Rebecca Walker



by Jennifer Frey ©, January 12, 2001


Writer 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.

Two 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.

Two 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.

Years 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.

"I 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 by parents."

Titled "Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self," the book Walker finally produced is as much about family as race or religion.

The 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.

"The 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.

"Morphology," 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 circumstances.

"My publisher talked me out of that."

At 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.

She 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.

"That 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 be."

She 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.

"When 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."

Still, 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.

According 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.

And she still manages to defend her mother's parenting, as best she can.

"She 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."

Alice 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 faced.

As a child, Rebecca thought the sign was cute, funny.

"As an adult, I was like: 'This is horrible,' " she says.

Still, she defends her mother, says now she understands.

"People 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."

That 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.

But, again, she comes back to her mother's choices.

"I 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.' "

Alice Walker has declined to discuss her daughter's book other than to say she understands her frustrations.

"Both 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."

Her 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 her.

"My stepmother said she was surprised" by the book, Walker says, "because she never thought of me as a black child."

That 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.

"This was not about fame and celebrity," she says. "Maybe someday I'll write about that, but this was about race and class."

There 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."

Is 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?

Walker 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.

"That 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."




Rebecca Walker - All Rights Reserved 2007. - Rebecca @ MySpace