When people look for the definition of “identity”, it is defined as the characteristicsthat make a person who they are. There are multiple distinguishing traits that are used to describe someone’s individual identity, such as their race, place in society, and their religion. Most people tend to look for other people in which they can use these traits to identify. They communicate with others and determine their interests from responses in order to find a suitable group. The system in discovering one of these groups allows a person to find his or her own identity. In The Color of Water, a tribute written for his mother, James McBride exhibits that one becomes aware of his individual identity from not only the evaluation from others, but also through his own reasoning.
One of the factors of identity which can be evaluated on sight is race because it typically involves a person’s skin color. When children are young, they don’t pay attention to each other’s individual race unless an event brings them to understand the difference with races. McBride learned this difference quickly as he began to observe how both black and white people would stare at his white mother with her black family. This showed him that his family wasn’t normal under the conditions of what society believed. When he analyzed his skin color juxtaposed to his mother’s he noticed that his was all black, opposite from hers. This event led James to become unsure of why he was not the same as his mother. He struggled to be acknowledged by others saying that it “would be easier if [they]were just one color, black or white” (103). McBride’s eyes were opened to the different races at a very young age. He wasn’t confident in knowing the difference in color between himself and his mother. This caused him to be lost in finding the group in which he belonged to with his society.
Through the evaluation of others and different emotions formed, people are able to find out which group they belong to in society. James felt because his mother was white, it slowed down his process of finding his place in civilization. His course of action was to begin “running, emotionally disconnecting [himself]from her” (138). In school, he was an above average student, but even with that he dropped out so he could find someone to identify himself with. Soon afterwards, he joined an all black gang being an accomplice in their dirty deeds. McBride found himself to fit in with this group, but in his mind he knew what they were doing was wrong. He “was numb. [He] felt [he]was getting back at the world for [the]injustices [he had]suffered” (141). After his mother found out of his true whereabouts, she moved him to Kentucky to live with his sister Jack. This came to him as not as “punishment” but as “sweet liberty, and [he]stayed there for three straight summers” (143). While he was there, he found a group of individuals who had acknowledged him for who he was. He was able to “hide. No one knew him. No one knew about [his]past, [his]white mother, [or his]dead father, nothing” (147). The feeling he got from this made him feel at ease from his problems.
While in Kentucky, James was able to learn a lot about life. There was a Chicken Man who motivated him to go to school and pushed him to become successful in whatever he wanted.Jack told him that he needed to “choose between what the world expects of [him]and what [he]wants for [himself]” saying that if he puts himself in “God’s hands [he]can’t go wrong” (161).
The love he had for his sister led him to accept her words as nothing less than the truth. He turned to God allowing him to begin on his journey to find a true identity for himself. He began his search for a real group in society in which he knew he belonged.
Ruth, McBride’s mother, was also able find a group of people who encouraged her and shared the same idealistic views. With the judgments from others, she used her emotions to help her interpret her own religious identity. Her family was extremely influenced by their Jewish beliefs, and her father himselfwas rabbi. Ruth was forced to work at her father’s store whenever she was out of school causing her to lose her chance to find her social group. Even at school, she struggled to find the right group in which she belonged because she was continuously called names by the other students. She began to feel out-casted. She had no friends to acknowledge her. A girl named Frances was the only one to accept Ruth. McBride’s mother was starving, but “in another way. [She] was starving for love and affection” (83). Finally escaping from the hold of her family’s religious beliefs she searched for a religion that could assist her in her journey to find her identity. She came across a group known as Baptists in which she was able to relate to the individuals that belonged to the religious society. Ruth didn’t look like the others in the group but she agreed with what they believed in and felt the feeling of approval. She was able to find a group in which she could identify herself with allowing her to accept who she was and find her true identity.
In The Color of Water, James McBride struggles in his search to find his identity. This is a challenge that most people must endure in order to truly know one’s self. Once an individual truly understands themselves they can search for others with similar characteristics. With the acceptance of other people, one can learn more about who they are. Although James McBride goes through a good portion of his life searching to be accepted by society, he was finally able to establish an identity for himself in which he could relate to others. This along with the influence of his religious beliefs allowed him to accept who he was and find his true place in society.