The Color of Water

Main Ideas

Key Facts

Main Ideas Key Facts

full title The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother

author  James McBride

type of work  Memoir

genre  Coming-of-age memoir, race relations

language  English

time and place written  United States, 1990s

date of first publication  1996

publisher  Riverhead Books

narrator  James McBride

point of view  The author alternates between his own first person voice and his mother's own words.

tone  Straightforward narrative tone

tense  For the most part, the book takes place in the past tense, as it recounts the past lives of James and Ruth. McBride uses the present tense when he talks about his current life, activities, and beliefs.

setting (time)  James McBride tells the story of Ruth's life, which begins in the 1920s. He places emphasis on the 1930s, 40s and 50s. James's memoirs covers the 1960s through the 1990s.

setting (place)  Suffolk, Virginia; New York City; Louisville, Kentucky; Oberlin, Ohio; Wilmington, Delaware

protagonist  Ruth and James

major conflict  James's struggle to come to terms with his racial identity and background

rising action  Ruth's separation from her parents. Ruth's marriage to Dennis. James's confrontation with race relations in society in the 1960s.

climax  A series of small climaxes in which Ruth and her son James confront issues of racial identity and difference

falling action  Ruth's conversion to Christianity; James's search for racial identity

themes  Past versus present; exclusion as a result of racial or religious difference; self-motivation and self-reliance; the burden of secrets

motifs  Mother and son: interwoven voices; alienation versus solidarity; journalistic tone versus the emotion of experience

symbols  Ruth's bicycle; Mameh's Love of Birds; Black Power

foreshadowing  Ruth's relationship with her boyfriend Peter foreshadowed her later kinship with black people, and her marriages to black men. James's early love of music and writing foreshadowed his later adoption of those two enthusiasms in a professional context.