The Color of Water


James McBride

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The Color of Water: Chapter 20 Summary & Analysis

In 1982 James is living in Boston and working as a journalist at The Boston Globe. He’s torn between writing and music, not realizing that he can do both. Similarly, he’s caught between feeling black and white, unhappy that racism did not end in the ‘70s when he expected it to. James has a girlfriend, Karone, of whom his mother disapproves, but they’re united more by convenience than anything else. Karone wants to move out of Boston and leave behind her ex-husband; James says “I wanted to leave myself behind.”
Even as an adult James is still confused about his race and where he belongs in the world. He hoped racism would end, and then race would be a nonissue, but unfortunately the 80s arrived and he was still a mixed-race man, unable to pick a side but feeling like he should. Like his mother before him, he attempts to physically run away from his problems, which is tricky when his problems are his own identity.
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After years of badgering, James has finally found out about Suffolk, Virginia, where Ruth grew up. James wants to understand where she came from, and wants to understand who he is. Ruth isn’t very helpful, and claims not to remember anyone in the town, but she tells James he can look for her friend Frances or her family. Once he gets into town James goes to a McDonald’s, which he realizes is on the exact lot where the Shilsky store used to be.
James still feels the ache he’s felt throughout his childhood, and has decided that perhaps somewhere in his mother’s past is the key to his lifelong identity crisis. Although it’s not clear why Ruth finally becomes more comfortable revealing details of her past, it’s likely because enough years have gone by that she no longer needs to protect herself from her memories of her childhood by locking them away. The pain and trauma has eased with time.
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James knocks on a stranger’s door on a whim, and asks if the elderly black man living there knew the Shilsky family. The man, Eddie, knew “ol’ Rabbi Shilsky” (Tateh) and thinks it’s hilarious that he ended up with a mixed-race grandson. He tells James his mother’s old name, Rachel, and tells him about his disabled grandmother, Dee-Dee, and Sam. The man is hesitant to talk about Old Man Shilsky at first, but eventually reveals that he was cruel and racist, and even his own wife and children were afraid of him. He tells James how his grandfather eventually ran off with a white woman. Eddie asks if he can call Ruth, so James calls his mother and asks if she’d like to talk. The chapter ends with Eddie comforting Ruth, asking, “You remember me? Don’t cry now…”
Because Tateh was so racist, it’s ironic that he ended up with twelve mixed-race grandchildren. Still, the fact that Tateh could be so racist and Ruth could end up so progressive is a positive sign for the future of race relations. Eddie confirms what Ruth has narrated in the first person in previous chapters — that her father was a cruel man who placed no value on his family aside from the work he could extract from them.
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