a part of most any minority group in the United States means
constantly being reminded of the ways you are different.
It means building up a wall of defense that's always at
risk of being torn down. It means either developing a sense
of courage and self-worth or being capsized by the waves
of prejudice. Rebecca Walker knows a thing or two about
this kind of courage, though it has been a three-decade-long
journey acquiring that knowledge. The autobiography Black
White and Jewish affords Walker the opportunity to confront
the demons of doubt that haunted her in childhood and come
out empowered on the other side.
As the daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning black author Alice
Walker (The Color Purple) and white Jewish civil rights
lawyer Mel Leventhal, Walker describes herself as a "movement
child." Her light caramel skin was to signify hope
for racial unity. Fragmented by the divorce of her parents
and stripped of idealism, the reality of her childhood experience
was not quite so hopeful. Her life on both coasts dividing
time between mom and dad presented a large set of challenges.
And peers (along with some family members) weren't so easily
able to embrace the unique blend of culture that Walker
represented. Yet she feels she has been made stronger with
each difficult moment endured.
"Through looking at the ways in which I have performed
race and class and culture my whole life. I have realized
that so much of those things are masks and that we are all
performing," she says. "And I know now
that there is a much deeper and more meaningful self beneath
and beyond that mask."
The biography's first chapter opens with the line, "I
don't remember things." It's a reflection of the
clean slate Walker had to work with when sitting down to
write her story. But in time, and after some meditation,
she was able to recall experiences that launched her back
into childhood. Relaying her memories in present tense,
she creates a be-here-now immediacy to her past that makes
for intense reading.
"The book is about the process of remembering in
many ways for me," Walker says. "At the
beginning, when I started writing, I really didn't remember
a thing. And then I sort of started to allow myself to remember
and was trying to get in touch with feelings I recalled.
I remembered feeling lonely and fragmented and feeling as
if I was constantly having to adapt. So a lot of sitting,
a lot of praying, a lot of crying helped me get those memories
Assembling the book helped Walker find an honest voice as
a writer and allowed her to move beyond the negative feelings
of writing in her mother's shadow.
"I was writing from a very young age,"
she remembers. "But because my mother was such a
well-known writer, I sometimes thought, 'What's the point?
Why should I even bother trying to write when she does it
so well?' It wasn't until this book that I really gave myself
full permission to inhabit that space of being a writer
- just to say I'm going to really craft this piece of work
and really give myself over to words and poetry and emotion."
And Walker purposefully doesn't mention much in her autobiography
regarding life as the daughter of a famous mother.
"I felt really strongly that I needed to make sure
that my story was my story with this book," she
says. "I didn't want it to be the book that people
wanting to read the Alice Walker's daughter's story bought
to find out about my mom and what happened when she got
Many of the book's chapters chronicle the way Walker reacts
at a young age to constant racial scrutiny and the impact
her parents' divorce has on her growth. The use of sophisticated
sexual relationships as a coping mechanism stands as a prevalent
theme, as she discusses losing her virginity during adolescence,
and an abortion at age 14.
"When I talk to a lot of mixed-race people or even
children of divorce," she says, "what I
hear is that all of us used the sexual as a place to get
acceptance and affirmation. Especially when we weren't getting
it from these different communities we were trying to be
a part of."
Although through many tattered relationships, Walker eventually
comes to a place of sexual self-confidence and belonging.
She is currently raising a child with her lover, singer
Meshell N'degeocello, and offers some interesting insight
on her life-long bisexuality.
"In my experience, I didn't have a big coming out
moment," she says. "That wasn't how it
worked. I just always had a kind of fluidity with my sexuality
that wasn't really questioned. In the book, there's always
a sexual tension with my female friends. It's very integrated
within the pages the way it was in my life. My only coming
out equivalent would be when I told my father I was in love
with my current partner. He still says to me, 'You're gonna
go back to men one day."
During a time when many gay, lesbian and bisexual black
celebrities are not being outspoken about their sexuality,
Walker finds it a vital subject to broach.
"I just think it's so important that we be honest
about our lives, because there are so many young people
coming up who need models, who need to know that they're
not alone. And also, I feel that I couldn't live my life
any other way. I couldn't be like so many people in the
media who are closeted. I just don't know how to do that,"
What she does know how to do is write from the heart, and
offer up some words of sustenance for many who travel across
the rugged racial and sexual divide.