2017-07-12
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 this body." "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.


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