As we grow older we learn a little bit more about our background and ourselves each day. Whether it is by searching and finding out on our own, or by questioning those surrounding us about their past to help us decode our true identity along the way. But how about when we are young and have so many curiosities about ourselves and ask so many questions but there are just no answers given. Do we have the right to search for those answers by experiencing different stages in life until we find our true self? Not knowing why you and your mother look so different can affect one’s sense of identity like it happened to James McBride.
This is why throughout his autobiography The Color of Water, he concludes that in order to find his true identity he needs to learn about his mother’s past. James McBride was born to a white mom and a black dad. He grew up with his mom, Ruth, living in a neighborhood where she was seen as the strange and out-of-the ordinary one. James underwent a stage of confusion during his childhood when he noticed that he and his mom had no physical similarities. He would see mothers taking their kids to school and right away notice a resemblance.
But between he and his mom, nothing. Until one day as it was expected, James’ inquisitiveness kicked in and he asked Ruth why he didn’t look like her. On page 12, “I asked Mommy why she didn’t look like the other mothers… How come you don’t look like me? She sighed and shrugged. She’d obviously been down this road many times. I do look like you. I’m your mother”. Ruth evidently didn’t want to get into details and confuse James even more than what he was, so she thought the best way to respond to his question was to give him a vague answer.
Ruth didn’t realize that the more her answers were unclear to James the more confused he would be. Unaware of this matter, Ruth was affecting her son’s sense of identity. But James’ curiosity didn’t stop there. And one day after church he decided to ask his mom whether God was black or white. On page 50, “I asked her whether God was black or white. A deep sigh…Oh boy…God’s not black. He’s not white. He’s a spirit. What’s a spirit? A spirit is a spirit. ” But these answers weren’t convincing or explaining anything to James but rather creating more questions.
On page 50, “What color is God’s spirit? It doesn’t have a color, she said. God is the color of water. Water doesn’t have a color. ” At that moment for the first time James finally got a sensible response from his mother. After his stepfather died, James began to do badly in school, use drugs, and became a filcher. On page 139, “My new friends and I shoplifted. We broke into cars. We snuck onto the nearby Conrail/Long Island Rail Road tracks and broke into freight cars, robbing them of bicycles, television seats, and wine. He was only aware later that much of this phase related to the anger he felt at his situation. After Ruth discovered that not only were James’s grades poor, but he had been skipping school too, she sent him to his sister Jack’s house in Louisville, Kentucky, for the summer. In Louisville, Kentucky, James learned how to be street smart by hanging out on “the corner” with Chicken Man, whom he saw as a chief philosopher when sober. And he was, Chicken Man would get James out of any trouble and would try to advise him even if he wasn’t the best role model.
During this rebellious stage, James eventually gained insight from his interactions with the working men on the street corner in Louisville and saw the consequences that just hanging out on a corner have. After going through so many stages in his life, James decides to travel back to Suffolk, Virginia where Ruth lived at the beginning of her long journey. In Suffolk, James comes to terms with his own identity as he discovers his family’s painful past. James wanted to find Dee-Dee, Ruth’s younger sister, but he knew this was just going to add more suffering to her past.
So instead he locates the synagogue the family attended when living there and imagines his mother walking in with the rest of her family. On page 219, “This is the synagogue that young Rachel Shilsky walked to with her family and where Rabbi Shilsky led the congregation during the Jewish holidays… ” James knew that by entering the synagogue he would come to terms with his Jewish roots something that’s always been part of his background but something that’s been unknown to him.
After meeting an old friend of Ruth, Aubrey Rubenstein, and listening to what he had to say about the Shilsky family, James finally realized that the “Shilskys were gone. Long gone. ” During his last night in Suffolk, James awoke in the middle of the night in his motel room. He walked down to the Nansemond River, where he felt a sense of loneliness and right then he realized that his grandmother had felt the same agony and loneliness many times. As a young boy, James was never certain of his identity. He underwent so many stages of frustration and confusion within his childhood and adolescent years.
These phases led him to questions being unanswered and to various mistakes in his life. But once he progressed into adulthood he travels to Suffolk where it all began, and a new awareness is born inside him. The uncertainty he had about himself had vanished, on page 229 “the ache that the little boy who stared in the mirror felt was gone. ” James experienced the closest connection to his past in this moment by the river and he noticed that he needed to appreciate his life more and not live under the rules and religions in the world.