Mother, daughter write of their eclectic heritage

The Associated Press
Friday November 03, 2000



BERKELEY — Alice Walker’s life has been one headlong charge against racial barriers. She overcame her sharecroppers’ childhood to emerge as a civil rights activist, and she challenged Southern law by marrying a white, Jewish lawyer. 

Years of pain and struggle brought her joy and Pulitzer Prize-winning success, but not without scars. Her marriage crumbled under the strain of passion and politics, violence and racism. And she wasn’t the only one left wounded – her daughter, Rebecca, grew up angry and confused. 

In a new, cathartic memoir, Alice Walker comes full circle, revealing details of her 10-year marriage and subsequent divorce from the man who nurtured her talent and celebrated her heritage. 

And this January, readers can get a distinctly different glimpse at the same family in the writing debut of her daughter: “Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self.” 

Both works are achingly personal as they tell a tried-and-true love story – meeting, marrying, creating a child – against the racially charged backdrop of Mississippi in the late 1960s and early 1970s. 

The 56-year-old Walker opens her new book, “The Way Forward Is With a Broken Heart,” with a note about her former husband, Mel Leventhal. She had spoken to him only rarely in 20 years. 

“Humor and affection joined us, more than anything. And a bone-deep instinctive belief that we owed it to our ancestors and ourselves to live exactly the life we found on our paths,” she writes. “It was a magical marriage.” 

The book, a series of essays she describes as “mostly fiction, but with a definite thread of having come out of a singular life,” ends a 30-year cycle of writing, she explains. Walker talks about her family and career in an interview at her home on a Berkeley hillside, where rooms are decorated with Native American and African art and stacks of books on the floor reveal a range of tastes from a biography of slain rapper Tupac Shakur to an artful look at dreadlocks. 

“Part of what I hadn’t written about was my marriage,” she says. “Writing about it has helped me a lot because there were some loose ends that needed to be tied off.” 

As a result, she now feels freer, she says. And her former husband has read “The Way Forward” and “loved it.” 

Exploring the pain of losing their love also helped her heal, she adds. “Whatever I’m writing about, there are people going through exactly that at that time,” she says. “It can be a real medicine.” 

At 30 years old, Rebecca Walker found she needed some medicine as well. 

“I want to be closer to my mother, to have something run between us that cannot be denied,” writes Rebecca, who took her mother’s last name when she was a high school senior. “I want a marker that links us tangibly and forever as mother and daughter. That links me tangibly and forever with blackness.” 

Educated at Yale University, she’s an activist who founded a nonprofit organization dedicated to cultivating young women’s leadership skills. Rebecca Walker refused an interview request. She explained through her publicist that she wants her work to stand on its own, not be propped up by the fame of her award-winning mother. 

Alice Walker, author of more than two dozen books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, most notably 1982’s “The Color Purple,” says she and her daughter are close friends, live near each other in Berkeley and see each other often. Rebecca also has a good relationship with Leventhal, Alice says. 

She has read her daughter’s book, but refuses to discuss it other than to say she enjoyed it and she understands her daughter’s confusion and frustration about finding her place in the world. 

She has no qualms about how she raised Rebecca – she stopped working when her daughter was born to give “her a full year of my undivided attention. 

“It’s hard for her to understand all that we were trying to do ... to correct centuries of violence and abuse,” she explains. 

Alice Walker met Leventhal in 1966 while registering voters door-to-door in Mississippi. They moved to New York City where he was attending law school, then married and returned to Mississippi, where he defended civil rights cases and she taught school. 

“Part of the lure of our marriage was that it was illegal,” says Alice Walker, who now is in a committed relationship with a woman. “When it became weakened by the sheer stress of living there, it ended.” 

Rebecca Walker accepts that she was brought into this world, in part, to make a statement, to prove a point at a time when the Black Power Movement was on the rise and interracial marriages were suspect. (Mississippi did not officially legalize interracial marriage until 1987.) 

“Black on black love is the new recipe for revolution,” she writes. “The only problem, of course, is me. My little copper-colored body that held so much promise and broke so many rules.” 

She was in the third grade when her parents separated, after her father’s affair with a white, Jewish, woman. 

Her search for herself and her connection to her blackness, her whiteness, her separateness culminates shortly after high school graduation, one of the few events her parents attended together. 

“It all comes to this,” writes Rebecca Walker, who dedicates her first novel to both her parents. 

“I stand with those who stand with me. I am tired of claiming for claiming sake, hiding behind masks of culture, creed, religion. My blood is made from water and so it is bloodwater that I am made of. ... I exist somewhere between black and white, family and friend.”