A Southerner, she also presents that land as the place from which their specific characteristics of survival and creativity have sprung. Her works confront the pain and struggle of black people's history, which for her has resulted in a deeply spiritual tradition. And in articulating that tradition, she has found that the creativity of black women, the extent to which they are permitted to exercise it, is a measure of the health of the entire society.
A writer who admits to "a rage to defy/the order of the stars/despite their pretty patterns," Walker consistently approaches the "forbidden" in society as a route to the truth. Perhaps the most controversial of her subjects is her insistence on investigating the relationships between black women and men, black parents and children, with unwavering honesty. A womanist (her term for a black feminist), Walker has, more than any contemporary writer in America, exposed the "twin afflictions" that beset black women, the sexism and racism that historically and presently restrict their lives. Walker develops literary forms (for example her concept of quilting, her use of folk language) that are based on the creative legacy left her by her ancestors. But that heritage is not only a source of her forms. Most important for Walker is its essence: that spirituality is the basis of the valuable and therefore of art. Unlike the stereotype of the socially conscious writer, she asserts "the importance of diving through politics and social forces to dig into the essential spirituality of individual persons." Her work then, though clearly political in its thrust, expands that quality to mean personal inner change as a crucial aspect of radical social change. Stylistically her work is based on the idea that "a people's dreams, imaginings, rituals, legends ... are known to contain the accumulated collective reality of the people themselves." In spite of the problems her works expose, she is essentially optimistic. Her work proceeds from Walker's belief in the human potential and desire for change.
Her belief in the relationship between personal and social change, her awareness that struggle and spirituality are primary characteristics of black Southern folk tradition, and her sense of that unknown thing in her ancestors that yearns to be articulated are not solely intellectual concepts for Alice Walker . They are part of her own personal history.
She was born 9 February 1944, the eighth and last child of Willie Lee and Minnie Lou Grant Walker, Eatonton, Georgia, sharecroppers. She grew up in that small Southern town at a time when many blacks, like her parents, worked in the fields for a pittance and when whites exerted control over practically every aspect of black life. Her childhood was filled with stories of past lynchings, and like other Southern black children she found "at 12 that the same little white girls who had been her playmates were suddenly to be called `miss.'" The young Walker was certainly affected by the pervasiveness of the violent racist system of the South, especially the impact it had on black families. In an interview in Library Journal (15 June 1970) she explained how this relationship affected her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970): "I was curious to know why people in families (specifically black families) are often cruel to each other and how much of this cruelty is caused by outside forces such as various social injustices, segregation, unemployment, etc."
Perhaps Walker was particularly attuned to the relationship between social forces and personal development because at a young age she lived through the feeling of being an outcast. At eight she lost the sight of one eye when one of her older brothers shot her with a BB gun. Her eye was covered by a scar until she was fourteen, when a relatively simple operation corrected the disfigurement, which made her feel ugly; and for years she feared she would lose the sight of the other eye. This experience caused her really to notice relationships. For that reason, she also began to keep a notebook, in which she wrote poems, often in the fields where she had some privacy. Her writings seem indelibly marked by these years, for she focuses sharply on relationships, not only between people but also between human beings and nature. And her sense of her difference probably contributed to her tendency to tread forbidden paths. Ironically, Walker was awarded a "rehabilitation scholarship" from Georgia, a state which systematically oppressed black people. That, along with the fact that she was valedictorian of her senior class, enabled her to go to Spelman College.
Although, to some extent, the child Walker felt separate, she was also a part of a community which nurtured her. In spite of the oppressiveness of the racist Southern system, she had many excellent teachers. They saved her from "feeling alone; from worrying that the world she was stretching to find might not exist." And they lent her books, for her a necessary element in her development: "Books became my world because the world I was in was very hard." Her community, as well as her teachers, knew the importance of education. The men of Eatonton built what the schools needed, and parents raised money to keep them going.
At an early age, Walker saw black people working together to accomplish goals necessary to their survival and development. Despite the limits imposed upon them, they felt responsible for each other. In one of her essays she recalls that growing up in the South, a black might be afraid of whites but not of blacks. As a little girl, she walked and played with black convicts who were accused of murder. This sense of "One Life" that black people share, their belief that they are a community with a functional history and culture is, for Walker, one reason for the persistence of struggle characteristic of black Southern tradition. It is not so much the grand sweep of history or the artifacts created as it is the relations of people to each other, young to old, parent to child, man to woman, that make up that heritage--a theme that Walker has treated persistently in her works.
