The Color of Water revolves around James McBride’s mother, who has two identities: One is Rachel, the frightened Jewish girl who flees her painful past to reinvent herself in New York City’s black community. Rachel’s way of raising her children turns out to be a reflection of her otherwise repudiated Jewish cultural background. This side of McBride’s mother establishes her home as a place of learning and moral instruction and, despite the domestic chaos of her household, maintains strict rules and high expectations for her children both intellectually and ethically. Her other identity is Ruth, a jubilant Baptist and an eccentric but loving mother, who allows her twelve children to assume she is a light-skinned black woman. A strong and spirited matriarch, the Ruth her children know is sustained through many crises by both her personal resourcefulness and her deep religious faith. Despite her strength, however, a layer of Ruth’s personality retains the sorrows and regrets of her childhood.
The other major figure in The Color of Water is Ruth’s troubled but curious son James, who senses that he must recover the world his mother abandoned if he is to complete his own sense of identity. The process of releasing his mother from her grief and guilt-filled silence and his discovery that he is indeed biracial allows James to reconcile different aspects of his personality that he has always seen as opposed. Most important, while affirming his sense of himself as a black man, James’s journey into his mother’s past convinces him that he also possesses something of a Jewish soul.
James discovers that he must recognize both his African American and his white family background if he is to construct a coherent American identity. This need to acknowledge the complex and plural historical roots of American identity forms a core theme of the book. Related to this understanding of identity is the importance of family history and memory: Both mother and son recover aspects of themselves through their excavation of a buried past. As part of this journey of self-discovery, McBride includes the context of America in the twentieth century, weaving his family’s personal story into such events as Jewish immigration, the Great Depression, and the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960’s, all of which contributed to both Ruth’s and James’s sense of themselves and their place in the world.
The theme of moving beyond racial exclusivity is indicated by the title of the novel, which speaks to a transcendent color-blind ideal. A related theme is the experience of doubleness, which is suggested both thematically and structurally and which shapes the self-understanding of both mother and son. Each has two identities, one that connects to the white Jewish world and one that connects to a black Baptist community. Both mother and son ultimately recognize both of their identities as components of an integral self. Beyond the issue of cultural identity, however, is the larger story of an extraordinary woman who never allowed the numerous obstacles she faced to prevent her from doing a superior job of raising her children. The Color of Water is a tribute to James McBride’s extraordinary mother and to the wisdom of her belief in the values of education, family, and religious faith.
The Color of Water: Summative Assessment (Formal Essay Assignment)
Choose one of the following two essay questions, and then construct a thoughtful, well-organized essay responding to the prompt.
For either essay question, you must use quotes from the text to support your responses. Cite with page number. Respond thoroughly to all parts of the question. Be clear and thoughtful in your responses. Your essay should be typed, Times New Roman 12 pt. font, 1” margins all around, double-spaced. It should be 3 – 4 pages. Please consult rubric when writing your essay!
Due two weeks after completion of text. Please write due date here _______.
1. Culture and identity are two important concepts in James McBride’s The Color of Water, which we have studied in depth over the course of this unit. How do James’ understanding of and experiences with the cultures, races, and religions (Jewish, Christian, Lutheran, Baptist, etc.) that surround him eventually help him to better understand himself, that is, his identity? Name at least three specific instances (experiences–these may be clashes of culture, important moments in his life, etc.) that substantiate, (support) your point of view. How does James’ research into his mother’s heritage, (background) eventually help him to understand his own identity? Explain.
And finally, connect this to another text we have read, yourself, or the world around you– How important is the understanding of our own heritage to accepting and understanding our own identity? Justify your belief.
2. Page 94 of The Color of Water reads: “The question of race was like the power of the moon in my house. It’s what made the river flow, the ocean sell, and the tide rise, but it was a silent power, intractable, indomitable, indisputable, and thus completely ignorable.”
What does the author mean by saying race is “ignorable?” Using what you have learned from our identity activities, respond with either affirmation (Yes, I think race is ignorable under the following circumstances) or rejection (Race, under no circumstances is ignorable). Be sure to cite not only personal examples, but examples from the text to support your position. Make a text-to-text connection—relate your response to one of the other texts we have studied in class (or something you have read outside of class). Does the world consider race “ignorable”? Support your responses with specific examples.
Due Date: _____________
Ms. Melissa Culladamiza
Summative Assessment / The Color of Water Formal Essay Rubric
** You must hand in this rubric when you hand in your essay. **
Essay Question #1
Your essay will be graded with the following areas of focus in mind.
Ideas/Content (55 points) ________
Answers all parts of question
– Explains experiences with cultures, races, and religions contributing to identity
– Gives three specific instances that support
– Describes research into his mother’s heritage contributing to identity
– Makes a text-to-text, text-to-world, or text-to-self connection
– Comments on understanding of our own heritage and its contribution to understanding identity
Uses quotes from text to support
Main ideas stand out
Development of ideas is sufficient
Reflects careful thought
Organization (25 points) ________
Introduction successfully introduces topic
Conclusion wraps up essay effectively
Body paragraphs flow easily
Transitions are used effectively
Paragraphs and sentences are organized and sequenced
Sentence Structure (10 points) ________
Varied sentence structure
Uses complete sentences
No run-on sentences
Sentences are not awkward
Mechanics (10 points) ________
No spelling errors
Grammar is correct
Consistent use of verb tense