Newspaper columnist Doug Larson once said, “Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you’d have preferred to talk.” James McBride strongly emphasizes this point in his memoir, The Color of Water. After going through life with an undetermined identity, McBride tried to clear up his confusion by examining his past. When that didn’t work, he simply resorted to interviewing his mother, essentially uncovering aspects of his mother’s life that he would have never known. The feedback he received was so moving that he published the lessons he learned in order to share with others who were experiencing similar difficulties. The Color of Water is not a book about race or religion; rather it focuses on the bittersweet road to self-discovery. The characters Ruth and James discover their identities through coping with death, dealing with relationships, and experiencing situations where they are forced to become independent.
James finds a good way to respond to tough situations in the way most suitable to his needs through watching how his mother copes with the death of his stepfather and later dealing with it in a different way. Immediately after James’ stepfather died, Ruth refuses to drive his old car. McBride describes the symbolism of her riding the bike around town. He said, “The image of that bicycle typified her whole existence to me. Her oddness, her complete lack of awareness of what the world thought of her, nonchalance in the face of what I perceived to be imminent danger from blacks and whites who disliked her for being a white person in a black world. She ignored it all… I couldn’t handle it.” (McBride 8). By not acknowledging her hardships, Ruth gets used to riding that bicycle instead of confronting her emotions. James learns that this was not a good way to deal with the death. From there, he tries escaping the problem by using drugs, but learns that he could never run far enough. These realizations cause him to turn to a different solution: staying strong and thinking of others in order to get through problems. His father gave him advice right before he died. James said, “… He was too weak to drive, so he sat there behind the wheel of the car, staring at the garage wall, and he began to talk. He said that since I was the oldest living at home, I had to watch out for Mommy and my little brothers and sisters because ‘ya’ll are special’ he said. ‘And just so special to me.’ It was the only time I ever heard him refer to race in any way, however vaguely, but it didn’t matter, because right then and there I knew he was going to die and I had to blink back my tears,” (127-128). James realizes that he has a responsibility and acknowledges the death in order to stay strong for the other children. He discovers his capacity to deal with difficult situations.
Ruth’s relationship with Frances helps her to discover that she has the willpower within her to overcome the racial prejudices of many of the people Ruth interacted with. Frances provides her with comfort that she was soon able to build independently. Ruth shares that, “[She’ll] never forget Frances as long as [she] live […] that’s how she was. [Frances would] do little things to let you know she was on your side. It didn’t bother [Frances] one bit that [she] was Jewish, and if [Frances] was around, no one in school would tease [Ruth],” (80-82). Frances gives her the guidance to originally overcome the teasing. She gives Ruth an example and enables her to see that she can eventually develop her own courage.
The strength that Ruth shows in dealing with her pregnancy on her own helps her to develop a greater sense of independence, essentially teaching her what her true limits are in terms of what she can handle on her own. Once Ruth finds out that she is pregnant, she is very worried. Ruth said, “I was pregnant and couldn’t tell a soul. The white folks would have killed him and my father would have killed him. I had maybe just turned fifteen then… This was 1936. I mean, what I did was way, way out as far as white folks were concerned. It was trouble,” (112-113). The fact of the matter is that Ruth hads no choice but to be strong. This naturally teaches her how to manage her anxiety and that it is possible for her to handle extremely tough situations.
Though the two most common themes brought up in the study of The Color of Water are race and religion, the most intricate theme presented is self -discovery. By going through the difficulty of wringing information out of his mother, McBride is able to reflect on how his roots have shaped him into the person he has become. Leslie Grossman, an accomplished Hollywood actress, noted, “When you’re feeling your worst, that’s when you get to know yourself the best.” Much of what McBride learns is not pleasant, but in order to develop internally, he needs to be aware of the positive and negative aspects of his past. Though it may be difficult for him to learn about his mother’s challenges, the interview benefits him in a greater way because he is able to gain the knowledge necessary to undergo self- discovery. McBride is better off knowing the truth of his past, rather than continuing to live the rest of his life innocent but confused. By writing the memoir, he illustrates that the pain experienced on the journey to determine his identity is certainly worth it. He wouldn’t have had it any other way.
McBride, James. The Color of Water. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996.