carefully at the cover of Rebecca Walker's new memoir Black
White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self and you
may notice that something is missing. "I fought
so hard to take out those commas [between the adjectives],"
Walker said in a recent interview with JBooks.com. "I
am not a list. I am one being here and each of those descriptions
contains a dream, each of those words blends together in
Walker, who among other things also describes herself as
a "movement child," is the daughter of
African-American novelist Alice Walker and white Jewish
civil rights lawyer Mel Leventhal. Her parents met in Jackson,
Mississippi in the 1960s and were, as their daughter writes,
"movement folk... In 1967, when my parents break
all the rules and marry against laws that say they can't,
they say that an individual should not be bound to the wishes
of their family, race, state, or country. They say that
love is the tie that binds."
recalls that growing up she learned the rules that her parents
broke, and then she learned when to break those rules in
order to find her place in the world. Her parents divorced
when Rebecca was eight years old and every two years she
was shunted between coasts to live with one of her parents.
In San Francisco her mother struggled to balance the demands
of writing with the responsibilities of motherhood. In New
York, her father remarried and Walker chronicles the ambivalent
relationship she has with her father's new wife, a woman
whom she describes as her "white, holier-than-thou,
Jewish stepmother," but in her more vulnerable
moments also calls "Mom."
marooned in lily-white Westchester, New York, Walker tries
to bridge her two worlds by staying friends with kids she
knew from the Bronx. The effort proved to be emotionally
exhausting. She writes "...it is too hard to be
the translator between two worlds." But Walker
has a genius for translation and to this day is still interpreting
both her legacies. Now 31, she not only takes on the task
but relishes its opportunities. "I feel extremely
culturally Jewish," Walker says. "I did
a series of interviews [for this book] with black women
and Jewish women and I had an intuitive connection to each
person. There was a different dynamic happening with each
of them and it was strong and tangible. My parents, in their
radical revolutionary vision for me, raised me without a
religious practice. I wasn't baptized, I didn't have a Bat
Mitzvah. But I do feel connected to the Jewish renewal movement.
And I'm also a student of Buddhism."
arrives at this spiritual tranquility after years of deconstructing
and then finally constructing her own identity. Of the difficult
early years with her Jewish family she simply writes, "I
want to be recognized as family." In the book she
recalls an embarrassingly familiar scene when her Jewish
grandmother, whom she adored, occasionally "kvetch[es]
about how ungrateful her daughters-in-law are and how tragic
it is that she isn't ever going to have Jewish grandchildren
because her sons married shiksas." When she visits
her mother's family in Atlanta, the pleasure of being in
one another's company is undercut by tangible moments of
discomfort. Walker writes, "How do I reconcile my
love for my uncles and cousins with the fact that I remind
them of pain?"
conversation Walker further elaborates that "it
was painful for my [black] uncles to notice white attributes
and characteristics in me. I brought them all this joy,
but at the other end were traits [in me] that they thought
were dangerous and repulsive. [On the other hand], my blackness
reminds my father of a time in his life that is different
from the time he lives in now. It reminds him of how committed
he was to civil rights and how adamant he was about that
work before he became a corporate litigator. One of the
profound facts of my body is that it becomes a location,
a reminder, particularly for my father, of what he lost
romantically and politically."
romantic and the political, her mother's belief in the power
of storytelling and her father's love of the law, have come
together in myriad ways for Walker. "No matter how
I fight it," she says, "I seem to be the
kind of creative person very involved in political work.
I consider this book very literary, but I've found creative
ways to consider the personal and political." One
such way has been her involvement in the Third Wave Direct
Action Foundation, an organization she founded to assist
young women through activism and philanthropy. Some of Third
Wave's projects have included economic assistance for young
women seeking safe, legal abortions and funding for women
starting businesses or attending college.
age demographic that Third Wave focuses on -- women ages
fifteen to thirty -- coincides with those years when Walker
struggled to understand her own identity and the role that
memory played in her life. In Black White and Jewish she
writes that that difficult, sometimes tense interplay of
identity and memory stems from her perception that she,
"was never granted the luxury of being claimed unequivocally
by a people or a race..." When asked if African-American
memory and Jewish memory differ for her, she responds that
"the question almost hurts my head," so
resolute is she now not to favor one identity over the other.
when she was seventeen she made a conscious choice "to
follow a more matrilineal line" and legally changed
her name from Leventhal to Walker. "I changed my
name at a time in my life when I was estranged from my father,"
she says. "I also found out that my grandfather
had been extremely abusive to my grandmother and that he
disowned my father when he eight years old. It was that
whole cutting off thing that we Jews seem to do so well.
I have never met my grandfather and I didn't want to be
identified with someone who didn't know me or want to know
me. I was dealing with the reality of being claimed wholeheartedly
by [my father's] side of the family when I was attached
in more significant ways to my mother and her family."
also views the name change as an acknowledgement of "living
in the world with non-white skin." But Rebecca
Walker knows first-hand that notions of identity are always
evolving. To that end she asserts that she is "very
invested in the notion of biraciality. It's the truth of
who I am. And both these groups, these families have made
me who I am."