Rebecca Walker
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IDENTITY CRISIS, Rebecca Walker tells of being caught in a society obsessed with race and borders
by Bob Minzesheimer © USA TODAY, February 24, 2001


     
 

Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self
By Rebecca Walker
Riverhead Books, $23.95, 288 pages
*** (A good read)

For better or worse, families give us stories for the rest of our lives. And what a complex, all-American story Rebecca Walker inherited.

Born Rebecca Walker Leventhal in Jackson, Miss., in 1969, she was a movement child during the civil rights revolution.
Her father, Mel, was a Jewish civil rights lawyer from Brooklyn. Her mother, Alice, was an aspiring black writer from Georgia, who would gain fame as the author of The Color Purple.

But they remain shadowy figures -- divorced when their daughter was 8 -- in Rebecca Walker's elusive, elliptical and very intimate memoirs about bouncing between two parents and two very different worlds.

She struggles to figure out where she belongs in a society obsessed with race and borders. She's more bemused than bitter.
Her book joins a shelf of recent memoirs that challenge conventional images of racial identity. James McBride's The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother, is popular among book clubs. The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee: Observations on Not Fitting In is by Paisley Rekdal, the daughter of a Chinese-American mother and a Norwegian father.
Alice Walker's recent collection of stories, The Way Forward Is With a Broken Heart, opens with a letter to "my young husband," remembering when "we were what they had taught was an impossibility, as unlikely as a two-headed calf: a happy interracial couple."

In that story, their grown daughter arranges for her parents to meet with her and her therapist to talk about what happened to their marriage. "Twenty-five, and used to making her own way in the world," her mother writes. "Her only obstacle, she feels, a certain ignorance about who her parents really are."

For Rebecca Walker, writing her autobiography (too formal a description, despite the subtitle) must have been a form of therapy. Not a writer for readers who prefer straightforward storytelling, Walker treats her youth as a mystery to be slowly unraveled.

She remembers white friends finding her "intimidating," and black friends complaining she's "snobby" or "not black enough." Her parents share her -- two years at a stretch with each of them, on opposite coasts.

She goes through a string of boyfriends, black, white and Hispanic, whom I had trouble keeping straight. She experiments with drugs and, at 14, has an abortion. By high school, she is "well-trained in not breaking the code, not saying something too white around black people, or too black around whites. It's easier to be quiet, aloof, removed, than it is to slip and be made fun of for liking the wrong thing. Talking the wrong way, being the wrong person, the half-breed Oreo freak."

At 17, she changes her name, moving "Leventhal to the more obscure middle position," and "Walker to the end, privileging my blackness and downplaying what I think of as my whiteness. After all, why should my father get all the credit?"

But in the end, she sees her and her father not as "guilty and wronged, but as two in love and in struggle with each other, each searching to know and understand the other's truth."

And she concludes, "I exist somewhere between black and white, family and friend. I am flesh and blood, yes, but I am also ether."


 

 

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