family escaped pogroms in Kiev and survived African slavery;
now the daughter of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist wants
to know if we relate.
"Did you find that you were able to access this
book?" the bronze-skinned writer asks, her watery
brown eyes peering at me intently. Self-assured and curious,
31-year-old Rebecca Walker is questioning mealthough
I am the interviewer, and she the subject. She wants to
know: How do Ias a Jewreact to her autobiography?
Do I relate? For Walker, who is both black and Jewish, this
question is more than just banter: It goes to the crux of
who she is.
The daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Alice Walker
(The Color Purple, 1982) and Jewish civil-rights activist
Mel Leventhal, Walker is noshing on thinly sliced carrots
inside a conference room at Penguin Putnam Publishing House.
From her cropped black hair down to her square-toed boots,
Walker is worn out by a morning of promoting her recently
published Black, White and JewishAutobiography of
a Shifting Self (Putnam, 2001).
her exhaustion, Walker wants to talk identity politics.
She says she has just been interviewed by a reporter from
the Quarterly Black Review and is curious to observe the
differences between the way a black reporter and a Jewish
reporter interact with her. "The black woman who
was here before you felt totally comfortable,"
Walker says, her hands taking on a life of their own as
they move animatedly in front of her. "She was resting
on a presumed mutual understanding of blackness."
As for me, the Moment reporter, the verdict is still out.
self-described "movement child," Walker was born
in 1969 to social activists who married in Mississippi during
the height of the civil- rights movementin defiance
of that state's antimiscegenation laws. "My parents
tell me that I can do anything I put my mind to, that I
can be anything I want," she writes in Black, White
and Jewish. And in fact, six years ago, at age 25, the Yale
graduate was named by Time as one of 50 future leaders of
America. Walker is an "agitator," the article
statedextremely vocal on issues of equality, feminism,
and racism. And she's already compiled an impressive résumé.
She cofounded the Third Wave Foundation in New York City,
which supports projects that cultivate young women's leadership
potential. She edited To Be RealTelling the Truth
and Changing the Face of Feminism (Doubleday 1995), an anthology
used in many women's studies classes around the country.
And she has been published in magazines such as Essence,
Mademoiselle, and Harper's.
being a movement child wasn't always glamorous. When Walker
was in the third grade, her parents separated. Their marriage
had faded along with '60's idealism. As a child of divorce,
Rebecca schlepped back and forth between her parent's homes
in the Bronx, San Francisco and Washington, DC. With each
year, and each relocation, she was forced to inhabit the
distinct culture and class of either her white-upper-middle-class
attorney father or her black working-class writer mother.
Ultimately, she was left struggling to fend for herself,
numbing her pain with casual sex and indiscriminate drug
I am [of] mixed [race] and spent my life shuttling between
different communities, cultures, families, and cities, I
grew up feeling very much like I was fragmentedpsychically
and emotionally," Walker says, looking off at a
blank spot on the wall that seems to help her focus. But
as an adult, she adds, she has managed to integrate her
culturally diverse backgrounds. "I don't feel like
I have to adapt so much. Talking to you, I don't feel this
enormous anxiety about having to prove my Jewishness in
a child, Walker was never fully embraced by any one of the
communities with which she culturally identifies. Her Jewish
great-grandmother, Jenny, virtually ignored her. Her black
relatives in Mississippi made fun of her for acting "like
a cracker," for revealing traits that were deemed "white."
In her isolation, Walker adopted different personas to assimilate.
would morph herself into a black, white, or Jewdepending
on whose company she was keeping. This comes out effectively
in her memoir as she slips easily between black and Jewish
voices. "It is after school and hot and somebody
has a box, and this year the big song is 'Planet Rock' by
Soul Sonic Force," Walker writes, using the jargon
she would have used with her Latino friends in the Bronx.
"We jam all the way down the hill on the bus, windows
open, us taking over the whole long boat of the bus, yelling
to old Jewish ladies pushing their grocery carts, 'Rock,
rock to the planet Rock, don't stop!' And Melissa is talking
all fast like usual in Nuyorican to her sister, 'Listen,
girl, you'd better not tell Momi, you hear me? 'Cause she'll
kill me if she knew I'm goin out with a 20-year-old Dominican,
I swear to God."
preceding summer, Walker seemed a different person with
her Jewish friends at Camp Fire Lake. "Andi is a
total Jap," she writes in a voice she might have
used with her Jewish peers, "a Jewish American Princess,
and we call her that to her face, behind her back. Me and
Pam Menela, who lives out in Queens in a big high-rise and
whose parents are in clothes manufacturing, suck our teeth
and roll our eyes. 'She's such a Jap,' we spit. 'Can you
believe she wore real diamond earrings to camp? Uch. I hope
she loses them in the lake.' And then we walk arm-in-arm
into the mess hall, splitting at the door to go to our respective
paternal great-grandmother escaped the Kiev pogroms, and
a maternal great-grandmother was an African slave, and Walker
spent her youth frantically struggling to integrate those
multiple identities. Was she rich or poor? Black or white?
