Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self

Overview

Black, White, and Jewish is the story of a child's unique struggle for identity and home when nothing in her world told her who she was or where she belonged. Poetic reflections on memory, time, and identity punctuate this gritty exploration of race and sexuality. Rebecca Walker has taken up the lineage of her mother, Alice, whose last name she chose to carry, and has written a lucid and inventive memoir that marks the launch of a major new literary talent.
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Overview

Black, White, and Jewish is the story of a child's unique struggle for identity and home when nothing in her world told her who she was or where she belonged. Poetic reflections on memory, time, and identity punctuate this gritty exploration of race and sexuality. Rebecca Walker has taken up the lineage of her mother, Alice, whose last name she chose to carry, and has written a lucid and inventive memoir that marks the launch of a major new literary talent.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Rebecca Walker's mother is celebrated author Alice Walker, and her father is prominent lawyer Mel Leventhal, but this candid autobiography doesn't rely on its celebrity connections. Black, White, and Jewish is, as Jane Lazarre has noted, a "beautifully written meditation on the creation of a woman's' sense of self."
USA Today
...what a complex, all-American story....
Asha Bandele
I have to admit that when I first eyed the title of Walker's memoir a measurable amount of suspicion lurked in my heart. I worried that upon reading it, I would find myself entangled in a wishy-washy, whiny diatribe that avoided a meaningful political or social center. So many books, films and other forms of media that purport to add something urgent to the discussion on race in America, woefully fall short or just plain fail. This book is not one of them.Walker has written, in blunt, stunning and intelligent language, a vital story about what it meant to come of age in two worlds that existed, largely, in diametric opposition. Here, she makes it clear that she is an author with her own necessary and brilliant voice. Early on she writes, "I am not a bastard, the product of rape, the child of some white devil. I am a Movement Child. My parents tell me I can do anything I put my mind to, that I can be anything I want…I am not tragic." Throughout the book, the honesty with which Walker confronts her confusion, her loves, her desires, her sexuality and her anger, makes the reader want to turn away, lest she be accused of spying, or worse, uncover pieces of her own self. That's what happened to me. Reading this book, I was forced to recall my own childhood in which a white world was imposed on me vis-&#224-vis private schools, summer camps and dance classes. Black, White & Jewish is a virtual road map-a guide through the complexities of race and childhood. This is a book ready-made for the great canon of women's literature that rejects silence and surface analyses and tells the truth, whether or not we want to hear it.
Black Issues Book Review
San Francisco Chronicle
Walker is a fine writer, with a finely tuned sense of the intricacies of the American race labyrinth.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The daughter of famed African American writer Alice Walker and liberal Jewish lawyer Mel Leventhal brings a frank, spare style and detail-rich memories the this compelling contribution to the growing subgenre of memoirs by biracial authors about life in a race-obsessed society. Walker examines her early years in Mississippi as the loved, pampered child of parents active in the Civil Rights movement in the bloody heart of the segregated South. Torn apart by the demands of their separate careers, her parents' union eventually lost steam and failed, leaving Walker to shuttle back and forth across country to spend time with them both. Deeply analytical and reflective, she assumes the resonant voices of an inquisitive child, a highly sensitive teen and finally a young woman who is confronted with the harsh color prejudices of her friends, teachers and families-both black and Jewish-and who tires desperately to make sense of rigid cultural boundaries for which she was never fully prepared by her parents. Whether she's commenting on a white ballet teacher who doubts she'll ever be good because her black butt's too big, Jewish relatives who treat her like an alien, or a boyfriend who feels she's not black enough, Walker uses the same elegant, discreet candor she brings to her discussion of her mother and the development of her free-spirited sexuality. Her artfulness in baring her psyche, spirit and sexuality will attract a wealth of deserved praise.
KLIATT
