Rebecca Walker Is Alice Walker's Daughter. That's Just the
Beginning of Her Complicated Story
Rebecca Walker spent years forgetting her childhood. It
wasn't difficult. All she had, really, were a series of
fragments, partial memories. Different cities, different
neighborhoods, different worlds.
years with her mother, author Alice Walker, who left notes
admonishing Rebecca to "take care of yourself,"
while she went about the all-consuming work of being a writer.
Two years with her father, civil rights lawyer Mel Leventhal,
who looked at her blandly, uncomprehendingly, when she tried
to explain how it felt to be the only black person in their
upper-middle-class, predominantly Jewish suburb.
years of being one person, two years of being another. Rebecca
Walker learned to accommodate. And she learned not to think
about it too hard.
later, in her mid-twenties, she sat down at her computer
and tried to remember. The memories came like shards of
glass, prompting tears, prompting sorrow, prompting anger.
really wanted my parents to understand what my life was
like and they just couldn't grasp it," she says.
"I felt I needed to really show them in concrete
terms what I had gone through. You want to be seen, you
want to be known, you want to be understood -- especially
"Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting
Self," the book Walker finally produced is as much
about family as race or religion.
book sprang from what Walker calls a "really strong
need to sit down and live with my memories of childhood"
-- memories, she says, she had blocked out because of "the
terrible pain" they caused. In it, she unravels
a childhood in which she tries to find her place as a child
of the civil rights movement, a child whose parents divorced
when she was 8 years old and then shuttled her back and
forth between their two worlds -- one black and urban, the
other white, Jewish, suburban -- for the rest of her childhood.
working title for the book was 'Morphology,' "
Walker says, smiling, as she settles in for an interview
in an upstairs room at the George Hotel, in town for a book
tour. She'll be at Vertigo Books in College Park tonight.
she explains, defines for her how race and culture are "performative"
-- how she, as a child, constantly shifted who she was and
how she thought, lived, spoke, to fit her constantly shifting
publisher talked me out of that."
age 31, Walker is open, warm, self-deprecating. A graduate
of Yale University, she has been affiliated with Ms. magazine
since 1989, though currently she is focusing on a new, as-yet-undefined
book project, another anthology (she has appeared in several
and edited one), and public speaking.
also is thoughtful. And worried. Worried that her book will
be misinterpreted. Worried that some people have seen her
work as critical -- or even rejecting -- of her Jewish heritage.
Worried that some people might read her descriptions of
her Jewish world -- where she talks of material things,
rich homes, comfortable lives, "white-girl snobbishness"
-- as stereotypes.
upsets me a lot," she says. "All I can
say is, that's the community I was in -- extremely privileged
-- and I tried to be as honest to the experience as I could
is also worried, understandably so, about telling her story
within the context of her life with her famous, almost revered
mother. In her book, Walker's public persona is almost nonexistent,
referenced in an early section where Rebecca accompanies
her mother to a reading and finds herself constantly referred
to as "Alice Walker's daughter." It is a term
that warmed her then, but she tries to keep from defining
herself by it now.
you're someone's child, you experience them first and foremost
as a parent," she says. "They're not the
public figure. . . . I really feel strongly that in children
of famous parents, there's a deep need to reclaim your own
lives. Your narrative gets subsumed within theirs. I wanted
to be sure this was my story."
Walker knows that some readers will come to this book looking
to learn more about Alice Walker, about who she was apart
from her work, and what they will find is disquieting.
to her own essay, "One Child of One's Own," Alice
Walker worried greatly that becoming a mother would be a
drain on her creative abilities -- a distraction from her
writing -- and her relationship with Rebecca reflects that
concern. As painted by her daughter, Alice Walker seemed
to be a distant -- at times even neglectful -- parent, one
who left her teenage child alone for days at a time. In
her absence, Rebecca gets involved with drugs and hangs
out with drug dealers; she has relationships with much older
men, one of whom gets her pregnant when she is 14 (she had
an abortion). At age 15, she is openly involved with a 21-year-old;
her mother allows her to travel with him and visit him out
of town on a regular basis. The refrigerator in the Walkers'
home is routinely empty. The young Rebecca is given few
rules. Somehow, though, she still manages to make it through
childhood, through high school, to acceptance at Yale.
she still manages to defend her mother's parenting, as best
was a part of and still is a part of the women's movement,"
Rebecca says, "and there is a sense that young women
had been made dependent and kept dependent in many ways.