And was she Jewish? According to Walker, she was simultaneously
all and none of the above.
Walker and her female partner live in Berkeley, where they
are raising their 11-year-old son (her partner's biological
child) with some Judaism, some Buddhism, and a lot of love,
says Walker. "I am more culturally Jewish than I
am religiously Jewish, and my spiritual practice has been
much more rooted in Buddhism," Walker says. (The
writer has even taken her son with her on several Buddhist
retreats.) Walker's partner (who requested anonymity for
herself and her son) was raised Christian. Yet Walker says
that her partner has become increasingly interested in Judaism.
She "wants to observe the Sabbath [and] do Shabbat
dinner," Walker says. "She really wants
to bring Jewish ritual into our family life. It's very interesting
to me. And I am open to it."
While Walker's son is not biologically Jewish, he too has
taken an interest in the religion. "It's interesting,"
says Walker. "One of [my son's] best friends is
Jewish. And when we lived in Los Angeles, he would go over
to [his friend's house] for the weekend. And my son would
come home and say, 'Can I go to Hebrew school?'"
herself never attended Hebrew school. Growing up in her
father's home, she learned much of what she knows about
Judaism from her stepmother. Leventhal, who is still a practicing
attorney, remarried a Jewish woman with whom he fathered
two children. In her memoir, Walker recalls that as a teen
she resented her father. "My father has seemingly
stopped caring about all things racial and political and
has settled into a comfortable routine commuting from Westchester
and going to lily-white Little League games in pristine
suburban ballparks," she writes.
was not only his distance from politics that infuriated
Walker, but also his distance from her mother, who never
remarried. Writing The Color Purple in 1982, Alice Walker
won worldwide acclaim (including a 1983 Pulitzer) for the
novel about an illiterate young black woman living in the
South. Three years after its publication, director Steven
Spielberg turned it into a major motion picture. Walker
went on to write many other best-sellers including In Search
of Our Mothers' Gardens, The Temple of My Familiar, and
Possessing the Secret of Joy.
important was the Color Purple to young Rebecca Walker's
development? You won't find out from Black, White and Jewish.
In 288 pages, Walker does not mention her mother's book
once. As for her own readers, Walker says she wants them
"to feel a real kinship and connection with [my
experiences as] a little girl and to be able to connect
with [that girl] and love her even if she move[s] from [certain]
into other communities that the reader
might not feel comfortable with." And, according
to the author, readers are successfully connecting "rather
than running into the more traditional blocks of race and
culture that might normally make them [feel] uninterested
or [make them] have some kind of aversion."
says she made real contact when she read for a group of
300 black and Jewish Dartmouth College students at the school's
Hillel Center in October. The students, she said, "really
responded beautifully and deeply to it." Walker
says the event was "one of the most moving, healing
experiences of my lifeto have this mixed group in
the room listening to my story, crying with me, laughing
at certain points."
not all readers have been so welcoming. Walker says her
own father has called Black, White and Jewish "anti-white
black propaganda." And a recent Forward review was
sharply critical of the memoir. Examining the section in
which Walker explains why as a high-school senior she legally
changed her surname from Leventhal to Walker ("When
I change my name, I do so because I do not feel an affinity
for whiteness, with what Jewishness has become"),
the reviewer indignantly writes that in doing so, Walker
"turned her back on her grandmother." And the
reviewer notes that the memoir has "glaring omissions,"
including the fact that Walker "neglects to address
the larger question of black anti-Semitism. How did Jewsonce
so intimately involved in the civil-rights movementbecome
the target of so much black hate?"
readers have also criticized Walker's memoir. One black
woman was upset by a passage in which Walker is mistaken
for her white brother's nanny ("In the Larchmont
Baskin-Robbins I overheard a woman marveling at what a young
but capable nanny I am"). The woman "thought
I was saying that I believe the idea of the 'perfect family'
is this little white perfect familyso she felt betrayed
as a black reader," says Walker.
years in the making, Walker says Black, White and Jewish
was terrifying to write. It reveals extremely personal details
(her first experience with oral sex, her abortion at age
15), which were not easy to share. "I just had to
keep telling myself that these things were truthful and
I didn't have to feel ashamed of them and that more than
likely people would be able to relate to them and relate
to my story more deeply because of them," she says.
to Walker, the book has been cathartic for her entire family.
"So much so," she says, that she had Thanksgiving
with her father and mother this year for the first time
in two decades. Describing her mother as "diplomatically
supportive" of Black, White and Jewish, Walker
says her parents were "basically, fairly uninvolved
with my day-to-day life when I was growing up, and I think
that this book helps them to see what my life was really
likenot only as a mixed person but as a child of divorce."
Walker says the book was therapeutic for her, as wellhelping
her come to terms with two very distinct and strong cultural
identities. Even now her son's comment about wanting to
go to Hebrew school evokes mixed emotion. It seems clear
that after a lifetime of trying to come to terms with her
identitywriting a book to help her through the processWalker's
path of self-discovery may be only just beginning.