Alice Walker   Feminism

The day feminist icon Alice Walker resigned as my mother

The Color Purple brought Alice Walker global fame, but her strident views led to an irreconcilable rift, her daughter tells

May 4, 2008

In the mid-1980s, The New York Times ran a profile of the American writer and activist Alice Walker. Her novel, The Color Purple, had won the Pulitzer prize and was being turned into a film by Steven Spielberg.

The article was illustrated by a photograph of Walker sitting on her teenaged daughter’s knee. It was meant to be a “fun” picture; but, in retrospect, according to Rebecca Walker, the photographer unwittingly portrayed the true nature of her relationship with her mother.

Alice Walker was, and remains, an icon of the American civil rights movement. “People adore her. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, ‘Your mother saved my life’ and ‘I have an altar to your mother in my bedroom’. They feel a connection to her and revere her greatly,” says Rebecca.

Walker’s success as a campaigner was to her detriment as a mother. Like Dickens’s Mrs Jellyby, who neglects her home and her children as she directs her energy towards the poor of Africa, so America’s icon often went to feminist meetings and rallies and left Rebecca to fend for herself. Her daughter experimented with drugs and became pregnant at 14.

“My mother\did a lot of leaving to go to her writing retreat, which was over 100 miles away — so she’d go there and leave me a little bit of money, leave me in the care of a neighbour,” recalls Rebecca, now 38.

“When I was pregnant at 14, I think it was because I was so lonely that I was reaching out through my sexuality. My mother’s a crusader for daughters around the world, but couldn’t see that her own daughter was having a difficult time. It was me having to psycho-emotionally tiptoe around her, rather than her taking care of me.”

Walker is furious with Rebecca for making such sentiments public, and mother and daughter are estranged with little hope of reconciliation. Rebecca has a three-year-old son, Tenzin, whom her mother has never seen. Their last meaningful exchange, during Rebecca’s pregnancy, ended in Walker sending a terse e-mail in which she resigned from “the job” of being her mother, and told her that in any case their relationship had been “inconsequential” for years.

The depth of her anger was such that she refused to budge even when Rebecca had a difficult birth and Tenzin’s life hung in the balance in a special-care baby unit. “My father called her to tell her what was happening. He couldn’t imagine that she wouldn’t run right over . . . In some ways, I wanted her to — but in other ways, I didn’t. I knew she wouldn’t be able to be there for me in the way I wanted. It would be problematic.”

Walker, the eighth child of poor sharecroppers, grew up in Georgia during segregation. Her extraordinary intellect and determination won her a scholarship to study in New York; and after university she returned to the South and became involved in voter-registration drives and setting up children’s education programmes in Mississippi.

There she met Mel Leventhal, a Jewish civil rights lawyer. In the midst of the feverish, sometimes murderous, racial politics of the time, they became the first legally married inter-racial couple in Mississippi, defying both their families’ disapproval and death threats from the Ku Klux Klan.

The marriage did not last but it produced Rebecca: a living, breathing, mixed-race embodiment of the new America that they were trying to forge. The problem was that, during her childhood, Rebecca felt precisely that — a political symbol rather than a cherished daughter.

Being progressives, Walker and Leventhal decided on shared parenting but came up with the agreement that Rebecca would alternately live two years with each of them. From the age of eight, she lived in utterly different worlds: with her father and stepmother in New York’s conventional, rich, Jewish, Upper East Side; and with her mother among bohemian, black, mostly poverty stricken activists and feminists in California.

She felt she did not fit into either world. In New York, she was the only black face in the neighbourhood. Yet she felt she was far too steeped in “white privilege” for her mother’s friends’ taste. And, if she tried to talk to her parents about any of this, she was ignored.

“My father had come out of world war two and the Holocaust, my mother from the segregated South. Their attitude was, ‘The Gestapo isn’t after you, you’re not getting beaten up by mobs just for sitting at the lunch counter — what’s your problem?’ ” she says.

Walker had also joined the early feminist movement — Gloria Steinem is Rebecca’s godmother — and it was her politics, more than anything, that shaped mother-daughter relations. The so-called “first wave” feminists believed that housework was another form of slavery and that women did not have an innate need to nurture but had been conditioned into their subordinate role as wives and mothers through centuries of patriarchy.

“My mother is very ideologically based, and her ideology is much more important in many ways than her personal relationships,” says Rebecca.

When Rebecca became pregnant at 14, Walker wasn’t shocked: she calmly picked up the phone and arranged an abortion. “Her feminist thing was about empowering me to have an active sexuality and to be in control of my body, and that trumped any sense of boundaries,” Rebecca says.

Certainly, Walker believed that what she was doing was right. Leaving her teenaged daughter to “do her own thing” was a way of fostering Rebecca’s independence and avoiding inadvertently passing down patriarchal values.

“Her circle were questioning power relationships and whether a mother had any more knowledge than a child. Some friends of hers were living on communes. I know those kids and they’re totally screwed up.