She thought by allowing me this great, independent childhood
that I would be more independent and stronger as an adult.
I don't think she thought she was being neglectful. I think
she thought this was a good, fine thing to let me experience
the world alone."
Walker routinely described her relationship with her daughter
as a "sisterhood," and the way Rebecca tells it
in her book, that "sisterhood" seems to be a way
for her mother to excuse herself from her responsibilities
as a parent. She hires someone to register Rebecca for private
high school and shop for her school clothes because she
is "too tired." Over her work desk, Alice Walker
kept a handmade sign to remind her that of all the obstacles
faced by great women writers of the past -- she cited Jane
Austen and George Eliot, Zora Neale Hurston and Virginia
Woolf -- her obstacle, Rebecca, is "much more delightful
and less distracting than any of the calamities" they
a child, Rebecca thought the sign was cute, funny.
an adult, I was like: 'This is horrible,' " she
she defends her mother, says now she understands.
who contribute so much to their culture, people who are
so dedicated to their art, their work -- this is not an
uncommon problem," she says. "It's hard,
doing what they do and being a parent."
said, though, Rebecca Walker admits that she has tried to
do the opposite in her own life -- perhaps because of what
she learned from her mother. She is currently co-parenting
the 11-year-old son of her partner, singer-songwriter Me'shell
NdegeOcello, and says she is an extremely involved parent,
that nothing comes more naturally.
again, she comes back to her mother's choices.
don't feel like I could be where I am, where I can honor
my work and my child, if my mother and her generation hadn't
gone before," she says. "This is a writerly
book. . . . It's not 'Mommie Dearest.' "
Walker has declined to discuss her daughter's book other
than to say she understands her frustrations.
my parents felt they did the best they could and they did
a good job. So to read the stuff I wrote, that was painful
for them," Rebecca Walker says. "Every
child has a life that's separate from the one their parents
know. When you write a memoir you close that gap."
description of life with her father is no more gentle --
just as blunt, just as honest, just as painful at times.
She writes almost lovingly of her father's wife, a white,
Jewish woman Leventhal married after divorcing Rebecca's
mother. Yet, Walker still clearly feels some distance from
stepmother said she was surprised" by the book,
Walker says, "because she never thought of me as
a black child."
response saddened Walker. She still sees her stepmother
as the most nurturing, motherly influence in her young life,
and she understands that her intentions are good-hearted.
But for Walker, it was the lack of recognition that she
was different that was hardest for her during those years
she lived with her father and stepmother. She wanted someone
to acknowledge it, talk about it. She still does. It is,
in large part, why she wrote the book. So that her parents
could see things the way she saw them, so that they could
see her life as her narrative, rather than simply a part
of their own.
was not about fame and celebrity," she says. "Maybe
someday I'll write about that, but this was about race and
is a moment late in the book where Walker writes of changing
her name from Rebecca Leventhal to Rebecca Leventhal Walker.
She is in 12th grade at the time, and describes her decision,
in part, as "privileging my blackness and downplaying
what I think of as my whiteness." Coming where
it does in her narrative, and following strong words of
rejection for her father and her father's world, the passage
seems to carry a great weight. "I want to be closer
to my mother, to have something run between us that cannot
be denied," she writes. "I want a marker
that links us tangibly and forever as mother and daughter.
That links me tangibly and forever with blackness."
Walker trying to say that she has chosen to define herself,
and that she is black, not white, of her mother's world,
not her father's?
has heard that interpretation before, and it upsets her.
She frets now over its placement in her story, the way it
has been analyzed, what she did not mean for it to say.
moment is not the summation of the book," she says.
"The summation is: 'I stand by me.' It's unfortunate
that the piece comes so close to the end, because the whole
point of the book is that at different moments, I've made
different choices. I still do not choose one or the other.
I refuse to choose."