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The Color of Water Themes

by James McBride

Major Themes

Death and Rebirth

Ruth begins telling her story by insisting that she is "dead": her Orthodox Jewish family "sat shiva" and "said kaddish" after she married a black man, thereby effectively disowning her. Ruth, however, states that "the Jew" in her only died completely upon her mother's death. Soon afterwards, she was "born again" in the Christian faith. Her husband stood alongside her, and together they created a new family. Ruth tells her son that Rachel Deborah Shilsky "had to die in order for me, the rest of me, to live" (2). When Ruth's son James decides to explore his mother's history and origins, the original Rachel Deborah Shilsky figuratively comes back to life within the pages of memoir.

The Color of Water

When James asks his mother whether God is black or white, he is a boy living in a predominantly black community with a mother who looks white, and is simply expressing his personal confusion about race. To add to the confusion, however, his mother simply responds that she is "light-skinned". When his mother explains that God doesn't have a color, and that God is "the color of water", the image converges questions of racial and religious division into an essence that is clear and universally spiritual - in other words, "human".

The American Dream

When the Shilskys immigrate to America, they find a safe haven from the turmoil of Europe. The immigrant experience is also marked by the pursuit of the American Dream, as the family eventually settles in Suffolk, Virginia. Tateh opens a store, and the generational rift between the parents and the children intensifies. The division is particularly strong between Tateh, who can speak English, and Mameh, who cannot.

When Ruth's name is changed from Ruchel Dwajra Zylska to Rachel Deborah Shilsky, she undergoes a formal "Americanization". In high school, when she first begins going by Ruth instead of Rachel to appear less outwardly Jewish, she also undergoes another kind of change. When she moves away to New York, marries, and begins raising a family of her own as Ruth McBride Jordan, she becomes the kind of American who actively chooses her own destiny.

Ruth moves with her husband and their four children to Brooklyn's Red Hook Housing Projects, a place that she describes as exemplifying the "real American life" she has always dreamed of. As each of her twelve children finish college, become teachers, doctors, musicians, and businessmen and raise families of their own, another kind of "American Dream" comes true for Ruth.

Education

According to James, his mother denied her Jewish history, but sought a Jewish-style education for her children nonetheless. When the brief window of opportunity came, Ruth seized the chance to choose predominantly Jewish schools for each of her children to attend. In the house, the emphasis lay on grades and on church. She consistently drummed into their minds that money was nothing without education, and that education was the only avenue to making something of themselves. Being the token black students in their Jewish public schools, James and his siblings learned to survive in the world by performing well.

To supplement his formal education, James sought a "street education" in Louisville, Kentucky, where he stayed during the summers he was in high school. In Louisville, he frequented "the Corner", where Chicken Man offered him good advice, dispelling his naive belief that being a man on "the Corner" was a desirable life. Chicken Man insisted that he concentrate on his education, and that he try to pursue a better life.

Community

The book contrasts Ruth's own experience with those found in the two communities to which she has belonged. On the one hand, her cold Orthodox Jewish family disowned her, turned all the mirrors in the house face-down, and declared her "dead". They refused to give her aid when her husband passed away, leaving her with eight children to raise alone. They felt that they were no longer responsible for her fate, since she "died" in the eyes of their community when she married a black man.

The black community, on the other hand, wholeheartedly embraced Ruth. Ruth describes how, when she returned from burying Dennis's body in North Carolina, she discovered the mailbox stuffed with checks and money orders and cash from many of the people who had known them. Aunt Candis and Jacqueline also arrived to help. Ruth's household was its own microcosm, a private space where her children could grow up surrounded by the members of their own unique community.

Household Governance

Tateh ruled his household without love: he did not love his wife, he sexually abused Ruth, and he practically enslaved his son Sam. Ruth ran her household with a similarly tight rein, disciplining her children with the belt and instituting an informal "king/queen system" where the eldest reigned over the other children and answered directly to her. She, in turn, deferred to God. In the end, however, the key difference that separates Tateh's rule from Ruth's is that Ruth ruled over her household and each of her children with love.

Memory and Vision

Ruth tells James that his father Andrew McBride, a reverend, was a man with "vision". She sighs and then states that the times are different. Circumstances are different; they make for different men. It is hard to find a good minister with "vision" these days, according to Ruth. She states that it has something to do with "foresight", and James admits to his mother that he does not have it.

The irony is that while memoir-writing and the act of "remembering" constitute a journey back in time, what is found there generates a possible source of new strength. Crucial to any idea of the future, the remembered history becomes a part of a person's identity, adds depth to the experience of living, and serves as a link between the present and the future. While James may not have the kind of "vision" that Ruth admires, he has the kind that is, perhaps, the necessary starting place for any fresh imagining of the future.

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