Archive for the ‘Alice Walker’ Category

Mommie Dearest

Friday, May 16th, 2008

A reader recommended Rebecca Walker’s Baby Love  a few weeks back when I took a survey of what everyone was reading.  I grew up reading Alice Walker and was eager to find out what had happened to the daughter who was frequently mentioned back then in her mother’s iconic poems and books.  

Baby LoveIt took me a day to read Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After A Lifetime of Ambivalence (2007). But it’s taken four days to catch my breath and figure what I think about the book’s content.

Believe me, getting through the memoir of a self-absorbed,  emotionally starved young woman who spends much of the book writing about shopping, eating, getting pedicures, obsessing over every infirmity in her life, and consulting a small army of healers (birthing doula, homeopath, pedicurist, masseuse) for her every psychic ailment took some doing.  But discovering that her newborn son managed to make it through the frightening medical complications he endured his first few weeks of life was heartening. 

Yet Baby Love did try my patience. But I kept reading believing I would be rewarded for giving myself over to what felt like a black woman’s narrative version of “Sex in the City.” (I avoided the TV show but  recognize the genre a mile away. Young female narcissm run amok.)

Exploring the abortion she had at 14, her stormy relationship with her iconic mother, her bisexuality, and the ecstasy of bearing a child at 37, the contents of Baby Love (Walker’s second memoir) has enough in it to keep the feud between women across the generational divide going for years. Talk about the women we long for!

Rebecca Walker was born in 1969 to Alice Walker and husband Mel Levanthal a Jewish civil rights attorney. The two lived and worked in Mississippi back then trying to change the racist, murderous politics of the time. Rebecca’s birth, like that of many biracial babies born back then, was supposed to prove to Mississippi and the rest of America that love trumps race. Alice Walker writes movingly and hauntingly about that period in her life in The Way Forward is With A Broken Heart (2001), about the youthful passion and idealism she and Mel, and others of that generation, clung to, and admits that when it came time some years later to leave Mississippi she and her Jewish husband limped out of Mississippi, broken, disillusioned, and headed for the divorce court. Mississipi won, Alice Walker writes.

Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self (2001), Rebecca Walker’s first memoir, is the daughter’s tale of what felt like her parents’ failed experiment, beginning with their failed marriage and ending with the custody agreement the two settled upon that sent Rebecca shuttling back and forth every two years between her father and stepmother’s world in New York’s conventional, rich, Jewish, Upper East Side; and that of her mother with her bohemian, black, mostly poverty stricken activists and feminists friends in California. Rebecca grew up with deep feelings of not belonging.

Rebecca Walker takes feminism (and her mother) to task in Baby Love for what she sees as one of its most crippling legacies. It leaves young women in their 20s and 30s ambivalent about parenting and romance. Walker sees her book as providing the counsel she wishes her feminist mother and godmothers (Gloria Steinem being one) had given her when she was in her 20s. What advice might that be?

Plan to have a baby as you would plan out your career.

In other words, don’t leave having children to chance. And don’t let feminists tell you that it’s impossible to be a mother and stay sane, active, creative, and productive. It is possible, says the younger Walker.

In contrast to her mother whom the daughter feels found meaning in writing and activism, motherhood, Rebecca Walker claims, has given her the purpose and identity she longed for: “I feel like I have arrived in myself to where I want to be and who I want to be,” Ms. Walker says. “Motherhood is the first club I’ve unequivocally belonged to.”

WalkersRebecca Walker is convinced that she was harmed by her mother’s choices. The younger Walker accuses her mother of leaving her with friends and neighbors a lot while she (mother) went off to write or fight some cause; and she failed to understand  that Rebecca’s promiscuity and abortion at 14 was her way of pleading for her mother’s love and attention. The public battle between a daughter and her iconic mother (the mother who ironically penned the now classic “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens”)strikes me as terribly sad. “It’s like listening in on a dysfunctional family therapy session—painful, but oh so fascinating,” says one friend. 

Not surprisingly, the younger Walker is harder on her mother than her father for what she sees as the deprivations of her childhood. And while she seems intent upon proving in Baby Love that she is prepared to do what needs to be done to be a better mother than her mother was, what Rebecca Walker ends up really proving, unintentionally of course, is that she’s good at playing the dozens and using her mother to score points for herself.

For all her complaints about her mother’s choices, one thing is clear: the daughter is obsessed with duplicating her mother’s life. Like Alice Walker, Rebecca Walker is a writer and a feminist. And like her mother who was once involved in a lesbian relationship with Tracy Chapman, Rebecca Walker is bisexual who for eight years was involved with musician Meshell Ngedecello. (By the way, Rebecca Walker lives now in Hawaii with Glen, Buddhist teacher and African American father of her son.) Independent with strong opinions like her mother, the younger Walker is determined to prove herself to be the better feminist, mother, and writer even it it takes exposing her mother’s failures, repudiating her mother’s feminism, and using her mother’s fame to carve out a name for herself.

