Rebecca Walker: How It Feels To Be Mistaken for the Baby Sitter
Feminist Writer Mulls Her Afro-Semitic Roots; Black, White and Jewish; Autobiography
of a Shifting Self
Mr. Gross writes frequently about the arts.
In one of his night-club routines, Richard Pryor once said: “I had two
grandmothers — one used to give me milk and cookies, and the other used to
give me beer and reefer…needless to say which one I preferred.” In her
new memoir, “Black, White and Jewish,” Rebecca Walker — the daughter of
Mel Leventhal, a Jewish civil-rights lawyer, and Alice Walker, the author
of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Color Purple” — paints her family in a
similarly contrasted light.
Ms. Walker sees two completely different worlds through the same tormented
eyes. When she was a little girl (we’re never told how old, precisely) her
parents divorced. She spent the remainder of her childhood alternating
between stays with her Jewish father in New York and Washington, D.C., and
her black mother in San Francisco. This, one would think, would be fertile
ground for Ms. Walker to delineate the gigantic gulf that exists between
blacks and Jews in America.
Living with her father, Ms. Walker exists in a safe, protected environment.
In Washington, she is chauffeured to school by her stepmother. When she
attends Jewish summer camp she is cast into a glitzy world of Jewish
American princesses. When she lives with her mother she is exposed to a
bleaker reality. In San Francisco she samples various drugs, sleeps with
older boys and tries her hand at shoplifting in order to maintain a hip
image among her peers. At age 14, she has an abortion.
Rather than gravitating to the safer path taken by her Jewish family, Ms.
Walker chooses to follow her black roots. When her father moves to
Riverdale, Ms. Walker loses no time making friends in the tougher sections
of the Bronx. She never invites any of her black or Hispanic friends home,
afraid of what they will think. When her father offers to drive her to her
friend’s house, he is a fish out of water. “He just pulls up to the front
of her broken-down looking house and asks me if I’ll be okay… And I think
to myself that I am going to be fine, but will he? I belong because my skin
says I do. …I worry that he’s just another white man walking down the
street, an easy mark.”
There are reasons why Ms. Walker is deliberately hostile toward the Jewish
side of her family. Her paternal great-grandmother remains icily silent
when she talks to her or questions her. Family get-togethers are strained,
with Alice Walker refusing to attend. In her Jewish neighborhoods, everyone
wonders if she’s adopted. She is mistaken for the baby sitter when she
takes her younger half-brother and half-sister out for ice cream.
And, of course, there is the exclusionary nature of Judaism, which hurts
and insults her. Ms. Walker is not considered Jewish by Jewish law. “On the
subway, surrounded by Hasidim,” Ms. Walker writes, “I have to sit on my
hands and bite my tongue to keep from shouting: `I know your story!’…”I
don’t feel loyalty as much as an irrational, childlike desire to burst
their suffocating illusions of purity. I want to be recognized as family.”
On the other hand, when Ms. Walker is around the black side of her family,
she is readily accepted.
The book is written with a present-tense stream-of-consciousness technique,
which Ms. Walker undoubtedly chose to give her narrative a sense of urgency
and to make the reader a more active participant in her situation. But the
writing is not compelling, and the narrative suffers from many critical
Despite all of the painstaking detail Ms. Walker includes in documenting
her story — from her complex friendships to the many traumas she has
endured — there are some glaring omissions. Perhaps Ms. Walker was afraid
she would break her stream-of-consciousness flow, but she neglects to
explain why her parents’ marriage dissolved and what it was that pulled
them apart. Ms. Walker suggests that her father was having an affair with
her stepmother — the quintessential “nice Jewish girl” — but she never
clarifies whether this was before or after the marriage began unraveling.
Had Mel Leventhal chosen to end his “experimental” period and settle down
with the kind of woman he was always expected to marry? The author
suggests, but never confirms, that this was the case.
More disappointing, however, is the fact that she neglects to address the
larger question of black anti-Semitism. How did Jews — once so intimately
involved in the civil rights movement — become the target of so much black
hate? Ms. Walker offers no insights. She never mentions Crown Heights or
Louis Farrakhan. Her analysis consists only of the following: “With the
rise of Black Power, my parents’ interracial defiance, so in tune with the
radicalism of Dr. King and civil rights, is suddenly suspect.
Black-on-black love is the new recipe for revolution, mulatto half-breeds
are tainted with the blood of the oppressor, and being down means proving
how black you are. …My father, once an ally, is, overnight, recast as an
interloper. My mother, having once found refuge in love that is
unfashionable, may no longer have been willing to make the sacrifice.”
Ms. Walker’s father is not an armchair liberal, content to toss money at
causes and vote Democratic. As Ms. Walker portrays him, he was a man who
threw himself into the civil rights movement at the height of its danger.
(Ms. Walker describes her father playing cards with some black friends with
a shotgun resting next to the door.) And despite the rejection she felt on
behalf of Jewish society, she lovingly invokes her Jewish grandmother, a
classic Jewish bubbe. (She tells us that when her parents were married,
this same grandmother sat shiva.) Yet by the end of the book, Ms. Walker
has turned her back on her grandmother, announcing that she is changing her
name from Leventhal to Walker. “When I change my name, I do so because I do
not feel an affinity for whiteness, with what Jewishness has become.”
Other questions, too, are left unanswered. Ms. Walker introduces us to her
boyfriend — a white, half-Jewish boy — only to leave him dangling at the
end of the book. We know that he professes everlasting love to her, but he
disappears in the last few pages. What happened to this romance? All we are
told is that Ms. Walker now lives with a female partner. (Nor are we told
of Ms. Walker’s latter-day accomplishments — the fact that she frequently
speaks on Third Wave feminism and multiracial identity, and has been a
contributing editor to Ms. Magazine since 1989.)
There is also the critical question of how the parents’ union between black
and Jewish came about in the first place. We know that Ms. Walker’s father
was a civil rights lawyer in the South, but beyond that Ms. Walker tells us
little about their romance. “When they meet in 1965 in Jackson, Miss., my
parents are idealists, they are social activists, they are `movement
folk.'” She goes on to describe her parents’ idealistic philosophy, but
does not provide any of the details about how these two young people came
to fall in love.
Despite its many merits, the book is ultimately unsatisfying because the
author fails to answer the all-important question raised by a life such as
hers: How much of what happened between her Jewish father and black mother
was or was not emblematic of the larger social souring between blacks and
Jews? One is hungry for some kind of answer — Rebecca Walker is silent.