Portrait of a Young Woman in Search of Her Authentic Self: Review of Rebecca Walker’s “Black White and Jewish”

It was the socially turbulent 60s. Mel Leventhal was a liberal Jewish lawyer from Brooklyn. Alice Walker was a young and inspired black writer from Georgia. (She would later achieve celebrity status when Steven Spielberg adapted her novel The Color Purple for a film by that same name.) Both Leventhal and Walker were idealists and activists intensely involved in the civil rights movement. When they married, Leventhal’s mother sat shiva for her son, never acknowledging his marriage until her granddaughter, Rebecca, was born in 1969, just 17 months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.

In her new book Black White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self, Rebecca Walker describes herself as a “Movement Child,” that is, a child born during–and as a result of–the civil rights movement. But this epithet captures more than the circumstances surrounding her birth because during the first two decades of Walker’s life, she was always in movement, literally and metaphorically.

After her parents’ divorce, Walker alternated homes, living with each parent for two-year periods in various places such as Mississippi, Brooklyn, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., the Bronx, and Larchmont, N.Y.

Walker also “moved” between identities, ethnic and otherwise. Depending on where and with whom she was living, Rebecca Walker was either black–or white and Jewish. (At other times, she adopted both Puerto Rican and Spanish personas, although she has no genuine Hispanic connections.) No doubt Walker’s identity crisis was a result of having been made to feel as if she were an outsider regardless of her location. Although her mother’s family always welcomed her warmly, some cousins never forgot–nor let her forget–she was “half white.” And when Walker was with her father’s family in Brooklyn, her great-grandmother, Jennie, a Russian Jew from Kiev, never looked her granddaughter in the eye nor spoke to her directly.

With each of Walker’s identities came a different way of walking, talking, and behaving. Her streetwise self got involved in drugs as well as with companions who were “on the very edge.” When she was living with her father and Jewish stepmother in a mostly white, affluent suburb of New York, or attending the predominantly Jewish summer camp to which they sent her, Walker acted like other upper-middle-class Jewish girls with whom she associated. The operative word in the previous sentence is “acted.” For Walker’s shifting self could almost be likened to multiple personality disorder–except that she was always conscious of her transformations–and could slip in and out of her diverse identities at will.

Walker’s perceptions of both her mother’s and father’s respective families are especially interesting because she is the ultimate “insider-outsider” and is thus able to make use of an insider’s knowledge and insight as well as an outsider’s objectivity when making observations. Unfortunately, Walker’s commentaries on contemporary Jewish lifestyles of a certain variety are not very positive. The majority of her personal experiences within Jewish society seem to have been emotionally and spiritually barren, as she observes an emphasis on materialism, status, and conformity. Recalling her father and stepmother’s decision to move from the Bronx to Larchmont, a wealthy suburb of New York, she writes, “I don’t know at the time that it is ‘the Jewish dream to live in the suburbs,’ to have a Volvo or two in the garage next to the kids’ bikes and baseball gear; to eat Dannon yogurt and bagels every Sunday and light Shabbat candles on Friday night; to get a baby-sitter one night a week so that you and your husband, fresh off the six-forty train from the city, can go see the romantic comedy playing at the local uniplex.” (Actually, except for the bit about lighting the Shabbat candles, Walker is describing an upper-middle- class, suburban life style that obviously isn’t necessarily Jewish.)

At age 17, the author changes her name legally from Leventhal to Walker. She writes that by so doing she is “privileging my blackness and downplaying what I think of as my whiteness.” Her disappointed father accuses her of trying to distance herself from her Jewish roots–a plausible charge considering Walker’s less than flattering assessment of upper-middle-class Jewish America. But Walker emphatically denies his accusation. She claims to fully own and take pride in her Jewish ancestry but notes that by taking her mother’s family name, she is affirming her “affinity for blackness,” and her “experience of living in the world with non-white skin.”

In prose that is frequently poetic, Walker presents readers with an uncompromising account of what it is like to belong to two different worlds–and to grow up with a foot in each.

Marlena Thompson was part of an interfaith marriage that lasted almost twenty-five years before her husband passed in 2003. She is a writer and singer/storyteller living in the Washington DC suburbs and visits Ireland whenever possible. Her mystery novel, A Rare & Deadly Issue (2004), has an interfaith heroine and can be ordered at www.pearlstreetpublishing.com.


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