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 thing
to know about Rebecca Walker is her mixed race heritage. In "Black, White,
and Jewish," Walker takes us along as she attempts to negotiate the
ever-shifting places and racial and ethnic identities of her childhood.
Like most trips with a teenager (and about half the book covers these
years) it is a wild and compelling ride, unpredictable and occasionally
frustrating and heartbreaking and poignant.
Walker, the daughter of Civil Rights lawyer Mel Leventhal and
writer Alice Walker, was a "movement child," born in Jackson, Mississippi
to 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 old
rowhouse to which, within a year, Mel introduced his new, Jewish wife,
Judy. Her uneasy domestic arrangements only deteriorate. After spending
the next summer in Georgia with her mother's family, Rebecca moves to
Washington, D.C. with her father and stepmother. Her parents somehow
decide that she will switch homes every two years, and Rebecca is shuttled
to San Francisco to live with her mom. Walker spends the rest of her
childhood going back and forth between parents, between coasts, between
races, and between ethnicities. She has written this memoir, Walker tells
us, in order to find something she has always wanted, "a story to go with
"Having to remember my own life," as Walker insists, "means that I
have to feel it, too." Much of this memoir is an account of Walker's
feelings, a therapeutic going back over the grounds and relationships of
her 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 private
process is a staple of today's memoir industry. At times here this method
works well. In the early chapters, Walker manages to make her own story
live in its beautiful particularity even as it transcends the boundaries of
the individual self to speak to a broad cultural moment: "Even though Daddy
goes off to work at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund every day and Mama keeps
writing her books about black people and their experiences, they are no
longer held together by a web of folk committed to the transgressive nature
of their union ." As black power and feminism change the context of her
parent's relationship, little Rebecca becomes a symbol not of hope but of
failure: "My little copper-colored body that held so much promise and broke
so many rules. I no longer make sense. I am a remnant, a throwaway, a
painful reminder of a happier and more optimistic but ultimately
unsustainable time. Who am I if I am not a Movement Child?" Walker's
revisiting of the idealism that produced and shaped her own young life
makes her personal nostalgia for a family now split into a public elegy for
a time now gone.
This collage of outfits and apartments, best friends and boyfriends
is sometimes described in dizzying detail. Walker can remember the
particular brands of jeans and the exact styles of sweaters she wore to
parties throughout her bicoastal teenage years. The subject of the book--
Walker's "shifting self"-- in this manner mirrors the form as the narrative
breaks and jumps between the many versions of Rebecca Walker. Yet what
exactly are these pages asking the reader to do? Why, other than being
tortured, are we being asked to enter this life?
Walker's story underlines just how central but strangely unexamined
racial thinking is to the ways children growing up in America construct a
sense 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 struggles
in daily life. She wants to create and live in a place that people do not
even 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 fully
being there." Seeing a group of Hasidim, Walker doesn't "feel loyalty as
much as an irrational, childlike desire to burst their suffocating
illusions of purity." She wants "to be recognized as family." Yet Walker's
shifting self, as her own story tells us in a way she never explicitly
addresses, is as much a result of her parent's divorce, their subsequent
emotional distance and childish behavior, and her constant moving as it is
of her mixed race heritage.
Walker's narrative, then, like the best memoirs, is not entirely
her own. The difficulty of making a space between racial categories, the
difficulty, finally, of imagining any connections beyond the cage of the
self-- these problems plague all Americans as the new century opens. What Walker's fragmented story fails, finally, to tell us is how this troubled
teenager, most at home in airports, became a young woman whole enough to
write this book.