Black, White, and Jewish, Rebecca Walker

I flirted with Rebecca Walker a bit during spring quarter at K, where a few of her essays showed up in my Intro to Women’s Studies class. And I knew she was mixed (Like Me! ) and that her mother was Alice Walker, and that she started Third Wave Foundation, a nifty-sounding third-wave feminist organization. And I’d wanted to read her autobiography for a while, but didn’t get around to it until now, as neither K College’s nor the Kalamazoo public library had it.

Throughout reading, I discussed Black, White, and Jewish at length with Avery, and now am a bit at loss for words. It’s a deep, impactful book, one I related to on many levels, given my similar biracial background. I know well what Rebecca means about the necessity to navigate between what feels like two different poles of oneself and one’s loved ones. And what it feels like to be called black when you do not feel totally black—indeed, are not—, or what it feels like to be accused, implicitly or explicitly, of “acting white.” What it feels like to be aware of friction between the two sides of your family, and wanting to stand for something great, even if you’re just a kid, and even if your racial identity is total chance, nothing you signed up for in particular.

I was also struck by how Walker was obligated to grow up before her time. After her parents’ divorce, it is determined that Rebecca will spend two years with each parent, alternating until her graduation. When she is living with her mother in San Francisco especially, she is expected to conduct herself like an adult from age twelve, doing laundry, caring for herself, not being required to check in with her mother, being left by her mom for days at a time so that she (Alice Walker) could write. As such, Rebecca gets into certain things, such as drugs, alcohol, and sex, earlier than would be deemed appropriate by many. And if she ever questions this arrangement—this essential lack of parenting—she is told that she is mature enough to handle things, and that her job is take care of herself as much as possible so that her mother may work.

If Rebecca feels uncared for (if independent and adult) when she is with her mother, she feels stifled and out of place with her Jewish father, especially after he remarries and moves to Larchmont, a small, largely white, largely wealthy New York small town, going so far as to express hate for her father and stepmother during her second two-year stay in Larchmont.

Much to my surprise, the way in which Rebecca was raised almost overshadows her racial identity, at least in my reading—of course, they each feed into one another: how her father choses, eventually, a white, Jewish, provincial, upwardly-mobile life, and her mother, a bohemian, artistic existence filled with the community of other women, especially women of color. And Rebecca is caught in the middle, toeing each line, calling her father’s new white wife “mom” and feeling that she has betrayed her biological, black mama; sleeping with a black boy who, as Rebecca develops strong interests in art and yearns to expand her boundaries, accuses her of turning into a white girl; being ignored completely by her Jewish great-grandmother as a little girl; cutting off contact with her black and Dominican friends from the Bronx after she moves to Larchmont.

Rebecca’s life isn’t easy, and it isn’t clear, but it is fascinating, filled with varied characters whom she befriends, insightful yet engaging analysis of family dynamics, contextual and personal discussion of race and sexuality. And Walker is deeply transparent, offering the reader everything, unashamed and poetic all at once. By the middle of the book, I felt close to her, in tune with her life, and, upon finishing, found that I missed her, that I could have kept reading—the book ends with her high school graduation and, in many cases, eighteen years’ worth of autobiography is sufficient to me, but in this case, I longed to know more, about where her life took her after high school, about how she continued to craft her identity outside of either of her parents homes. I guess I’ll have to tackle the rest of her vast body of work for that.

Note: Those interested in reading about the aftermath of this extremely tell-all biography that does not present Alice Walker in the best light can read about it here.

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4 Comments

Filed under review - nonfiction

4 responses to “Black, White, and Jewish, Rebecca Walker

  1. I need to read this! Describing being biracial as navigating two opposite poles is spot on. I feel like I can relate to this even more so since Indians and English have their own odd points of tension both historically and in my family. I loved reading your blog as always, and I can’t wait to talk to you about this back at school!

    • You definitely should! I think you would enjoy it. And that’s very true, about the points of tension. Just adds to a sense of internal conflict within you at some times.

  2. Avery Smith

    I was struck here by the point you make about Rebecca’s life being made almost forcibly polar. It’s enlightening to realize that it was the way that she was raised that really gave weight to her “conflicting” identities, not those identities themselves.

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