Ironically, although his mother was raised as an Orthodox Jew, James doesn’t realize that Jewish people exist outside of the Bible until he goes shopping for school clothes in a Jewish neighborhood. He’s surprised to hear Ruth haggle in Yiddish, but when he asks her, she refuses to tell him how she learned to speak it.
Ruth has closed off her past not only to herself but to her children. She’s forgotten much of her former self, but occasionally, or apparently when it is useful, she’s able to access this past self.
James recognizes that Jewish people are different from other white people, but he doesn’t feel any connection to them. Ruth, drawing from her own childhood, testifies that “some Jews can’t stand” her mixed-race children, but she also tells her children that certain Jewish people will treat them more kindly than other white people.
One of the reasons Ruth abandoned Judaism is her perception of its intolerance for interracial relationships. Although not universally true, Ruth’s Jewish family threatened to disown her if she married a black man, and this is a prejudice she has never forgotten. Still, she knows her family is not indicative of every family, and suspects that the discrimination Jewish people and black people share will motivate some Jewish people to be kind to her children.
In her parenting Ruth draws upon her Jewish traditions, especially one of academic excellence. Ruth makes sure to take every opportunity she can to transfer James and his siblings from their neighborhood schools to better-performing, predominantly white and Jewish public schools.
Although Ruth no longer practices Judaism and no longer even identifies as white, some aspects of her heritage are hard or unnecessary to shake. Although James doesn’t know about this Jewish heritage, he’s partially raised in the Jewish tradition anyway, decades before he goes on a hunt to uncover his identity.
While most of the other children in James’s neighborhood walk to the local schools, James and his siblings take buses to white and Jewish schools miles away. At these schools James is the only black student in his fifth grade class. He feels like “the token Negro,” and is aware of harassment from teachers (who round down his test scores) and fellow students (who call him slurs in class). Although he knows his siblings would fight back against this kind of treatment, James is too quiet to say anything.
James experiences overt racism for the first time at the hands of his white classmates. This experience is doubly troubling because he so desperately wants to fit in somewhere, and is already self-conscious about his mixed-race background. The bullying by his fellow students makes him feel both like an outsider and insecure in his blackness.
In late elementary school James begins to escape from reality through music, books, and his own imagination. He imagines a boy in the mirror who represents his true, untroubled self. This imaginary James doesn’t have a white mother, and always has enough to eat.
The boy in the mirror represents everything James wants that he does not have — enough food to eat, a black mother, a clear sense of belonging — and gives him someone to talk to about his troubles. James doesn’t have anyone in his life who will listen to non-life-threatening issues, and so the boy in the mirror also acts as a silent friend in a household of noisy siblings.
James is generally a good kid—he does well in school, goes to church, and even has “good” or curly hair. Still, he feels incomplete because he doesn’t know where his mother comes from, and he’s aware that he doesn’t look like her, white celebrities he looks up to, or his black role models and relatives. James learns the term “Tragic mulatto” in a book and asks Ruth about it. She becomes upset and refuses to answer his question regarding whether he’s black or white. Some of James’ older brothers identify as black, but no one considers mixed-race to be an identity.
It’s hard for James to understand how he fits into the world racially when he never sees anyone who looks like him in his neighborhoods or on the television. The trope of the “tragic mulatto” is one that describes him well, but is an unflattering pop culture depiction — it generally involves a person, half black and half white, who is unable to be truly happy because they are unable to ever fit in to a white or black world.
James describes the question of race as “a silent power” which dominates his childhood household. Ruth, however, tries to keep her children too busy with school, free concerts, library visits, and other low-cost activities to think about their racial identities. Because the family is poor, she does everything as cheaply as she can, even getting her children’s teeth cared for by half-trained dentistry school students.
The revolutionary spirit of the 1960s disturbs Ruth’s carefully constructed household. Helen, who had run off at fifteen, returns five years later with a baby, signaling that the other children don’t have to follow the rules so closely either. Many of James’s siblings become excited by the Black Power movements, and express newfound black pride.
Again, although Ruth refuses to bring race into her household, she cannot prevent her children from exploring their blackness outside the home. It makes sense that many of her offspring, confused and ashamed of their mixed heritage and white mother, would gravitate towards a movement based around pride in their identities.
James’s older brother Richie is arrested by the police during a summer home from college. Richie is absentminded and has money in his pockets for his student loan. The police find what they think is a bag of heroin on the street, and pin it on Richie because he’s black and because he has money. Ruth, panicked, goes to his trial, and because the judge is white and Ruth is white, Richie is released and the charges are dropped. Unfortunately this makes Ruth even harsher on her younger children, as she attempts to keep them safe and out of trouble.
This is another instance of overt institutional racism. Richie is arrested solely because of his race, not because of any true ties to the supposed crime scene. Ruth’s experiences with her black husbands and in the South had made her wary of bigoted people putting her sons in danger, and every time she is proved right she becomes more and more protective. At the same time, this scene shows that no matter how much Ruth identifies as non-white, she still is white, and so receives many of the accompanying privileges in a racist society.
As he gets older, James becomes more embarrassed of his white mother. One day, instead of walking to the store with her, he insists he go alone. Unfortunately, the white storeowner purposefully sells him expired milk. Ruth is outraged, and marches back to the store to demand a refund. When the storeowner refuses to reimburse her she eventually turns to leave, but after she hears a whispered (presumably racist) remark, she throws the milk at him.
Ironically, although James appears black and therefore is more likely to be discriminated against than his mother, his mother is the one who notices and responds to this small act of injustice. Although James thinks the milk is just expired, Ruth, having witnessed a lifetime of anti-black discrimination, identifies the storekeeper as a white racist who is intentionally swindling her son.
As a child, James felt it would be easier if he were just black or white, and he wishes his mother were black. As an adult, however, he appreciates the diversity of his black and Jewish upbringing. He doesn’t identify as Jewish, but believes he is “a black man with something of a Jewish soul,” and often sees Ruth in Jewish women he encounters. As an adult James “belong[s] to the world of one God, one people,” but admits that as a child he preferred being black.
As an adult James understands that his mixed identity and his Jewish heritage are part of the rich tapestry of his identity. As a child, however, with no information and a lot of questions, that richness simply translates to confusion and angst. Although in many ways James is right that it is “easier” to be a single race and feel like a part of a single community, later in life he realizes that being part of many communities is in fact a blessing.
James remembers one day in school when his classmates forced him to dance like James Brown. Even though he explained he couldn’t dance, his white classmates didn’t believe him, and eventually he did a James Brown impression for his class. Everyone applauded, but James realized that even by entertaining his white classmates he was no closer to fitting in. He thinks of the boy in the mirror, who is free, while he feels trapped.
Once again, James is harassed by his white classmates simply for not being white. Like earlier in the chapter, James is offended by his classmates’ racist assumptions and upset by the way his race makes him an outsider. He feels trapped both by the people around him who he feels are mistreating him, and by his own insecurity and racial confusion.