In The Color of Water James struggles with his sense of identity through childhood because he grew up in an environment void of identity; his mother runs from her own identity, so James cannot find his own. By alternating points of view between James and his mother each chapter, James McBride shows that discovering the identity of his mother was just as important as discovering his own identity; without finding his mother he could not have found himself. Ruth, James’s mother, and James had very different childhoods full of many different struggles and conflicts.
Having them laid out in alternating chapters gives the feel that they are side-by-side, allowing the reader to compare and contrast the upbringing of the two. It is through this process that the idea of looking up towards your parents is shown for both people. In the very first chapter Ruth speaks very briefly, but almost exclusively about her parents: “My father’s name was Fishel Shilsky… under fire when he ran off from the army, and his ability to slick himself out of anything that wasn’t good for him stayed with him for as long as I knew him. ” (McBride 2).
This in-depth information continued as Ruth spoke dearly about her two parents: who they were, what they were like, and their past. While Ruth seems close, or at least knowledgeable of both parents, as James begins his chapter he speaks closely and endearingly only about his stepfather: “He was a quiet, soft-spoken man…took no guff and gave none. ” (McBride 6) Yet he shows resentment for his mother: “she was still slender and pretty… with a bowlegged walk you could see a mile off. ” (McBride 7). The juxtaposition between the two people’s rants forces a comparison.
Both Ruth and James show that a large part of their lives is who their parents were. This is shown by the majority of each character’s first words being a description of their parents rather than themselves. But in comparing the two you find that the connection between James and his mother might not be so strong. Ruth describes both of her parents in detail both emotionally and physically, but James only does regarding his stepfather, only describing physical traits of his mother. Not describing even a hint of
his mother’s feelings or who she was as a person shows that at this point in time James didn’t know who she really was and only understood surface level details about her. Without the juxtaposition this foreshadowing and motive for identity struggles within James would have gone unnoticed or misunderstood. It would have been much harder to notice the similarities and differences in their childhoods. It is the major plot of the story that James does not know who he is and is searching for a sense of identity, but before any of that conflict or quest was introduced it was shown that Ruth has a similar dilemma.
The small portion of Ruth’s first chapter spent talking about herself is choppy, confusing to follow, and constantly changing. She cannot even get her own name out without confusion: “I do remember my Jewish name: Ruchel Dwajra Zylska… came to America and changed it to Rachel Deborah Shilsky…I got rid of that name… Rachel Shilsky is dead as far as I’m concerned. ” (McBride 2). This is the first time Ruth is speaking in the novel and so many corrections or old parts of her are shown that it is confusing to tell who she really is. She never actually offers her real name at all the first time she introduced.
Leaving the reader still questioning, James McBride is able to instill the feeling that his mother was feeling at the time; by having rapidly shifting, mostly nonsense characterization and lack of pertinent information he shows that Ruth is lost within herself and is having identity issues just like James. She does not know who she is, so she is not sure which name or identity to present herself as. The only reason that Ruth’s identity crisis affects James is due to the fact that every child relies on their parents for guidance of all kinds, including identity, but Ruth forces herself and her children not to talk about things of the sort.
Ruth’s upbringing on the threshold between white and black caused so much trouble that she has conditioned herself to be oblivious to any racial differences. The first man that loved her and she loved back was black, but being in a racially intolerant world she couldn’t marry him or even be with him. Unable to make peace with the world and keep her love she settled for peace of mind, by acting oblivious and running away from judgment. When James finally confronts her with his questions of identity, asking “Am I black or white?
She snaps at him, saying “it doesn’t matter what color you are. This is the culmination of Ruth’s childhood and early adulthood philosophy; she refuses to acknowledge race to somehow have it not affect her children. The confusing thing about this mother-son identity dynamic is that Ruth’s long term identity search turned her into a mother wanting no identity for her and her children. She preaches selective values like “never ask questions or your mind will end up like a rock,” and “remember school. Forget everything else. ” (McBride 13, 86).
By repeating the phrases about school, church, and not asking questions James McBride shows just how absolute Ruth was about keeping her children busy and focused. This, paired with a knowledge of Ruth’s childhood racial struggles, shows how Ruth was trying to keep her children so focused on religion and school they felt no need to question anything else. Ruth wanted her children to grow up with the mindset that their race determines who they are or what they should do; she wants James’s life too be free from the difficult decisions and sacrifices she had to make just because she was white or others were black.