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, who is white but lives in close proximity to blackness, and as a result must deal with bigotry from those who do not understand why a white woman would marry a black man and raise a mixed-race family. The text critiques racist attitudes, but also explores the internalized racism of some of its black characters, and the ways in which black and white people can overcome strict racial boundaries through love and friendship.
Blackness is a source of pride for Ruth’s children, but also a source of trauma and confusion. James’s older siblings are invested in the Black Power Movement, many having their own private revolutions, some even going so far as to paint local statues in the red, green, and black of Black liberation. But their visible blackness also makes them targets at school, where their white teachers round down their scores, and in the streets, where they are arrested at astounding rates. James’s brother Richie, a college student home for the summer, is arrested because he has a lot of money in his pocket and the police assume that because he is black and carrying cash he must be a drug dealer. Although he is guilty of nothing but walking down the street at the wrong time, Richie must go to court. Another brother, David, who is a doctoral student at Colombia at the time, is arrested in Delaware for an illegal U-turn. These encounters enrage Ruth, and convince her children that with the exception of their mother, white people are at best unreliable and at worst actively dangerous.
Ruth also deals with anti-black racism in her love life, as she attempts to date and marry black men. Her first relationship with a boy named Peter ends with an abortion, because she knows she cannot marry him and the town will not accept them (and Peter could even be killed if their relationship was made public). Ruth’s relationship with her first husband is then so offensive to her family that they entirely cut her out of their lives. Her father explicitly tells her that if she marries a black man there’s no point in ever coming home again. When Ruth eventually does marry Dennis, her family sits shiva and acts as though she has literally died. Unfortunately, her mixed-race marriage garners negative attention from people of all races. A group of white men try to kill her and Dennis with bottles when they’re out on the street one night, and a black woman punches Ruth in the face because she disapproves of Ruth and Dennis’s relationship. Although white fear of black people is the most dangerous type of racial policing in the book, many people, both black and white, strictly monitor the boundaries of their race and see interracial relationships as threatening.
Still, though she is surrounded by racist and segregationist attitudes for much of her life, Ruth is not racist, and sees no reason why she should not marry and befriend people across racial lines if she loves them. Over the course of his life James, too, realizes that although it has traditionally been safer for him to affiliate more with other black people, just because a person is white doesn’t mean they will discriminate against him. In high school he spends summers working for a white couple to pay off a scholarship, and he recognizes that they are genuinely interested in helping him learn, grow, and succeed musically and academically.
If The Color of Water is trying to say one single thing about race, its thesis is that race in America is complicated. Although racist attitudes are prevalent, and have the potential to literally end the lives of the book’s black protagonists, cultural racism can be combatted on a personal level. James and Ruth have many loving, fulfilling relationships across racial lines, and Ruth raises twelve successful, self-confident mixed-race children, their existence a rebuke to the racists she encountered in her early life who couldn’t fathom a white woman marrying a black man, and their success a testament to their own drive and intellect in the face of great discrimination.
Race and Racism ThemeTracker
Race and Racism Quotes in The Color of Water
The image of her riding that bicycle typified her whole existence to me. Her oddness, her complete nonawareness of what the world thought of her, a nonchalance in the face of what I perceived to be imminent danger from blacks and whites who disliked her for being a white person in a black world. She saw none of it.
Mommy, after all, did not really look like me. In fact, she didn’t look like Richie, or David—or any of her children for that matter. We were all clearly black, of various shades of brown, some light brown, some medium brown, some very light-skinned, and all of us had curly hair. Mommy was by her own definition, “light-skinned,” a statement which I had initially accepted as fact but at some point later decided was not true. My best friend Billy Smith’s mother was as light as Mommy was and had red hair to boot, but there was no question in my mind that Billy’s mother was black and my mother was not. There was something inside me, an ache I had, like a constant itch that got bigger and bigger as I grew, that told me. It was in my blood, you might say, and however the notion got there, it bothered me greatly. Yet Mommy refused to acknowledge her whiteness. Why she did so was not clear, but even my teachers seemed to know she was white and I wasn’t. On open school nights, the question most often asked by my schoolteachers was: “Is James adopted?” which always prompted an outraged response from Mommy.
