A Conversation with Rebecca Walker

In her writing and speaking, Rebecca Walker responds to questions in terse, economical statements. Her short responses give clues to her worldview, registering everything fiery sharp and clear, with the intensity of someone who’s lived more than a few lives.

Rebecca Walker is a feminist author and mother living on the island of Maui. Often introduced by way of her own mother, Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize winning author and activist most famous for her novel The Color Purple. Despite the The New York Times articles that described their only somewhat-imperfect family, both Ms. Walkers represent a legacy of intellectual struggle against the oppressions of racism and patriarchy in America. For the last several years, Rebecca has lived upcountry, on the slope of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii, a lush and spare landscape worlds away from the contentious American cities she describes growing up in her 2000 book Black, White, and Jewish. She lives with her husband Glen, a Buddhist teacher, and her 6 year old son. She hosts writing workshops and is in much demand as a speaker.

11 a.m. December 24, 2010. Christmas Eve.

I really enjoyed What Makes a Man, your 2004 collection of essays. I’m working through what you wrote a few years ago with some other local thinkers in changing concepts of masculinity here in Hawai’i.

I’m glad to hear it. Artists and scholars must continue to revise traditional ideas of masculinity. I wish I knew more about Hawaiian constructs of masculinity, and I promise to make it my business to find out, but What Makes a Man is about what I see as a war on boys in mainland American culture. Boys are taught from a very young age that in order to succeed as men they need to be workers, fighters or providers. Emotional stoicism is a necessity, and boys are often bullied by family and peers into holding these views, very much to their detriment.

My argument is that we need to emphasize the liberation of men from outdated and oppressive notions of gender as much as we have emphasized this process for girls and women. We need healthy men who can draw from the breadth and depth of their humanity in partnership with healthy women for true gender revolution. And women need to support men’s efforts to change, too. We can’t say we want a sensitive man and then pine for the stereotypical hyper-masculine heartbreaker. Ken needs an extreme makeover, too. Not just Barbie. It’s all about balance, and we’ve got to find it as a culture before it’s too late.
Where are you, anyway?

Honolulu. In an apartment down the street from Obama’s grandma’s similarly little apartment.

You should write about that! That’s the writing coach in me – always wanting people to write their stories and tell their truths. It’s the only way to challenge dominant narratives, and one of the reasons I’m so involved in memoir as a form, writing them, and teaching others how to write them in my yearly workshops here on Maui.

But since you’ve raised the native son, I have to add my two cents about the Obama presidency, which has been one long, exhausting, exciting, and extremely revealing ride. So many of us believed a more egalitarian world was just around the corner when he was elected; I don’t think we realized just how toxic the environment is in Washington and amidst the global elite, who have an inordinate amount of power and interest in resource hoarding and population control. But I haven’t lost a sense of optimism, and I think that’s the most important thing. Once our belief that the world can be made at least a little better is gone – you know, that instead of 400 million kids going to bed hungry a night, maybe we can get it down to 300 million, and so on – we’re done for; we’re just sitting ducks, waiting for the apocalypse.

I support Obama the way I would a brother. He’s taken an impossible job at tremendous risk. As a Hawaiian friend of mine recently wrote in a poem of the same title: heavy lifting.

I think you’d like Professor Ty Tengan’s Native Men Remade. His work in the Hale Mua is located there on Maui, so you may hear of them. I read that you’ve just finished a book of essays called One Big Happy Family: 18 Writers Talk About Polyamory, Open Adoption, Mixed Marriage, Househusbandry, Single Motherhood, and Other Realities of Truly Modern Love. The reviews look great. What do you think of the cultural ramifications of civil unions in Hawai‘i? Should they push for gay marriage?

Yes, I think so. I was an activist in the ’90s in the gay community, and privy to a lot of contentious arguments about whether gay marriage was the most efficient way to proceed. Would recognition by “the establishment” really be the path to greater acceptance of non-hetero love? At the time, I wasn’t sure, and I thought seeking state approval of gay love was a bit regressive as various critical interventions established the problematics of government participation in heterosexual marriage, especially in regards to women. Now I think gay marriage is absolutely critical. Not only does it respond to homophobia and regressive politics put forward by conservatives, but it seems to exponentiate a shift in consciousness. Personally, I love hearing my friends talk about their same-sex husbands and wives. I get a jolt of energy from it and am reminded of the power of language to alter our views.

One Big Happy Family takes the gay marriage discussion further and posits a spectrum of evolving family configurations that I believe warrant cultural support – from families with members in prison to polyamorous families, in which a woman may have both a husband and a wife. The book explores open and transracial adoption, parenting via sperm donor, and many other ways folks are making love and family in our country right now. I’m proud to have given space to families who often find themselves at the margins of the debate.

Regarding the opposition, I see people coming out against it too, and how the language surrounding the issue is in a Christian paradigm connected to a colonialist paradigm. I think it’s tragic that people have been taken by this Western religion that imposes these views.

I’ve noticed there’s quite a few post-graduate, mixed race types that end up in Hawai’i, like myself. Is there some escapism in moving here, where everyday questions of race don’t have the same sort of venom as on the mainland continent?

I do think many of us come here with a deep sense of longing for a less charged racial environment. We ship our cars from the mainland buoyed by an escapist fantasy. Some of it is real – I certainly don’t feel the same pressures to identify racially, and the horror of racism isn’t broadcast from every street corner. But at the same time, the reality of race and culture in Hawai‘i can be sobering. It’s complex. The discussion of people who were born and raised here vs. transplant; haole vs. local…it’s not all shaved ice and coconuts. Segregation is palpable. Whites generally hang together, as do Japanese-American and Filipinos. Definitely “pure” Hawaiians. The way it all plays out socio-economically, at least here on Maui, is pretty obvious. Most of the wealth is concentrated within the “white” community, and an awful lot of locals are living paycheck to paycheck.

Looking for schools for my son was especially informative. The private schools are predominantly white, while the public are predominantly local and mixed race. Pedagogically, public schools seem to be more focused on rote learning, memorization, and making sure the kids test well. Independent schools pay closer attention to the individual and emphasize different ways of learning that are mostly child-centered. I can’t help but feel the public school system here is raising children to perform well within the tourist industry; it seems to teach them to serve, rather than lead, to follow rather than innovate. This is very disheartening. Definitely a good location for local activism. I think putting energy into overhauling the public school system in Hawai‘i – every child should be able to go to a Kamehameha or Punahou – should be right up there with the sovereignty movement, for sure.

At the end of the day, are you glad you live Maui?

Yes! Every place has problems, but this place has an amazing counterbalance. The vast gorgeous blue ocean out my window, for one, and the yellow sun feeding me vitamin D every day. I haven’t made it to stand up paddling yet, but love knowing it’s an option. A few days ago my son and I discovered a path to a new beach just minutes from our house – a gorgeous hike full of enormous elephant tears and river rocks. I also get to be in one of the sexiest new magazines around, FLUX!

I like knowing I’m part of the cultural shift happening on this side of the world. That change and engagement with global transformation isn’t restricted to New York or DC or Los Angeles. I love it that my friends give me the biggest, most delicious avocados from the tree in their front yard, and starfruit is everywhere. I love smelling the plumerias. I love seeing the community centers in each town full of folks celebrating birthdays and graduations. I like the scale of this place. Not too big, not too small. Human. Now if we could just get an Apple Store…

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