Rebecca Walker, daughter of novelist Alice Walker, has forged her own successful career and identity as a writer, activist, and leading American advocate for women's issues. Author of the best-selling Black, White, and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self, Walker has written extensively on race, gender politics, and the changing face of contemporary American feminism.
Born in 1969 in Jackson, Mississippi, Walker came into the world as a symbol of the civil-rights era and harbinger of a new age. Her Georgia-born mother, a published poet by then, had become active in the civil rights movement and met a white attorney, Mel Leventhal, while working on a voter-registration drive in Mississippi. When they married, they became Mississippi's first legally married biracial couple. By 1974, they had settled with their daughter in the New York City area, but divorced when Rebecca was eight. Hoping to share child-rearing duties equally, her parents decided that Walker would spent two-year intervals with each of them. Thus she attended schools in Westchester County, an affluent suburban area of New York City, as well as in the more free-spirited community of San Francisco, to which her mother had moved. Walker attended Yale University, where she won a prize for academic excellence. By the time she graduated in 1992, Walker was already a contributing editor to Ms. magazine. Keenly interested in women's issues, she realized that while the generation of feminists to which her mother belonged had worked to achieve many important gains for young women, a new direction was necessary to set the tone for the 1990s and beyond. Thus Walker co-founded a national, non-profit organization called Third Wave Direct Action Corporation, which worked to promote new leadership ideas and activist strategies for women. Their massive voter registration drive, which targeted women in urban areas in time for the 1992 presidential elections, earned Walker several kudos, including the Feminist of the Year award from the Fund for the Feminist Majority.
Walker's first book was To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism, a 1995 tome for which she served as editor and author of the introduction. Contributors included Naomi Wolf, bell hooks, and Veronica Webb. The book-tour events shaped the form of her next project, as she told writer Erin Raber of Curve magazine. "I would meet these young mixed-blood people, and I'd always look at them and feel like we knew each other," she said of those who came to the readings. "We recognized something similar, but yet there was no story underneath, no way to really access it."
Six years later, Walker's result of that exploration, Black, White, and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self, was published by Riverhead Books. In it, she recounts the lingering effects of her parents' split, which came during the mid-1970s when race relations had changed dramatically over the preceding decade. "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," she writes. "Black-on-black love is the new recipe for revolution.… The only problem, of course, is me. My little copper-colored body that held so much promise and broke so many rules.… I am a remnant, a throwaway, a painful reminder of a happier and more optimistic but ultimately unsustainable time."
Walker delved extensively into her childhood and adolescent experiences as a mixed-race American in her memoir. The necessity of changing residences every two years, between her father's and mother's homes, seemed to add an element of additional instability for her in forming an identity with which she felt comfortable. Added to that was the fact that her parents lived in vastly different cultural and social milieus. "I had that sense," she explained to Kansas City Star reporter John Mark Eberhart, "of no matter where I was, no matter which community, there was a part of me that always liked something that community didn't approve of.… When I was listening to Prince with my friends, I couldn't say, 'Oh, did you hear that Led Zeppelin song?'" Some barbs came from within her own family, she also noted. She had an uncle on her mother's side whom she adored, but who sometimes teased her about mannerisms he termed "cracker," a pejorative term for a white Southerner. "A part of me feels pushed away when they say this," she wrote in her book, "like I have something inside of me I know they hate."
Black, White, and Jewish touched upon other issues, including Walker's Jewish heritage and her bisexuality. Reviewers of it praised her candor. "Walker has written, in blunt, stunning and intelligent language, a vital story about what it meant to come of age in two worlds that existed, largely, in diametric opposition," declared novelist Asha Bandele in a Black Issues Book Review critique.
After a long post-collegiate stint in New York City, where she owned a Brooklyn cyber café, Walker eventually settled in Berkeley, California, with her partner, recording artist Me'shell N'degeocello. The two have a son, and her own experiences as a parent partly inspired her next work, the anthology What Makes a Man: 22 Writers Imagine the Future, published in 2004. "For the last 50 years, women have been intensely re-envisioning femininity and what it means to be a woman," she explained to Deborah Solomon in a New York Times Magazine article. "I think that same scrutiny should be applied to men.… The feminist movement came into being because women were fundamentally in pain and unable to develop to their full potential. And men are similarly hampered by this masculine ideal, in which they are expected to repress their emotions."
At a Glance …
Born Rebecca Leventhal Walker on November 11, 1969, in Jackson, MS; daughter of Alice Walker (a writer) and Mel Leventhal (an attorney); partner of Me'shell N'degeocello (a singer), beginning 1996; children: one son. Education: Yale University, BA (cum laude), 1992.
Career: Ms. magazine, New York, NY, contributing editor, 1989–; Third Wave Direct Action Corporation, New York, NY, co-founder, 1992; Kokobar, Brooklyn, NY, co-owner, 1996-97. Essence, Mademoiselle, Black Scholar, Ms., New York Daily News, Spin, Harper's, and Sassy, contributor, 1980s–.
Awards: Fund for the Feminist Majority, Feminist of the Year award, 1992; Paz y Justicia award, Vanguard Foundation.
Addresses: Home— Berkeley, CA. Office— Riverhead Books, Author Mail, 375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014.
Walker admitted to Solomon that she tried to write a novel a few years back, but found it difficult to find her voice in such a medium. In most interviews, she avoids discussion of the relationship of her career to that of her mother, who won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for The Color Purple, but it seems evident that she has inherited not just her mother's literary gifts but the sense of confidence so crucial to the women's movement and all its achievements. "I'm very secretive," Walker told Raber in the Curve interview. "I'm not like, 'Here, come read my stuff, tell me what you think.' I'm more like, I'm doing this, when I know it's totally done, then I can share it to people. I mean, she read it before I published it, but I didn't give it to her like, 'Tell me what you think.' I gave it to her like, 'Here's my book.'"
(Editor and author of introduction) To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism, Anchor, 1995.
Black, White, and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self, Riverhead Books, 2001.
What Makes a Man: 22 Writers Imagine the Future, Riverhead Books, 2004.
Feminist Writers, St. James Press, 1996.
Advocate, February 27, 2001, p. 65.
American Prospect, September 10, 2001, p. 42.
Black Issues Book Review, January 2001, p. 49.
Curve, June 2001, p. 43.
Essence, May 1995, p. 173; January 1996, p. 123; June 2002, p. 111.
Kansas City Star, January 22, 2002.
Lambda Book Report, May 2002, p. 30.
Library Journal, March 15, 2004, p. 96.
New York Times Magazine, June 13, 2004, p. 19.
Publishers Weekly, November 6, 2000, p. 78.
Contemporary Authors Online, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (January 21, 2005).
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