Growing up was never easy for copper-skinned Rebecca Walker, the trophy baby of a new America. Born in 1969, the “Movement Child” of Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and activist Alice Walker and civil rights lawyer Mel Leventhal, Walker spent the first two decades of her life failing to fit into a country that still assumes fixed racial categories. In her impressionistic new memoir “Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self,” Walker writes how her black peers accused her of “acting like a white girl,” her white peers at the affluent, predominantly Jewish summer camp complain that she’s “intimidating,” and her ballet teacher criticizes her butt as too big.
Never fully “claimed” by one side, Walker has to find her own way. Her black family is more tolerant of her skin color but chastise her sense of entitlement. Her white family cushions her with privilege, but excludes her less fortunate friends and lovers. Charting Walker’s life from her birth in Mississippi to the end of her high school days, when she changed her last name from Leventhal to Walker, “Black, White and Jewish” adds to the slowly expanding literature of growing up biracial in America, like Danzy Senna’s “Caucasia” and James McBride’s “The Color of Water.” It also captures Jewish identity at work, demonstrating its fragility if neglected. Walker quotes her grandmother saying “don’t ever forget you’re a Jew! I don’t care what Mama and Daddy say,” forgetting that in America, cultural affiliation is never that easy.
Reached at her home in Berkeley, Calif., where she lives with her girlfriend, Rebecca Walker told The Jewish Week that her book developed from her “strong desire to have some representation of wholeness where all the fragmented parts of my life could coexist.” Lacking the guidance of a cohesive narrative, friends, lovers and relatives flash through her memoir, and the reader shares Walker’s confusion. The non-chronological collage of anecdotes was purposeful. “I needed a narrative to reflect how my life felt. It never felt linear and seamless.”
At 31, Walker is already an accomplished woman. She has written numerous articles, lectured around the country, co-founded the feminist Third Wave Foundation and edited the anthology “To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism.” These activities earned her Time magazine’s distinction as one of America’s 50 future leaders under 40, but the main thrust of her memoir elides recent events and concentrates on how she coped with her parents’ particularly damaging custody arrangement, which exacerbated their economic and cultural divide. When her parents split when she was 8, they decided that Walker would spend the first two years with her father in Washington, D.C., then uproot and sojourn with her mother in Brooklyn and San Francisco before returning to live with her dad, this time in Riverdale and Larchmont, N.Y. And so on.
(Coincidentally, Alice Walker recently published “The Way Forward Is With a Broken Heart,” a collection of stories that addresses her 10-year marriage to Leventhal. Walker had covered similar territory before, in her 1973 novel “Meridian,” where a Jewish woman and a black man fall in love and have a child before their relationship fails under personal and social strain. Rebecca Walker, however, says that her mother’s novel did not influence her own memoir.)
Earnest yet schematic, Walker’s voice is strongest when articulating her pain, which apparently was not heard by either of her parents while she was in their charge. “It’s difficult for them to see the implications that some of their choices have had,” Walker says of her parents’ reactions to her memoir. Neither comprehended the painful experience of being a mixed person.”
At first she gains confidence from her dad, who once showered her with love but grew distant as he remarried, had more kids, and became more involved in his work. Walker recalls she began to call her “perfect Jewish stepmother” “mom.” When in Brooklyn, her real mom is more absent, taking less time to raise Rebecca while she goes to literary conferences and book tours. Walker hopes the white boy she has a crush on doesn’t see she has a black mother and pilfers money from her mother’s purse.
But as Walker ages and society marks her as colored, She steadily begins to identify with blacks and Latinos. She begins to characterize her connection to her mother through warm tones of love and healing. Though avoiding serious consideration of what it means to be the daughter of one of America’s most important writers, Walker’s comfort with her mother’s feminist multicultural lifestyle becomes obvious as she grows alienated from her father’s bourgeois suburban milieu.
At the end of the book, she summarizes her identity. “I stand with those who stand with me. I am tired of claiming for claiming’s sake, hiding behind masks of culture, creed, religion. My blood is made from water and so it is bloodwater that I am made of, and so it is a constant empathetic link with others which claims me, not only carefully drawn lines of relation. I exist somewhere between black and white, family and friend.”
So “Black, White and Jewish” is not a roots book. Rebecca Walker is not reassessing her past to find some authentic blackness or Jewishness. In fact, unlike the Jewish and African-American literary traditions, which voraciously cling to memory, Walker professes that she has a terrible memory. Because she was never fully included in either black or Jewish life, she was never expected to recall the mundane facts like the names of cousins or the stories of Jewish holidays. Indeed, the first line of her book is, “I don’t remember things.”
“My memories were shut down, blocked off, too painful,” Walker says. She began thinking about writing her story after waking one morning when she was an undergraduate at Yale with a recovered memory of witnessing a man getting shot in the Bronx. The book becomes her act of remembering, she says, and in doing so illuminates the brave new world of mongrel America.
“It will be interesting to see who comes out for this,” Walker says about her upcoming readings in New York City. “Writing is about what kind of community you form on the other end.”
So far Walker says that she’s had a “extremely positive response,” the only “little glitch” coming from some Jewish readers who pressed her to explain her feelings about “Jewishness.” She writes, “When I change my name I do so because I do not feel an affinity with whiteness, with what Jewishness has become, and I do feel an affinity with blackness, with an experience of living in the world with non-white skin. While my black friends are shuttled through mediocre schools into poorly paid jobs in the service industry and I escape only by the grace of God, my father has seemingly stopped caring about all things racial and political and has settled into a comfortable routine commuting from Westchester and going to lily-white Little League games in pristine suburban ballparks. I do not see how I fit into his life, or that I want to.”
Jewish readers who support Walker’s quest for a holistic self may be saddened that Judaism never seems to abet her process of discovery. “My parents, in their liberal progressive wisdom,” Walker says, adding a sarcastic tone to the last word, “decided to raise me without any religious practice rubric or identity.” She says she “never felt embraced and included” by her father’s Reform Judaism. Now, she experiences being Jewish “through culture, family, community and friends,” but the “spiritual component is not so strong.” Her spiritual journey has brought her to reading about Buddhism and Jewish Renewal for new ideas that are “not so exclusive and dogmatic.”
“Black, White and Jewish” is one of a string of recent first-person accounts of growing up as the product of the radical generation of the 1960s that have demanded the rearrangement of traditional identities. Those born in the late 1960s and 1970s have been irrecoverably altered by the choices their parents made: to come out as gay or lesbian, to divorce, and to have interracial babies. The fallout for this generation of Jews and others is only now beginning to be assessed. These premature autobiographies reveal how Walker and her generation are struggling to regain agency from their parents. “The whole book is about transcending categories and limitation of labels put on you.”
Rebecca Walker reads from “Black, White and Jewish” on Mon., Jan. 8, 7:30 p.m. at Barnes and Noble, 675 Sixth Ave., Man. (212 727-1227) and Tue., Jan. 9, 1 p.m. at Borders, 5 World Trade Center, Man. (212 839-8049).