As influential as her community was, the person that seems to have shaped her the most was her mother. Walker has often said that the stories she now tells are her mother's stories and that she has absorbed something of the urgency of her mother that her story be told. Walker's writings are an example of what her mother and others like her might have created if they were not the "mules of the world" and had the opportunity to write, paint, or carve their own expressions. Yet, although these women did not have access to art forms, they did create in whatever forms were allowed them. In her essay "In Search of Our Mother's Gardens", Walker illuminates this legacy of creativity as one of the spiritual bases of her own art:
I notice that it is only when my mother is working in her flowers that she is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible--except as Creator: hand and eye. She is involved in work her soul must have. Ordering the universe in the image of her personal concept of Beauty.
Her face, as she prepares the Art that is her gift, is a legacy of respect she leaves to me, for all that illuminates and cherishes life. She has handed down respect for the possibilities--and the will to grasp them.
Like the character Mem in The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Walker's mother created art as part of her daily life, against the pressures of working in the fields or as a maid and raising eight children. Although their society denied them the access to most of the means of creation and legislated that only a few cultivated souls could produce art, these women used quilting, gardening, cooking, sewing to order their universe in the image of their personal concept of beauty. Such a legacy has given Walker insight not only into the lives of black women but into the essential nature of art as a human process of illuminating and cherishing life. Walker was later to say that "if art doesn't make us better, then what on earth is it for?"
The mother also passed on to the daughter another quality that marks her art. Her mother and her aunts were the most independent people the child knew. Like the character Aunt Jimmy in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, these women fished, hunted, worked like any man, and dressed as fine as any woman. Their sense of their own completeness certainly helped to instill the quality of assurance in the young Walker that she would need in order to be a black woman writer in America: "Unlike many women who were told throughout their adolescence they must marry, I was never told by my mother or anyone of her sisters it was something I need even think about. It is because of them, I know women can do anything and that one's sexuality is not affected by one's work."
Many critics have commented on Alice Walker 's apparently natural quality of authority as a writer, her assurance with words. Walker possesses this quality because of the experience of her maternal ancestors. Because they were not seen as women in American society with the characteristics that that definition designated, they had to do everything--and therefore knew they could do everything. Walker uses a variation on this theme in her second novel, Meridian (1976), by speculating as to what black women will decide to do when they have a choice.
Walker left Eatonton to go to college, first at Spelman in Atlanta, then at Sarah Lawrence in New York. What she learned at these two very different institutions is indicative of her character and would influence her work. At that time Spelman was, in many ways, dedicated to turning Negro girls into ladies. However, during Walker's years there, the atmosphere of the school was strongly affected by the civil rights movement, what Walker calls "the Southern Revolution." She grew to worship the young leaders of SNCC, John Lewis, Ruby Davis Robinson, and Julian Bond, and participated in civil rights demonstrations. She says of this period: "Everyone was beautiful, because everyone was conquering fear by holding the hands of the person next to them." Her experience, so strongly felt, is distilled in many of the poems of Once, her first published book of poetry, in short stories like "The Welcome Table", and most emphatically in Meridian. Throughout the novel the Sojourner tree is a striking symbol of struggle, apparent death, and rejuvenation. Years before she wrote Meridian, Walker evoked this memory of her years at Spelman: "Then, of course, the cherry trees--cut down now I think--that were always blooming away while we--young and bursting with fear and determination to change our world--thought beyond our fervid singing, of death."
The cherry trees, as the symbol of nature's constant thriving, the analysis of the relationship between violence and revolution, the paradox of life-giving death, the probing of the concept of womanhood as it was viewed by the college in the novel--all these are derived from Walker's years at Spelman. And the archives at the oldest college for black women would be the source for her portrayal of Nettie, the Southern black woman in her novel The Color Purple (1982) who went to Africa as a missionary. Spelman's tradition, then, represents for Walker both positive and negative aspects of the definition of Southern black women and their role in society.
White and wealthy Sarah Lawrence College is a school for women in Bronxville, New York. Walker's years there were a culmination of previous preoccupations, as well as the beginning of her public writing career. In attempting to understand the recurrent dreams of suicide that she had had since she was eight, she studied the philosophers' positions on suicide, "because by that time it did not seem frightening or even odd--but only inevitable." An experience she had during her senior year put the conclusion to a test and resulted in the writing of her first book, Once.
