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Black, White & Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self Paperback – January 8, 2002
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From Publishers Weekly
The daughter of famed African American writer Alice Walker and liberal Jewish lawyer Mel Leventhal brings a frank, spare style and detail-rich memories the this compelling contribution to the growing subgenre of memoirs by biracial authors about life in a race-obsessed society. Walker examines her early years in Mississippi as the loved, pampered child of parents active in the Civil Rights movement in the bloody heart of the segregated South. Torn apart by the demands of their separate careers, her parents' union eventually lost steam and failed, leaving Walker to shuttle back and forth across country to spend time with them both. Deeply analytical and reflective, she assumes the resonant voices of an inquisitive child, a highly sensitive teen and finally a young woman who is confronted with the harsh color prejudices of her friends, teachers and families-both black and Jewish-and who tires desperately to make sense of rigid cultural boundaries for which she was never fully prepared by her parents. Whether she's commenting on a white ballet teacher who doubts she'll ever be good because her black butt's too big, Jewish relatives who treat her like an alien, or a boyfriend who feels she's not black enough, Walker uses the same elegant, discreet candor she brings to her discussion of her mother and the development of her free-spirited sexuality. Her artfulness in baring her psyche, spirit and sexuality will attract a wealth of deserved praise. (Jan. 2) Forecast: Coming the heels of her mother's story collection, The Way Forward Is with a Broken Heart (which offers a fictional treatment of Alice Walker's marriage to Leventhal), this literary debut by the younger Walker, who has been recognized by Time as one of her generation's leaders, is destined to generate excitement. Although Walker is likely to be compared to Lisa Jones (the daughter of Amiri Baraka and Jewish writer Hetty Jones), who tackled the myth of tragic mulatto in Bullet Proof Diva (1995), a collection of columns from the Village Voice, Walker's higher profile and narrative treatment of these themes will draw a wider audience who no doubt will greet her warmly on her 10-city tour.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Library Journal
Walker, the daughter of Alice Walker and attorney Mel Leventhal, shuttled among Mississippi, San Francisco, the Bronx, and Washington, DC, after her parents divorced. Here is her story of the need to redefine herself in each new setting.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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I was wrong though, and overly gullible for believing so. Upon finishing the title I also found myself totally disappointed - as were Walker's parents when interviewed by various sources. Her parents are former civil rights lawyer Melvyn Leventhal and award-winning novelist, play-write, poet, and activist Alice Walker. Why would her parents be disappointed? Well, rather than the exploration identity through the lens of race, ethnicity, religion and environment that Walker promises to take readers throughout this memoir, Rebecca Walker details how her life with mother and father was at first jovial and then at the sudden divorce of her parents when she was 8 became an utter nightmare. She confidently claims her parents' marriage was little more than a fun try at interracial happiness and peace but once it wasn't just fun or cool anymore her father simply left her and her mother and returned to the peace and stability of his White-Jewish community. She also states matter-of-factly that her mother, having been betrayed by spouse, was therefore betrayed by Whiteness as well and as consequence couldn't fully accept Rebecca as her own anymore. While readers may not necessarily fault Walker for feeling or believing this to be the case, and certainly she didn’t have to get her parents’ permission or input on her own memoir either – I, personally, believe that she does readers a great disservice by presenting her feelings and beliefs regarding her parents’ split and their differing approaches at parenting as absolute truth and fact.
Walker doesn't question any of her beliefs or statements at all, although there is never any evidence that her version is, in fact, the only version. Rather, Walker’s richly detailed and sporadic accounts of past events instead highlight how many holes there are in her knowledge of what was going on around her and how utterly self-absorbed she was during those events and at the time of chronicling them for her memoir. She fails to ever see beyond herself or to even accurately look at herself. Nowhere in the memoir does she take the time to assess how her own actions and bias towards others may have affected their actions and beliefs regarding herself. This is troubling in a memoir, as Mary Karr writer in her work, The Art of Memoir, “the secret” to writing memoir effectively is “the writer’s finding a tractor beam of inner truth about psychological conflicts to shine the way” (Karr, 36). In Black, White, and Jewish, however, that light to shine the way is absent and “truth” is presented as absolute but feels discomfortingly subjective.
