The Color of Water: Summary of Chapter 2-5
Summary of Chapter 2: The Bicycle
The memoir switches to James’s point of view. When he was fourteen, and his stepfather Hunter Jordan died, the only father he had known, his mother mourned in a strange way. She took up the piano and began riding a bicycle all over the black neighborhood since she couldn’t drive. They lived in St. Albans in Queens, New York, and the half-black young James is embarrassed by having a white mother who rides the bike in a conspicuous way against traffic. His stepfather had married his mother when she was a widow with eight black children. Hunter had mixed Indian and black blood and gave his mother four more children. He was the only “Daddy” James had known, since his own father died when his mother was pregnant with him. At fourteen, James drops out of school, takes drugs, and begins to live a street life, snatching purses. The older children are all in college or graduate school, which his mother had forced “through sheer will power,” (p. 7) since there was no money.
James recalls he always thought his mother strange. She did not look like her children, she did not socialize, and she could speak Yiddish. She ruled her twelve children with an iron fist and would never discuss issues of race. As a younger kid, James was at the mercy of the older siblings. There was never enough of food, clothes, musical instruments, or books to go around, so they shared everything. When James asks his mother questions about race or her background, she would avoid the topic and say, “Educate your mind . . . Forget everything else” (p. 13). James describes his siblings as “ragged with wild hairdos” (p. 14).
Commentary on Chapter 2: The Bicycle
The memoir skillfully switches voices between Ruth and James throughout the book, establishing a rhythm of unfolding a fuller picture of the family and their challenges. The narrative is largely chronological but focuses on highlights or moments, such as this one when Hunter Jordan dies. Both Ruth and her son James fall apart when Hunter is gone. James takes to the street without a father figure to help him, and Ruth is lost, with a second husband gone and still five children at home to raise by herself. James begins to give us flashes of how it was to grow up in such a large and poor family that rarely had an adult around to monitor it. His mother had to work nights, and his stepfather only came home on weekends.
Besides the poverty, James always had a difficult time with the question of race, who his mother was, and who he was. His part of the narrative shows the puzzling questions of a mixed race child. The mother’s narrative sheds light on his questions, but was only shared much later with him when he became an adult journalist investigating his family’s past. James’s chapters establish his need to understand his mother’s side of the family, and Ruth’s narrative brings out why she was reluctant to share this information. Her memoir is honest, direct, and demonstrates her great intelligence, courage, and independence in daring to enter a mixed marriage in the 1940s.
Summary of Chapter 3: Kosher
Ruth recounts that her mother’s family had the class and money in Poland. Her father was cruder and had lower class manners, though he was respected as a rabbi. He married his mother as a ticket into America. Her mother’s eldest sister and husband sponsored them to come to New York. She was two and her brother, Sam, was four when they arrived in America. Their father threatened to send them all back to Europe whenever he was mad. Her mother was terrified of the Tsar and the Kaiser and told about the cold-blooded mass killings in Polish villages.
They lived with her grandparents in Manhattan when they first arrived. Her grandparents were warm and loving, the only family members who were. They were Orthodox Jews and ate kosher, which were strict rules for eating certain foods on separate sets of dishes. There were many rules for Sabbath. Ruth could never bear sitting still. She liked to run and move. A child was not allowed to ask questions. When her grandfather died, she felt great claustrophobia about the burial rites but was not allowed to say the word, “death,” and she never understood it.
Commentary on Chapter 3: Kosher
Ruth gives a strong feeling for the claustrophobic life in her family, though her grandparents were warm and loving. She remembers only arbitrary rules and not being able to ask questions. Death is frightening to her because of the rituals and finality of burial. Her grandfather looks asleep, not dead, and she feels they are burying him too soon. She never gets over the shock of death, having major breakdowns with her mother’s death, and the death of her two husbands. James describes her teetering on the edge of sanity when someone close to her dies, but she just manages to bring herself back.
