When Rebecca Walker was a baby, her mom was a struggling writer and her dad was a civil rights attorney in the thick of the movement. Her mom became (or rather, always was and then we figured out who she was) Alice Walker, one of America's finest novelists, and so Rebecca Walker rose above the usual fray of biracial kids who came of age in 1970s America. In BLACK WHITE AND JEWISH: Autobiography of a Shifting Self, she lets us in on the difficulties and privileges of growing up with such a unique and culturally significant background. Her personal fame, based mostly on the support of her mom and her godmother Gloria Steinem and her patchy attempts at what she refers to as Third Wave Feminism, has nothing to do with this book: it's mostly about being the daughter of famous people who were famous for not only what they did but for how they lived in defiance of laws that constricted so much of society at one time in our nation's history.
The book is written in the self-conscious, wistful, first-person way that so many memoirs are --- her childhood days are happy, and she charmingly remembers little details, happy to tell us about her favorite pants and the food she liked to eat. We learn about her father's grandmother, who didn't approve of her, and her distaste of airports (since, after her parents' breakup, she spent a lot of time in them, flying from one coast to another to spend time with each of them). She seems healthy, certainly, and able to comprehend and forgive injustices the rest of us might not be able to shake for a lifetime. BLACK WHITE AND JEWISH: Autobiography of a Shifting Self is the equivalent of a good college-grade paper about one's upbringing and how it has changed one for the better as one gets older.
I enjoyed reading about her life, about her experiences as a teen, her boyfriends, her friends, an unfortunate abortion, her anxieties about getting into college; but Walker is no Edwidge Danticat. I know that someone is telling me a story but I am not able to get inside that person's head completely in the way Danticat is able to open her heart and pour out stories that make me understand not only her Haitian childhood but the lives of everybody around her, the details of the sweet and sour of her life, the good, the bad and the way too ugly. Walker's book seems like something that may not be of any great value to anyone if she were not the daughter of a famous writer. Like another literary offspring's latest offering, Molly Jong-Fast's NORMAL GIRL, it is clear that the mother is the reason that the daughter has a voice at all.
I am sure that at some point Walker could derive greater literary value from remembrances of her past life. But she will have to delve deeper into the heart, like her mother's work does, in order to make us care enough to feel like we really know the writer amidst the politically correct hoopla.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on December 28, 2000