Rebecca Walker
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REBECCA WALKER ERASES HER HYPHENS IN BERKELEY TALK, The author crosses multiple identities
by Rachel Metz, © The Daily Californian, February 15, 2002


     
 

Black-white-Jewish-bisexual-mother-author. Give Rebecca Walker any more hyphens and she'll need an 8 1/2" x 11" calling card.

But Walker is not about categories and generalizations. She needs no blanket adjectives to introduce her when she speaks to a crowd of students and community members Monday night at UC Berkeley's Reutlinger Center Hillel.

At least as diverse as Walker herself, Berkeleyans have come to see Walker speak on a topics that transcend racial, religious and geographic boundaries—family, sense of self and the pain that often accompanies growing up.

Looking sheepishly uncomfortable speaking in front of a fairly large audience, Walker reads passages from her book Black White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self (Putnam, 2001) and candidly recounts her multi-cultural journey and the effects publication of her book has had both on herself and on her family.

"What I found was that remembering was very painful," Walker said, smiling shyly.

This sentiment is echoed in the beginning of Black, White and Jewish, as Walker writes, "I don't remember things. Like the names of streets and avenues I have driven down a hundred times, like the stories behind Jewish holidays I have celebrated since I was eleven, like the date of my father's birthday."

Walker's book follows her through an atypical childhood spent moving to a variety of cities and discovering what it means to grow up as a bi-racial person. Her parents divorced when Walker was young, and by the time she finished high school she lived in Brooklyn, Washington D.C., the Bronx and San Francisco.

In Black White and Jewish Walker reflects on the discovery that different people around her classify her differently—some see a black girl, some a white girl, some neither. As she grew up, Walker struggled to define herself on her own terms, as a person, not a color.

Writing with what Walker describes as "childlike energy," she says she the book looks beyond masks to see who we are. Walker adds she strove to provide a story for people that's very up front and emotional—she didn't want it to be an intellectual exercise.

Walker says, "I wanted the reader to drop into ... the body of this little girl growing up and experience race in a very immediate, firsthand way."

As she continued with the process of fleshing out her text, Walker said, it became therapeutic and helped her let go of certain experiences.

When asked how her parents—Jewish civil rights attorney Mel Leventhal and author Alice Walker—reacted to the book, she said it was initially difficult for them to see that some of the choices they made as parents had a negative impact on her.

Walker organized the book by city, loosely following the chronology by which she moved back and forth across the country every two years to satisfy her divorced parents' custody arrangement. On the east coast, her father eventually remarried, while her Bay Area-dwelling mother pursued her lucrative writing career.

"I think what's interesting about the way I grew up is that not only did I move back and forth between regions, cultures, races, socioeconomic classes, but I was also moving back and forth between different paradigms of femininity and motherhood," Walker says.

Her stepmother followed a more "traditional" mothering path, giving up her career for her children, while Walker's mother refused to sacrifice herself for her child and expected Walker to be more like a sister than a daughter.

In third grade Walker realized she was a "raced being" when a boy she had a crush on rejected her because he told her he didn't like black girls.

"I thought, 'Oh my God. Is that what I am? A black girl?" Walker says of the experience.

Growing up during the '70s and '80s, Walker's family was decidedly middle class. She explains the sense of entitlement her parents instilled in her, resulting in a feeling that she can achieve what she wants in life, regardless of the categories people put her in.

"I am a Movement Child. My parents tell me I can do anything I put my mind to, that I can be anything I want. They buy me Erector sets and building blocks, Tinkertoys and books, more and more books...I am not tragic," Walker reads aloud.

Clearly, she is anything but tragic.

 

 

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