Rebecca Walker
ABOUT WRITING BLOG YOU SAID CONTACT STORE

-

 

IDENTITY CATHARSIS,
by Heather Tenzer © Moment, April 2001


     
 

Her 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 me—although I am the interviewer, and she the subject. She wants to know: How do I—as a Jew—react 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 Jewish—Autobiography of a Shifting Self (Putnam, 2001).

Despite 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.

A self-described "movement child," Walker was born in 1969 to social activists who married in Mississippi during the height of the civil- rights movement—in 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 stated—extremely 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 Real—Telling 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.

But 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 use.

"Because 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 fragmented—psychically 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 any way."

As 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.

Walker would morph herself into a black, white, or Jew—depending 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."

The 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 tables."

Her 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.

Today 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?'"

Walker 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.

It 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.

How 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] communities … 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."

Walker 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 life—to have this mixed group in the room listening to my story, crying with me, laughing at certain points."

But 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 Jews—once so intimately involved in the civil-rights movement—become the target of so much black hate?"

Black 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 family—so she felt betrayed as a black reader," says Walker.

Four 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.

According 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 like—not only as a mixed person but as a child of divorce."

And Walker says the book was therapeutic for her, as well—helping 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 identity—writing a book to help her through the process—Walker's path of self-discovery may be only just beginning.


 

 

Rebecca Walker - All Rights Reserved 2007. http://www.rebeccawalker.com - Rebecca @ MySpace