During the summer before, she had become pregnant and had traveled to Africa. She found that "I felt at the mercy of everything, including my body, which I had learned to accept as a kind of casing over which I considered my real self," and "began to understand how alone woman is, because of her body." She decided that if she failed to find an abortionist she would kill herself. A decision of such finality caused her to review her relationship with her mother, father, sisters, and community. She realized that her family would be hurt to hear of her death while they would be ashamed if they discovered she was pregnant. During the time while she anxiously waited for her friends to find an abortionist, she began writing Once. After she was "saved," she wrote without stopping, stuffing each completed poem under the door of Muriel Rukseyer, because "someone had to read them." Her first published poems, which are about love, death, Africa, and the civil rights movement, and her first published story, "To Hell With Dying", which is appropriately about an old man saved from death many times by the love of his neighbor's children, grew out of her gladness that she was alive. Walker has often said that all her poems result from her emergence out of a period of despair: "Writing poems is my way of celebrating with the world that I have not committed suicide the night before."
Walker's peculiar point of view on specific social issues in her large body of works can be traced to pivotal experiences she had in her college years that heightened her awareness of the position of blacks and women in the society. At Spelman, she confronted the concept of the "lady," which clashed with her experience of her mother's and aunts' lives. She was also absorbed in the civil rights movement, in which black women and men risked death. Meaningful struggle for more life was necessarily connected to death. It was also clear to her that if black women were to participate effectively in that movement, as indeed they did, they could not be restricted by a definition of woman that denied them their full potential. Black people's struggle to be free then could not be separated from the necessity for black women to be free enough to struggle--a theme that Walker probes in her second novel, Meridian.
At Sarah Lawrence, she discovered, in her pregnancy, the aloneness of woman in her body, the extreme result of which could also be death. In this crisis, she was saved by other women who knew that they too could be in her place. And she recognized, as have so many other women, the different standards of acceptance for women and men within her own family as well as the outer society. Such recognition of the social definition of woman meant her experience was not just a private one--thus her public acknowledgement of her pregnancy and abortion as the impetus for her first published book, Once. Like other women in the 1970s, this and other peculiarly female experiences would result in Walker's recognition that she had to unite with other women to raise society's consciousness. As her first works of fiction, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970) and In Love and Trouble (1973), illustrate, Walker was one of the first contemporary black women writers to insist that sexism existed in the black community and was not only an issue for white women. She did this at a time when most black leaders focused only on racism and considered her position to be practically heresy. At the same time, she also dramatized in her works the nature of racism and the relationship between sexism and racism as modes of oppression that restricted the lives of all women and men in this country. Her experiences at Spelman and at Sarah Lawrence deepened her understanding of the interconnectedness of pivotal struggles for freedom in America.
As important, at the core of her perception of these two experiences is the risk of death that one takes in the society just to be oneself if that self is not the norm. This sense of the danger involved in being the "other" seems to be connected to her childhood accident and the recurrent dreams of suicide that followed it. In all these instances, Walker's response was the desire for death, then anger, followed by introspection and finally the insistence on being all of one's self, no matter what the cost. Thus the confrontation with death led to a struggle for a more genuine and free life, a paradox that Walker explores profoundly in many of her works.
During her college years, Walker deepened her knowledge of other writers. Books continued to be, as they were in her childhood, an integral part of her life. Her response to other writers has been extremely important to her literary development, as illustrated by the epigraphs for her books--excerpts from the Russian woman poet Akhmatova; the African poet Okotp'tek; the native American seer Black Elk; and the German poet Rilke. And her essays--"In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens", "One Child of One's Own", and "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston"--use the insights of writers Zora Neale Hurston, Virginia Woolf, and Phillis Wheatley as a means of illuminating the creativity of black women. Walker sees herself as part of an international community of writers from whom she learns and to whom she continually responds. This quality of hers is worth noting since white American society often views the Afro-American writer as separate from American literature, and therefore from all other literature--despite the reciprocal impact Afro-American writers have had with other writers of the world. Like Richard Wright, Walker claims insights of the entire world of writers as connected to her own.
The writers that have influenced Walker are indicators of her own preoccupations. In her sophomore year she read every Russian writer that she could get her hands on, for it seemed to her that "Russia must have something floating about in the air that writers breathe from the time they are born." What most impressed her was the ability of Tolstoy, Dostoevski, Turgenev, Gorki, and Gogol to render the tone of their entire society while penetrating the essential spirit of individual persons. The result is both scope and depth and the sounding of the genuine which is the universal in all people. This configuration of qualities certainly marks Walker's fiction, for there is always an interrelation between the lives of the black women she portrays, the values of the entire society, and essential spiritual questions that are asked in every human society.
