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Racism and Self-Identity: A Review of “The Color of Water” Essay

The American South, especially in from the 1930s to the 1960s, is a hard place to live for when you are a “colored person. ” This novel, written by James McBride, discovers the complexities of having a bi-racial activity, especially at a time when blacks and other minorities are hated and discriminated upon by the dominant white society.

This novel attempts to reflect at the domination of American society by the white man, and attempts to discover his own identity by looking at his mother’s past: the life of Ruth McBride, a Polish-Jewish immigrant in the South of the 1930s, beset by constant intimidation and violence of the white majority to other racial minorities, especially to Jewish immigrants and to the blacks, who were historically imported by white plantation owners to work as slaves in cotton plantations.

However, the journey of Ruth McBride does not end here; she actually continued her journey away from the American South, loving two blacks in the way, and describing the unique complexities of the Harlem district of New York City. The Christian faith also plays a colorful part in this novel, providing the needed comfort and guidance in times of adversity.

This background, combined with question about his racial self-identity, will soon lead him to have a violent behavior, including phases of drug use and crime. However, he will soon find value in his life, relying upon the principles of hard work and self improvement, plus additional skills in writing and jazz music. The novel starts with chapters introducing the mother of the author, Ruth McBride, and is already full of symbolisms and drama (McBride, n. pag. ).

The first chapter, entitled Dead, describes the Jewish origin of Ruth, and offers a glimpse of the discrimination that they are already experiencing; and she further becomes “dead” due to her marriage to Dennis McBride, whose race is officially viewed as inferior, and whose race is a victim of an officially-sponsored racial segregation (McBride, n. pag. ). Given that the background of the family of Ruth comes from a conservative one, guided by orthodox Jewish practices, choosing to marry a colored one surely brings in discrimination by society and rejection of the family.

In this case, it can be clearly seen that in America of the early twentieth century, your race can actually determine the way you live; being a colored can make you have a miserable life constantly under threat and looked down, even when you may live in the “land of the free. ” This theme continues in the second and third chapters, where the bicycle of Ruth became a medium where she can find constant movement away from the troubles of living a multi-racial family, all while her son James already looked into crime and drugs for escape (McBride, n. ag. ). Ruth also recalls the origins of her family, as symbolized by the Kosher, where Jews are already suffering from discrimination and intimidation in their native land, and where immigration and the practices of orthodox Judaism serves as a convenient escape from the racial discrimination that they are experiencing (McBride, n. pag. ). Such experiences vividly explore the hardships of belonging to a hated race, where escape is a necessary thing.

The point of view of James is also seen in this chapter; James recall that he sees her mother as different at such an early age, although he really cannot fully comprehend why in fact she is different from others. This is highlighted in the account when James already reaches kindergarten; he asks his mother why she is different from him, although her mother refuses to entertain the question (McBride, n. pag. ). Her bitter memories regarding her family influences her not to open the topic later in her life, soon to be understood by James.

In the third chapter, entitled Kosher, Ruth recalls the arranged marriage of her mother and her father, which was brought out of convenience, in which she does not make any sense of it at all (McBride, n. pag. ). In addition to this, she also recalls all of the strict practices of Orthodox Judaism, to which she sees it as very suffocating, making her have a very difficult life, combines with a very string fear of death (McBride, n. pag. ).

Such experiences will later affect her in raising a family, focusing on hard work to offset the difficulties of their racial origin (McBride, n. pag. ). In the later chapters, such as in Black Power, James began to realize the complexities of being a multi-racial person; torn between the desire of having solidarity with fellow black neighbors striving to fight for black power and concern for his white mother who is unwilling to commit with this movement, emphasizing the importance of privacy, the church, and the family (McBride, n. pag. ).

James even asked her mother if he was adopted, due to the fact that he has a different color with her mother. The civil rights movement at that time was very string, with the black community in their area actively supporting and campaigning for more black powers in society, to which her mother is very reluctant to accept (McBride, n. pag. ). Adding to such complexities is a commentary of James upon her mother’s belief, often contradictory because of her Orthodox origins, as well as she being a Christian convert living among a black community (McBride, n. ag. ). After this recall, however, James decides to show sympathy to his mother, ending up punching the face of a son of a member of the militant Black Panther Party, whom he deemed as a threat to his white mother. After all, this episode shows that joining a black power solidarity movement, especially for a multiracial is not always smooth; convictions for black power may conflict with personal beliefs and priorities, provoking hesitation despite common discriminatory experiences in a white-dominated society.

The book then shifts on how Ruth has found her guidance and inspiration amidst all these contradictions, tracing her Orthodox Jewish origins to her eventual conversion to Christianity (McBride, n. pag. ). Her early experiences are never easy. Contrary to the popular belief that having a new life in America will lead you to the prosperous “American Dream,” In the chapter entitled the “Old Testament,” the experiences of Ruth’s family were no American dream; on the contrary, they suffered under constant poverty (McBride, n. pag. ).

Her father tried to make a living by being a rabbi, forcing them to move constantly from place to place; until they decided to open a grocery store in the predominantly black town of Suffolk, Virginia. Ruth also had a recollection on her loveless daughter father relationship, especially because of the fact that her father was secretly abusing her sexually. However, she also points out that she still has a positive remembrance of her childhood, which includes her memories with her mother during Jewish holidays (McBride, n. pag. ). In the next chapter, entitled the “New Testament,” the conversion of Ruth to Christianity is portrayed.

This is emphasized in the way how Ruth raised her children, not taking lightly one instance where Billy refused to recite a biblical passage in Easter Sunday (McBride, n. pag. ). However, questions on race is also9 presented in this chapter, with James asking her mother what is the color of God’s spirit, and her mother replying that it has no color, that God is the color of water (McBride, n. pag. ). Such passages reflect how important color is as an issue at that time, for ones’ opportunities and possibilities in life ism not determined by abilities alone, but by color.

In addition to this, America at the time of James still sees a society wherein being a colored means being a lesser human being; where black power is being fought for, and being black while having a white mother makes you trapped in questions and confused. This is followed by a recollection in the home of her mother in Suffolk, Virginia, where the absence of opportunities for blacks and Jews alike has lead them to miserable poverty, in addition to the presence of the Klu Klux Klan which presents constant intimidation and violence for them (McBride, n. ag. ). This recollection is then intertwined with the experiences of James with respect to his siblings, highlighting the difficulties of raising a family that explores his/her racial identities (McBride, n. pag. ). The next chapters, especially School, Boys and Daddy explores the personal experiences of both James and Ruth on racial prejudice, with Ruth having to secretly meet with her loved one due to the threat of the Ku Klux Klan, and the fears of James in attending a predominantly white school.

However, this part of the novel also gives a positive insight; the tremendous work ethic of Ruth, and the exploration of jazz music by James as a new way of escape (McBride, n. pag. ). The next parts of the book explores the devastation of the family with the demise of the second husband of Ruth, especially in its effect to James, and an insight into everyday life in the Harlem district of New York.

James then began to seek the origin of his parents in Suffolk, Virginia, and witnesses the poverty and racial complexities in that area intertwined with the early experiences of his mother in love, especially in the chapters The Promise, Old Man Shilsky and A Bird who flies (McBride, n. pag. ). The problems of the interracial marriage Ruth and Dennis, as well as the discovery of the synagogue is highlighted in the chapters A Jew Discovered and Dennis; while the final chapter, Finding Ruthie, emphasizes the fact that being a multiracial is not only difficult, but full of uncertainties (McBride, n. pag. ).


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