The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother Short Summary

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In this research essay and thesis, I am going to analyze the book, The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother written by James McBride. First I will give a brief synopsis of the contents of the book with epigrammatic annotations on its theme and areas of focus. Next, this introductory summary will be followed by a small discussion about the biography of the author James McBride. I will conclude the thesis paper with the mention of the thesis title (written above) by arbitrating how my research findings and analysis support/prove the motive of this thesis.

The Book

This book is the autobiography of James McBride and also, in a sense, a memoir of his mother. It is another quintessence of the African-American & Polish (These links are dealt with greater detail in the body of the thesis) contribution to the literature of America. The book’s central theme is to chronicle the events of the life of James McBride with through the lens of his mother’s vision hovering over the race intimidations and a quest for identity. [Here it is not the lack of the identity but the impasse of having wedged between two identities – one from his black father, and the other from his white mother]. What makes the book so affectionate, notwithstanding the seriousness of the subject matter/theme, is the humor and poignancy maintained by the author throughout the book. I will analyze the focal points of the book in the body of this thesis.

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The Author

He was born to late Rev. Andrew D. McBride (an African-American) and Rachel Shilsky (a Jewish lady from Poland) on 11th September 1957. His mother (who died on 9th January 2010) later converted into Christianity and changed to Ruth McBride. James was one of the twelve children that Ruth McBride reared in Brooklyn’s Red Hook section. James received a degree in music composition from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio.

After his graduation, he pursued a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University. He has written for a number of well-known publications of the US such as Boston Globe, People Magazine, Essence, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. Presently James is an eminent Writer-In-Residence at New York University. He lives in South Nyack, New York, with his wife and two daughters.

Thesis Analysis

McBride’s efforts of unraveling the inexplicable past of his mother Ruth and thereby to understand himself better form the central theme of this autobiographical memoir. Hence, it is indeed a matter of great curiosity and wonder to know the stimulating reasons or causes which might have inspired James McBride to conduct such an exhaustive exploration of his mother’s past. The driving force behind such an inquest was McBride’s ‘disturbed’ life, and uncontrollable angst.

In order to understand this focal point completely, we must first get ourselves acquainted with the background of Ruth and her family, because it is precisely there, where the roots of McBride’s ‘unsettled angst’ are. Along with this, the question of cultural identity plays a vital role in propelling McBride to fully understand his mother’s history. Through this journey he discovers the concealed facts of his mother, and in the process rediscovers himself. What was awaiting him at the end of the journey is pertinently summed up at the very beginning of the book. McBride dedicates the book thus: “I wrote this book for my mother and her mother, and mothers everywhere”. (James McBride; “The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother”. Riverhead Books, New York).

Ruth was born in a poor family in Poland in 1921. When her father brought the family to US, Ruth was two years old. Her father tried his luck to make a career as a rabbi, but in vain. Eventually the family settled in Suffolk, Virginia where they opened a general store. With the general store began Ruth’s miseries as she undergoes a very depressed childhood phase due to poverty and some traumatic experiences. Ruth’s mother Mameh was meek, soft and hence ‘good’ whereas her father Tateh was abysmal and abusive. He sexually abused Ruth in her childhood and made her sit in the store for long hours.

During this period she suffered the tumultuous oppressions of south and harsh environment in the family. Not able to hold up the strains anymore, Ruth decided to flee her home. (Her brother Sam had already fled the home). She had a boyfriend Peter in Suffolk who was a black and Ruth was pregnant by him. She did not want to abort and this also acts as a reason for her to leave home.

Finally Ruth arrived in Harlem and started working in a leather factory where she met Andrew Dennis McBride (A black from North Carolina) whom she married. Her decision to marry a black instead of a Jew irked her family and she had to face the wrath of her father. As a result she decided to cut off all relations with her family and stayed away from them. This segregation caused her immense impair (As she could not keep the promise of meeting her sister Dee-Dee) and Ruth remembered this separation with great lamentation throughout her memoir in the book.

In Harlem in the memory of Reverend Brown, Dennis and Ruth opened the New Brown Memorial Church. She would call this as her happiest period of life. With Dennis, Ruth had eight children – James being the eighth child. Before the birth of James, Dennis passed away due to cancer and his demise had left a huge void in Ruth’s life and she mourned for him very deeply. After this she married another black person by the name Hunter Jordan and had four children from him.