Walker is also drawn to writers who are not afraid of fantasy, myth, and mystery, qualities that inspired her in the works of African writers Okotp'tek (who has written her favorite modern poem, "Song of Lowino"); Elechi Amadi, whose Concubine she calls a perfect story; Camara Laye and Bessie Head. Like Black Elk, whose vision permeates Meridian, and Gabriel García Márquez, the South American novelist, these writers seem to Walker to be "like musicians: at one with their cultures and their historical subconscious."
Though not in concert with their own cultures, the German writers Rilke and Hesse insisted on loving "those questions like locked rooms/full of treasures/to which [their] blind/and groping key/ does not yet fit." Like them, Walker believes that the artist "must be free to explore, otherwise she or he will never discover what is needed (by everyone) to be known." She has successfully applied their questions to the nature of black women as they struggle in America.
The quality of mystery is especially evident in the poetry that has nurtured Walker: the Japanese haiku poets; e.e. cummings, Emily Dickinson, and William Carlos Williams; Ovid and Catallus; Okotp'tek; Gwendolyn Brooks, Arna Bontemps, and Jean Toomer. Though they come from vastly different cultures and periods in history, they all are passionate in their perception of the many, sometimes contradictory, meanings of experience, and in the way language can evoke the complexity of life. Most of these poets share another quality. They are economical yet sensual in their style. Walker clearly has a preference for this approach to language. The process of stripping off layers and honing down to the core is apparent in her fiction as well as her poetry.
Two other groups of writers, whose works are often marked by these qualities, are of enormous importance to Walker: Afro-American writers, especially women, and women writers of other cultures. For these writers often have a view of the world that not only illuminates and records aspects of experience unknown to or interpreted differently by men and/or whites, they often write against great social barriers, sometimes internalized as their own psychological conflicts. Walker has been influenced by Virginia Woolf (especially A Room of One's Own) the Brontës, the South African writer Doris Lessing, and by the white American writer Kate Chopin, because "their characters can always envision a solution, an evolution to higher consciousness on the part of society, even when society itself cannot." Perhaps that belief in the possibility of change is related to retention of their own humanity despite the impact of oppressive forces. The same belief that human beings can evolve is central to Walker's two favorite books by Afro-American writers, Jean Toomer's Cane and Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. Although Walker has been critical of Toomer's attempt to be "just an American," she emphasizes in these two writers their expression of an essential quality she believes Afro-Americans have retained from their African heritage--that of animism, "a belief that makes it possible to view all creation as living, as being inhabited by spirit." As a result these books are infused with the historical unconscious of black people in this country. But because of these writers' radical exploration of society, their expression of a belief contrary to the American world view, they were criticized, worse, ignored by their own communities.
But Walker not only claims these writers as nurturers of her own creativity, she is an activist in restoring their works to the reading public. In particular, her sense of the precarious position of the Afro-American woman writer in a racist, male-dominated society is dramatized in her successful attempt to rescue Zora Neale Hurston's works from oblivion. Walker did not discover this writer until she was in her twenties and was working on the short story "The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff". She was appalled that in her many years of education, no one had told her about this literary ancestor of hers. She also recognized the incredible loss, particularly to black women, that the silence about Hurston's works represented.
In an interview in the early 1970s, Walker makes the connection between the fate of past Afro-American women writers and the attitudes that she herself had begun to encounter: "There are two reasons why the black woman writer is not taken as seriously as the black male writer. One is that she is a woman. Critics seem unusually ill-equipped to intelligently discuss and analyze the works of black women. Generally they do not even make the attempt; they prefer, rather, to talk about the lives of black women writers, not about what they write. And since black women writers are not, it would seem, very likeable (until recently they were the least willing worshippers of male supremacy) comments about them tend to be cruel."
In pursuit of her own literary sources, Walker saw that Afro-American women writers have, as part of their tradition, explored the relationship between sexism and racism, and therefore were a threat to established literary norms in both black and white society. As a result, many were maligned or ignored--a fate that could strike Walker as well. By placing a tombstone on Hurston's unmarked grave and writing about it in "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston" (1975), by teaching courses on black women writers--a result of which was the essay "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens" (1974), and by editing I Love Myself When I Am Laughing (1979), an anthology of Hurston's works, Walker was not only thanking her literary ancestor, she was also acknowledging the tradition of Afro-American women writers and insisting that black women themselves would have to safeguard their own creative legacy. Her example would help to encourage and support a generation of black feminist writers.
