Black, White, Jewish
Black, White, and Jewish — the Source of All Rebecca Walker’s Angst?
Rebecca Walker’s memoir Black, White, and Jewish, is subtitled “Autobiography of a Shifting Self.” Walker states that is a woman who is most comfortable “in airports” because they are “limbo spaces — blank, undemanding, neutral.” (3) In contrast, because of her multi-racial and multi-ethnic identity, she is both never ‘neutral’ and also never quite ‘of a color.’ Only in airports to the rules of the world completely apply to her as well as to the rest of the world, Walker states — and even then, this statement has an irony, given the recent events and controversies over airport racial profiling that occurred after the book’s publication. The book does on to describe, with great poignancy, the author’s perceived difficulty of living with a dual, often uncomfortable identity of whiteness and blackness, of Jewishness and ‘gentileness.’
It should be noted, however, Walker is no ordinary young writer. Rebecca Walker admits she is not simply the child of an African-American woman and a Jewish father. Her mother is the famous author of The Color Purple, namely Alice Walker. Her father, although not famous in a conventional sense, began his career at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He was a man who embarked with Alice Walker on an experiment during the 1960’s, an experiment of doing away with conventional notions of identity. Walker presents her self and her life as a kind of case study of what may occur when a social experiment is attempted upon the flesh of a young child, who desires stability above all things. However, the power of Walker’s personal prose occasionally obscures the muddiness of the generalizing implications of her argument. To take an individual as an example that relates to an entire social movement, even if the individual is one’s self is problematic. But although Walker’s claims may occasionally seem to exceed the stretches of her own life, ultimately the idea that the 1960’s ideal did not create a seamless social identity for the author emerges with forceful clarity, on rhetorical levels of logic or logos, pathos or emotion, and ethos (credibility and ethical claims).
Is this union, this marriage, and especially this offspring, correct?” asks the nurse, and asks society at the inception of the authors’ life. (12) Walker paints her early life history in loving terms, of chocolate cake and chitterlings to celebrate her birthday, of jungle sheets and watching “The Price is Right” with her parents. The intrusions into this happiness, even in the form of the Klan, are threatening, but because they are posed by external sources of racism, the child feels she is protected by both her white father as well as by her African-American mother. A young child’s sense of personal identity is being formed, but has not reached the state of crisis that it will later in life, with the demands of adolescent. “In 1967, when my parents break all the rules,” in forming an interracial marriage, “they say that an individual should not be bound to the wishes of their family, race, state, or country,” (23) In other words, they espouse the ideals of the era, and view conventional norms and structures as socially and society-created ideals rather than intrinsically good, historically tested moral codes. “I am a Movement Child,” says Walker. “I am not tragic.” (24) Logically, why should race matter, if African-Americans are deserving of their legal rights?
This idyllic existence does not stretch into forever for the couple. The middle class world of Tinker toys and the Bernstein Bears was shattered by Walker’s parent’s divorce. This occurrence would be tragic for any child, of course. But Walker argues that living in two different worlds, the common bane of every divorced child, was especially onerous for her because she was located in two culturally alien spheres, of blackness and Jewishness. When she has to do a report on her oldest living relation for school, for instance, her Great-grandma Jennie will not look at her. (35) Of course, this woman’s sense of alienation from her own great-granddaughter is blameworthy because of the older woman’s own racism, not because of the young Rebecca Walker Leventhal’s request to fulfill her assignment. But Walker implies, by including this notation that her parents should have entered into their union with a bit more care. Not only their own happiness was at stake when they chose to have a child. They knew that racism was alive in the world. They chose to endure this racism, as well as to ignore it when embarking upon their own personal relationships and their own personal union. However, as a child, Rebecca did not have the choice to endure such racism and disgust at interracial marriages in the black and white communities. She was forced to do so by the chosen circumstances of her parents, of her birth. The emotional ‘slap’ on the face of her great-grandma’s rejection is not something she could have prepared for, unlike her parents.
Of course, one might argue that being born into a world of racism and oppression is a choice that no individual can make, even if he or she is born to a non-interracial couple. A Black child with Black parents, it might be argued, must similarly endure the irrational prejudices of the White world. But Walker would argue that this child at least has a refuge of identity outside of the White world of racism. She, she suggests, is neither this nor that.