Much of this issue is due, I believe, to the fact that Walker writes almost exclusively in the Voice of Innocence until the end of the memoir. There is no meaningful reflection or inquiry, just detailed, cinematic rehashing of past events. The extreme rose-colored-glasses telling of the good events and the very dark-and-dreary of more painful events also makes it hard for the reader to believe that these events really happened as she claims they did. Nothing in her voice, shaky and uncertain of anything other than her parents couldn’t have loved her much or they would have stayed together, does not lend itself to credibility. As Sue Silvermann explains in Fearlesss Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir, the narrating voice of your memoir must be “both you and not you. [An] artistically created ‘you’” that does not simply put experience on the page but also makes sense of that experience and gives it life via an articulated thread that runs through the entirety of the memoir. Walker, though, neglects to meet this standard and instead writes haphazardly – she writes as pure purging. Furthermore, there is no clear structure or theme that this memoir is really about. Because it most certainly is not about her experience as a Black, White, Biracial, or Jewish person. She only ever mentions that other people would look at her and proclaim, “you must be this,” and she would refute it or accept it and that was that. There is no real mention of Judiasm at all other than to say her father was Jewish. Religiously? Ethnically? Both? We, as readers, have no idea. Nor do we have any idea why that actually matters to Walker or how she thinks it impacts her at all. These themes are virtually absent outside of discussion that her parents experimented, in her opinion, with an interracial relationship, created her, and then divorced and renounced the other half.
I want to say the structure – the framework through which Walker builds her story upon – is the utter lack of parenting she believes she experienced growing up and how that ruined her entire life. However, I feel that it’s not really fair to give her that, because even when she talks about her parents she doesn’t actually talk about them. Walker fails to bring to life either individual on the page or to even really give them space on the page at all. They are faceless and practically nameless throughout her memoir. If I did not already know who her parents were before reading this memoir, I would have had to constantly go back and search for the names of her parents and descriptions of them as well as their relationships to other poorly identified relatives Walker claims had an impact on her life, but neglects to tell us how. I don’t believe that memoirs need to be told in a chronological fashion, but perhaps in Walker’s it would have made more sense as the only thing that ties anything together in her work is her steadfast belief that she was broken and confused and self-destructive her entire life because her interracial parents got divorced. In my opinion that is simply not enough.
This was a difficult read to get through for me. Because she is so good at bringing to life the visuals and sensations of the past, but so totally unwilling to take any responsibility for herself or her own actions or to acknowledge that others may have had their own, complicated reasons for theirs. This is a point that I find very important in life in general, and she doesn't just drop the ball but throws it away completely. Did she undergo any transformation? Maybe? In the end, her voice becomes a little clearer and a little stronger and Walker claims she is at peace with herself finally, but as the reader I didn't buy it. She was still blaming her parents for everything, and quite often she was still simply running away from her problems both in an emotional and physical sense.
I believe it was an important book for her to write for herself, to get it off her chest. But I also believe she pretty much published diary excerpts, not a fully realized memoir, and certainly not a memoir that was fair to anyone, including herself.
She comments in this 2001 book of her birth, “A mulatta baby swaddled and held in loving arms, two brown, two white, in the middle of the segregated South… That makes me the tragic mulatta caught between both worlds like the proverbial deer in the headlights… But maybe I’m being melodramatic. Even though I am surely one of the first interracial babies this hospital has ever seen, maybe the nurses take a liking to my parents… Could I be just another child stepping out into some unknown destiny?” (Pg. 12-13)
Later, she says, “When they met in 1965 in Jackson, Mississippi, my parents are idealists, they are social activists, they are ‘movement folk.’ They believe in ideas, leaders, and the power of organized people working for change. They believe in justice and equality and freedom. My father is a liberal Jew who believes these abstractions can be realized through the swift, clean application of the Law. My mother believes they can be cultivated through the telling of stories, through the magic ability of words to redefine and create subjectivity. She herself is newly ‘Black.’ She and my father compromise an ‘interracial couple.’ … I am not a ba_tard, the product of a rape, the child of some white devil. I am a Movement Child.” (Pg. 23-24)
She notes, “For many years I tell people whom I think will be shocked about my Slavic, Jewish ancestry. I get a strange, sadistic pleasure from watching their faces contort as they reconsider the woman who was more easily dismissable as Puerto Rican or Arab. On the subway, surrounded by Hasidim crouched xenophobically over their Bibles, I have to sit on my hands and bite my tongue to keep from shouting out, ‘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.” (Pg. 36-37)
In elementary school, she states, “I learn to move like I am important, in control; as if I, Rebecca, belong. Years later, when black girls … threaten to beat me up for ‘acting like a white girl,’ it is this attitude they must be talking about. I act like I am entitled to bliss, like I am not afraid of what the world has to offer.” (Pg. 41) After her parents divorced and her father remarried a Jewish woman, she thought, “This I do not understand, but for my daddy, I pretend to understand… Yes, Daddy, it is okay that you are breaking my heart with this woman I don’t know, letting her into my life, letting her buy me presents, letting me love her.” (Pg. 57)
