Look carefully at the cover of Rebecca Walker’s new memoir Black White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self and you may notice that something is missing. “I fought so hard to take out those commas [between the adjectives],” Walker said in a recent interview with JBooks.com. “I am not a list. I am one being here and each of those descriptions contains a dream, each of those words blends together in me.”
Walker, who among other things also describes herself as a “movement child,” is the daughter of African-American novelist Alice Walker and white Jewish civil rights lawyer Mel Leventhal. Her parents met in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960s and were, as their daughter writes, “movement folk… In 1967, when my parents break all the rules and marry against laws that say they can’t, they say that an individual should not be bound to the wishes of their family, race, state, or country. They say that love is the tie that binds.”
Walker recalls that growing up she learned the rules that her parents broke, and then she learned when to break those rules in order to find her place in the world. Her parents divorced when Rebecca was eight years old and every two years she was shunted between coasts to live with one of her parents. In San Francisco her mother struggled to balance the demands of writing with the responsibilities of motherhood. In New York, her father remarried and Walker chronicles the ambivalent relationship she has with her father’s new wife, a woman whom she describes as her “white, holier-than-thou, Jewish stepmother,” but in her more vulnerable moments also calls “Mom.”
When marooned in lily-white Westchester, New York, Walker tries to bridge her two worlds by staying friends with kids she knew from the Bronx. The effort proved to be emotionally exhausting. She writes “…it is too hard to be the translator between two worlds.” But Walker has a genius for translation and to this day is still interpreting both her legacies. Now 31, she not only takes on the task but relishes its opportunities. “I feel extremely culturally Jewish,” Walker says. “I did a series of interviews [for this book] with black women and Jewish women and I had an intuitive connection to each person. There was a different dynamic happening with each of them and it was strong and tangible. My parents, in their radical revolutionary vision for me, raised me without a religious practice. I wasn’t baptized, I didn’t have a Bat Mitzvah. But I do feel connected to the Jewish Renewal Movement. And I’m also a student of Buddhism.”
Walker arrives at this spiritual tranquility after years of deconstructing and then finally constructing her own identity. Of the difficult early years with her Jewish family she simply writes, “I want to be recognized as family.” In the book she recalls an embarrassingly familiar scene when her Jewish grandmother, whom she adored, occasionally “kvetch[es] about how ungrateful her daughters-in-law are and how tragic it is that she isn’t ever going to have Jewish grandchildren because her sons married shiksas.” When she visits her mother’s family in Atlanta, the pleasure of being in one another’s company is undercut by tangible moments of discomfort. Walker writes, “How do I reconcile my love for my uncles and cousins with the fact that I remind them of pain?”
In conversation Walker further elaborates that “it was painful for my [black] uncles to notice white attributes and characteristics in me. I brought them all this joy, but at the other end were traits [in me] that they thought were dangerous and repulsive. [On the other hand], my blackness reminds my father of a time in his life that is different from the time he lives in now. It reminds him of how committed he was to civil rights and how adamant he was about that work before he became a corporate litigator. One of the profound facts of my body is that it becomes a location, a reminder, particularly for my father, of what he lost romantically and politically.”
The romantic and the political, her mother’s belief in the power of storytelling and her father’s love of the law, have come together in myriad ways for Walker. “No matter how I fight it,” she says, “I seem to be the kind of creative person very involved in political work. I consider this book very literary, but I’ve found creative ways to consider the personal and political.” One such way has been her involvement in the Third Wave Direct Action Foundation, an organization she founded to assist young women through activism and philanthropy. Some of Third Wave’s projects have included economic assistance for young women seeking safe, legal abortions and funding for women starting businesses or attending college.
The age demographic that Third Wave focuses on–women ages fifteen to thirty–coincides with those years when Walker struggled to understand her own identity and the role that memory played in her life. In Black White and Jewish she writes that that difficult, sometimes tense interplay of identity and memory stems from her perception that she, “was never granted the luxury of being claimed unequivocally by a people or a race…” When asked if African-American memory and Jewish memory differ for her, she responds that “the question almost hurts my head,” so resolute is she now not to favor one identity over the other.
Yet when she was seventeen she made a conscious choice “to follow a more matrilineal line” and legally changed her name from Leventhal to Walker. “I changed my name at a time in my life when I was estranged from my father,” she says. “I also found out that my grandfather had been extremely abusive to my grandmother and that he disowned my father when he eight years old. It was that whole cutting off thing that we Jews seem to do so well. I have never met my grandfather and I didn’t want to be identified with someone who didn’t know me or want to know me. I was dealing with the reality of being claimed wholeheartedly by [my father’s] side of the family when I was attached in more significant ways to my mother and her family.”
Walker also views the name change as an acknowledgement of “living in the world with non-white skin.” But Rebecca Walker knows first-hand that notions of identity are always evolving. To that end she asserts that she is “very invested in the notion of biraciality. It’s the truth of who I am. And both these groups, these families have made me who I am.”