The Color of Water: Metaphor Analysis
The Color of Water
Skin color plays a large part in the discussions of this book. The narrator, James, says, “All my siblings, myself included, had some sort of color confusion at one time or another” because they were of mixed blood. His brother Richie deals with it by pretending to be green like the comic book character, the Incredible Hulk. Richie confronts his black preacher with a picture of Jesus, who looks like a white man. The preacher does not know what to say, but Richie claims they should not make Jesus look white: “Jesus should be gray” (Chpt. 6, p. 53).
James is curious why his mother does not look like him. He asks her if she is white, and she replies, she is “light-skinned” (Chpt. 4, p. 21). During the 1960s when Black Power is an important aspect of the pride of young African Americans, James fears for his mother’s whiteness in an all-black community: “I thought black power would be the end of my mother” (Chpt. 4, p. 26). James asks his mother Ruth if God is black or white, and she says God has no color; he is a spirit and spirit is “the color of water” (Chpt. 6, p. 51). This colorlessness of God is a metaphor for the transcending of racial prejudice, embraced first by the white mother, Ruth, and then later acquired by her black son, James.
Another aspect of this colorlessness is to be of all colors, like the rainbow. James claims his mother created her own “rainbow coalition”(Chpt. 25, p. 277) of racial blends with her brood of twelve kids and their own mixed blood children of various skin and hair colors. The wrestling of the McBride family with the issue of skin color follows the larger story of race in America, with the tension and hatred greatest from the 1930s to the 1950s. With the 1960s and the civil rights movement, skin color is not the same absolute barrier it once was, and James begins to make peace with it, claiming at last to be happy about being biracial, “a black man with something of a Jewish soul” (Chpt. 10, p. 103).
The Boy in the Mirror
James speaks of the pain of his mixed race heritage in several metaphors, the most important of which is the boy in the mirror. As a child he creates an imaginary world for himself by believing his true self is his reflection in the mirror. That boy has no racial pain. James locks himself in the bathroom and talks to the boy in the mirror, who is free. This strategy reflects his feeling of schizoid reality in which he is somehow in pieces rather than whole. He is neither white nor black, but the boy in the mirror does not worry about the split race question. He is free of it. To illustrate how it feels to be neither one thing or another, he explains that being mixed is “like that tingling feeling you have in your nose just before you sneeze—you’re waiting for it to happen but it never does” (Chpt. 25, p. 262). This metaphor conveys the explosive feeling, the itch beneath the skin James feels as a child to know who he is.
Another metaphor James uses to explain his search for a stable identity occurs during his recording of his mother’s life story. As she explains her past, he is able to reconstruct his own life: “I felt like a Tinkertoy kid building my own self out of one of those toy building sets; for as she laid her life before me, I reassembled the tableau of her words like a picture puzzle” ( Chpt. 25, p. 270). His self is never a given from birth. It has to be forged and made. It has to be imagined, like his play with the boy in the mirror.
The White Lady on the Bicycle
When Ruth Jordan’s second husband Hunter dies (James’s stepfather), Ruth falls apart in grief. Since she does not drive, she cannot use Hunter’s car, so she buys a bicycle. As a fourteen-year-old boy, James remembers being embarrassed by seeing his mother on the bicycle riding “in slow motion” while cars swerve around her, “the only white person in sight” (Chpt. 2, p. 7). He later understands this riding of the bicycle through the black neighborhood is “her way of grieving” (p. 7), but he remembers the image because “The image of her riding that bicycle typified her whole existence to me. Her oddness, her complete nonawareness of . . . imminent danger from blacks and whites” (Chpt. 2, pp. 7-8).
The children worry about their mother on the bicycle because she is awkward and out of control, nearly having an accident every time she rides, but she doesn’t. It is the perfect image for her life. First, she is fearless and does not care what others think of her or what impression she gives. Second, it reflects the spontaneity and chaos of her unplanned life that somehow turns out well in spite of everything. She plunges into marriage successively with two black men and lives in poverty, raising twelve children without a clue to where food and shelter will come from. She appears to be on the verge of panic, and is indeed lost at many points of her life—when she gets pregnant as a teenager, when her mother dies, and when she is a widow with eight children and no money. James never knows how to account for her strangeness, like her ability to speak Yiddish and haggle with merchants. Yet, she explains to James later, she had a specific goal in life. She wanted love, and from that angle, she was not a shaky and careless rider. She was capable, bold, tough, eccentric, and successful.
Later, James updates the bicycle metaphor to an airplane metaphor of his mother’s life: “She’s always been slightly out of control . . . taking the ship into the air to do loops and spins, then fleeing the cockpit screaming there will be a crash, but finally landing the plane safely herself” (p. 271).