After Walker finished college, she spent a brief time in New York's Lower East Side, an experience which formed the basis for certain sections of Meridian and her controversial story about interracial rape, "Advancing Luna--and Ida B. Wells". Because of her commitment to the Southern revolution, however, it was not long before she returned to the South. From the late 1960s to the middle 1970s, she worked in Mississippi in voter registration and welfare rights. During that time she married Mel Leventhal, a white civil rights lawyer. For many years, critics, particularly black male critics, had a tendency to focus on her marriage rather than on her work. Walker points out that these critics were "themselves frequently interracially married who moreover hung on every word from Richard Wright, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, John A. Williams and LeRoi Jones, to name a few; all of whom were at some time in their lives interracially connected.... I, a black woman, had dared to exercise the same prerogative as they."
During her years in Mississippi, Walker collected folklore from ordinary black women and recorded the details of their everyday lives. Doubtless this activity deepened the knowledge she had acquired in her childhood of the character of Southern black women, how they saw themselves and their community, and how they contended with the vortex of conventions that limited their lives. In her essays during these years she articulated the cycle of works which she would complete in the next decade. In "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens", she speaks about three types of black women: the physically and psychologically abused black woman; the exceptional black woman torn by "contrary instincts," who, in order to try to fulfill her creativity, is forced to repress the sources from which it comes; and the new black woman who can freely recreate herself out of the legacy of her maternal ancestors. Throughout each of her fictional works, Walker presents glimpses of all types, although one phase of the cycle is intensely focused on. For example, her characterization of Mem and Margaret Copeland in The Third Life of Grange Copeland as physically and psychologically abused black women led her to the characterization of Ruth Copeland as a black woman who may be able to recreate herself whole. Walker insists that an understanding of the "herstory" of black women and the lives they are actually living is critical to growth and transformation.
Her first collection of short stories, In Love and Trouble (1973), demonstrates this two-pronged commitment, from Roselily, the poor mother of illegitimate children whose marriage to a Black Muslim is seen by most as a triumphant deliverance from her backward condition but who knows that she will still be confined, to Maggie in "Everyday Use" who is not knowledgeable about the new "blackness" but truly understands heritage, because through her quilting she loves the people who have passed unto her a tradition of caring. Most of the protagonists in this volume are Southern black women who, often against their own conscious wills in the face of pain, abuse, even death, challenge the conventions of sex, race, and age that attempt to restrict them. As a result, In Love and Trouble seemed heretical to some black male critics, for it clearly proclaimed the violent effects of sexism and racism as evils against which black women must struggle within black society.
The title poem of Walker's second book of poetry, Revolutionary Petunias (1973), is also indicative of her preoccupations during her Mississippi years. Its central character, Sammy Lou, is the image of the typical black Southern woman of whom "revolutionaries" are often contemptuous. Sammy Lou prays to the Lord, is against violence, names her children after presidents, even loves flowers, a misdirected use of time and energy according to the political figures of the day. Yet she insists on righteousness, on justice even to the point of dangerous action, for she kills the white man who has killed her husband--a rebellious act that inspires the folk to write songs about her. Walker sees the Sammy Lous--for there are many--as part of an ongoing revolution: "Any black revolution, instead of calling her incorrect will have to honor her single act of rebellion."
Revolutionary Petunias is also about the apparent decline of the Southern revolution, about that time when the external activism of the movement could not be sustained, when it became necessary for those who continued to struggle to look within as well as without and clarify for themselves the difference between rhetoric and principle. Walker says of this volume that "in a way the whole book is a celebration of people who will not cram themselves into any ideological or racial mold.... They are aware that the visions that created them were all towards a future when all people--and flowers too--can bloom. They require that in the midst of the bloodiest battles or revolution this thought not be forgotten." A black woman married to a white man and living in Mississippi; a writer committed to exposing the violence caused by sexism, racism, and the exploitation of the poor; a thinker who refuses to accept unquestioningly that violence is essential to revolution and who focuses on the importance of beauty in the lives of everyone; a political activist who insists that the history of ordinary, seemingly backward, folk is the underpinnings of the contemporary movement for social change-- Alice Walker continued to walk forbidden paths.
