Being the daughter of a famous writer, being a BI-coastal child to divorced parents, being bi-racial and being a “movement child” of the sixties has not been easy — being Rebecca Walker has not been easy.
The intimate details and process of which she poetically unravels in Black White and Jewish, an Autobiography of a Shifting Self, she will tell you, has not been easy for either of her parents to swallow.
“It’s very difficult for parents to face the negative way their decisions affect their children,” Walker said of how her parents have accepted the release of her National Best-selling book. “No parent wants to hurt their child. It’s been tough. It’s been a challenge.”
Both parents, Walker said, grew up with their own painful struggles and in a certain way have looked at the life they’ve attempted to provide for her and have wondered what on earth could possibly be wrong with your life?
The Commonwealth Club, a public forum group, hosted Walker at Berkeley Hillel -The Reutlinger Center on Monday night where she read from her autobiography and took questions about herself and the Third Wave Foundation, a philanthropic group she founded after graduating from Yale University, Cum Laude, in ’92 for women between the age of 15-30.
Walker’s has been a contributing editor to Ms. magazine since 1989.
Historically her writing has engaged such topics as feminism, race, sexuality reproductive freedom and domestic violence and has been published in Essence, Mademoiselle, The New York Daily News, Harper's, Sassy, SPIN, The Black Scholar, and various women's and black studies anthologies including Listen Up (Seal) and Testimony (Beacon).
Considered as a signature voice for the young women's movement, and named in ’96 as one of the 50 Future Leaders of America by Time magazine, Walker’s most recent writing appears to be taking a step back and inside to explore the duality of her existence — and reveals the insecurity of an adolescent who spent many years of her life looking at two cultures from the outside and longing to be apart of either. In Shifting Self she writes about what’s not so apparent about the successful, intelligent and beautiful woman the world sees.
Years before her parents were separated, Walker details the resentment she experienced from darker-skinned black girls, setting the groundwork for her own self-discovery.
“It does not occur to me that I’m doing something against the other dark-skinned girls.... It does not occur to me that I am somehow betraying them,” Walker writes about herself and a sense of entitlement that not being perceived as being black gave her.
She also recalls the invisibility of not belonging and the confusion of living underneath the changing perception of others.
“What I found in writing this book was that remembering was very painful. I found that in order for me to remember I had to let go... So it was through writing this book that I created a cohesive and surrogate Rebecca and that I was able to let go of experiences that have been so long etched onto my body,” Walker said of her book.
Walker was born in 1969 in Jackson, Mississippi, to an interracial “movement” couple who married in defiance of Mississippi's anti-miscegenation laws — African-American novelist Alice Walker and white Jewish civil rights attorney Mel Leventhal.
“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.”
But she also recalls with the same clarity and honesty the pain of her parents break-up and somewhere in the middle she says she learned when to break those rules in order to find her place in the world.
In San Francisco her mother struggled to balance the demands of writing with the responsibilities of motherhood, and according to daughter Rebecca Walker it was at times they were so close it was difficult to discern the lines between mother and daughter and to know the limitations of being a child.
In New York, however, her father had remarried to a more traditional homemaker and this environment she says left her feeling stifled. 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.”
Walker describes the paradox of these two existences in passages of the book. “...It is too hard to be the translator between two worlds," she writes.
In addition Walker talks of difficult early years with her Jewish family, recalling a scene when her Jewish grandmother would occasionally “kvetches] 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." And pages later revisits visiting her mother’s family in Atlanta and how that intimacy was tainted by discomfort.
Walker writes, "How do I reconcile my love for my uncles and cousins with the fact that I remind them of pain?"
In a recent interview, Walker elaborated on that discomfort. “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 Shifting Self is a story of change, of negotiating with social constructs and coming to the point where you’ve got the upperhand.