Noteworthy point here is that despite the suppressions and ire of relatives, and family Ruth marries black persons twice in her life. What makes this even more staggering is that by nature she is a meek and orthodox woman, but still exhibits extraordinary grit to swim against the stream and go in the direction of her desires.

Now, we must imagine the chaos in a family with twelve children and the effect of it on James. Despite all oddities, Ruth managed to send all her children to ‘standard’ schools and colleges, especially to Jewish colleges and by doing so she ensured that her children got the best possible education.

A matter of conflict that we have to observe here is that James is growing impatient about his dual identity. Not able to withstand the flux of his identity complexities, he takes to drugs and crime. This is a purely psychological condition where the inner rebellion face shows up whenever the outward face finds it difficult to get a precise identity of its own from the conscience of its will. He runs away from the home reminding us (and more correctly his mother) about the similar happenings at the beginning.

In a way, James tries to stay away from his mother and cut-off all relations with her. But pretty sooner than later, James realizes that such spendthrift behavior could land him into serious consequences and he begins to reconcile and reorganize his life. He develops faith in God and excels in education and develops an insight about the problems that he has been so sternly thinking about. When he realizes that he can’t understand ‘himself’ until and unless he understands his ‘mother’.

Put simply, James eventually becomes wary of the criticality of knowing the ‘Past’ [Of his mother] in order to know the ‘Present’ [Of him] and ultimately transit smoothly into the ‘Future’. The exploration of the past, for the knowledge of present and for an inquest into the future is what constitutes the gist of this journey of James and of course of the book itself.

From the standpoint of research, such matters of conflict which are profuse throughout the book are very important as they provide us with ample evidences to prove the argument of this thesis. Let me directly move into the book and prove how these matters of conflict and their consequent implications influence the development of this book.

The Death & Rebirth

The book opens with James mother Ruth’s description about her background. Here she describes her mother. Just like herself, Ruth’s mother was also meek and orthodox. But one predominant difference between Ruth and her mother is that while Ruth’s mother chose to remain silent on whatever restraints were exerted upon her, Ruth decides to combat such fetters and silently defies everyone who opposes her decisions.

This, Ruth describes as her ‘Death’ and ‘Rebirth’. She says: “You know death was always around Suffolk, always around. It was always so hot, and everyone was so polite, and everything was all surface but underneath it was like a bomb waiting to go off”. (James McBride; “The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother”. Chapter 1, Riverhead Books, New York). It follows from this quote that Ruth had precisely understood the maladies of the society she was living in and had made it clear (to James) that the ‘urbane polite’ behavior of South has a rather indecorous thoughts and beliefs.

In these chapters Ruth is pictured as an austere guardian of her children. Apart from getting transformed into an altogether different identity, another matter of conflict here is that despite her alienation from Jewish orthodox principles and life, she sends all twelve of her children to Jewish schools and colleges only.

This stands out as the most significant divergence in the starting chapters of the book from the point of view of two interpretations: One, her desire to make her children educated (so that they can lead a contented life later on), and two, her ability to recognize the good inside a seemingly bad or repressive system. She admits the good education of Jewish education just as eloquently as she rejects its moral hypocrisies and tyrannical norms. Therefore it is not very difficult to ascertain that she placed the future of her children paramount to anything. James is spot on to note this and admits as he describes her picture with respect and holds her in high esteem.

In the chapter Shul (Chapter 9), Ruth describes all these conflicts in her life about the Judaism and her thoughts as opposed to it and how her family sat shiva to mourn her demise as they detached relations with her. Let me now analyze how James and his siblings might have felt about Judaism. This conflict is another significant theme of the book. It is already discussed that how James tried to detach himself from his mother. Now we must delve into the conceptions of James about what Ruth’s thoughts and beliefs.

James gives a detailed depiction of this ‘Jewish Conflict’ between him and his mother. As a matter of fact James (and his siblings) is not completely aware of his mother’s Jewish past or they just have a hazy inkling of it. However, the strictness with which she dealt with their education and sending them to always Jewish schools, gives James some understanding about his mothers’ Jewish roots. Though her intention of making her children well-educated is noble, it poses a big problem to James and his siblings as often they are the only black kids studying among the whites in a Jewish education system.

And this subjects them to some racial intimidation and prejudice of the white system. James remembers his mother’s reply when he asked her, if he was black or white when she says: “You’re a human being…Educate yourself or you’ll be a nobody…If you’re a nobody… it doesn’t matter what color you are.” (James McBride; “The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother”. Riverhead Books, New York).

