Rebecca Walker’s Shifting Self


In many ways, Rebecca Walker defies conventional labels. The biracial daughter of author Alice Walker and civil-rights attorney Mel Leventhal, she was born in the South during the late ’60s. As the bisexual girlfriend of Meshell Ndegeocello, for years she was one half of the most out couple in the black lesbian community.

Walker explored her distinct identity in her acclaimed 2001 memoir, Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self. Though her upbringing was far from typical, readers related to her struggle and frank discussion of race, sexuality and family.

The book was embraced by many different cultures, Walker told “A lot of mixed-race people came to me to say that it changed their life. They feel it articulated an experience that had not been excavated in the generation.”

Not everyone appreciated Walker’s honesty, however, as she revealed a difficult and lonely childhood shuffled between divorced parents. Though she ended up at Yale, she wrestled with her mixed cultural background, experimented with drugs and alcohol, and had an abortion at 14.

The criticism came from all sides. “Everything you would expect from being a biracial, bisexual person,” Walker explained. “Jewish people got upset because they felt I only represented them as wealthy. Sometimes gay people got mad because they wanted me to have a whole coming-out moment, and even though I talk about my woman partner at the time [Ndegeocello] and her son, they didn’t feel I was out enough.”

Walker’s mother, too, objected to the way their family was represented, which placed a strain on their relationship. “I felt that I was going to write this book, and I was going to give it to my parents and they were going to start talking to each other and the whole family would be healed,” she admitted. “Obviously, that didn’t happen.”

In her new memoir, Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence, Walker shifts the lens from childhood to parenthood with the birth of her son, Tenzin. The book recounts Walker’s experience getting pregnant with her partner, a man named Glen, as her own relationship with her mother continued to deteriorate.

Walker wrote Baby Love at this point in her life because she felt that there were important issues that people were not discussing. “It’s a book that I wish I had been able to read when I was in my mid-20s,” she said.

One of the many issues Walker aimed to address is the daily and insidious ambivalence she sees in many women’s lives. “I meet many women who are ambivalent,” she said. “I wanted to write a book about how ambivalence can be so immobilizing that the myriad of ideas we’re batting around in our mind can keep us from experiences that we long to have.”

Though the book is primarily focused on Walker’s pregnancy and the birth of her son, she also wanted to call attention to the dynamic between mothers and daughters because of her own difficult bond.

Walker believes part of the problem is a “sisterhood model of parenting,” where parents serve more as friends or equals. “Daughters need mothers; they don’t need sisters,” she said. “Sisterhood is full of love and support, but also jealousy and competition and undermining. The mother-daughter archetype isn’t about that; it’s about unconditional love and support.”

As Walker has traveled the country on her book tour, she has heard countless stories from women who are trying to get pregnant, are pregnant or are longing to get pregnant. “I love it,” she said, “because I’m just learning so much about families — all different kinds of families.”

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