What little boys are made of

Rebecca Walker, the editor of a new collection of essays about the meaning of "masculinity," talks about her anthology -- and how her identity as a black, white and Jewish bisexual affects her work.

Published May 28, 2004 10:20PM (EDT)

Rebecca Walker has never played it safe. Her first book, the 1995 anthology "To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism," unleashed a feminist firestorm when she published it at age 25. Despite its foreword by Gloria Steinem, afterword by Angela Davis, and contributions by many well-known second-wave standard-bearers, the book's critique of feminism's cultishness infuriated many movement veterans -- the outcome Walker dreaded most. "I thought I might be perceived as betraying 'The Movement' rather than celebrating it," she wrote in the book's introduction. "I feared that this betrayal, which was grounded in staying true to myself, could mean banishment from the community for questioning the status quo. Because feminism has always been so close to home, I worried that I might also be banished from there."

Walker risked banishment from home again when she wrote "Black, White and Jewish" (2001), her memoir of growing up in the joint custody of her Jewish civil rights lawyer father and African-American novelist mother. "My parents did not hold me close, but encouraged me to go," she wrote. "They did not buffer, protect, watch out for, or look after me. I was mostly left alone to discover the world and my place in it." Brave words for the daughter of Alice Walker to commit to print. Having published and regretted a few words about my (non-famous) mother myself, I found myself astounded as I watched Walker read passages like that from "Black, White and Jewish" at Black Oak Books in Berkeley soon after the books release, beneath a beatific photograph of her mother that hung -- literally -- over her head.

Rebecca Walker's new anthology, "What Makes a Man: 22 Writers Imagine the Future," is less personal but, in many ways, equally risky. It's a crazy quilt of essays made vivid by its eclectic collection of contributors: writers previously published and not, many of them men of color, most of them tackling the topic from deeply personal and provocative perspectives. Jesse Green ("The Velveteen Father") writes about the meaning of male/female, husband/wife in the life of a gay dad; National Public Radio commentator Doug Rushkoff discusses the effects, both good and bad, that Playboy had on him as a young man. Death-row inmate Jarvis Jay Masters writes excruciatingly about trying to mentor young, self-destructive fellow prisoners. Meditation teacher Caitriona Reed reflects on being Buddhist and transsexual. There are excerpts from Michael Moore's "Stupid White Men" ("The End of Men"), Anthony Swofford's "Jarhead," and "I Sleep at Red Lights," by Bruce Stockler, a new father of triplets. The net effect of the book is that of overhearing a confessional conversation among a group of thoughtful men, with a few similarly self-appraising women (Martha Southgate on her seemingly female son; Tajamika Paxton on her wounded, dying father; Ruth Bettleheim on the favorable impact of divorce on young boys) in the mix.

Now 34, Walker has once again taken a topic that seemed to have been talked to death and given us ways and means to think about it differently. Like her other books, "What Makes a Man" was born at home -- in her relationship with the son, now 15, she shares with her ex, musician Meshell Ndegeocello.

Walker and I spent an afternoon at her publicist's home in the hills of Oakland, Calif., discussing her writing and how it affects her identity as a mother.

Let's talk about the new book first. Where'd the idea come from?

One night my son -- this dynamic, interesting 11-year-old who loves chess and snowboarding and sci-fi -- turned to me and said, "You think I should play sports so girls will like me?" I reacted the way I would have if I had a daughter who'd asked, "Should I pretend I'm dumb so boys will like me?"

As he and I talked, I started to understand that in his seventh-grade culture the boys either played violent video games or they played competitive sports. With all my son's uniqueness, he had no social currency unless he did those things. That started me thinking about how our culture forces boys to deny their own complexity and pushes them into this competitive fighting model. I wanted to create a book I could give to my son, to help him navigate the making of his identity, give him more room to be who he actually is.

Identity navigation seems to be a theme of your work.

True. I always want to make more space for people who suffer because we don't fit into some bullshit paradigm that we didn't make. [Laughs.] Anthologies are good for when you have questions but no answers on a subject, and you need to survey a lot of people to figure out what you think.

How'd you go about asking the questions?

I started talking to all kinds of guys: 60-year-old friends of my dad's, people I was in grad school with, my brother, random people I met on the road. I'd pull a guy aside and say, "I'm thinking about doing this book -- tell me what it was like growing up. Tell me what it's like being a man." They had all these stories of childhood abuse and humiliation, of being brutally teased out of their emotional capacity. Listening to them heightened my sensitivity to the other half of the human race.

Now for a loaded question: Why a book about masculinity from a bisexual woman?

You're not the first to ask. When I first proposed the book, my publisher said, "Why are you doing a book on men? You're a woman, you've been with women." In fact, I've actually only been with two women. For most of my life I was with men: four years with one boyfriend, five years with another, and I was going to marry a man in Africa. [Laughs.] I know a lot about men up close and personal.

I bet you couldn't have gotten away with writing this book as a lesbian. And if you were straight no one would have questioned it.

You're touching on something important. As a writer I've wanted to make it really hard for people to put me in any kind of box. I'm not comfortable with being thought of as a black writer, a Jewish writer, lesbian writer, East Coast, West Coast. I'm all of those things and I'm more.

No one likes being shoved into a box. But when you're black, white, Jewish, and bi, there are so many boxes to avoid.

I have a personal sort of resistance to limitation. But it's also about the realities of the marketplace. I want my work to reach as many people as possible. I'd hate to think someone would get to one of my books and say "This looks interesting but it's not for me -- she's a black writer, she's a bi writer." I think a book on masculinity isn't what readers of "Black, White and Jewish" are expecting. I like that. If I can keep putting books out there that complicate the question of an identity box, that'll cut through the whole conundrum.

