Rebecca Walker
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WALKER, IN HER OWN SHOES,
by Austin Bunn, The Advocate, Feb 21, 2001


     
 

Alice Walker's daughter, Rebecca Walker, talks about growing up as a multiracial "Movement Child"--and why she downplays her bisexuality in her new memoir

In 1969 in Jackson, Miss., aspiring black writer Alice Walker, married to white Jewish civil rights attorney Mel Leventhal, gave birth to a multiracial child, a "translator," named Rebecca. "I am not a bastard, the product of a rape, the child of some white devil. I am a Movement Child," the 31-year-old Walker writes in her searching autobiography, Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self (Riverhead, $23.95). "I am not tragic."

But when her parents divorced, the girl was raised by each in two-year shifts, shuttling between coasts (mostly San Francisco and Larchmont, N.Y.), between cultures (structureless bohemia and Jewish suburbia), and found herself a "movement" child as much psychologically as politically. At Fire Lake, a "gauche" Jewish summer camp, she gets denied "Sing Captain" honors--she then remembers she was told she is "intimidating," and intimidating is "another word for black." With a black uncle, she is told she laughs like a "cracker." "A part of me feels pushed away when they say this," Walker writes, "like I have something inside of me I know they hate."

For Walker, this rich, discursive book--which took four years to write--was a way to stitch herself into a coherent whole. "My body was part of a great stow about changing race relationships in our country," she says from Berkeley, Calif., where she lives with her partner of five years, singer Meshell N'degeocello. "But with my parents' divorce, that stow fell apart, and they didn't rewrite the stow enough to make me continue to make sense." The book, not surprisingly, has been "sobering" for them. "The intensity of the loneliness and displacement I felt was a revelation for them," she says.

For all the warp and weave of her "shifting self," Walker hasn't just made provisional peace with the in-between. As cofounder of the Third Wave Direct Action Corporation, a nonprofit that nurtures activism and leadership in young women, and having edited anthologies on feminism and masculinity, she's used the in-between for maximum social impact. But you won't find that level of argument and deliberateness in Black, White and Jewish--it's too evocative for politics, which was precisely how Walker's wanted it. "So often when you write about race and class and gender, you can get really bogged down in the head," she says. "I wanted to built an empathic link to the girl in the book."

The book's loose style kicks off with the first sentence: "I don't remember things." Considering that the next 300-plus pages consist almost entirely of high-resolution recollection--the order of high scores on a game of Pac-Man, the fact that the sheets she had as a teenager came from Bloomingdale's--it is a disingenuous way to open an autobiography. Walker is unflinching with certain details, like her abortion at 14, but leaves us wanting more, drawing to a close right when she graduates from high school. No doubt, her education at liberal bastion Yale, starting Third Wave, even opening (and, a year later, closing) a cybercafe in Brooklyn would have been revealing material, particularly for a memoir.


And then there's the issue of the absent fourth adjective in the book's title: bisexual. "People keep asking me, `Why don't you have a coming-out moment in the book?'" says Walker. "But I never had a coming-out moment. I was always bisexual and had a fairly fluid sexuality. I felt no desire to overarticulate some profound, hypersexual moment."

It's a perfectly legitimate argument: The book, after all, has the top-heavy issues of race and class already on its wide and elliptical mind. But after chapters overrun with boyfriends, Walker's "fluidity" makes its first real appearance on page 302--18 pages from the end--when she introduces a female lover (N'degeocello) "bundled up and close under our comforter." There's a shyness, a sudden discretion, that emerges in these final pages that doesn't feel native to Walker, who is bold and unsparing elsewhere. She's a thoughtful "translator," but it's hard not to feel that, at least for now, this one part of her shifting self has been negotiated right out of the conversation.

Bunn is a contributing editor at Brill's Content.

 

 

 

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