Rebecca Walker begins her memoir with a disclaimer: “I don’t remember things.” Like her fragmented memory, her ethereal detachment to codes of identification—racial, more than sexual—makes her slippery trek toward self-discovery within a biracial, bisexual body less a search for a box to check during the census than for some sense of center in what she calls her “shifting self.” Each move she makes—from New York to the Bay Area, from her public school friends to those at her progressive, hippie high school, from her Brooklyn Jewish family to her Southern black one—requires she pull out of her closet a “her” that fits.
As a “movement child,” one of the selves she tries on, she is keenly aware that skin is this country’s bar code: She assumes strangers on the subway think she’s Arab; her cousins in Georgia see in her face her Jewish father; a suburban white boyfriend drops her because of her blackness; her paternal great-grandmother from Russia refuses her a glance. Episodic, brief chapters punctuated by spare poetic details reinforce her idea of herself as a vaporous being who floats in and out of skin. She poignantly pulls this moment from her early adolescence. “This is the last time I will see my father naked. This is the last time he and I will share the bathroom, the last time we both will be quiet and exposed in the same room together, when we will not have to speak to be connected.”
But when she settles into a moment she remembers everything: the head count in the waiting room at the abortion clinic where her mother, feminist author Alice Walker, acts as the ninth grader’s escort one Friday afternoon, the purple pants and the yellow high-top Reeboks she’s wearing when she meets a new lover while working as a production assistant on the set of The Color Purple (though she never mentions the film’s title). In fact, her famous mother is only one in a cast of many characters, loving but not entirely present, available but largely preoccupied.
This is as much a memoir about growing up in the ’80s as a child of working parents as it is one of a child of mixed race or a famous parent. Her parents have figured out a family schedule where they alternate in raising their daughter by shuttling her between them every two years. But she is certainly her mother’s daughter, with the same thorough, patient way of moving through an idea that Walker uses as an essayist. In Black, White, and Jewish, there is no resolution, no declaration of a single, solid self: She simply grows big enough to fit her disparate family history and her considerable experiences into her slight, yellow (light-skinned) frame.