Rebecca Walker is the daughter of the author Alice Walker. She is also the daughter of a Jewish lawyer, a white man, who met Alice Walker when the two were part of the Civil Rights Movement in the South in the 1960s. Their marriage was a political statement as well as a love story. But it didn't last. While Rebecca was still quite young, she wended her way between her mother's African American, bohemian culture and her father's Jewish suburban existence. For years, she spent two years with one parent in San Francisco and then two years with the other parent in New York. She went from black/minority working-class neighborhoods to lily-white, middle-class communities, confused about her identity and where she belonged. Fortunately, for herself and for her readers, Rebecca is a thoughtful, intelligent young woman and an accomplished writer. Much of this highly praised autobiography is about her adolescence, a troubled time for most and especially troubled for a confused girl. Rebecca tried to fit into life in San Francisco in the 1970s and early '80s, with drugs and experimental sex prevalent, and a single mom who left her unsupervised much of the time. Going from that milieu to her father's new family in Larchmont, NY, was just about too much for a young teenager. Back with her mother in San Francisco, Rebecca was nearly falling apart until an abortion at the age of 14 stunned her and her mother. This was the catalyst that moved them to get Rebecca out of the streets and into the nurturing, artistic community of a private school where her mind could be challenged and her time could be better structured. Many YA readers will be fascinated by Rebecca's honest revelations about her unusuallife; they also will appreciate her fine writing. Category: Biography & Personal Narrative. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2001, Penguin Putnam, Riverhead, 322p., $14.00. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Claire Rosser; KLIATT SOURCE: KLIATT, March 2002 (Vol. 36, No. 2)
Library Journal
Walker's parents, Mel Leventhal, a Jewish lawyer from New York, and the acclaimed African American writer Alice Walker, met in the 1960s during the Civil Rights movement. When the movement came undone and her parents divorced, Walker (then Leventhal) felt she didn't belong anywhere. Her father remarried a white woman (Walker was often mistaken for the nanny of his younger children), and her mother, busy writing, often hired helpers to care for Walker. Here, Walker describes her struggle to find herself in the midst of clashing identities: as a child on a cultural divide formed by race, religion, and a fractured family. Walker is the founder of Third Wave Direct Action Foundation, a national nonprofit organization devoted to cultivating young women's leadership and activism. Her impressive debut nicely complements other recent writing about growing up in a multiracial family, such as Maurice Berger's White Lies (LJ 1/99) and Dalton Conley's Honky (Univ. of California Pr., 2000), and as a child of countercultural activists of the Sixties and Seventies, such as Lisa Michaels's Split (LJ 8/98). There will be quite a buzz about this book owing to the fame of Walker's parents, a strong publicity push, and, happily, the book's own merits. Recommended for all public and academic libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/00.]--Pam Kingsbury, Alabama Humanities Foundation, Florence Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The daughter of novelist Alice Walker delivers a stunning memoir about the confusion, uncertainty, and anger she felt straddling her mother's African-American culture and her father's Jewish one. In 1967, Alice Walker and civil-rights lawyer Mel Leventhal defied legal restrictions and family taboos about miscegenation by marrying. Their "Movement Child," Rebecca, born two years later, was raised to expect admittance into any social sphere. But her parents' subsequent divorce sent Rebecca into a tailspin, worsened by their decision to alternate custody every two years. Beneath her surface cool, the author admits, lay"pure liquid fire threatening to annihilate." As she shifted from parent to parent, her life became a cross-country odyssey, with uneasy stopovers in Mississippi, San Francisco, Washington, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Larchmont, New York,"like jumping from planet to planet between universes that never overlap." In quietly luminous prose that contrasts sharply with her simmering resentment, she recalls small but telling incidents that deepened her disorientation about never fitting in: a favorite black uncle who likened her to a"Cracker"; a white boyfriend who dumped her after coming under peer pressure for dating a"nigger"; the white headmaster who condescendingly assumed the Walkers couldn't afford to pay Rebecca's tuition. Through the later years of school, when not lashing out at one or both of her parents, she resorted to friendships quickly made and shed, promiscuity, and drug use. Whether dealing with parents or friends, she tired of serving as"the translator, the one in between, the one serving as the walkway between two worlds." Salvation finally came in the formofhigh-school teachers who looked past Rebecca's skin to her intelligence and sensitivity. Despite a few missteps (e.g., a poke at Yale for having students read the clichéd"dead, white European males"), a raw and searing remembrance of negotiating the remaining American fault lines of race and class.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781573221696
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 12/28/2000
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.82 (w) x 8.57 (h) x 1.15 (d)

Read an Excerpt

BLACK, WHITE AND JEWISH
by Rebecca Walker

 

INTRODUCTION

Black, White, and Jewish is the story of a child's unique struggle for identity and home when nothing in her world told her who she was or where she belonged. Poetic reflections on memory, time, and identity punctuate this gritty exploration of race and sexuality. Rebecca Walker has taken up the lineage of her mother, Alice, whose last name she chose to carry, and has written a lucid and inventive memoir that marks the launch of a major new literary talent.

