Two opposing sentiments resulted. James sensed that his peers and neighbors intended to harm his mother, and therefore he tried to protect her. However, when James's mother appeared before his friends, James often felt mortified. Adolescents often feel embarrassment as a result of a parent's behavior or eccentricity, but James experienced the unusual pressure of racial difference from his mother. He often publicly agreed with his friends' rants against whites, while secretly feeling ashamed and guilty because those rants denigrated all whites, including his mother. James's adolescence overlapped with a pivotal period in black history. Racial tension charged the entire political atmosphere of the nation. Widespread riots and demonstrations meant that James's fears for his mother were not unfounded.
Ruth's statement that "God is the color of water" succinctly captures Ruth's attitudes toward race and religion. Ruth believes that race occupies a secondary role to goodness and achievement. She believes that no matter one's race, hard work determines worth. She believes that God loves all races equally, and that goodness and devotion, not a certain race or class, make people worthy of God's grace. When Ruth says she thinks of God as "the color of water," she means that God is not black or white, he is not of one race or another, but of all races and none. While Ruth embraces both black and white people, she knows that prejudice is widespread and intense. God's spirit, on the other hand, welcomes people of all races, sexes, and backgrounds.