In your intro you call on women to help men reconfigure masculinity. You say, "If we want men to be different we must eroticize that difference." What do you mean?

Women say we want these integrated, beautiful, sweet men. Then we run off with the macho guy. All these years of feminism and we're still looking for the knight in shining armor. There's a way in which our impulses haven't caught up with our intellect. What I'm saying is, we know that men are often socialized in their sexuality through pornography. I can eroticize this table if I work hard enough at it. Well, women need to flex that power and begin to eroticize what's truly healthy for us and for our partners.

Nice guys finish last -- but at least they finish.

Being turned on by macho guys who aren't good for us has to do with us wanting to be the feminine über-counterpart. I like those guys 'cause I can curl up and be little. I can be pure sensuality. But those extremes only work in the realm of sexuality. Real relationships are much more multidimensional. I want a partner, male or female, who can be the cool tough guy to my damsel in distress and who can also be the damsel in distress to my cool tough guy. I want to have the full range of my humanity in a relationship. I want to experience life fully, not just a sliver of it. That's why I did this book -- because men are being allowed just this tiny part. I was interested in the ones who are breaking out of that paradigm. I'm interested in knowing what's that like for them.

You've published one memoir and two anthologies. Do you prefer working in one genre over the other?

Doing an anthology is like conducting a symphony: You're orchestrating different ideas, different writers. It's fairly administrative. A memoir is more like taking off all your clothes and walking down a crowded city street -- all that vulnerability and adrenaline.

Is the vulnerability the good part or the bad part?

That's the bad part. The good part is that writing a memoir is making a map of your own evolution. It's a clearing, too. With "Black, White and Jewish," I let all this stuff go through the writing. It was amazingly cathartic.

For me there's always been a price to pay for the catharsis.

With a memoir it's inevitable that you're going to hurt some people. In the past I felt that telling my story was the most important thing. But I'm not convinced that the damage is worth it. Now I feel like telling my story and taking care of the people I love are equally important. There's got to be a way to write honestly and meaningfully about my life and not cause anyone suffering. I've been thinking of it as a challenge: What does it mean to tell my truth and live authentically and also take care of people? Is that possible?

Truth-telling versus caretaking: You're not the first artist to confront that dilemma.

It calls for a radical shift in my perspective.

From what to what?

From an idea of myself as a kind of lone artist who can just keep moving from project to project, relationship to relationship, place to place, the infinitely morph-able, infinitely changeable shifting renegade female warrior artist -- that's a trope I inherited, a real trope of the women's movement -- to someone who understands that the joy of life is not found only in self-expression but in intimacy with others.

Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose...

Exactly. I've had a romantic idea of freedom, of following one's muse, that hasn't really taken other people's feelings into account. That's been a very difficult lesson for me to learn.

I know this is a touchy subject, but what can you say about the effects of your books on the important relationships in your life?

I can say that "To Be Real" and "Black, White and Jewish" put a lot of strain on my personal relationships. The first book was not well received by the women I grew up with. They felt like I was critiquing them, calling them narrow. That book challenged the very idea of the feminist identity they'd worked so hard to establish.

With "Black, White and Jewish" the problems were with my parents and other family members. The work I had to do to heal those relationships taught me a lot about what's really important -- as did going through a breakup with my partner of eight years. Both of us were very committed to our art. We both believed we could wantonly pursue our creative impulses without understanding how to survive that as individuals and as a family.

Art from suffering, suffering from art...

So many kids of my generation were raised with this permissive progressivism, without rules or stability. Our parents were busy doing the right thing, trying to challenge the orthodoxy of the time. We paid a pretty heavy price for that: a sense of security, a sense of limits. Many of us experimented with things we probably shouldn't have. I know I did.

How has your own upbringing affected the kind of mother you are?

When my son was younger I could be the chummy kind of mom. But in the last few years I've had to become much more stern, much more the real grown-up mom. It's challenging, but I'm enjoying it. I'm proud of my commitment to my son. It's a big deal to take on the responsibility of a child who's (a) not your biological child, then (b) to not flinch when the relationship with the child's biological parent ends.

What moves you from book to book?

It's always something in my psyche that needs to be resolved, a place where I feel a little blocked, where there's some kind of restriction I want to work through. The energy of writing the book helps to clear it. It's weird: My books are so thematic, but I'm not somebody who's interested in trends or the temperature of the moment in pop culture. I'm someone who cares about where we're going as a species in terms of human relating. I'm more emotional than I am pop psych. I'm all about, how does it feel?

Might there be a novel in your future?

I've been trying to write a novel since 2001. I had the idea that I did the memoir, I did the anthology, now I have to do a novel. Working on it was agony! I finally just decided to let it go. My mom's such a novelist, I wanted to connect in that way, to share that. But we don't. Which is fine.

So what's next?

Another memoir, believe it or not, based on the year I spent in Africa. I fell in love with this guy, ended up leaving abruptly, and almost died of dengue fever. It's about transcontinental romance, the indestructibility of love.

Who's going to get mad at you about this one?

That remains to be seen. [Chuckles, then grows somber.] I just want to do my work, have people read it, and have it mean something to them. I want to feel like I can transform the difficulties of my life into something that's helpful not just for me, but for other people. And I want to be able to do the hard work of changing myself when it's clear that I need to.

By Meredith Maran

Meredith Maran, a frequent Salon contributor, is the LA-based author of 14 books including "The New Old Me" and "Why We Write." A book critic and book editor, she’s on Twitter and Instagram at @meredithmaran

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