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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
challenge for readers is to see that this book is more than
a voyeur's delight.
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.
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.
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."
happy ending? Rebecca Walker shoves identity politics aside,
concluding, "I stand with those who stand with me."
sad part? Her parents might have told her to do this, since
they seem to have learned it long ago.
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.
the possibility of another title for Rebecca Walker's book:
"What I Didn't Hear My Parents Say.