Rebecca Walker
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REBECCA WALKER'S SHIFTING SELF,
By Heather A. O'Neill © AfterEllen, 04/23/2007

     
 

In many ways, Rebecca Walker defies conventional labels. The biracial daughter of author Alice Walker and civil-rights attorney Mel Leventhal, she was born in the South during the late '60s. As the bisexual girlfriend of Meshell Ndegeocello, for years she was one half of the most out couple in the black lesbian community.
Walker explored her distinct identity in her acclaimed 2001 memoir, Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self. Though her upbringing was far from typical, readers related to her struggle and frank discussion of race, sexuality and family.

The book was embraced by many different cultures, Walker told AfterEllen.com: "A lot of mixed-race people came to me to say that it changed their life. They feel it articulated an experience that had not been excavated in the generation."
Not everyone appreciated Walker's honesty, however, as she revealed a difficult and lonely childhood shuffled between divorced parents. Though she ended up at Yale, she wrestled with her mixed cultural background, experimented with drugs and alcohol, and had an abortion at 14.

The criticism came from all sides. "Everything you would expect from being a biracial, bisexual person," Walker explained. "Jewish people got upset because they felt I only represented them as wealthy. Sometimes gay people got mad because they wanted me to have a whole coming-out moment, and even though I talk about my woman partner at the time [Ndegeocello] and her son, they didn't feel I was out enough."

Walker's mother, too, objected to the way their family was represented, which placed a strain on their relationship. "I felt that I was going to write this book, and I was going to give it to my parents and they were going to start talking to each other and the whole family would be healed," she admitted. "Obviously, that didn't happen."

In her new memoir, Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence, Walker shifts the lens from childhood to parenthood with the birth of her son, Tenzin. The book recounts Walker's experience getting pregnant with her partner, a man named Glen, as her own relationship with her mother continued to deteriorate.

Walker wrote Baby Love at this point in her life because she felt that there were important issues that people were not discussing. "It's a book that I wish I had been able to read when I was in my mid-20s," she said.

One of the many issues Walker aimed to address is the daily and insidious ambivalence she sees in many women's lives. "I meet many women who are ambivalent," she said. "I wanted to write a book about how ambivalence can be so immobilizing that the myriad of ideas we're batting around in our mind can keep us from experiences that we long to have."

Though the book is primarily focused on Walker's pregnancy and the birth of her son, she also wanted to call attention to the dynamic between mothers and daughters because of her own difficult bond.

Walker believes part of the problem is a "sisterhood model of parenting," where parents serve more as friends or equals. "Daughters need mothers; they don't need sisters," she said. "Sisterhood is full of love and support, but also jealousy and competition and undermining. The mother-daughter archetype isn't about that; it's about unconditional love and support."
As Walker has traveled the country on her book tour, she has heard countless stories from women who are trying to get pregnant, are pregnant or are longing to get pregnant. "I love it," she said, "because I'm just learning so much about families — all different kinds of families."

Similar to Black, White and Jewish, the response to Baby Love has been varied. Though Walker is bisexual, the fact that she is with a man now is contentious. Oddly enough, she said, lesbians who are pregnant or trying to start families have been among her greatest supporters in the LGBT community.

"Everyone else seems to only feel comfortable with me being bisexual when I'm with a woman," she said. "Now that I'm with a man, there's [a] twinge that used to not be there — as if I no longer speak the language or I don't know the code."
In fact, much of the criticism about Baby Love stems from Walker's discussion of her relationship with Ndegeocello's teenage son, Solomon, whom she co-parents. In one of the more controversial segments, she writes: "I don't care how close you are to your adopted son or beloved stepdaughter, the love you have for your nonbiological child isn't the same as the love you have for your own flesh and blood."

The response has been interesting, said Walker, who has yet to discuss the book with Solomon. "I'm not saying that one is greater, but that they are different," she explained. "And why wouldn't they be different? They have different processes. It's a completely different experience."

But that is not necessarily a bad thing, said Walker, who has found that many people are uncomfortable celebrating different kinds of love and families. "In our culture we have one word for love, whereas in many languages there are 15 words for love. People use different words to describe different kinds of relationships."

As we continue to reconfigure families, she said, we need to "speak intelligently and with complexity about these different relationships" rather than resort to censorship. "It's made me reflect on the whole idea of qualifying love and people wanting their love for their child to be the same as biological love — as if that was the standard."

Walker's point is especially significant in light of her troubled relationship with her mother. By the end of Baby Love, she has received an email from her stating "that she has been my mother for 30 years and is no longer interested in the job" and later discovers that she has been removed from the will.

"People think they are being so progressive, but they are holding the biological thing as the standard that everything should be the same as," Walker said. "Why would it be reassuring to say that it's the same when we know that biology is so rife with problems and confusion too?"

Walker, who has received both "vicious" emails from adoptive parents and "vulnerable" emails from adoptees, believes it's a worthwhile dialogue. "We really need to be talking about this in order for people to feel celebrated in the unique ways they exist. They don't have to feel inferior because they're not one thing."

Walker is currently working on a collection called Walk This Way: Introducing the New American Family about contemporary family configurations such as transracial adoptions, couples who live on different continents, and polyamorous relationships.
"With an anthology, I get to get other people to explore an idea that I'm really interested in," said Walker, who has edited several other anthologies, including the most recent What Makes a Man: 22 Writers Imagine the Future. "I like to find new voices and to support people who might have a hard time getting published in other places or whose writing voice is a little too raw for mainstream publications."

She is also writing a third memoir about her time in Africa, which, she said, is a "more internal process of mapping out my inner terrain."

Walker does not know if her mother has read Baby Love. Though she believes she has finally stopped writing for her, she admits that her mother's influence endures. "In many ways, one of the most incredible gifts that my mom gave me was the opportunity to live with and experience a master artist who transformed her life into art every day," said Walker. "That shaped me — the way I think, the way I view the process of making meaning in life."


 

 

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