Ruth's Attractions to Peter, Dennis, and Hunter in the Color of Water: A Psychological Perspective
In Chapter 11 of David G. Myers's Social Psychology, "Attraction and Intimacy: Liking and Loving Others" the author discusses various factors and qualities that account for what attracts human beings to each other, such as a need to belong; geographical proximity, a feeling of being similar to the person or having things in common, physical attractiveness, etc. James McBride, in his book The Color of Water, a memoir of growing up poor in a black New York neighborhood, having been born to a black father (who died right after he was born) and an Orthodox Jewish-born mother, uses both his own and his mother Ruth's voice to convey Ruth's reasons for being attracted to the three black man who were, in succession, the most important men in her life. In this essay, I will explore Ruth McBride's attractions to three African-American men: Peter, Dennis, and Hunter, respectively, in terms of what Myers suggests, in Social Psychology, about human attraction, and about liking and loving others.
First, I will give some background on Ruth herself, and why she may have felt so attracted, as a teenager, to Peter, who was black, instead of being attracted to some white or Jewish boy. Ruth had been born in Poland, and came to America with her family when she was just two years old. She and her older brother Samuel were both born in Poland. Only their younger sister Dee, the third child in the family, was born in America. Ruth's parents, her father in particular, made Ruth and Samuel feel that Dee was their favorite, because Dee was their only American child. Ruth's parents hated Poland and loved America, so Dee was favored. Ruth felt rejected and like an outsider, even inside her own family.
The worst aspect of Ruth's early family life, though, was that her father secretly molested her: "My father did things to me when I was a young girl that I couldn't tell anyone about. Such as getting into bed with me at night and doing things to me sexually that I could not tell anyone about" (51). Because Ruth's first sexual contact with a man was an inappropriate contact with a Jewish man, her father, Ruth might right then and there have developed an aversion to white or Jewish men like her father because they might hurt her, like her father did. In Chapter 11 of Social Psychology, David G. Myers talks about the human need to bond in relationships that provide ongoing, positive, interactions. Ruth's first relationships of that sort, with her family, however, were very poor, and that perhaps led her to seek out relationships with others who did not remind her of her family.
Next, I will explore why Ruth, as a teenager, was so attracted to Peter, even though she was a white Jewish girl and he was an African-American boy. Myers makes three points in Chapter 11 of Social Psychology that may help clarify that attraction. These are: (1) geographical nearness; (2) anticipatory liking; and (3) mere exposure. First, Ruth and Peter lived in the same town and saw each other often. Second, Ruth felt anticipatory liking toward Peter and African-Americans because she saw African-Americans at her father's store often. She even felt more comfortable with them than with white people, perhaps because she and they were equally outsiders by white people. Third, Ruth had a great deal of exposure to Peter because he kept coming into her father's store (where she was stuck working most of the time). She started to look forward to seeing Peter, which was one of the few daily occurrences she had to look forward to. Her life was basically miserable until Peter came along, and he was the first man who loved her. As Ruth says of Peter, "Who cared if he was black? He was the first man other than my grandfather who ever showed me any kindness in my life" (p. 117).
As a girl attending school in Suffolk, Virginia, where her family had moved (after several other moves because her father was an unsuccessful rabbi who kept getting fired), and her father opened a grocery business, Ruth, being one of the very few Jewish students, if not the only Jewish student, felt just as out of place in her own way as a black person would have felt. She was a white Jewish girl, and like Peter, she was discriminated against by others, in school and elsewhere, because they thought she was different from them, and therefore not as good. Growing up in the South (Suffolk, Virginia), and she felt, in her own way, as different from the other white people as Peter and his friends must have felt. Myers talks about how birds of a feather flock together. Ruth and Peter were "birds of a feather" psychologically, even if their skin colors were much different.
Later on, after Ruth moved to New York and began working in Aunt Mary's leather factory, she became attracted to Dennis, an African-American man who worked for Aunt Mary, for a lot of the same reasons she had been attracted to Peter. Again, these were: These are: (1) geographical nearness; (2) anticipatory liking; and (3) mere exposure. Dennis worked in the same factory and they lived in the same place, so Ruth and Dennis could see a lot of each other. Ruth may also have unconsciously (or consciously) been looking for someone like her first love, Peter, who would stand up for her, take risks on her behalf, and provide a refuge from her family (in this case, Aunt Mary). As Ruth later explains to her son James, she married Dennis "to get away from my family" (p. 178). Therefore, in terms of "anticipatory liking," Ruth anticipated liking someone who would have personal qualities like Peter's, the same qualities Dennis turned out to have. Dennis also stood up to Aunt Mary when she wanted him to take a one hundred pound roll of leather, by himself, to Manhattan on the subway. As Ruth recalls, "That was one of the first times I ever saw a man, any man, stick up to Aunt Mary" (Mc Bride). Ruth also had a similar sort of "mere exposure" to Dennis that she had had to Peter because they worked together. The circumstances under which she saw Dennis every day may even have reminded her of the circumstances under which she had frequently seen Peter: while she was working inside a family business, doing work she disliked for a family she disliked. In both cases, these men offered Ruth refuge from her family: Peter, psychological refuge, and Dennis, refuge that was both physical and psychological.
Hunter Jordan, Sr., James McBride's stepfather and the only father he every knew growing up (his biological father, Dennis, died shortly after his birth) was the third and final love of Ruth's life. Like Peter and Dennis, he was African-American. As James McBride writes:
He and mommy met a few months after my biological father died; Ma was selling church dinners in the plaza in front of our building . . . when my stepfather came by and bought a rib dinner. The next week he came back and bought another, then another and another.
The same three factors discussed by Myers in Chapter 11 of Social Psychology also figured in Ruth's attraction to Hunter, just as they had earlier in her attractions to Peter and then to Dennis: (1) geographical nearness; (2) anticipatory liking; and (3) mere exposure. Ruth and Hunter lived close to each other and attended the same church. Hunter obviously went out of his way to maximize his exposure to Ruth by continuing to come by the…