Yet conflict was a part of our lives, written into our very faces, hands, and arms, and to see how contradiction lived and survived in its essence, we had to look no farther than our own mother. Mommy’s contradictions crashed and slammed against one another like bumper cars at Coney Island. White folks, she felt, were implicitly evil toward blacks, yet she forced us to go to white schools to get the best education. Blacks could be trusted more, but anything involving blacks was probably slightly substandard. She disliked people with money yet was in constant need of it. She couldn’t stand racists of either color and had great distaste for bourgeois blacks who sought to emulate rich whites by putting on airs and “doing silly things like covering their couches with plastic and holding teacups with their pinkies out.” “What fools!” she’d hiss.
…One afternoon on the way home from church I asked her whether God was black or white.
A deep sigh. “Oh boy…God’s not black. He’s not white. He’s a spirit.”
“Does he like black or white people better?”
“He loves all people. He’s a spirit.”
“What’s a spirit?”
“A spirit’s a spirit.”
“What color is God’s spirit?”
“It doesn’t have a color,” she said. “God is the color of water. Water doesn’t have a color.”
Nobody liked me. That’s how I felt as a child. I know what it feels like when people laughing at you walking down the street, or snicker when they hear you speaking Yiddish, or just look at you with hate in their eyes. You know a Jew living in Suffolk when I was coming up could be lonely even if there were fifteen of them standing in the room, I don’t know why; it’s that feeling that nobody likes you; that’s how I felt, living in the South. You were different from everyone and liked by very few. There were white sections of Suffolk, like the Riverview section, where Jews weren’t allowed to own property. It said that on the deeds and you can look them up. They’d say “for White Anglo-Saxon Protestants only.” That was the law there and they meant it. The Jews in Suffolk did stick together, but even among Jews my family was low because we dealt with shvartses. So I didn’t have a lot of Jewish friends either.
To further escape from painful reality, I created an imaginary world for myself. I believed my true self was a boy who lived in the mirror. I’d lock myself in the bathroom and spend long hours playing with him. He looked just like me. I’d stare at him. Kiss him. Make faces at him and order him around. Unlike my siblings, he had no opinions. He would listen to me. “If I’m here and you’re me, how can you be there at the same time?” I’d ask. He’d shrug and smile. I’d shout at him, abuse him verbally. “Give me an answer!” I’d snarl. I would turn to leave, but when I wheeled around he was always there, waiting for me. I had an ache inside, a longing, but I didn’t know where it came from or why I had it. The boy in the mirror, he didn’t seem to have an ache. He was free. He was never hungry, he had his own bed probably, and his mother wasn’t white. I hated him. “Go away!” I’d shout. “Hurry up! Get on out!” but he’d never leave.
…I myself had no idea who I was. I loved my mother yet looked nothing like her. Neither did I look like the role models in my life—my stepfather, my godparents, other relatives—all of whom were black. And they looked nothing like the other heroes I saw, the guys in the movies, white men like Steve McQueen and Paul Newman who beat the bad guys and in the end got the pretty girl—who, incidentally, was always white.
The question of race was like the power of the moon in my house. It’s what made the river flow, the ocean swell, and the tide rise, but it was a silent power, intractable, indomitable, indisputable, and thus completely ignorable. Mommy kept us at a frantic living pace that left no time for the problem.
As I walked home, holding Mommy’s hand while she fumed, I thought it would be easier if we were just one color, black or white. I didn’t want to be white. My siblings had already instilled the notion of black pride in me. I would have preferred that Mommy were black. Now, as a grown man, I feel privileged to have come from two worlds. My view of the world is not merely that of a black man but that of a black man with something of a Jewish soul. I don’t consider myself Jewish, but when I look at Holocaust photographs of Jewish women whose children have been wrenched from them by Nazi soldiers, the women look like my own mother and I think to myself, There but for the grace of God goes my own mother—and by extension, myself.
You know, my whole life changed after I fell in love. It was like the sun started shining on me for the first time, and for the first time in my life I began to smile. I was loved, I was loved, and I didn’t care what anyone thought. I wasn’t worried about getting caught, but I did notice that Peter’s friends were terrified of me; they stayed clear anytime I came near them. They’d walk away from me if they saw me walking down the road coming toward them, and if they came into the store, they wouldn’t even look at me. That started to worry me a little but I didn’t worry much. Then after a while, my period was late. By a week.