“Some were sexually abused, all kinds of bad stuff happened, but even those who survived intact don’t want to create communes for their children. They didn’t want to be raised by 10 different parents — again, it was this ideological thing trumping the maternal instinct.”

Towards the end of senior school, an ecstatic Rebecca showed Walker her offer letter from Yale. Instead of celebrating her daughter’s success in landing a place at one of the world’s top universities, Walker asked her coolly why she wanted to go to a bastion of male privilege.

Rebecca went to Yale anyway, and started thinking about feminism for herself. Her first book examined what feminism meant to young women and what role it played in the modern world. “When I began to challenge status quo feminism, my mother started to feel very injured,” she says. “To have a daughter who was questioning feminism — it was seen as a threat. Imagine Margaret Thatcher having a hippie child who wanted to live in India and become a Hare Krishna. It was that kind of schism.

“I keep telling people feminism is an experiment. And just like in science, you have to assess the outcome of the experiment and adjust according to your results, but my mother and her friends, they see it as truth; they don’t see it as an experiment.

“So that creates quite a problem. You’ve got young women saying, ‘That didn’t really work for me’ and the older ones saying, ‘Tough, because that’s how it should be’.”

The debate goes on: Rebecca, who lives in Hawaii with Tenzin and Glen, his Buddhist-teacher father, recently wrote about why she was supporting Barack Obama rather than Hillary Clinton — and immediately came under fire.

“The response from older feminists was that I, and other young women, were naive in thinking Obama could ever truly represent us, and we should be supporting the female candidate. The belief is that women become more radical as they get older, that we’re naive and we’ll ‘get it’ later on.”

Predictably, Walker was upset at Rebecca’s next publication, Black, White and Jewish — a memoir about growing up in her fractured family. “My father was quite shocked at first, but he got behind me 100%. However, my mother felt very injured,” says Rebecca. “I’m not blameless. I can be very direct and strong in my opinions and I wasn’t as sensitive to other people’s feelings as I could have been.

“My mother is a celebrity, and celebrities need to constantly police their reputation. If you put a chink in their public persona, it can be very dangerous and threatening to them.”

The final showdown happened while Rebecca was pregnant, and is chronicled in her new book, Baby Love — a diary of her pregnancy in which she explores modern women’s dilemmas about relationships and motherhood.

Having been raised to believe that “it’s not nature, it’s nurture”, she was not prepared for the strength of her feelings for her baby. “I adore him,” she says. “He’s really into running and jumping and he’s very attached to me. It’s all, ‘Mommy, Mommy, Mommy’, and it’s very difficult to leave him.”

People she meets constantly express surprise at what’s happened — surely having a child should have brought her closer to her mother, rather than splitting them asunder? She agrees.

“People don’t really understand how strong ideology can be,” she says. “I think sometimes of that group and that feminism as being close to a cult. I feel I had to de-programme myself in order to have independent thought. It’s been an ongoing struggle. When you have a cult, you have a cult leader who demands a certain conformity . . . And when you have a celebrity who has cultural-icon status, economic power beyond what you can imagine, you can’t resist that person — if you want to stay in their realm. Because once you start challenging them, they kick you out.”

Baby Love by Rebecca Walker is published by Souvenir Press at £15. Copies can be ordered for £13.50, including postage, from The Sunday Times BooksFirst on 0870 165 8585

From Rebecca’s diary

June 29, 2004

Two days ago, I checked my e-mail to find a note from my mother threatening to send an attached statement [to a website.] In a nutshell, she took offence to a section of my 2001 memoir, reprinted in a publication two weeks ago, in which I wrote that my parents didn’t protect or look out for me . . . In the statement, she calls me a liar, a thief (because when I was eight, I took quarters from her purse during my parents’ divorce) and a few other discrediting unmentionables . . .

I went over to her house to find out what the hell was going on. Never have I been so frightened by my mother. She sat me down and called me “someone who thinks she is a good person but really isn’t”. She said that because I wasn’t from the South and didn’t have the full memory of slavery (read: I am half white), that I don’t know what it feels like to be sold down the river.

I asked whether she thought it was a little strange that I wrote about my struggle in an attempt to get her to take care of me, but here we were, talking about how I should be taking care of her.

She grew quite vicious. After two hours of trying to convince her of the merits of my existence, I left the house shaking. [My partner] Glen was extremely upset: This is how she treats you when you’re pregnant?

November 24

E-mails have been flying back and forth. I ask her to apologise for the statement she threatened to send [to a website]. She tells me that she and all of her friends think that I have lost my mind. When I write that if she can’t apologise, I don’t want contact because I feel she is too emotionally dangerous for me and my unborn son, she writes that she won’t miss what we don’t have. She [adds] that she has been my mother for 30 years and is no longer interested in the job. Instead of signing “your mother” at the end, she signs her first name.