Rebecca Walker



© St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 21, 2002


Growing up, the copper-colored Rebecca Walker wasn't comfortable in her own skin. Her mother, African-American, was then a struggling author (that was before Alice Walker wrote "The Color Purple"); her father, Jewish, was a civil rights lawyer.
She grew up in the South, but her Pollyanna-ish parents, married in 1967 during the civil rights movement, believed their love could conquer all. Into this brave new world, they brought a biracial child.

What followed for Rebecca Walker, a child of the movement, is a painful coming-of-age story. Her best-selling "Black, White, and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self" was published last year, and recently released in paperback (Riverhead Books, 323 pages, $14). She will sign copies tonight at Left Bank Books.
Fortunately, Walker does finally find her place in the universe. At 32, Walker is co-parenting her lover's 12-year-old son. She is, she said during a recent interview, "extremely involved" in his life. She makes herself available for talks. She wants him to know she is a safe place to unburden himself.
"Writing the book helped me do that," she said of sorting out her own life and finding peace of mind. "It was extremely cathartic."
The book represents her "journey toward radical self-acceptance," Walker said. Hers is a typical coming-of-age story -- except for the atypical mixture of race, place, religion and sexuality.
"Growing up I did not, ever, feel contained," Walker writes early in "Black, White, and Jewish." "I never felt the four walls of my room or my apartment or my house or my town or my culture close around me; I never knew the feeling of the extended womb.
"My parents did not hold me tight, but encouraged me to go. They did not buffer, protect, watch out for, or look after me. I was watered, fed, admired, stroked, and expected to grow. I was mostly left alone to discover the world and my place in it."
Born in 1969 in Jackson, Miss., her place was questions from nearly the instance of her birth. A nurse questioned whether the correct spaces for her parents' races were marked on her birth certificate. Later on, a drunken Yale student asks her "Are you really black and Jewish? How can that be possible?"
Her childhood is at once colorful and confusing. She can remember chitterlings and cocoa butter and boiled chicken and cheese blintzes. But she also recalls how the family of her father, Mel Leventhal, rejected her mother. A grandmother doesn't acknowledge her mother's presence, and her mother is absent from dinners at her uncle's house.
Walker gets it from both sides. She recalls the black girls who threatened to beat her up because she acted like a white girl. Eventually, she trains herself not to say anything "white" around black people or "too black" around whites.
Her sense of self is rattled again when her parents divorce. Their love, it seems, had fallen out of fashion.
"With the rise of Black Power, my parents' interracial defiance, so in tune with the radicalism of Dr. King and civil rights, is suddenly suspect," she writes. "Black-on-black is the new recipe for revolution, mulatto half-breeds are tainted with the blood of the oppressor, and being down means proving how black you are, how willing to fight, how easily you can turn your back on those who have kept black folks enslaved for so long."
And what did it mean for Walker?
"I no longer make sense," she says.
Eventually, the grown-up Walker finds her place -- after legally changing her last name from Leventhal and adopting her mother's last name in high school, an act of defiance to her father's side of the family. (Today she prefers to go by Rebecca Leventhal Walker.) She exists now between black and white, choosing not to define herself as one or the other simply because of blood ties. She is close to her mother, but she still experiences a "level of alienation" from the Leventhal side of the family.
The author said she wrote the book for herself, other writers and her family. For the latter, it wasn't an easy read. Her parents learned from her manuscript -- she gave it to them shortly before it was published a year ago -- what she hadn't told them growing up.
"They had to struggle," Walker said of her parents. "It's hard for parents to look at how their decisions affect their children. It's harder still to have it published in the world."
But, because of her frankness, the book resonated with other children of divorce and children of interracial marriages.
"It's a universal struggle to accept ourselves, to feel loved and whole and part of a family," she said. "I needed a place where all parts of me coexisted peacefully."
Doesn't everyone?

Rebecca Walker
Where: Left Bank Books, 399 North Euclid Avenue
When: 7 tonight
How much: Free
Information: 314-367-6731

Copyright © 2002, St. Louis Post-Dispatch



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