Rebecca Walker
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LIVING ON AMERICA'S RACIAL DIVIDE
by Laurence Washington © Rocky Mountain News, January 28, 2001


     
 

Black White And Jewish
By Rebecca Walker. Riverhead Books, 336 pages, $23.95.

The ferocity of racism that still exists in the U.S will probably come as little surprise to blacks and Jews - nor will the degree to which it was administered to journalist Rebecca Walker.

In her autobiography Black White and Jewish, Walker (a Jackson, Miss. ``Movement child'' of the post-1960s Civil Rights struggle) recounts in shifting memoirs her striving to please her black mother, famed writer Alice Walker, and Jewish father, and to fit comfortably into both cultures - only to be ostracized on each side.

Alice Walker and Mel Levanthal, both social activists, met and fell in love in 1965 in Jackson, Miss. During the marriage, Walker's father was disowned by his family, and Walker's mother was treated as a traitor to her race. Finally, living in a country where skin color defined who you are wore down the liberal couple and they divorced.

After the break-up, Walker alternated between her parents' homes in two-year intervals, spending time in Mississippi, Brooklyn, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., and looking for a new identity with each move until she became an adult. Her book poetically examines her search for herself.

During her grammar and high school years, the author finds that she is constantly on guard, watching everything she says around her black friends and relatives for fear of being labeled too white. And it's vice-versa around her white friends. She doesn't want to appear too black.

As Walker begins coming of age, she experiments with drugs and sex, searching for some semblance of self-identity. Walker says she feels more comfortable in airports than any school or home she ever lived in because airports are limbo spaces - ``blank, undemanding and neutral. Expectations are clear.''

Walker, who occasionally writes for The New York Times, Harper's Bazaar and Esquire magazine, and lectures at colleges and universities, writes about a time when she was approached after a speech by a young black mother raising a black and white child. She tells Walker that when your skin is dark, only one side is going to accept you, so it's easier to forget about the white side. Walker disagrees and tells the woman she needs to be honest with her daughter and tell her the truth, that she belongs to both cultures. Tongue-in-cheek, Walker quips that the worst that can happen is she will be confused ``like me.''

Although Walker never openly admits it, the stranger's comments at her speech do eventually find their mark. After years of rejections by whites more than blacks, Walker subtly embraces her black heritage more than her Jewish ancestry. Walker's father's people never really accepted her, and her grandmother didn't like her visiting. So she wears dreadlocks and, against her father's wishes, changes her last name from Leventhal to Walker when she turns 18.

Later, in one of her many attempts to cross the colorline, Walker drops her black boyfriend in favor of Andrew, a young white man she meets while working on a film her mother wrote. Just as the relationship with Andrew starts to feel comfortable, Andrew introduces Walker to several of his boyhood buddies. One night while playing cards and drinking beer, one of the guys casually says he ``had to deal with a dumb n----- at work.'' The sick feeling of racism and betrayal suddenly washes over Walker and her relationship with Andrew is never the same.

``This image of white boys out of control, drunk and hurling the word n----- around, frightens me, reminds me of lynching photographs I've seen,'' Walker writes. ``Would Andrew ever turn on me? Would he ever look up one day and not see me but a n-----?''

In the end, Walker comes to a certain truce with her struggle, though her sense of self is still as light as air. ``It all comes to this,'' she writes. ``I stand with those who stand with me. I am tired of claiming for claiming's sake, hiding behind masks of culture, creed, religion. My blood is made from water and so it is bloodwater that I am made of . . . I exist somewhere between black and white, family and friend. I am flesh and blood, yes, but I am also ether.''

A poignant triumph of self-discovery, Black White and Jewish offers no easy answers. And that is perhaps its finest strength. In such a way, it punctuates the divisionism in America and its effects on innocent people whose cultures can't see beyond skin deep.

 

 

 

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