Walker spent years forgetting her childhood. It wasn't difficult.
All she had, really, were a series of fragments, partial
memories. Different cities, different neighborhoods, different
years with her mother, Alice Walker, who left notes admonishing
Rebecca to ``take care of yourself'' while she went about
the all-consuming work of being a writer. Two years with
her father, civil rights lawyer Mel Leventhal, who looked
at her uncomprehendingly when she tried to explain how it
felt to be the only black person in their upper-middle-class,
predominantly Jewish suburb.
later, in her mid-20s, she sat down at her computer and
tried to remember. The memories came like shards of glass,
prompting tears, sorrow, anger.
really wanted my parents to understand what my life was
like, and they just couldn't grasp it,'' says Rebecca
Walker. ``I felt I needed to really show them in concrete
terms what I had gone through. You want to be seen, you
want to be known, you want to be understood especially by
book, Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting
Self, is as much about family as race or religion. In it,
she unravels a childhood in which she tries to find her
place as a child of the civil rights movement, a child whose
parents divorced when she was 8 and then shuttled her back
and forth between their two worlds.
31, settling in for an interview at the George Hotel during
her book tour, is open, warm, self-deprecating. The Yale
University graduate has been affiliated with Ms. magazine
since 1989; currently, she's focusing on public speaking,
an as-yet undefined book project, and another anthology
(she has appeared in several and edited one).
also thoughtful. And worried: That her book will be misinterpreted.
That some people have seen her work as critical of her Jewish
heritage. That some might read her descriptions of her Jewish
world where she talks of rich homes, comfortable lives,
``white-girl snobbishness'' as stereotypes.
upsets me a lot,'' she says. ``All I can say is,
that's the community I was in extremely privileged and I
tried to be as honest to the experience as I could be.''
also worried about telling her story within the context
of her life with her famous, almost revered mother. In Rebecca's
book, Alice's public persona is almost nonexistent. Still,
she knows some readers will come to this book looking to
learn more about Alice Walker, and what they will find is
in her own essay ``One Child of One's Own,'' worried greatly
that becoming a mother would drain her creative abilities,
and her relationship with Rebecca reflects that. As described
by her daughter, Alice seemed to be a distant, even neglectful
parent who left her teen-age child alone for days at a time.
In her absence, Rebecca gets involved with drugs and hangs
out with drug dealers; she has relationships with much-older
men, one of whom impregnates her at 14 (she had an abortion).
At 15, she is openly involved with a 21-year-old; her mother
allows her to travel with him and visit him out of town
regularly. The refrigerator in the Walkers' home is routinely
still manages to defend her mother's parenting.
was a part of and still is a part of the women's movement,''
Rebecca says, ``and there is a sense that young women
had been made dependent and kept dependent in many ways.
She thought by allowing me this great, independent childhood
that I would be more independent and stronger as an adult.
I don't think she thought she was being neglectful. I think
she thought this was a good, fine thing, to let me experience
the world alone.''
routinely described her relationship with her daughter as
a ``sisterhood.'' Rebecca writes that ``sisterhood'' seems
to be a way for Alice to excuse herself from her responsibilities
as a parent. She hires someone to register Rebecca for private
high school and shop for her school clothes because she's
her work desk, Alice kept a handmade sign to remind her
that of all the obstacles faced by great women writers of
the past, her obstacle, Rebecca, is ``much more delightful
and less distracting than any of the calamities'' they faced.
a child, Rebecca thought the sign was cute, funny.
an adult, I was like: `This is horrible,''' says Rebecca,
who is co-parenting the 11-year-old son of her partner,
singer-songwriter Me'shell NdegeOcello. Still, she defends
who contribute so much to their culture, people who are
so dedicated to their art, their work this is not an uncommon
problem,'' she says. ``I don't feel like I could
be where I am, where I can honor my work and my child, if
my mother and her generation hadn't gone before.''
Walker has declined to discuss the book other than to say
she understands Rebecca's frustrations.
description of life with father is no more gentle just as
blunt, just as honest, just as painful at times. Rebecca
writes almost lovingly of her stepmother, a white Jewish
woman Leventhal married after divorcing Alice. Yet Rebecca
still clearly feels some distance from her.
stepmother said she was surprised'' by the book, Walker
says, ``because she never thought of me as a black child.''
saddened Walker. She still sees her stepmother as the most
nurturing, motherly influence in her young life but it was
that lack of recognition that she was different that was
hardest for her during those years she lived with her father
and stepmother. She wanted someone to acknowledge it, talk
about it. She still does. It is, in large part, why she
wrote the book. So that her parents could see things the
way she saw them, so that they could see her life as her
narrative, rather than simply a part of their own.
writes of herself, as a 12th-grader, changing her name from
Rebecca Leventhal to Rebecca Leventhal Walker a decision
``privileging my blackness and downplaying what I think
of as my whiteness.''
late in the narrative, and following strong words of rejection
for her father and his world, the passage seems to carry
want to be closer to my mother, to have something run between
us that cannot be denied,'' she writes. ``I want
a marker that links us tangibly and forever as mother and
daughter. That links me tangibly and forever with blackness.''