Ruth begins her story by telling James that she is "dead". The girl who was born Ruchel Dwajra Zylsky on April 1, 1921 in Poland, and who immigrated to America, settling in a small town in Virginia, is gone. In America, her name was changed to Rachel Deborah Shilsky. Her father, Fishel Shilsky, was a traveling Orthodox Jewish rabbi who married his wife, Hudis, according to the Jewish laws of contract: theirs was never a marriage of love. Ruth describes Tateh (Yiddish for "father") as a "fox" and Mameh (Yiddish for "mother") as "gentle and meek." Mameh was crippled on her left side because she had suffered polio as a child, and was nearly blind in her left eye. Rachel began going by "Ruth" in high school, and when she left for New York at age 19 and married a black man, her family mourned her as if she were dead. Ruth reflects: "[Rachel]had to die in order for me, the rest of me, to live."
Ruth and her first husband, Andrew McBride, had eight children, but before Ruth could bear him a ninth, Andrew died of lung cancer. She later married Hunter Jordan, and together they added four more children to the family. James, having never known his biological father, thought of Hunter Jordan as his real father, and when he died of a stroke at 72, 14-year-old James almost dropped out of high school, and began hanging out with friends and drinking. His mother, he recalls, would ride her odd-looking bicycle around town as though she was completely oblivious to the rest of the world. She was "commander in chief" of the family, and James asserts that his childhood growing up in the Red Hook housing projects in Brooklyn was chaos. His mother implemented a system of dividing "the big kids" from "the little kids", and instilled in them basic tenets to live by, such as: "Educate your mind. School is important" and "Don't tell nobody your business."
As the book unfolds, it alternates between the mother's voice and the son's. Ruth explains that her mother came from a wealthy family with a lot of class. Tateh only married her to get a ticket to America, because much of her family had already moved to the States and could offer the sponsorship necessary to be admitted. Ruth, her mother, and her older brother Sam arrived in America on August 23, 1923. Tateh had gone over first, and they initially lived with Mameh's parents, Zaydeh and Bubeh (Yiddish for "grandfather" and "grandmother"). When Zaydeh died, Ruth remembers thinking he was asleep, and was frightened that the family had buried him alive.
In 1966, when James was nine, "black power" struck fear into his heart: "I thought black power would be the end of my mother. I swallowed the white man's fear of the Negro, as we were called back then, whole." His mother worked as a typist at Chase Manhattan Bank from 3pm to 2am, and didn't have time, James remembers, for "identity crises." His mother considered the achievements of the civil rights movement to be her own, but, at the same time, her "contradictions crashed and slammed against one another like bumper cars at Coney Island. White folks, she felt, were implicitly evil toward blacks, yet she forced us to go to white schools to get the best education. Blacks could be trusted more, but anything involving blacks was probably slightly substandard." She drummed into her children's heads: "What's money if your mind is empty! Educate your mind!" One night, after visiting Jacqueline, or "Jack", James remembers two black men snatching his mother's purse. His mother let the incident slide right off of her back. For James, however, this only emphasized the danger his mother was in, so when he left for summer camp and boarded a bus, realizing that the man standing next to his mother outside was a Black Panther, he felt fearful; he tried to warn her, and when the son of the Black Panther sat down in the seat in front of him, James punched him in the face.
Ruth's statement that she is "dead" raises the question of personal identity on the most fundamental level. Ruth is clearly alive, not dead, but she later explains that the girl she had been had to die in order for the girl she truly was to live. She confronted the basic question of death when she was young and her grandfather Zaydeh passed away, and when she recalls how she had feared that her grandfather had been buried alive, the moment echoes her own figurative death. When her own family disowned her, she was considered dead. They were no longer responsible for her fate. Her struggles after the death of her first husband were not, she imagined, unlike the experience of being buried alive.
Ruth's emigration from Poland to the United States followed the basic trajectory of many new Americans who fled persecution abroad. In America, Ruth's name became Rachel Deborah Shilsky, an Americanized version of her original Polish name. The basic change in her name also marked the official change of her citizenship. Later, however, when she began going informally by "Ruth" because it sounded less Jewish, she expressed a personal choice that pointed in the direction of self-determination. She attempted to assimilate into a community that looked askance upon her Jewish heritage, increasingly viewing her parents' strict ways as "old-fashioned". She began to desire, more and more, to be "American". Her desire and rebellious character were, and continue to be, common among children who come of age in places different from the locales in which their parents were born.
Ruth's motherly governance over twelve children in the housing projects of Brooklyn, according to James, expressed her own strict Orthodox Jewish upbringing: "unbending nature, a stridency, a focus on money, a deep distrust of all outsiders, not to mention her father's tyranny - [they] represented the best and worst of the immigrant mentality: hard work, no nonsense, quest for excellence, distrust of authority figures, and deep belief in God and education." Though she consciously cast off her Jewish identity, it remained a distinct part of her largely because it was a part of her experience. Her upbringing was the only model she had to work with when she raised her children, so she could not dislodge herself from her identity (and history) completely. What was once a part of her history was forever a part of her future. James implies that the secret to the success of each of Ruth's twelve children, in other words, was something rooted in the mysterious alchemy of growing up under the influence of the immigrant mentality, along with the communal nature of the house and the black community in general.
With regards to questions of race, James experienced a great deal of confusion. As the reader becomes acclimated to the basic picture of the story, he or she begins to develop an image of an eccentric Jewish woman riding her bicycle around the Brooklyn projects. At the same time, she is a kind of "just tyrant", and James loves her fiercely, as evidenced by his fear that something harmful will happen to her. He presents the historical backdrop of the Black Power movement, and clearly felt that his mother was in danger in their presence; a feeling that was reinforced when he witnessed two black men robbing her of her purse. He knew the state of race relations, and his love for his white mother only contributed to his confusion: "partly because of my own growing sense of self, and partly because of fear for her safety, because even as a child I had a sense that black and white folks did not get along, which put her, and us, in a pretty tight space."
When James punched the son of a Black Panther because he feared for his mother's safety, the action expressed a clear alliance with his mother, and not with the Black Power movement. In other words, he allied himself with his sense of family and love, as opposed to what he would later refer to as the superficial blanket political statement the color of one's face often led one to assume. The action exhibited his personal confusion, but, at the same time, the way divisions that relied on race could be transcended. The idea of "love" was crucial.