New York Times best-selling author Rebecca Walker was born outside the box. She is the only child of Jewish American lawyer Mel Leventhal and African American writer Alice Walker, whose most well-known book is the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Color Purple.”
Walker has spent much of her adult life analyzing her unique blend of identities and trying to free others from being boxed into stereotypical roles created by society.
“My intent is to make the world a better place, one voice at a time,” she said. “My vision is to create a space for people to be truly free.” To that end, Walker has written and spoken widely.
Walker was welcomed April 12 to Mission College as part of the African-American Visiting Writers Series, sponsored by the Office of Student Equity and Success. Just back from a trip to Thailand and Cambodia, Walker spoke to the students, faculty and public who had gathered for the free event in the library at 11 a.m. and then at 6:30 p.m. at Donnell McGee’s creative writing class.
Walker’s parents met in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960s while working for the American Civil Rights Movement (1954–1968) to end racial segregation and discrimination. Racially-mixed marriages were illegal in some states, including Mississippi, until the U.S. Supreme Court legalized interracial marriage nationwide in June 1967 (Loving v. Virginia). Walker’s parents married legally in New York on March 17, 1967. Born in 1969, Walker was a child of that struggle to free all people, regardless of color.
“I was never granted the luxury of being claimed unconditionally by any one people,” said Walker. “I feel affinity with all beings who suffer.”
Walker talked about and read from her 2001 memoir, “Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self,” in which she first tried to make sense of who she was. She felt that her world was fragmented from having to move often within many different worlds, especially after her parents divorced when she was eight.
“I feel as if I’m in the family through some sort of affirmative action plan,” she wrote about visiting her father’s Jewish side of the family. Then when she visited her African American mother’s family, she was hurt to be described as acting like “crackers.”
“Many of us have lost the sense of a stable home and the security that gives,” said Walker, who now lives in Los Angeles. “The best result of writing about [my life was that] I saved my own life by writing it. ["Black, White and Jewish”] was the first place where all my different selves existed in one place, where I was integrated and whole.”
Walker speaks of African identity in “Black Cool,” the title of a 2012 collection of essays she selected and edited. Just like people associate yoga with India, she pointed out, the culture of “cool, funk and hip” was introduced into American culture directly from Africa. “Black Cool” reflects an ancestral, cultural pride that has kept black people alive and functional.
Mission College–located at 3000 Mission College Blvd., Santa Clara–offers opportunities to explore and reflect on cultural and ethnic identity with diverse instructors. Instructor and poet Donelle McGee, also black, white and Jewish, teaches creative writing. Instructor Qiana Houston teaches sociology. Humanities 18 instructor David Piper challenges students to consider what it is that makes them black or white or Asian. Check out summer and fall classes now at www.missioncollege.edu.
“College is the place for you to reflect on your identity,” concluded the definitely cool Walker.