you really black and Jewish?" a fellow Yalie once asked
Rebecca Walker. "How can that be possible?" She
didn't answer him, but the question was one she had been
asking her whole life: "Am I possible?"
mother, writer Alice Walker, and her father, Jewish civil
rights lawyer Mel Levanthal, certainly must have thought
so when they posed for their wedding portrait in 1967, in
defiance of Mississippi's miscegenation laws. Didn't their
"shiny, outlaw love," as their daughter calls
it, herald the racial harmony we all knew was just around
the corner? Wasn't racial animosity, after all, just a giant
misunderstanding that could be remedied by the "clean
application of Law," as Mel Levanthal believed, or
through the "magic ability of words to redefine and
create subjectivity," as per Alice Walker?
of course, proved such idealism a bit premature. Racial
differences, like marriage itself, turned out to be more
complicated. With the rise of black nationalism, Mr. Levanthal
was recast almost overnight as an interloper by the very
people for whose rights he had fought. Ms. Walker left her
husband's arms to embrace feminism and eventual Color Purple
fame. While Ms. Walker made San Francisco her home, Mr.
Levanthal ended up in lily-white Larchmont, N.Y. , married
to the nice Jewish girl his parents had preferred all along.
These new worlds barely intersected. Except for one small
matter: a "copper-colored" daughter.
only problem, of course, is me," Rebecca Walker writes
(always in the present tense), describing her parents' union
and breakup in Black, White and Jewish. After black and
white have retreated to their own comfort zones, "I
no longer make sense. I am a remnant, a throwaway, a painful
reminder of a happier and more optimistic but ultimately
of course, could be the lament of many a child of divorce-race
is only part of the story here. In this lyrical and devastatingly
honest memoir, Rebecca Walker bravely shares the details
of childhood agonies associated with mixed heritage. There's
her Jewish great-grandmother's stony silence; there's her
black uncle who described her laugh as "cracker."
But how much of Rebecca's personal pain came from being
crushed between two (or perhaps three) estranged cultures?
How to separate the racial wheat from the general human
emotional chaff? How much can be blamed on those other usual
suspects: adolescent angst, cultural ennui and that ubiquitous
American devil, bad parenting?
Levanthal Walker (nee Rebecca Grant Levanthal) was in the
third grade in Brooklyn when her parents separated. When
Alice Walker moved to San Francisco, "where she feels
she can write better because she can see the sky,"
Alice and Mel decided on a joint custody agreement: They
shuttled their young daughter back and forth between the
East and West coasts every two years.
were they thinking? "I don't know how they come up
with that number, two, as opposed to one, or why they didn't
simply put me in junior high here and high school there,"
Rebecca writes with admirable restraint. "I don't know
if staying in one city so that I wouldn't have to spend
my life zigzagging the country, so that I could have some
semblance of a normal relationship with friends and family
members, ever crossed either of my parents' minds."
in a destructive cycle, needing to re-invent herself every
couple of years (and having had little clue as to who she
was in the first place), Rebecca found she belonged simultaneously
to two worlds and to none. Not surprisingly, some of the
adjustments she made took on a racial twist: Denying part
of herself each time she shuffled from city to city, from
Jewish to black, from status-quo middle class to radical-artist
bohe-mian, she trained herself to keep the code, not to
say anything too white when she was with friends from the
inner city, not to say anything too black when she was at
Jewish summer camp.
mostly Rebecca Walker's story, as she tells it, is about
raising herself. Her mother bragged in interviews that she
and her daughter were like sisters, but as Rebecca points
out, "being my mother's sister doesn't allow me to
be her daughter." So while Alice Walker was off on
speaking engagements, sometimes for days on end, her "sister"
Rebecca was choosing her own high school, taking drugs,
having sex and generally fending for herself. When, at 14,
Rebecca told her mother she was pregnant, Alice Walker arranged
for an abortion. "She doesn't lecture me, she doesn't
say, How did this happen, aren't you using birth control,
she doesn't say much of any thing, except to call her boyfriend
a few hours later and tell him .... I hear her sighing as
she speaks, the same sigh I hear when she worries about
money, when she's feeling overwhelmed and retreats to her
bedroom for hours, sometimes days," Rebecca writes.
it was Rebecca's father's turn to parent, he didn't do much
better. He and stepmother Judy, whom Rebecca guiltily called
"Mom," had little or no idea about Rebecca's complicated
life. Perhaps afraid of the answers, they didn't ask any
questions. "They don't ask if I'm having sex or giving
blow jobs or feeling safe," writes Rebecca. When she
was in 12th grade, she legally changed her name to Walker,
a name that "links me tangibly and forever with blackness."
Her father, "oblivious to my reality," suggested
her choice had something to do with anti-Semitism.
judge from Rebecca's account, Alice Walker and Mel Levanthal
stumbled into an irony of their own making. They were certain
that understanding across racial lines was possible, but
as parents they failed to realize that their daughter's
unique racial experiences effectively placed her in a "race"
to which neither of them belonged.
survived. Though she doesn't write much about her present
life, we learn in passing that she works as a political
activist in the San Francisco Bay area, and that she's gay.
She makes it clear that she has found her own way at last.
When her female companion, who is black, asks her if she
considers black people her people, Rebecca Walker responds
with impressive clarity: How can she feel fully identified
with any one group of people when she has other people,
too, who are not included in that grouping?
Black, White and Jewish should make Rebecca's parents squirm,
but it's hardly a Mommy and Daddy Dearest. el and Alice
are no different from legions of other baby-boomer parents
who have mixed a high degree of self-absorption with an
even higher degree of creative idealism. Even when parents
fall short of their own ideals, they can still manage to
pass something of value on to their children. Despite all
their parental bumblings, Alice and Mel gave their daughter
the tools she needed to work her way out of all this confusion,
not the least important of which was love.