 

ABOUT REBECCA WALKER

Rebecca Walker has written for or been featured in stories in The New York Times, The Chicago Times, Harper's Bazaar, Elle, Esquire, and U.S. News & World Report, and has appeared on CNN, MTV, and Charlie Rose. She is the founder of Third Wave Direct Action Foundation, a national nonprofit organization devoted to cultivating young women's leadership and activism.

Praise

"The daughter of famed African American writer Alice Walker and liberal Jewish lawyer Mel Leventhal brings a frank, spare style and detail-rich memories to this compelling contribution to the growing subgenre of memoirs by biracial authors about life in a race-obsessed society. Her artfulness in baring her psyche will, spirit and sexuality will attract a wealth of deserved praise."
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. While most teenagers struggle to move away from their parents, Rebecca Walker searches for closeness with her immediate and extended families. Why is it so difficult for her to enjoy the independence she is given?
     
  2. Rebecca recalls how a drunk student walks into her dorm room at Yale and asks if she is "really black and Jewish." After he leaves, Rebecca sits in the dark wondering whether she is "possible." Self-doubt appears to be a recurring theme in her life. How do her self-perceptions change as she moves between her parents' houses, from Brooklyn to Atlanta to Washington DC to San Francisco to Bronx to Larchmont and back to San Francisco? Discuss her experiences in different neighborhoods and how her self-acceptance is shaped by social acceptance.
     
  3. Rebecca becomes sexually active earlier than an average teenager. What is the meaning of sex in her life? How has it changed since her early experiences? Does she manage to find her true identity through her lovers? Discuss her experience with Michael and with Andrew. How does the color of their skin (Michael is black, Andrew is white) affect their relationships with Rebecca?
     
  4. What was your reaction to Rebecca having an abortion at the age of 14? Can you explain why she didn't grieve for her unborn child?
     
  5. Rebecca is candid about her experimentation with drugs. Do you think she really had a choice not to take them? Discuss how our peers can sometimes make decisions for us and why we accept their decisions.
     
  6. What does it mean to Rebecca to be a "movement child"? How -- if at all -- does the meaning change from the beginning of the book, when she sees her parents happily married, to the end, when she struggles with their uneasiness during her graduation party?
     
  7. Throughout her childhood and adolescence and after her parents divorced, Rebecca must make choices between her mother's African American heritage and her father's Jewish heritage. Has she found peace with herself being biracial and thus "the translator, the one in between, the one serving as the walkway between two worlds"? Or, has she chosen one over the other? Why does she feel more of an affinity towards her black ancestors?
     
  8. The book begins and ends with a discussion of memory. What is the meaning of memory in Rebecca's life? Does she refer to her brain's ability to retain information or to some deeper innate knowledge? What knowledge is it? What is "genetic memory"? What role does it play in our lives? How does the discussion on memory at the beginning differ from the one at the end?
     
  9. What is significance of the subtitle? Why does Rebecca refer to her self as "a shifting self"? Has she found a place where she is no longer "shifting"?
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Reading Group Guide

Q>While most teenagers struggle to move away from their parents, Rebecca Walker searches for closeness with her immediate and extended families. Why is it so difficult for her to enjoy the independence she is given?

Q> Rebecca recalls how a drunk student walks into her dorm room at Yale and asks if she is "really black and Jewish". After he leaves, Rebecca sits in the dark wondering whether she is "possible". Self -doubt appears to be a recurring theme in her life. How do her self-perceptions change as she moves between her parents' houses, from Brooklyn to Atlanta to Washington DC to San Francisco to Bronx to Larchmont and back to San Francisco? Discuss her experiences in different neighborhoods and how her self-acceptance is shaped by social acceptance.Rebecca becomes sexually active earlier than an average teenager. What is the meaning of sex in her life? How has it changed since her early experiences? Does she manage to find her true identity through her lovers? Discuss her experience with Michael and with Andrew. How does the color of their skin (Michael is black, Andrew is white) affect their relationships with Rebecca?