She observes, “And then Feminism, with a capital F, codified Feminism, ‘movement’ Feminism, as opposed to the feminism that has always been under our roof… comes to our house. Mama joins a group of black women writers who call themselves the Sisterhood and takes a position at Ms. magazine. It isn’t that my mother wasn’t feminist before, but now she is surrounded by the Feminism she is helping to create. This historical moment is about options, about formulating a life defined not by male desire but by female courage. Which is exactly what it takes to leave my father. The only problem, of course, is me… I no longer make sense. I am a remnant, a throwaway, a painful reminder of a happier and more optimistic but ultimately unsustainable time. Who am I if I am not a Movement Child?” (Pg. 60)
Spending time with her uncle and some cousins, they laughingly tell her she has the “crackers”: “This is a word my uncle Bobby will use again and again to describe me or one of my mannerisms… when I am… doing things they think… are not black. Even though they are just kidding… a part of me feels pushed away when they say this, like I have something inside of me I know they hate… I am struggling to find my ground, to know where I really belong. How do I reconcile my love for my uncles and cousins with the fact that I remind them of pain?” (Pg. 85)
She states, ”At the Library of Congress, I become the daughter of my mother. That is how people know me… This is Alice Walker’s daughter. You know that woman who read the poetry?... I do not mind being my mother’s daughter, I like it even. I like the attention, the way the people who love my mother’s writing dote on me and make me feel like I am special, too… Am I proud of my mother? This question is harder to answer… Isn’t she supposed to be proud of me?” (Pg. 102-103)
She recalls of going to camp, “I am not a leader in that I have a gaggle of followers trailing along after me, but people don’t mess with me much… when I ask Jodi or Pam why people are sometimes quiet or reserved around me, they say that I am intimidating… It doesn’t occur to me that intimidating might be another word for black.” (Pg. 178)
She admits, “no matter how strong I feel in myself, I am still the little girl… who is too dark or too light; too rich or too poor to be trusted… I am always standing outside the gate, wanting to be let in. I am always terrified that this is where I will have to live; forever wanting, never fulfilled, always outside.” (Pg. 186)
She comments, I enter my life in San Francisco with a vicious attitude. I slam doors, talk back to my mother, roll my eyes, and stay in my room all day with the door shut and the music up… She wonders aloud where all this anger is coming from and shrinks from me… She says I must have picked up these bad habits from my stepmother. Maybe she was too permissive… Is she making a distinction between black and white parenting?... I can’t say, I hate all this moving and losing and trying to find home and saying goodbye.” (Pg. 228-229)
She recounts, “When I tell my mother I am pregnant … she responds without too long a hesitation. Find a doctor to get a test, she says. Once you know for sure we’ll schedule an abortion. She doesn’t lecture me, she doesn’t say, ‘How did this happen, aren’t you using birth control, she doesn’t say much of anything except to call her boyfriend a few hours later and tell him… The abortion happens on an overcast, rainy Friday afternoon… Michael [her boyfriend], my mother’s boyfriend, Robert, and my mother, settle into the waiting area as a nurse takes me into a little room…” (Pg. 247)
She comments, “Instead of ‘intimidating,’ the word white people have used to describe what they find unsettling about me, Michael says I am ‘snobby,’ the term black people use. He tells me that people, our friends, say I think I’m better than everybody else… The only people I feel comfortable with are my teachers… They grant me the exquisite luxury of feeling normal by focusing not on my skin but on my mind, my curiosity, my writing skills. When I am fifteen, my teachers save my life.” (Pg. 269-270)
She records, “For marrying a black woman, my father was disowned. For marrying a white man, my mother was called a traitor; her racial loyalty … were suddenly subject to indiscriminate cross-examination. Nonetheless, years later… my mother tells me about the hope she and my father had for me, for the world my mixed-race integrated body might help create… it is almost impossible for me to imaging having this kind of faith in the future… But there is a tinge of proud determination in her voice… which I find instructive. My parents believed in a better world because imagining and working toward one was what they did every day.” (Pg. 288-289)
She notes, ”In England… my race is completely unspoken, a subject which is obviously on people’s minds but is utterly taboo… As if not speaking about race except to spit tersely whenever it does come up that it doesn’t matter at all is proof that the British are tolerant, progressive, accepting.” (Pg. 301)
She acknowledges, “My lover asks me late one night… What does it FEEL like to have white inside of you, she asks… Well, I say. The only time I ‘feel white’ is when black folks point out something in me that they don’t want to own in themselves and so label white.’ … I also ‘feel white’ when I compare myself physically to darker people and find myself lacking… I do carry a constant sense of not black in those areas, of deprivation … of wanting to have more of something other than what I have… And then there is the question of how I can feel fully identified with ‘my people’ when I have other people, too, who are not included in that grouping… What I do feel is an instant affinity with beings who suffer, whether they are my own… or not.” (Pg. 302-304)
She concludes, “It all comes to this. I stand with those who stand with me. I am tired of claiming for claiming’s sake, hiding behind masks of culture, creed, religion. My blood is made from water and so it is bloodwater that I am mad of, and so it is a constant emphatic link with others which claims me, not only carefully drawn lines of relation. I exist somewhere between black and white, family and friend. I am flesh and blood, but I am also ether. This, too, is how memory works.” (Pg. 319-320)
This is a fascinating and insightful memoir of a very unique young woman. It will be “must reading” particularly for those interested in cultural/ethnic diversity.