The Color of Water


James McBride

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The Color of Water: Chapter 17 Summary & Analysis

When Ruth first moves to New York she stays with Bubeh and works in Aunt Mary’s leather factory. Aunt Mary, who was already unkind to Ruth, cuts her no slack now that she is an adult. Ruth’s New York family is more or less in chaos. Mary dominates in her marriage to her husband, Isaac, a mean alcoholic. Meanwhile Mary is having an affair with her best friend’s husband.
Ruth’s family, who took care of her as a child out of obligation, now feel no need to give her special treatment. Still, Ruth shouldn’t feel too bad, as her Aunt doesn’t even respect her husband, and if she can’t be counted on to be kind to the man she is married too, it seems too much to ask that she make special accommodations for her niece.
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In 1939 Andrew Dennis McBride comes to work at Aunt Mary’s factory. He is kind to Ruth, and always takes time to do little nice things for her. Looking back, Ruth thinks she should have married him right then, but she was young and excited to explore the city, and Harlem in particular. “Harlem was like magic,” Ruth says. It was a place for black and white people to party together, and it drew partiers from across the country.
As in her relationship with Peter, what first draws Ruth to Dennis is that he is kind to her and makes her feel interesting and desired. Still, she delays this particular relationship because at this point in her life the borough of Harlem makes her feel more excited and more included than she believes any relationship could.
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Ruth tries to get a job in a movie theatre in Harlem, but most employers don’t understand a white girl’s desire to work in a predominantly black neighborhood and assume she’s a prostitute. When movie theatres prove to be a dead end, Ruth tries to get a job as a hairstylist—but she cannot style black hair—and finally as a manicurist. Ruth gets a job at the Hi Hat Barbershop, which pays fifteen dollars a week. Her boss, Rocky, has other plans for her, although she doesn’t realize it at first. He takes her to nightclubs and on long drives; he even rents her an apartment closer to work. Eventually he tells her he’ll teach her about the girls standing out on the street, and Ruth realizes he’s grooming her for prostitution.
Black business owners in Harlem cannot understand why a white girl would want to work for them. Ruth, however, is captivated by the vibrancy of the city, and has always gravitated towards black people and black communities, as they were some of the only ones to accept her as a child. Although Ruth does eventually find a job, Rocky fetishizes her and her whiteness, which is not the kind of accepting community Ruth was searching for.
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Ruth lives some of the time in her Harlem apartment, and some of the time at Bubeh’s. Eventually, she stops staying with Bubeh, because she reminds Ruth of her family, “what I was and where I came from.” She moves to Harlem and tells Rocky she’s ready to make money like his other girls. A little while after this, Ruth runs into Dennis on the street in Harlem. He tells her that her family is all looking for her, and is disappointed to hear she’s running around with Rocky, a “pimp.” Dennis makes Ruth feel so ashamed that she packs up and goes back to Bubeh’s. Rocky tries to track her down—he calls and sends flowers—but she ignores him for long enough that he eventually leaves her alone.
Even before Ruth fully cuts her family out of her life, she practices isolating herself from her family to protect herself. Although she never outright says that she dislikes Rocky, or is nervous about a future as a prostitute, she likely feels guilty imagining how her mother or grandmother would react. However, in the end it’s Dennis whose response to her career choices make her reconsider. Although he’s not yet family, and she does not yet have any obligation to him, his disappointment in her is enough to convince her to rethink her profession.
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