The Color of Water


James McBride

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Themes and Colors
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Otherness and Belonging Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Memory and Identity Theme Icon
Religion Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Color of Water, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Race and Racism

Almost every scene in The Color of Water takes place against a backdrop of anti-Black racism in America. Much of the book occurs during the Jim Crow era and the Civil Rights Movement, a time where black Americans were regarded as second-class citizens and policed through a series of racist laws and restrictive social norms. This affects the opportunities, self-esteem, and even human rights of the central black characters, but also affects characters like Ruth

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Otherness and Belonging

James and Ruth spend much of their lives feeling as though they do not belong to their immediate communities. Ruth is an outsider both in her white, Christian southern town, as well as in her birth religion of Judaism. For his part, James presents as black, but as a child senses he is not exactly like the other black children in his neighborhood. Both mother and son are constantly seeking out spaces that will give…

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Family is usually a source of love and comfort, but it can also be a source of great pain. In The Color of Water, family means not just one’s biological relations, but also a large web of friends and loved ones. Ruth’s immediate family is made up of her siblings, her mother and father, and a network of aunts and uncles. Although they offer her the most basic life necessities—food, water, a place…

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Memory and Identity

Ruth McBride-Jordan sees her former self, Rachel Shilsky, as an entirely separate person. She uses her memories to divide her life in half, and attempts to erase the earlier version of herself. Rachel Shilsky only exists in memories, and because Ruth chooses not to access these memories, Rachel essentially ceases to exist and Ruth continues on without a past. However, Ruth isn’t the only one affected by her memories. Cultural memory and familial history are…

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Religion in The Color of Water provides the protagonists with a framework within which they are able to develop individual identities and organize their morals and values. Regardless of denomination, whether it is Orthodox Judaism or Lutheranism, religion informs the behaviors of its devotees, and by extension how they view themselves. This is clearest in Ruth’s conversation from Judaism to Christianity, a change with represents not just a crisis of faith, but a complete…

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