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