As a child, James wonders about his mother’s family history. Because Ruth won’t answer many of his questions, James turns to his siblings with questions. When James asks his brother Richie about his mother’s light skin, Richie tells James it doesn’t matter, because he, James, is adopted. James considers that none of his siblings really look like their light-skinned mother—the children are all shades of brown and are clearly Black—and becomes convinced that he really is adopted.
James’s family, because it is made up of mixed-race children like himself, feels like the only place where he truly fits in. This is why it is especially traumatic for him to consider that he is adopted. As much anxiety as his white mother causes him, imagining that he has no siblings, and no mother at all, is even more stressful.
James already feels that something is not right in his family. He describes feeling “something inside me, an ache I had, like a constant itch that got bigger and bigger as I grew….” James has also noticed teachers continually ask his mother if he’s adopted. He starts to believe Ruth isn’t his real mother.
The “ache” James begins to feel as a child will stay with him for much of his adult life. It represents a desire to truly belong to some group, and to understand where he, his siblings, and his mother came from.
One night James stays up until 2 A.M. to confront Ruth about his origins. She just laughs and tells him he isn’t adopted. When he asks about his grandparents, she tells him about his father Andrew Dennis McBride’s family, but not her own parents. When James presses Ruth about her family, assuming that they must not have loved her because they are not currently in her life, she counters that they did love her. She then cuts off James’s questioning and offers him some coffee cake, which is a huge treat in a poor household with twelve hungry children.
Ruth has so successfully erased her past from her mind that when asked about her family she immediately thinks of her late husband Dennis’s family instead. In the wake of her break with her own family, Ruth has constructed a new one, which includes her children, her husbands, her husband’s families, and her friends, guaranteeing that she’ll never need her birth family again.
In 1966, at age nine, James becomes more aware of the black power movement. His home and neighborhood are transformed as afros come into style, his siblings memorize protest poetry, and local statues are repainted in the red, black, and green of the black liberation movement. Although James supports the movement, he has internalized white fears about empowered black Americans. He worries that “black power [will] be the end of my mother.”
James and his siblings, always searching for a sense of belonging and clear-cut identity, are taken in by the Black Power movement because it allows them to feel pride about aspects of their identity that are often looked down upon and discriminated against. Unfortunately, James’s mixed-race background means that even as half of him is celebrating black pride, the other half of him is afraid that black pride will lead to black supremacy, which could lead to the death or injury of his white mother.
Ruth, meanwhile, is only interested in church and her children’s academics. She encourages her children to socialize only with each other, and teaches them not to share details of their home life with strangers. She has many rules, preferring her children to play indoors, and to be home before dark if they insist on going outside. However, Ruth is also busy working as a typist, which means she’s away from home from 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. each day. Because of her busy schedule, she has little time for her children’s questions about race and identity.
Ruth puts all of her time and attention into her family, and expects her children to put their time and attention into each other, academics, and God. Ruth wants the best possible life for her children, and so often even sacrifices close relationships with them so that she can work and run the household in a way that will maximize their chances of succeeding. Race, she feels, is a distraction, and so she will not discuss it.
James describes his upbringing as being defined by “a curious blend of Jewish-European and African-American distrust and paranoia.” Andrew Dennis McBride knew that not everyone would accept his mixed-race family, and so he taught his children to keep to themselves. Ruth used her own (imperfect) childhood as a model for her parenting, and together with both of her husbands taught her children the value of thrift, hard work, and education—which could help raise them out of poverty.
From their own experience, Ruth and Dennis understand that the wider world isn’t always accepting, safe, or reliable. Therefore, they’ve taught their children to primarily socialize with and rely on each other, so that they can minimize their encounters with people who could potentially judge or hurt them.
Ruth passes on complicated ideas about race and class to her children. Although she understands that many white people are racist, she sends her children to white schools because the education there is better. She also dislikes black people who she feel that she is trying to “emulate rich whites by putting on airs.” She is always in financial need, but refuses to apply for welfare. Ruth loves the Red Hook neighborhood and the New Brown Memorial Baptist Church (which she founded with Andrew McBride), both of which are predominantly black, and which she continues to visit even in her old age.
Having lived among many groups of many races, Ruth has a nuanced understanding of the complexities of race in America. She is no fan of segregation, and is happy to send her children to white schools and make use of other white institutions if it guarantees a better life for her children, even if it means crossing racial boundaries. After a life where she had few people to rely on, Ruth is now self-sufficient, and doesn’t trust that help from outsiders is really reliable.
James understands from reading the newspaper and watching television that many white people are uncomfortable around black people. Notably, though, his mother is comfortable around black people, and only responds to offensive comments on the street about her mixed-race family if she is worried about the safety of her children. Ruth feels that Malcolm X’s comments about “the white devil” don’t include her, sees civil rights fight as her own, and refers to “white people” as though they are a group she is not in.
Although Ruth is technically white, she doesn’t see herself that way. For Ruth, whiteness is both physical but also behavioral. Because she lives in a black neighborhood, has married a black man, attends a black church, and has mixed-race children, Ruth feels as though she can not be truly classified as white, as her whiteness has very little impact on her day-to-day life. Others might disagree.
James worries about his mother’s safety, and as a child is confused by her comfort in dangerous neighborhoods. As an adult he understands that Ruth’s faith in God kept her calm, but as a child every incident—like a man stealing her purse on the corner—makes James more afraid for her life. James feels it is his duty to protect his mother. Once, as he is sitting on a bus to go to a summer camp for poor inner city kids, he sees a Black Panther drop his son off for camp. James only knows about the Black Panthers from the news, where they’re depicted as violent and white hating. James panics, worried that the Black Panther will want to kill his mother, and so James punches the Panther’s son.
James mixed-race upbringing leads to conflicted feelings about the Civil Rights movement and racial justice on a national scale. While on the one hand James is proud of his blackness, and thinks of Black Panthers as intrinsically cool, he has also absorbed white cultural concerns that black people are a threat. Therefore, although he is excited by civil rights gains by black people, he naively worries that his mother, a white woman, is at risk from a militant black public.