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“My mother is very ideologically based, and her ideology is much more important in many ways than her personal relationships.” – Rebecca Walker.
In the 1960s, The Color Purple novelist and activist Alice Walker married a Jewish man and gave birth to a biracial baby, Rebecca. Now more than 40 years later, the couple is long-divorced, the mother and half-Jewish daughter are estranged, and the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Alice is the celebrity sponsor of a movement committed to the destruction of the Jewish state. How could Alice make such a profound shift from joining a Jewish family to aiding in the Jewish people’s annihilation? Perhaps it is not that Alice changed. Rather, the political religion that served as her anchor suffered a radical devolution since the colorblind dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 1967, Alice was an aspiring novelist, poet, and political activist who married Mel Leventhal, a Jewish civil rights attorney whose parents fled the Holocaust. The couple chose to relocate from New York City to Jackson, Mississippi, a provocative act given that miscegenation laws had just recently been overturned in Loving vs Virginia. Leventhal spent many nights awake with a shotgun should the Klan choose to come after them. In November of 1969, Rebecca was born, and she notes in her 2001 memoir, Black White and Jewish, that it was “seventeen months after Dr. King was shot.”
The union of Alice and Mel was not to last. In 1976 the couple divorced. The seeds of the failed marriage can be seen in the ideological shifts of the period. The 1970s saw both of Alice’s movements take much harder, Marxist turns. The Civil Rights cause under King’s leadership was one of interracial unity. By 1976 Black Power was the dominant message and a white, Jewish husband was viewed with suspicion. The Feminist movement had also grown more radical, influencing Alice to resent her role as wife and mother. In an article for the Daily Mail in 2008, Rebecca described a traumatic discovery:
I was 16 when I found a now-famous poem she wrote comparing me to various calamities that struck and impeded the lives of other women writers. Virginia Woolf was mentally ill and the Brontes died prematurely. My mother had me - a ‘delightful distraction’, but a calamity nevertheless. I found that a huge shock and very upsetting.
This left-inspired rejection of motherhood pervaded Rebecca’s rocky adolescence moving forward. Her parents came up with an unusual arrangement that only exacerbated the feelings of isolation she already had as a biracial child. From elementary through high school Rebecca went back and forth between the Bohemian artist world of her San Francisco-based mother and the more stable middle class Jewish life of her father in New York. She would spend two years building herself and her identity only to have to leap back across the country to reinvent herself.
Black White and Jewish depicts such a life not just in its story but in its tone and style as well. The book is more than 300 pages of fragmentary childhood and adolescent recollections. The average chapter is only a few pages long and the voice maintained throughout is one of a scared child unable to piece together a coherent narrative of the life forced upon her by “movement” parents. It’s not until the last 30 pages that Rebecca finally starts to provide some insights into the chaotic life her parents provided.
Alice putting her leftist ideology before her parental responsibilities had very real consequences. Since her parents rarely set any boundaries for her, Rebecca experimented with drugs and sex early on. At 14, Rebecca had an abortion, an event she describes as something that traumatized her:
Although I believe that an abortion was the right decision for me then, the aftermath haunted me for decades. It ate away at my self-confidence and, until I had Tenzin, I was terrified that I’d never be able to have a baby because of what I had done to the child I had destroyed. For feminists to say that abortion carries no consequences is simply wrong.
It was the birth of Rebecca’s first child, Tenzin, in 2004 that would finally collapse the already-shaky relationship between a Pulitzer-prize-winning mother and her “calamity” of a daughter. Just as Alice saw her own marriage and Rebecca’s birth primarily as political acts, she also brought this same approach to Tenzin, her grandchild. Rebecca’s choice of parenthood over more time for writing and political activism is a rejection of her mother’s ideology.
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