Rebecca Walker



by Karen Hawkins ©, January 10, 2001


"Rebecca Walker tells the truth. Her words resonate with many of us and help us along the path. Here she is."

So goes the ideal introduction author/activist Rebecca Walker says she would prefer at her many speaking engagements instead of the accomplishment-laden prologue she usually receives.

"I'm not really into all that stuff," she says, referring to the awards and accolades most often mentioned in relation to her: her place as one of Time Magazine's 50 future leaders of America, her winning of the Paz Y Justicia award from the Vanguard Foundation, her founding of a national non-profit organization just after she graduated from Yale University.

She is more concerned with "reaching out to people at a deep emotional level," she says, and giving "people more space to be who they are. That's my goal."

That goal was also part of the motivation for Walker's stunning new memoir, Black White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self (Riverhead Books, $23.95).

Walker discussed the book with Windy City Times just three days after its release and right before she launched a book tour that brings her to Chicago on Jan. 16 (see below for details).

Walker's autobiography takes readers on a journey that begins with her birth in Jackson, Miss., in 1969, to a Black mother (author Alice Walker) and a white father (attorney Mel Levanthal) who could have been jailed for their marriage. It ends with the death of her paternal grandmother, a woman who strongly disapproved of her parents' marriage but nonetheless embraced the younger Walker as part of the family.

Walker offers snapshot-style stories about her upbringing, her parents' divorce and its aftermath. After initially living in different parts of New York City, her parents eventually move to different coasts&emdash;her father in New York, her mother in San Francisco&emdash;and she alternates between them every two years.

Her description of these transitions is fascinating; because of the rifts along racial lines in her family's lives, she is forced to shift from all-white surroundings to surroundings populated almost entirely by people of color.

Of her high school years she writes, "By now I am well trained in not breaking the code, not saying something too white around black people, or too black around whites."

The characters in her life have marked entrances and exits, and it is obvious that each scene and each person have been included in the narrative because of their impact on her and who she is as a person.

She describes the book as a literary memoir, a genre usually devoid of visuals, explaining the lack of family or personal pictures to accompany the text. "It's more about the words," she says.

She says there are several reasons she decided to write such a personal text for her debut.

"My intention was to heal&emdash;heal myself and help others who have had similar experiences heal," she says.

While on tour for an anthology that she edited&emdash;To Be Real&emdash;she saw "young, beautiful mixed people" in her audiences and she sought to make a connection with them.

"There's a way in which we're invisible as mixed people," she says. "We don't have these common stories we can relate to each other through."

Through her autobiography she hopes to help build a sense of community with others like her.

And, she says, "I definitely wrote the book in many ways for my parents. There was a lot they didn't know about me that I couldn't tell them."

Her parents have had difficulty accepting the book, feeling that she is too hard on them.

In the text, by the time they divorce when she is in the third grade, her parents no longer play a large part in the book, which instead focuses on what Walker experiences in the world she says they have cast her out in.

Anyone looking for a dramatic, Mommie Dearest-esque look at the elder Walker's personal life will be sorely disappointed. This book isn't about Alice Walker or her fame or that fame's effect on her daughter. The younger Walker rarely mentions her mother's celebrity status, giving a strong sense that it had very little effect on her daily life.

She describes the emotional process of writing the book as much more difficult than the mechanics of writing, noting, "Honestly, when I was writing it I had a lot of issues to work through ... . Once I really sunk into the writing process I found that the words just flowed out of me in an organic, emotional kind of way."

She says she has been surprised by much of the initial reaction to the book: men are having a harder time with it than women; some Jewish people have felt it is anti-Semitic; and one Black woman was angry about the way she describes her life in white suburbia.

"Everyone brings their own issues to it," she says, "it's really interesting."

Another common comment about the book is the way in which Walker deals with her sexuality&emdash;the gender of her lovers switches seamlessly from male to female in the text with no discussion.

"People have said, 'You don't have a coming-out moment,'" she says. "I've been bisexual since I was very young. I wrote my sexuality's development as I experienced it ... .There was a fluidity there."

"I decided not to create some big moment that wasn't true to my experience."

Walker has also decided not to take part in an anthology on bisexuality that she had planned to edit, and instead has signed on for an anthology entitled Putting Down the Guns: New Men on Masculinity.

The motivations for the new project are no less personal than those for her autobiography, and have "everything to do with me raising a son," she says. "I'm full-time masculinity police person," making sure that her son's emotional sensitivity remains intact.

She estimated that the project would be out in perhaps the next year or so.

For now, she is focusing her energies on Black White and Jewish and watching people's reactions develop.

"It's just been hard&emdash;it's like a reliving of all the other experiences. It just feels like a cruel repeat in some ways," she says, adding, "These things take time, and it'll all work itself out in the end."

Rebecca Walker speaks at 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 16 at Women and Children First Books, 5233 N. Clark.

Copyright © 2001 Lambda Publications Inc. All rights reserved. Lambda publishes Windy City Times, The Weekly Voice of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Trans Community, Nightlines, Out Resource Guide, Clout! Business Report, Blacklines and En La Vida. 1115 W. Belmont 2D, Chicago, IL 60657; PH (773) 871-7610; FAX (773) 871-7609. Web at



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