To further the credibility of her argument she indicates how, when she is at a camp, as one of three African-American girls, she is also part of a world where “we,” namely the girls of the camp, are “proud to be Japs, to think of ourselves as spoiled by Daddy’s money and Mom’s overprotectiveness.” She notes, “When I am at camp I wear Capezios and Guess jeans and Lactose shirts, and I assume the appropriate air of petulant entitlement. And yet I never get it quite right, never get the voice to match up with the clothes, never an completely shake free of my blackness: my respect for elders, my impatience with white-girl snootiness, the no-***** attitude I couldn’t quite perfect back with Lisa in San Francisco but which comes to me natural as rain at Fire Lake, where it makes other girls defer to me, look up to me, fear me.” (177-178) Walker is ‘white’ or called ‘yellow’ when amongst African-Americans of her age and class, she suggests, and is manifestly ‘Black’ when amongst white girls, but Black with a difference — she is still white enough to somewhat understand and enter into the customs and attitude of her father’s world. At camp, with forceful poetic resonance, she describes the common pursuit of ‘Color War,’ where the camp is arbitrarily divided into colors at war with one another, for fun. This arbitrary division, Walker’s stress upon this activity suggests, occurs within the authors’ own sense of self on a daily basis and because it is not chosen, because it is imposed, it is not fun.
Walker’s sense of betrayal is intensified after her father becomes a man who listens to 1010 WINS on the radio every morning, “showers, shaves, and puts on a suit,” and is married to a white, Jewish woman. (215) When she lives with her father and her stepmother she must live in a community where she is openly stared at on the street at someone who does not belong. “I’m winging every decision, every move, every day, faking like I know what I’m doing all the time rather than being sure.” (216) However, as proud as she is of being the daughter of Alice Walker, the prominent African-American woman writer, when shown the photograph of an ancestor of the Walker family who was a slave, “I look for the thread that makes the life of this ancestor intersect with my own. I feel lost.” (148)
One might ask Walker, however, if this sense of alienation from one’s own parents, from one’s own past identity, even one’s own ancestry, is a condition of a multi-racial and mixed religious background, or a product of American adolescence? But the conventional existence eventually chosen by her father suggests that a White man can return to the mainstream after spurning all these things as a rite of adolescent passage, while Walker cannot. Walker’s physical appearance forces her into a continual existence of protest, whether she chooses to conform or not. Even her mother’s bohemian existence is chosen, and offers the comfort of ancestry, even an enslaved one.
How constructed, however, one might ask is the idea of ancestry and connection? The unbroken line between African-Americans might itself, one say, be a construction, a tracing together between various Africans who were enslaved centuries ago. An African-American immigrant from Haiti might be ‘read’ the same by white eyes as one from South Carolina, causing a sense of identity diffusion because of societal mis-reading, as one cannot always see Rebecca Walker’s Jewishness upon her. Making a social argument about the destructive legacy of the 1960’s from hurt, from the depression and parental and personal conflict that seems to be characteristic of American adolescence is difficult. Individuals of different sexualities, of conflicted relationships even with homogenous paths might make the same argument of placenessness, of existing in a space they must create, rather than find. Although Rebecca Walker’s book is a powerful personal testimony, it does not quite hold up — nor perhaps should it aspire to — as a sociological document. It is written, as the author admits, with emotion and in her own blood, and cannot admit the alternative perspectives of other American twenty and thirty-somethings undergoing similar identity crisis.
But unlike the identity crisis of leaving and returning to the bosom of the family, Walker has no family to return to — her parents are divorced and have returned from their respective crisis of identities, into the bosoms of their own ethnic identities. They have been changed and perhaps improved by their heightened cultural exposure. But after her own rebellion, Rebecca Walker has no place to comfortably rest and return to — except, ironically, the airport, she might say. “I am flesh and blood but I am also ether,” she states at the end of her work. She attempts to create anew rather than return to ancestors, like her parents, and this re-creation is a constant source of consternation.
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