Outraged at her daughter’s characterization of her in Black, White and Jewish  Alice Walker dashed a string of blistering emails off to the younger Walker a few years back (says the younger Walker) that ended with the mother cutting her daughter out of her will and signing one of her final emails to her daughter with the words, “I resign as your mother.” Not to be outdone, Rebecca Walker responded by writing Baby Love.   

Talk about drama. Move over Jerry Springer. Take note on how the rich and famous do things. Publish your version of the story.

Looking back there are probably some things Alice Walker the mother wish she had done differently. But here’s hoping for the younger Walker that the the reality of mothering lives up to whatever fantasies she has about being a mother. And that the constant giving, sacrifice, worry, and putting on hold one’s own dreams that comes with being a mother provide Rebecca Walker the lens she needs to be able to look back on the failures, ambivalences, and cruelties of her iconic mother with perhaps a little more compassion and empathy.

Someone on another website who identified with the younger Walker’s views and confessed to being around Rebecca Walker’s age left this comment: It must be hard being Alice Walker’s daughter.

As a mother who knows what it means to have a wild, irrational love for your child but catch yourself staring out in space from time to time and wondering “what if”, I say: 
Touch your neighbor and repeat after me: “It must be hard being Rebecca Walker’s mother.”

Black Women Writers: As Purple is To Lavender

Tuesday, June 12th, 2007

Standing in the checkout lane at Wild Oats supermarket a couple months ago I was sure I felt a pair of eyes on me. I turned to stare into a face that brought back a flood of memories. The poet and novelist Alice Walker peered out at me from the cover of a Shambhala Sun magazine. I paused to consider the wizened face of the woman on the magazine, a woman whose writings made an indelible impression on me when I was a young woman in my 20s and 30s. “If Alice Walker is older, then so am I,” I thought to myself. I snatched the magazine up and laid it on the counter with my other purchases.

There was a time when I read Alice Walker’s writings like some people read the book of Psalms. Most of America know Walker for her commercially successful novel, The Color Purple, but those of us who have been following her for a long time know her as a talented poet and essayist as well. Revolutionary Petunias, her second book of poems, was a gift to me which I still cherish. But it was Walker’s moving essays, especially those in Ms. magazine in the 70s and 80s, that transformed me into an acolyte. They filled a void back then among feminists writings about gender and culture. She made readers see the common, everyday survival of black women as more than laudatory, but acts of triumph and mystery. Her 1974 essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Garden” about the survival of black women’s creative genius is now a classic and required reading in women and gender studies classes today.

My colleagues and I in the academy have Walker to thank for proposing “womanist,” a term deriving from southern black folk culture, as an alternative to “feminist” to distinguish headstrong, justice loving black women from other women advocating for women’s rights. “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender” wrote Walker.

It would be wrong to give the impression, however, that Alice Walker was the first or only black woman writing with fire in her eyes back then. History has a way of focusing on the solitary individual, the solo event, the singular tragedy, and making it appear as though people and things arise out of nothingness. The truth is more complex: individuals are products of their contexts and events are shaped by the movements that give rise to them.

Alice Walker was among a tidal wave of creative, artistic black women writing in unprecedented numbers in the 70s and 80s: Toni Cade Bambara, June Jordan, Ntozake Shange, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Gayle Jones, Paule Marshall, Barbara Smith, Mary Helen Washington, etc. Together their writings inspired young women like me to imagine ourselves as writers too one day.

They were fiery products of the 60s freedom movements, although it would take the women’s movement of the 70s and 80s for their artistry and autonomy to come together.

My numerous moves have resulted in my losing many of the first editions books I bought back then. But the jacket covers of many remain filed on a hard drive in my mind: Sula, The Black Woman: An Anthology, In Love and In Trouble, Black-Eyed Susans, Corregidora, All the Women are White, All The Men are Black, But Some of Us Are Brave. After a long, soul-numbing day at work in the financial markets of Wall Street it was not unusual for me to stay up all night reading. I’d stumble into work the next morning blurry-eyed, but quietly rescued from the abyss by women writers who reminded me of the sacred character of black women’s survival.

It’s time for me to get back into the habit of reading fiction. I am tired of reality. Today I stop by the black book section of a local book store and scan the shelf for the book my new book club is reading this month. Multiples shelves of obnoxiously colorful, shiny covers, featuring sepia-colored woman with big butts and plenty of cleavage (and attitude) are before me. Men in wife beater shirts in various poses lurk in the background. Words are misspelled, and key words reappear in the title of this genre of books known as ghetto fiction: “candy,” “poppin’,” “nasty,” “grimey,” “hustla,” “‘hood,” “gangsta” and “ghetto.” Ghetto fiction is everywhere. You can’t pass a street vendor, beauty salon, the African-American section of a chain bookstore, or even an independent black bookstore without tripping all over it. No question ghetto fiction has black people who never heard of Alice Walker or Zora Neal Hurston reading (blacks spent a near $300 million on books in 2006). Thongs on Fire is one of the titles.

On second thought, perhaps I”ll just renew my library card. In the meantime, post a comment here on the blog on a good novel you’ve read that I should pick up.