Rebecca Walker
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REBECCA WALKER CAPTIVATES AUDIENCE, SPEAKS ABOUT BIRACIAL AND LIFE EXPERIENCES,
by Anna Milanez © The Bi-Co News, 2001


     
 

Author and activist Rebecca Walker greeted an audience in Thomas Great Hall this past Thursday evening and talked about her experience being biracial in a racially divided society. Dressed in flowing white pants under a white skirt and wrapped in pink and yellow scarves, she seemed to exude an energy that everyone was easily drawn to. When addressing the audience, she was informal, beginning her talk with a casual request that everyone join her in saying “om” in order to set the mood for the talk, a vibration that Walker insisted would center and calm the nervous system.

Daughter of famed novelist Alice Walker, Rebecca Walker she graduated from Yale University in 1992 and has since spearheaded the Third Wave Direct Action Corps, an advocacy group that has traveled the country registering inner city residents to vote and which is devoted to cultivating activism in young women.

Her writing has been published in Essence, Mademoiselle, The New York Daily News, SPIN, Harper’s, Sassy, and The Black Scholar. In addition, Walker has been featured on CNN, MTV, The Charlie Rose Show, The Joan Rivers Show, and in The New York Times, The Chicago Times, The Atlanta Constitution, the San Francisco Examiner, Harper’s Bazaar, Working Woman, Elle, Esquire, and U.S. News and World Report.

She spoke about and read excerpts from her latest book, BLACK WHITE AND JEWISH: Autobiography of a Shifting Self. She began in a natural place, talking about her parents, whom she categorized as an interracial “movement” couple. They met in Mississippi in the mid 1960s, where her white father assisted in the movement to desegregate schools while her black mother was involved in similar anti-segregation activism. They married in defiance of the anti-miscegenation laws of Mississippi and were harassed with death threats, faced with violence, hatred, and immense resistance for what Walker described as “a very pure love,” regardless of the racial difference.

Though Walker’s earliest memories of Mississippi are idyllic, her parents divorced when she was 8 years old, at the same time that the movement that bound them began to change. A more militant edge to the black power movement replaced the 1960’s emphasis on peace and love. Her father was no longer welcomed in the Mississippi community while her mother’s strength was publicly jeopardized by her commitment to a white man.

Upon the divorce of her parents and throughout her life, Walker has found herself caught between black and white cultures, a struggle that is the focus of her autobiography. After the divorce, “everything that made me make sense,” she explains, “was gone. The book was an attempt to find and rewrite my story.”


The process of writing her autobiography led her to view herself within a racial construct in a much different way. She emphasized how the experiences she faced being biracial are common to all people. “Race, class, and culture are extremely performative. Whatever I thought was expected of me, I performed. There are so many different cultural masks, which each one of us inevitably assume.

Walker read three excerpts from her book, all from very different periods and places in her life. The first, and my favorite, was from a section entitled “Brooklyn,” which recounted her first “racial, cultural performance.” Walker was attending PS321 and tells the story of her crush on a white schoolmate who tells her one day that he “doesn’t like black girls.” The way in which Walker described her feeling at that moment was intense and tangible, characteristics that flavored each excerpt she read.

Shame stuck to me like sweat,” she recalled, a feeling that pushed her to become more like a “not-black girl” in order to win the acceptance of the boy. She gave a painful account of her attempts to mold herself accordingly. She brushed her hair incessantly, “like Martha Brady,” made sure that her crush saw when she was picked up from school by her white family, and tried to block out the public role of her black mother in her life. She discouraged her mother with lies from attending her performance in a school play so that her crush would not see her relation to someone black. Instead, her white father, stepmother, and grandmother attend. Though she sees what she wanted when she looks out at their faces, she feels the absence of her mother with shame, sadness, and guilt.

There was a part of me that was not acceptable, could not be seen or touched,” explained Walker. The poignancy of the section was wrapped up in this realization and in the sadness that Walker felt as a girl in performing what she deemed as necessary “cultural and racial performance.” But she also made it clear, directly and through her reading of other excerpts, that she has let go of her necessity and perhaps capacity to “perform,” out of her desire to truthfully portray who she is and not what she believes she should be perceived as.

After reading, Walker eagerly invited questions from the audience and received, unusually, many. One member of the audience asked Walker how her experiences as a biracial female may have differed from the experiences of a biracial male, as female identity is so often bound up in issues of beauty. Walker smiled and answered the question without hesitation, indicating that her biracial identity was severely complicated by her gender.

So much of my race was bound up in wanting to feel attractive to boys. Males have often been the root cause of my racial discomfort,” she answered. Issues of beauty have been particularly difficult for her, she explained, because she was caught between two different standards of beauty, white and black, and did not fit into either. Her black boyfriends encouraged her to become or act “more black,” while she was often rejected from whites like her PS321 crush, as she didn’t fit into that category. Walker found it was necessary to define her own sense of beauty while ignoring the conventional standards.

Walker was perhaps one of the best-liked speakers that Bryn Mawr has entertained this year. Her clarity and energy delivered the message that everyone must realize that we are not the body that we are in; there is a being that transcends physicality and race. As Walker emphasized, “we are all fundamentally whole.”

Rebecca Walker’s talk was sponsored by the Office for Institutional Diversity, the Center for Ethnicities, Communities & Social Policies, Feminist & Gender Studies, and the Half & Half Cultural Group.

 

 

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