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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
After her second husband died, Ruth began the habit of riding her bicycle through the all-black neighborhood in which James and his family lived. To James, this bicycle symbolized her quirkiness and his consequent embarrassment. James had always sensed his mother was "different." During his childhood, James sought logic for his mother's eccentricities. As he grew older, James gained an intimate knowledge of his mother and began to understand her as a fellow adult rather than as a son. The author comes to view the bicycle as symbolic of his mother's difference. She rides it oblivious to others' opinions. The bicycle also comes to represent Ruth's desire to embrace movement as both a means of negotiating reality and an escape from reality. In James's chaotic household, a flurry of activity and movement was the standard state of affairs. His mother kept her twelve children constantly active so that they would learn how to be productive members of society, and so that they would not dwell on the difficulties of being biracial in America.
Ruth recalls that when her family killed chickens on Yom Kippur, her mother reassured her that since the chicken was not "a bird who flies," it was acceptable to kill it. Mameh loved birds and used to feed them and sing to them, then shoo them away, singing in Yiddish, "birdie, birdie, fly away." Ruth vividly captures the image of her crippled mother, left immobile after a bout with polio, singing to winged birds. Mameh's warning never to catch "a bird who flies" seems connected to Ruth's wanderlust. Ruth became a bird that flew. Ruth saw her mother as a symbol of immobility and hopelessness.
Black Power was the name of one of the racecars that the older boys rode when James was a teenager. Sleek, fast, and appealing, Black Power attracted everyone on the street. The general concept of black power during the 1960s represented something very frightening to James, who was still a child at the time. He felt that black power would be his mother's downfall, and that she was in constant danger from its proponents.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Color of Water!