Rebecca Walker



by Jennifer Frey, © The Washington Post, January 21, 2001


Rebecca 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 worlds.

Two 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.

Years 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.

``I 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 parents.''

Walker's 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.

Walker, 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).

She's 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.

``That 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.''

She's 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 disquieting.

Alice, 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 empty.

Rebecca still manages to defend her mother's parenting.

``She 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.''

Alice 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 ``too tired.''

Over 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.

As a child, Rebecca thought the sign was cute, funny.

``As 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 her mother.

``People 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.''

Alice Walker has declined to discuss the book other than to say she understands Rebecca's frustrations.

The 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.

``My stepmother said she was surprised'' by the book, Walker says, ``because she never thought of me as a black child.''

That 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.

Walker 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.''

Coming late in the narrative, and following strong words of rejection for her father and his world, the passage seems to carry great weight.

``I 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.''



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