Q>What was your reaction to Rebecca having an abortion at the age of 14? Can you explain why she didn't grieve for her unborn child?

Q>Rebecca is candid about her experimentation with drugs. Do you think she really had a choice not to take them? Discuss how our peers can sometimes make decisions for us and why we accept their decisions.

Q>What does it mean to Rebecca to be a "movement child"? How - if at all - does the meaning change from the beginning of the book, when she sees her parents happily married, to the end, when she struggles with their uneasiness during her graduation party?

Q>Throughout her childhood and adolescence and after her parents divorced, Rebecca must make choices between her mother's African American heritage and her father's Jewish heritage. Has she found peace with herself being biracial and thus "the translator, the one in between, the one serving as the walkway between two worlds"? Or, has she chosen one over the other? Why does she feel more of an affinity towards her black ancestors?

Q>The book begins and ends with a discussion of memory. What is the meaning of memory in Rebecca's life? Does she refer to her brain's ability to retain information or to some deeper innate knowledge? What knowledge is it? What is "genetic memory"? What role does it play in our lives? How does the discussion on memory at the beginning differ from the one at the end?

Q>What is significance of the subtitle? Why does Rebecca refer to her self as "a shifting self"? Has she found a place where she is no longer "shifting"?
Read More Show Less

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 10, 2001

    Better Title It, 'Parents Divorced'

    If you want a good book about growing up Black, White, and Jewish, read The Color of Water, an insightful look into the family history of a man born to a white, Jewish mother and a black father. The problem with Walker's book is that it offers no insight or lesson into being Black, White, and/or Jewish in America. The overriding theme of her book is the loss she experienced as a child of divorce, not as a child of the Civil Rights Movement. Her book is certainly therapeutic for herself and others who suffered neglect at the hands of their well-meaning parents, but does nothing to further dialogue on race, ethnicity, or religion in the United States.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 9, 2001

    A PLACE WHERE READERS CAN RELATE TO THE TIME AND ERA OF REBECCA WALKER'S YOUTH

    A TOUCHING AND SELF HEALING STORY OF A YOUNG MULTIRACIAL GIRL WHO GREW IN A TIME OF RACISM.THIS STORY HITS VERY CLOSE TO HOME AND ITS A STORY THAT CAN STILL BE TOLD IN OUR WORLD TODAY.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 4, 2001

    Shallow

    This book should have been titled 'And Then I Slept With...' I learned less about race and religion than I did about how much drugs and sex a girl can get into when parents fall down on the job.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 25, 2001

    Not just for people of mixed races..

    I don't purport to be a critic of any kind, however upon reading this book, I felt a sort of indescribable urgency to express my opinion on it.. I loved it. I read it in 3 sittings and that's rare considering my hectic schedule. But I must say, that as I read chapter by chapter, paragraph by paragraph, I could relate to so much of this book.. but I am not of mixed heritage. I am, however, a product of having been raised in two totally different cultures, and I'm talking east vs. west. To this day, I still deal with the rigors of being one way in one place and another way in another place.. when in Rome is appropriate, I guess. This book, aside from the intelligence and thoughtfulness with which it was written, was extremely therapeutic for me to read. In the end, I found myself feeling as though I had gone through those experiences myself, and some of them, I indeed have. I found myself wanting to read more. But you couldn't ask for a better ending, and in my opinion, Ms. Walker's last words are definitely words to live by, whether you are of mixed heritage or not. It is the love for the human race that is above and beyond the most important of all. As idealistic as that may sound, I found courage in my own ways of thinking, because now I know that I'm not the only one.. As I read the last few pages, particularly the one where Ms. Walker responds to a question from her lover (in that chapter her lover asks her if she 'feels' black or white and if she 'feels' for her people and their struggle) I felt chills go down my spine... because in all honesty, I couldn't have said it better myself. It's a must read... truly. I even had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Walker in Chicago and listening to her read passages from her book. If she's touring in your city, please go see her, it will definitely be worth your while.

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