Ruth has a surprisingly detailed memory of Jewish customs, even though it happened to her fifty years ago by the time she recalls it for her son. This gives an understanding of the power of her heritage and the power it still has over her, despite her suppression of her Jewish memories. With her family performing a kaddish or ceremony for the dead for her while she was still alive, she feels the fear of premature burial, as she did with her grandfather. The desire for life explains her drive to escape a restrictive background at the young age of eighteen.
Summary of Chapter 4: Black Power
James tells how his mother avoided explaining who she was as they were growing up. When he asked where she was from, she would say, “God made me . . . I’m light-skinned” (p. 21). He only got a few tidbits from older siblings. The children teased each other about their background. A brother told James he was adopted, and he went into a panic. His mother did not look like the children with their brown skin. His mother would comfort him that she was truly his mother, but he retains “an ache” (p. 23) inside him about his mixed race, and he does not know what it is.
In 1966, when he was nine, the subject of Black Power was a hot topic. Malcolm X, the militant black leader, had just been killed, and James’s siblings could discuss nothing else. James is confused, because Black Power seems threatening to his white mother. His mother will not discuss politics. She has created her own world with her children: “She insisted on absolute privacy, excellent school grades, and trusted no outsiders of either race” (p. 27). She works the swing shift as a typist at Chase Manhattan Bank, and her only goal is to get her children educated and to church. James’s parents believed that education was the way out of poverty. While Ruth trusts blacks more than whites, she tries to save her children from conflict. She sets the example by ignoring insults when she appears with her black children in public. While James worries for his white mother’s safety, she herself is fearless and determined, even after getting mugged. James once hits another black kid who brags that his father is a Black Panther, thinking he is defending Mommy.
Commentary on Chapter 4: Black Power
James presents a graphic picture of how confusing it was to be of mixed blood during the civil rights movement. While some of his older brothers and sisters take part in the demonstrations, he only thinks of protecting his white Mommy. He cannot understand why she is white, and she will not explain it to him, so he is always left with an ache that he cannot fix. His mother defends Malcolm X and civil rights, but she does not want her children to focus on race. She wants them to educate their minds as a way of knowing who they are.
Summary of Chapter 5: The Old Testament
Ruth explains in her voice her father’s role as a traveling rabbi in America. He would get contracts from synagogues, but since he was paid little, the family depended on charity and handouts to get by. They moved a lot. His father was not a good rabbi. She was ashamed of her mother being crippled by polio, but she explains that love was not natural to her until she became a Christian.
Eventually, the family ended up in Suffolk, Virginia in 1929. They were not accepted there, because they were Jews. The children called her names. When her father could make no money as a rabbi, he opened a store that sold mostly to black people, which increased the town’s prejudice against them. Ruth’s “Mameh” was a good wife and kept the religious tradition, but her family in New York ignored her, and so did her husband. The father makes everyone work hard in the store, and there was no family love. She describes her terror of her father, who sexually abused her.
She defends her choice of a black husband, saying that James’s father, Dennis, “taught me about a God who lifted me up and forgave me and made me new. I was lucky to meet him or I would’ve been a prostitute or dead” (p. 43). She says the Jews were still waiting for the Messiah. She describes Passover customs.
Commentary on Chapter 5: The Old Testament
Ruth tries to explain how she could forsake her own religious tradition for Christianity. The chapter title contrasts with the next chapter title, suggesting the harshness of Old Testament law and the New Testament law of forgiveness. Ruth’s family thinks she has made a choice to lower herself and the family by marrying a black man, but what she tells us of Dennis shows his great kindness and humanity in contrast to her own family’s cruelty. In her family, only her mother and grandparents show Ruth any love or understanding. Her father does everything to squash the life out of his family, using them for his own purposes. All the children run off as soon as they can, and the poor mother dies an early and sad death. The harshness and strict rules of her Jewish life are constantly seen in light of the liberation she feels in finding a loving and forgiving God. Dennis exemplifies Christianity to Ruth, for his kindness to everyone. Love is more important to her than skin color or customs.