The new year finds writer Rebecca Walker serving up Black Cool, a collection of essays by prominent African-American visionaries who explore the meaning of blackness and its inherit ineffability. The book is a cohesive and comprehensive examination of black aesthetic, experience and core.
Hailed by Time magazine as one of the leaders of her generation, Walker’s extensive body of work includes numerous books and articles centered on motherhood, sexuality and racial identity. Her most notable book, the best-selling Black White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self, articulates her struggle to find herself amidst discrimination and a tangled upbringing as the biracial daughter of African-American author Alice Walker (writer of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple among others) and Jewish lawyer Mel Leventhal.
Black Cool begins with an informative foreword by historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. and is elevated by essays from writer dream hampton, artist Staceyann, writer Mat Johnson, photographer Dawoud Bey, writer Veronica Chambers, essayist Miles Marshall Lewis, critic Margo Jefferson, and activist bell hooks.
Walker spoke to theGrio and discussed how Black Cool came to fruition. She also talked about the tabloid media coverage that followed her estrangement from her famous mother, and the advice she’d give aspiring writers.
TheGrio: Tell me about your first time being in love.
Rebecca Walker: [laughing] wow [moments pass] Okay, I’ve got it now; I can remember. [Laughing] It was great. It was beautiful. I fell in love with a boy who lived in the neighborhood. He used to ride his bike by my house all the time. I used to kind of like watch him. I had a big crush. We finally met because these girls were bullying me; they were trying to steal my bike. He saw this happening and told them to leave me alone. And like that, he because my boyfriend and I was in love.
How would you describe the world to someone who had never been to the world?
These are deep; I love it! I’d tell them you’re going to go to a wild, beautiful place. People, some of them are going to be nice, some of them are going to be dangerous. You have to be careful, but don’t be afraid. I tell that to my son, you know: the world is beautiful and it’s dangerous at the same time.
Your son is seven; do you explain serious aspects of life to him—does he ask?
I try to show and tell him things to the best of my ability. What’s the last thing he asked? He asked me a deep question…he asked, why do some people own their houses and they never move? I had to explain that some people don’t believe in living in one place, they don’t believe that one place can give them everything. If he kept asking, I would have had to explain why some people don’t have enough money to buy a house, and then he’d ask the question, “well how ‘come they don’t have enough money?” Then I’d have to talk about capitalism and jobs. I could go long on almost every answer, but at a certain point, he’s like, “mom, I don’t need all that.”
In terms process, how was putting together Black Cool different from previous books you’ve edited?
This one was hard! This was harder than all my other collections. The writers had a really hard time wrapping their minds around what I was looking for in terms of ‘black cool.’ I had to explain it to them a lot, you know. I would pick elements and ask them to write about the element. I would choose the element or they would choose the element for themselves. The concept seemed very abstract, and it was hard to put into words. The theme was “ineffable” and I was trying to make the ineffable, effable. I had to do a lot of development with the writers, talking to them and generally staying on them and saying, “look, I know you can do this. I know it’s hard, just find the words; just go…interpret it the way I know you can. Believe me, you’ve got it; you’re good. I wouldn’t have chosen you if I didn’t believe.”
Yeah, it was deep. I was trying to decode something, to translate something. Like Helena Andrew’s piece in the book: Reserve; the black cool of wearing a mask of complete control, and how that’s been such a mechanism for our survival, to not crack a smile, to be able to move within this impenetrable modality. The mystery of that is cool, and that’s what cool is — the not knowing. At the same time if black people take that to the extreme they become emotionally shut down and become a victim of it. The book was about getting people to understand that we’re looking at phenomenon that is provocative and about our survival, but also if taken to too far, could be undermining.
You’ve been candid about your estrangement from your mother. There is an essay circulating the Internet titled “How my mother’s fanatical views tore us apart,” in which you offer chilling details of her maternal neglect. Is it difficult for you to be revealing about your childhood, especially being that your mother is a public figure? At what point, did it become imperative that you share?
Oh, that piece, it when viral. It was really a deep journey. I did an interview with The Daily Mail and they took all of the things that I said in the interview and put them in that piece. I didn’t write that piece. A lot people in the U.S. don’t understand that The Daily Mail is like the Examiner, it’s a total tabloid. I stand by a lot of the content of it, the way I talk about my family and what has happened in my life is always honest, but I’d never … I mean, there’s a lot of mean-spiritedness in the way The Daily Mail put it together.
When piece went viral, it was hard. I had not said a lot of what was in the article, a lot of it didn’t come from the interview, but they put my name on it as if I had written it and added their own energy to it. It was very complex. All of my work is revealing; my books, but it’s different because I can control the way the message goes out. It’s a question of how to handle being so vulnerable and truthful about your experiences without having to wake up the next morning and hide under the covers. It’s hard to find that boundary. How much is necessary to divulge. When I first handed in Black White and Jewish, there was whole first section that read, “I’m writing this book because I want to be known. I want someone in this life to know what I feel and who I am.” I ended up cutting that section [laughing] but I think that a lot of my work thus far has been about wanting to be known, wanting to connect, wanting to be seen, not wanting to hold up a veil, wanting to be real, wanting to share — needing to. If I hadn’t written Black White and Jewish, I would have lost my mind. I had to say those things. I had to say I was having sex way too young and I had an abortion, and that I had my race issues; all that. I needed to get it out of me.
Do you have any non-cliché business advice for aspiring writers?
Non-cliché business advice, I love it. My advice? Make it happen. At this point the industry is hard, literacy is down, I could say so many things, but fundamentally I think if you believe you have something to say, you need to say it. Do it, and worry about everything else later. The thing with Black Cool for me is, it’s a book that didn’t have a huge advance; it was really a labor of love more than anything else. I feel really proud of this book. I love this book, and it has nothing to do with money. It’s the heart of it. It feels like me. It feels like it’s a part of me. I would tell aspiring writers to do it.