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The Color of Water: Significance to Race, Religion, and its Vision for America

In the book The Color of Water, the phrase ‘God is the color of water’ is a significant message about how life experiences lead Ruth McBride-Jordan, a white woman, to rebel against her own race and racism in general and come to love the black community. She went on to protect her children from racial discrimination even in times that weren’t too accepting of a white Jewish woman. This analysis will prove that the title of the book The Color of Water is the definition of Ruth’s struggles with race and religion; and that the title symbolically provides a vision for Americans.

As a child Ruth’s last name was Shilsky. She grew up in a Jewish family in a town called Suffolk. It’s ironic that the prefix of its name is ‘suf’; hence suffer, because that’s how she and her African American neighbors probably felt. They were not accepted by the white, “Christian” people of the town. Actually people of any minority or religion weren’t accepted by the majority of people in America any time before the late 1960’s.That is evident in the pages of the book told by Ruth.

There is a chapter in the book that depicts Ruth’s high school graduation day. Her father told her to “Respect your mother and me. Don’t break the law of the Bible. Don’t go into that gentile church.” (Pg. 157) By ‘gentile’ he meant non-Jewish. Ruth explained earlier on that “If there was one thing Tateh didn’t like more than gentiles, it was black folks. And if there was one thing he didn’t like more than black folks in general, it was black men in particular. So it stands to reason that the first thing I fell in love with in life was a black man.” (Pg. 107) The book reveals that she kept this rebellious attitude throughout her life.
It is obvious that Ruth rebelled because she resented her family and her Jewish heritage. In Ruth’s part of the story she speaks of the grief and guilt she had following her mother’s death. Her husband Dennis, whom was African-American, suggested that she attend a Christian church which she agreed to after he told her that God will forgive her sins. “…I began to hold onto that…because I felt Mameh deserved better from me, and that’s when I started going to Metropolitan Church in Harlem…” (Pg. 217) This is important, because she continues to say “The Jew in me was dying anyway, but it truly died when my mother died” (Pg. 218); and while she did continue to uphold some of the same values such as the importance of education, she rejected many of the practices. For instance; in a conversation with her mother about sacrificing chickens she argued, “I don’t want to do that in America.”
Her mother insisted, “That chicken is just showing God we’re thankful for living. It’s just a chicken. It’s not a bird who flies. A bird who flies is special. You would never trap a bird who flies.” (Pg. 218) Ruth would later explain to her children that in God’s eyes everyone is important, chicken or not.

Of course, it must have been difficult to convince Ruth’s twelve, half black/half Jewish children of the above statement, because they were main targets of racial discrimination. However, if Ruth McBride-Jordan was anything, she was determined, and her children eventually believed her, one way or another. There were many times when her children questioned and rebelled against her beliefs. As a young boy in Harlem, James McBride began a conversation with his mother that was almost symbolic of the book’s entire message:
“Am I black or white?”
“You’re a human being,” she snapped. “Educate yourself or you’ll be a nobody!”
“Will I be a black nobody or just a nobody?”
“If you’re a nobody,” she said dryly, “it doesn’t matter what color you are.” (Pg. 92)

Amazingly, Ruth came to this conclusion, and instilled it to her children, all the while remaining a victim of prejudices. After experiencing detestation between blacks and whites during his childhood, James McBride stated, “As a boy, I often found Mommy’s ease among black people surprising.” At one point he saw “young black militants screaming ‘Black Power!’” He thought, “These people will kill Mommy”. (Pg. 27) However, Ruth was not scared the least bit, and as James McBride and his siblings grew older they began to somewhat understand their mother’s crazy actions and rants. She simply wanted to avoid all the controversy that she felt had nothing to do with her or her family. She would constantly say, “If it doesn’t involve your going to school or church, I could care less about it and my answer is no whatever it is.” (Pg. 27)

This story of unnecessary tribulations, discrimination, strength and courage provides a vision for America’s present day and for times to come. The brilliant combination of views from Ruth McBride-Jordan and her son James McBride proves that, one can overcome challenges. One can still be compassionate. And one can be accepting of all people, even after enduring so much ignorance and hate. A reflection of this point can be found in a conversation between James McBride and his mother Ruth McBride-Jordan. He asked her a series of redundant questions that revolved around the idea of God loving one ethnicity over another. Ruth told her son that, “…God’s not black. He’s not white. He’s a spirit.” She followed by saying that,”…God is the color of water…He loves all people”. (Pg. 50-51)
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