Rebecca Walker
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WALKER OPENS, HEALS SOME OLD WOUNDS,
by Alyssa Haywoode, © Boston Globe, March 19, 2001


     
 

Rebecca Walker chose the wrong name for her book. It's true that the title "Black, White, and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self" sums up her ethnic and racial identity. But this memoir of a hardscrabble adolescence would be better - if more cynically - called "Home Alone."

The author's mother is the writer Alice Walker, whose books - including "The Color Purple" and "The Temple of My Familiar" - helped open the world of mainstream publishing to other black writers. The author's father is Mel Leventhal, a white, Jewish lawyer who once handled civil rights cases. Alice Walker and Leventhal married in the 1960s and defiantly embodied the civil rights movement while living in Jackson, Miss.

Nominally, this is the book's topic - being part of and in between identities. Jewish relatives are uncomfortable with Walker's blackness. Black relatives joke about her childhood laughter, telling her that instead of "the sillies," she had "the crackers." And for years, crackers is how they describe things about her that they think are not black. She lives in black neighborhoods, goes to an upscale Jewish summer camp, and hangs out with Puerto Rican kids in the Bronx.

But identity issues give way. And the book can feel devilishly hard to review, since ultimately the author seems instead to invite a review of her parents.

Oddly, they only make cameo appearances in this book - and, seemingly, in her childhood. They separate when Walker is in the third grade. They decide their daughter should live alternately for two years with one parent, then two years with the other.

Alice Walker is shown as a mother who is either too tired or too busy to parent. She goes away for days on end, leaving $20 on the table and an empty refrigerator. She hires a woman to take her daughter shopping for school clothes, and later hires someone to settle her in at a new high school. Toward the end of the book, Alice Walker's rare appearances spark fear that she will again say or do something awful.

The author's father is shown as distant, always going off to work, and surprisingly deaf to his teenage daughter's complaints about how hard her life is in a mostly white suburb. Only her stepmother, her father's second, Jewish wife, gets credit for playing a parent - at least early on - packing lunches, buying school clothes, making dentist appointments.

This leaves Rebecca Walker steering her own ship. She smokes. She drinks. She tries Quaaludes. She tries mescaline. She has sex before reaching the sixth grade. She is friends with black kids who sometimes pick on her for being biracial. She draws comfort and acceptance from a small parade of uninspiring boyfriends. She alerts her mother - whom she's living with at the time - that her high school is lousy, failing even to provide books in English.

The challenge for readers is to see that this book is more than a voyeur's delight.

"I don't remember things," she writes in the book's opening sentence, a tip-off to those who know that memory can be hindered by grief. This is the opening bid in Walker's effort to tackle two huge tasks: recalling painful history and writing it down. The book is also her testimony about how much family truth to tell.

It's easy to wince at Walker's childhood. But it's also easy to envy her ability to expose childhood injustices and hew a well-written refusal to ignore old wounds.

There are gaps, however. Walker decides to take her mother's last name, wanting "to be closer to my mother, to have something run between us that cannot be denied." Missing is a sense of why she comes to feel this way and what change of heart or mind leads her on the dedication page to put the words "for my parents."

The happy ending? Rebecca Walker shoves identity politics aside, concluding, "I stand with those who stand with me."

The sad part? Her parents might have told her to do this, since they seem to have learned it long ago.

"We were a couple: black and white to the people who saw us pass by on the street, but already Sweetheart and Darling to ourselves," Alice Walker writes in her recent book, "The Way Forward Is With a Broken Heart," a partly fictional musing on her marriage.

Hence the possibility of another title for Rebecca Walker's book: "What I Didn't Hear My Parents Say.

 

 

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