It is here that James develops an interest towards music when he embraces it as a means to escape from the pains of his conflicts. Later it becomes his passion and profession – James goes on to write lyrics and compose music. As he narrates in chapter 18 of the book, when his family arrives in Delaware, James becomes increasingly involved with the Jazz music. He even tours Europe on Jazz concert.

The Mega Conflict

Let me now scrutinize the developments happening at the near end of the book. Here James is continuing his exploration of his mother’s Jewish roots. He is in Suffolk. He succeeds in tracing the synagogue that his mother’s family had attended. In fact growing out of frustration he says: “It had gotten to the point where I didn’t see why she made such a secret of it.” In Suffolk he meets a number people who provide him the details of unknown truths of his mother’s life and enable him to join the missing links of his mother’s life.

When he joins these all missing details, he gets a complete picture of his mother which destroys all his conflicts, dilemmas and the confusions of his identity. He realizes that by completing the hazy picture of his mother, he has successfully created his own complete picture – a picture that shuns all perplexities of his origin or identity and makes him feel gratified to his mother.

Then, it would be quite easy for us to put a period and say we have reached conclusion, but there remain the biggest conflict of James (and of course of the book) still unexplored. That mega conflict will provide the final stage for the completion of proving my thesis statement.

But before that let us consider another chapter from the book which is just as important to this argument as the focal point of this argument. It is the last night of James in Suffolk. He gets up in the dead of the night as if waking up after a nightmare and takes a nomadic walk down to the Nansemond River. The abyss of dark, both internal as well as external, is growing larger and larger and James finds himself fading away into that dark. He is burdened by the unfortunate past. And this wretchedness enables him to accept humanity and finally accept ‘life’. It is in this acceptance that he finds ultimate solace of his life. And, it is here that the biggest conflict, which I am arguing for, lies.

He who had once become a drug abuser and criminal offender because of his dual identity clash and ‘unsettled anger’ is now in a state of mental gratitude and content with the life, prompts me to pose the question: What made James transit through such a complex metamorphosis with a sage a like attitude?

Answer is straightforward. We human beings are complex entities basically. The human psychology is like the black body of physics. Scientifically a black body is the ‘perfect absorber’ and the ‘best emitter’. Likewise, James absorbed everything that was there for him in his life, and went through all the hardships and eventually emitted back those ‘toxin thoughts’ and emerged as clear as light. A state of transparency where one can see one’s own image through one’s own eyes – fully exposed. He saw his mother completely and inside her saw his complete image.

That he saw his complete picture embedded into his mother’s, personifies and glorifies the eternal truth about the relationship between a mother and her kid: From womb to tomb! This is the greatest conflict that James, according to me, succeeds to win over which eventually makes him the kind of man that we all now know. In the closing pages of the book James says: “I felt like a Tinkertoy kid building my own self out of one of those toy building sets; for as she laid her life before me, I reassembled the tableau of her words like a picture puzzle, and as I did, so my own life was rebuilt.” (James McBride; “The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother”. Riverhead Books, New York).

Writing style and organization of the book

James tells the story of his mother and interweaves his story with it. He utilizes his journalistic traits such as interviewing his mother, having phone conversations, taking a trip down to the place of action, and speaking to the natives of the location/village in order to gather the evidences. So meticulous is the organization of the book that all the developments are arbitrarily narrated rather than arranging them in a chronological order.

This renders the book a special liveliness which entails and entices the readers. And it is this involvement that makes one feel the theme of the story, and get associated with the characters in a candid manner. This candid feel apart, it is the touch of humor that adds more color to this book. He says about the success of the book: “If I had known so many people were going to read that book, I would’ve written a better book.” Such was his humorous approach.

Relevance of the book in contemporary intellectual world

The book is relevant to the present day scenario of intellectual world in a number of ways. Generally we are living in a world which is not yet completely perfect in its evolution for there still exist hunger, poverty and racial intimidations. As the book focuses on dealing with such delicate issues as racism and the quest of identity, it is no wonder if many authors have regarded it as one of the most influential works in contemporary literary world. Kirkus gives a fitting comment on this: “McBride has fashioned a myth of retribution ad sacrifice that recalls both William Faulkner’s sagas of blighted generations and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Explosively dramatic.” (“Explosively Dramatic…” Kirkus Review of books, Oct.2007).


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