Rebecca Walker



Gina Kaufmann, ©, 01/17/2002


Rebecca Walker’s parents gave up on their dream of an interracial marriage — so she writes to figure out who she is.

"I don't remember things," Rebecca Walker writes at the beginning of Black White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self. That's shaky ground for an autobiography -- after all, an author must have memories if she intends to write memoirs.
But Walker, who is the daughter of famed black "womanist" writer Alice Walker and white civil rights lawyer Mel Leventhal, does have memories. She remembers a great grandmother who wouldn't look at her or speak to her because she was not white. She remembers laughing with her cousins -- but not as easily once they said she laughed like a cracker. She remembers losing her virginity soon after her age gained a second digit. And she remembers how, when she was fifteen, teachers saved her life by caring about her mind.

All of which doesn't make her opening statement a lie -- at least not entirely. The word "remembering" implies an unbroken thread connecting the past to the present. And when Walker began writing, she still hadn't made sense of all the memories that didn't fit together: friends who played sports at Jewish summer camp and friends who hung out in a San Francisco parking lot; an internship at the Museum of Modern Art and a boyfriend who cleaned tables at an old folks' home; walking to the laundromat with her and her mother's clothes and sneaking Entenmann's cookies from the cupboard of her father's suburban home.

"Writing the book," Walker says, "was the ultimate act of self-parenting. I needed to create a place where I could be all of those things. The process of writing it altered me a great deal. I think I was able to become much more integrated."

The title -- Black White and Jewish -- gives the false impression that Walker's autobiography is merely the sum of its author's racial parts. Her original title, Morphology, might have been more appropriate. "It was as much a story about being a child of divorce and even just a child of my crazy generation as it was a story of race," she says. "What I was really talking about was the way in which we were forced to change constantly."

Her recollections of the late 1970s and early 1980s are anchored in Pac Man scores, images of Sid Vicious with his safety-pinned Union Jack and descriptions of people wearing Members Only jackets. At the same time, her account of growing up with divorced parents reads like literature, not like self-help.

"I didn't want it to be a narrative of victimization," Walker explains. Without apologizing for her adolescent rage or denying bitterness toward either parent (fans of Alice Walker might cringe at the icon's typically human mistakes), the adult telling the story manages to subtly express an undercurrent of love for both parents and for both races.

But the book's dedication -- "For my parents" -- might say more for Walker's idealism and hope for unity than any sentence in the book.



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