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.