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.
Religion Theme Icon

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 reinvention of herself. Finding religion is frequently a metaphor for discovering a deeper personal truth; as James becomes more religious in his adulthood, he is suddenly granted insights into his mother’s faith and her motivations. Similarly, James’s investigations into Judaism allow him to understand his mother’s past, and, by extension, his own family history.

Religion is deeply personal, and not every character experiences it in the same way. For Ruth, Judaism was oppressive and loveless, whereas Christianity gave her access to community, freedom, and divine love for the first time. Her Christian faith provided her with a support system, both holy and earthly, that helped her through her darkest times. Ruth associates Judaism with her unhappy upbringing, and the discrimination she faced as a child in her small Southern town. For James, however, Judaism is a way for him to connect with his mother, and with the half of his family he never knew he had.

Ruth found Judaism to have “too many rules to follow, too many forbiddens and ‘you can’ts’ and ‘you mustn’ts,’” without enough love. Although this is not the universal Jewish experience, Ruth’s specific family and circumstances made Judaism unappealing for her. As an adult, James learns that because his mother was Jewish, he is technically Jewish too. Researching for his book, he feels a kinship with many of the Jewish people he encounters in Suffolk. Unlike many white people he’s encountered in his life, James finds Jewish people “truly warm and welcoming” and appreciates that they treat him like a part of their community. For the first time in his life, James feels an affinity with nonrelatives who are technically white, and he appreciates how the Southern Jews of Suffolk “seemed to believe that its covenants went beyond the color of one’s skin.”

Ruth’s conversion to Christianity coincides with her reinvention of herself from Rachel Shilsky to Ruth McBride. She is reborn through Christianity, and finds that this religion provides her with everything she’s always wanted: love and community, a sense of belonging, and a reason to live. Ruth’s Christian principles keep her moving forwards, even in the face of tragedy. As a child James doesn’t understand his mother’s faith, but knows secondhand that the Church and God make her happy, in a way nothing else in her life seems to. Church, and specifically the New Brown Memorial Baptist Church, which Ruth and Andrew Dennis McBride founded, keeps Ruth from falling apart and binds her family together through a shared religious community. Ruth continues to visit the church even when she no longer lives in the neighborhood, and it represents a constant in her life and family—a church founded by herself and her husband, in which her son eventually marries his wife. The New Brown Memorial Church then also allows James and his siblings to connect to each other, to God, to their mother, and to their deceased father.

Religion also functions as a framework through which James and his siblings can navigate their racial identities. The book’s title references a central thematic question of the work: what color are the McBride-Jordan children, what color is a spirit, and what color is God? Ruth explains that a spirit has no color, and God has no color. Instead, they are “the color of water,” which is colorless. James, confused about race in general and specifically where he falls on the spectrum, asks his mother if God is black or white, and “Does he like black or white people better?” His mother explains that God is colorless, and loves people of all colors equally. Later, their local preacher Rev. Owens tries to tell James and his siblings that that “Jesus is all colors,” which confuses James’s little brother, who has noticed that Jesus is always painted as white. As children, James and his siblings believe that if Jesus is truly all colors, he should be painted that way. Jesus’s whiteness is alienating for mixed-race children, who are in desperate need of idols who either transcend or blur racial boundaries, instead of reinforcing the hierarchy they already see enacted in the wider world, where white people are the most respected and most powerful. While as children religion is not useful for James and his siblings, the reader can see how Ruth is able to transcend questions of her own racial identity by committing herself to a community united by faith as opposed to skin color.

Religion can offer both comfort and anguish. It isn’t an absolute good in any character’s life, but instead a way for them to navigate the world. For Ruth and James (in his adulthood), their Christian faith is a guiding light in their lives. It also serves as a way for them to relate to each other, their community, and the late Andrew McBride. Religious communities allow disparate people to come together, as Ruth discovers after her conversion, and as James discovers when he investigates Ruth’s Jewish past. Crucially, religion also provides a framework for the characters to understand complex issues, and as James and his siblings try to understand where they fit in the world, they use the language of God and Jesus to determine what “color” they are.

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Religion Quotes in The Color of Water

Below you will find the important quotes in The Color of Water related to the theme of Religion.
Chapter 6 Quotes

…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.”

Related Characters: James McBride (speaker), Ruth McBride-Jordan
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 9 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Ruth McBride-Jordan (speaker)
Page Number: 80
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 10 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: James McBride (speaker), Ruth McBride-Jordan
Page Number: 103
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 11 Quotes

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.”

Related Characters: Ruth McBride-Jordan (speaker), Peter
Page Number: 113
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 21 Quotes

“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.”

Related Characters: Ruth McBride-Jordan (speaker), Tateh / Fishel Shilsky (speaker), Andrew Dennis McBride Sr. , Mameh / Hudis Shilsky
Page Number: 215
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 22 Quotes

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…”

Related Characters: James McBride (speaker), Ruth McBride-Jordan , Tateh / Fishel Shilsky, The Sheffer Family, The Jaffe Family, Helen Weintraub
Page Number: 224
Explanation and Analysis: