Black, White, and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self
By Rebecca Walker
Riverhead Books, 323 pp. As the title of her new memoir tells us, the most important thingto know about Rebecca Walker is her mixed race heritage. In "Black, White,and Jewish," Walker takes us along as she attempts to negotiate theever-shifting places and racial and ethnic identities of her childhood.Like most trips with a teenager (and about half the book covers theseyears) it is a wild and compelling ride, unpredictable and occasionallyfrustrating and heartbreaking and poignant. Walker, the daughter of Civil Rights lawyer Mel Leventhal andwriter Alice Walker, was a "movement child," born in Jackson, Mississippito a black mother and a Jewish dad. While she was still small they moved to Brooklyn, and when she was in third grade they divorced. At first, Walker, who was then known as Rebecca Leventhal, alternates between her mom's new apartment and their oldrowhouse to which, within a year, Mel introduced his new, Jewish wife,Judy. Her uneasy domestic arrangements only deteriorate. After spendingthe next summer in Georgia with her mother's family, Rebecca moves toWashington, D.C. with her father and stepmother. Her parents somehowdecide that she will switch homes every two years, and Rebecca is shuttledto San Francisco to live with her mom. Walker spends the rest of herchildhood going back and forth between parents, between coasts, betweenraces, and between ethnicities. She has written this memoir, Walker tellsus, in order to find something she has always wanted, "a story to go withthis body." "Having to remember my own life," as Walker insists, "means that Ihave to feel it, too." Much of this memoir is an account of Walker'sfeelings, a therapeutic going back over the grounds and relationships ofher coming of age in order to claim the emotions she denied as a child.This making public of what in earlier decades would have been a privateprocess is a staple of today's memoir industry. At times here this methodworks well. In the early chapters, Walker manages to make her own storylive in its beautiful particularity even as it transcends the boundaries ofthe individual self to speak to a broad cultural moment: "Even though Daddygoes off to work at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund every day and Mama keepswriting her books about black people and their experiences, they are nolonger held together by a web of folk committed to the transgressive natureof their union ."
As black power and feminism change the context of herparent's relationship, little Rebecca becomes a symbol not of hope but offailure: "My little copper-colored body that held so much promise and brokeso many rules. I no longer make sense. I am a remnant, a throwaway, apainful reminder of a happier and more optimistic but ultimatelyunsustainable time. Who am I if I am not a Movement Child?" Walker'srevisiting of the idealism that produced and shaped her own young lifemakes her personal nostalgia for a family now split into a public elegy fora time now gone. This collage of outfits and apartments, best friends and boyfriendsis sometimes described in dizzying detail. Walker can remember theparticular brands of jeans and the exact styles of sweaters she wore toparties throughout her bicoastal teenage years. The subject of the book--Walker's "shifting self"-- in this manner mirrors the form as the narrativebreaks and jumps between the many versions of Rebecca Walker. Yet whatexactly are these pages asking the reader to do? Why, other than beingtortured, are we being asked to enter this life? Walker's story underlines just how central but strangely unexaminedracial thinking is to the ways children growing up in America construct asense of themselves and where they belong. People of color mostly know this, but many white readers, steeped in the American creed of colorblindness, do not. Walker's problem here, articulating a space between white and black, parallels her strugglesin daily life. She wants to create and live in a place that people do noteven know how to speak about. "The specter of my mother, of race, really,"she writes, " and the inability of my relatives to deal with it, leaves me somewhere on the periphery of my own experience, unable to commit to fullybeing there." Seeing a group of Hasidim, Walker doesn't "feel loyalty asmuch as an irrational, childlike desire to burst their suffocatingillusions of purity." She wants "to be recognized as family." Yet Walker'sshifting self, as her own story tells us in a way she never explicitlyaddresses, is as much a result of her parent's divorce, their subsequentemotional distance and childish behavior, and her constant moving as it isof her mixed race heritage. Walker's narrative, then, like the best memoirs, is not entirelyher own. The difficulty of making a space between racial categories, thedifficulty, finally, of imagining any connections beyond the cage of theself-- these problems plague all Americans as the new century opens. What Walker's fragmented story fails, finally, to tell us is how this troubledteenager, most at home in airports, became a young woman whole enough towrite this book.
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