You know, the thing was, I was supposed to be white and “number one,” too. That was a big thing in the South. You’re white, and even if you’re a Jew, since you’re white you’re better than a so-called colored. Well, I didn’t feel number one with nobody but him, and I didn’t give a hoot that he was black. He was kind! And good! I knew that! And I wanted to tell folks that, I wanted to shout out, “Hey y’all, it really doesn’t matter!” I actually believed folks would accept that, that they’d see what a good person he was and maybe accept us, and I went through a few days of thinking this, after which I told him one night, “Let’s run off to the country and get married,” and he said, “No way. I don’t know where that’s been done before, white and black marrying in Virginia. They will surely hang me.”
“They’re making me marry her,” he said. “My folks are making me.”
“Did you get her pregnant?”
Oh, that messed me up. I told him I didn’t want to see him anymore and walked back through the black neighborhood, into the store, and went upstairs and cried my heart out, because I still loved him. I went through this entire ordeal and here he was getting busy with somebody else. The fact that he was black and the girl he was marrying was black—well, that hurt me even more. If the world were fair, I suppose I would have married him, but there was no way that could happen in Virginia. Not in 1937.
I made up my mind then that I was going to leave Suffolk for good.
I kept in touch with her for many years. She helped me through college and helped me get into graduate school as well; she didn’t pay my way, but if I had an emergency, she would help. One morning a couple of years later when I was at Oberlin College, I went to my mailbox and found a letter from her telling me that her husband had died suddenly of cancer. Later that day I was standing on the street with a group of black students and one of them said, “Forget these whiteys. They’re all rich. They got no problems,” and I said, “Yeah, man, I hear you,” while inside my pocket was the folded letter holding the heartbroken words of an old white lady who had always gone out of her way to help me—and many others like me. It hurt me a little bit to stand there and lie. Sometimes it seemed like the truth was a bandy-legged soul who dashed from one side of the world to the other and I could never find him.
“I know you’re gonna marry a shvartse. You’re making a mistake.” That stopped me cold, because I didn’t know how he learned it. To this day I don’t know. He said, “If you marry a nigger, don’t ever come home again. Don’t come back.”
“I’ll always come to see Mameh.”
“Not if you marry a nigger you won’t,” he said. “Don’t come back.”
Like most of the Jews in Suffolk they treated me very kindly, truly warm and welcoming, as if I were one of them, which in an odd way I suppose I was. I found it odd and amazing when white people treated me that way, as if there were no barriers between us. It said a lot about this religion—Judaism—that some of its followers, old southern crackers who talked with southern twangs and wore straw hats, seemed to believe that its covenants went beyond the color of one’s skin. The Sheffers, Helen Weintraub, the Jaffes, they talked to me in person and by letter in a manner and tone that, in essence, said “Don’t forget us. We have survived her. Your mother was part of this…”
There was no turning back after my mother died. I stayed on the black side because that was the only place I could stay. The few problems I had with black folks were nothing compared to the grief white folks dished out. With whites it was no question. You weren’t accepted to be with a black man and that was that. They’d say forget it. Are you crazy? A nigger and you? No way. They called you white trash. That’s what they called me. Nowadays these mixed couples get on TV every other day complaining, “Oh, it’s hard for us.” They have cars and television and homes and they’re complaining. Jungle fever they call it, flapping their jaws and making the whole thing sound stupid. They didn’t have to run for their lives like we did.
Doctors found squamous cell cancer in a small mole they removed from Ma’s face, a condition caused by too much exposure to the sun. Ironically, it’s a condition that affects mostly white people. To the very end, Mommy is a flying compilation of competing interests and conflicts, a black woman in white skin, with black children and a white woman’s physical problem.
Mommy’s children are extraordinary people, most of them leaders in their own right. All of them have toted more mental baggage and dealt with more hardship than they care to remember, yet they carry themselves with a giant measure of dignity, humility, and humor. Like any family we have problems, but we have always been close. Through marriage, adoptions, love-ins, and shack-ups, the original dozen has expanded into dozens and dozens more—wives, husbands, children, grandchildren, cousins, nieces, nephews—ranging from dark-skinned to light-skinned; from black kinky hair to blonde hair and blue eyes. In running from her past, Mommy has created her own nation, a rainbow coalition that descends on her house every Christmas and Thanksgiving and sleeps everywhere—on the floor, on rugs, in shifts; sleeping double, triple to a bed, “two up, three down,” just like old times.