Her inquiry into the lives of Southern black women affected Walker's craft as well as her subject matter. During this period she paid careful attention to the "low" media--quilting, gardening, cooking--that were the only forms through which most black women were allowed to express their creativity. Her fiction of this period has, at the core of its craft, the technique of quilting--the use of recurring economical patterns to create a synthesis of the bits and pieces of life into a work of functional beauty. Her second novel, Meridian , is such a work. Walker demonstrates the relationship between the history of ordinary black folk, particularly women, and the philosophical character Meridian, whose question--when is it necessary, when is it right, to kill?--provides the central theme of the novel. This relationship is made clear for the reader through Walker's quilting of intersecting and recurring motifs that stress, on the one hand, the fragmentation of life caused by the unnatural ideologies of sexism and racism and, on the other, the natural unity of life as expressed in nature itself, in music, in the love of human beings for each other.
Meridian is also an indication of how important the subject of motherhood is to Walker. Since black women are primarily glorified as mothers in their own communities and debased as mammies in white society, it is almost impossible to explore their lives, in the past or in the present, without examining the many ramifications that that role has meant for them.
In her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Walker shows how the racist fabric of the American South affects the black family. Because the Copeland men are thwarted by the society in their drive for control of their lives--the American definition of manhood--they vent their frustrations by inflicting violence on their wives. Because the Copeland women, too, are thwarted in their desire to be "women" in the society--that is, to be taken care of--one finally kills herself and the other is killed by her husband when she tries to take care of their family. In each case, the children are not so much a source of the mother's strength as they are victims. Mothers, then, are not always respected in black society, nor are they always victorious.
In Meridian, Walker goes a step further, for Meridian's quest for wholeness is initiated by her feelings of inadequacy in living up to the myth of black motherhood. Again, Walker challenges a prevalent myth. She presents a major character who gives up her son (an act no black woman is supposed to do willingly) and has her tubes tied after a painful abortion, because she is so in awe of the state of motherhood she does not think she can fulfill it. In presenting this controversial series of actions, Walker heightens the restrictiveness of the role. For, while society deifies motherhood, it places little value on children, especially black children, or on mothers, especially black mothers. It often, in fact, punishes mothers for being mothers by restricting their development. Walker also broadens the definition of mother as more than a biological state. Meridian attains the state of motherhood because she believes so profoundly in the sacredness of all life that she takes responsibility for the life of all the people. Her aborted motherhood yields a perspective on life--that of "expanding her mind with action."
While Walker challenges the monumental myth of black motherhood in Meridian, she also maintains the importance of the perspective and culture that that historical role has given women. In her essay "One Child of One's Own" (1980), she questions the idea that some white American feminists were proposing--that motherhood is in and of itself an evil for women. The essay has as its central theme the writer as mother, a crucial question of the 1970s when many women protested, through books like Tillie Olsen's Silences, that women have traditionally had to choose between being mothers and being creative in the arts. Walker had a daughter, Rebecca, three days after she finished her first novel in 1969. Her child's birth awakened in her fears about the changes it might make in her life: "Well, I wondered, with great fear, where is the split in me now? What is the damage.... Was I, as a writer, done for?"
Walker makes clear in this essay that her fear and the fears of other women like her are not based on primal truth but on a social definition of woman. And that without those social and psychological limits, knowledge, rather than damage, could come from being a mother: "My child's birth was the incomparable gift of seeing the world at quite a different angle than before and judging it by standards far beyond my natural life." That different angle has strengthened Walker's commitment to an international women's movement that works for all women, all children, and against all injustice. And the two major injustices that affect her life and the lives of other black women are sexist and racist behavior--even from their most natural allies, black men and other women, whatever their race. Walker concludes that it is not her child who restricts her but the social system within which she lives: "It is not my child who tells me I have no femaleness white women must affirm; not my child who says I have no rights black men or women must respect."
"One Child of One's Own" was written while Alice Walker was living in New York City. For the latter half of the 1970s she taught at various colleges and universities in the North as a means of earning a living and of communicating to others the long tradition of black women writers. It was during these years when the women's movement in the Northeast was so visible that she encountered resistance among some white feminists to recognize black women as women and as a vital part of the history of American feminism. She also encountered the same resistance among black women to see themselves not only as black but also as women with all of the responsibility worldwide that such a conscious assertion would entail. In "One Child of One's Own" , one of her most important essays, Walker clarifies for black women the long tradition of Afro-American feminism that is often conveniently forgotten and confronts white women with the racism with which they are poisoning the women's movement. Her analysis leads her to a principle that she, as well as others, can use in this complicated society:
What was required of women of color, was to learn to distinguish between who was the real feminist and who was not, and to exert energy in feminist collaborations only when there is little risk of wasting it. The rigors of this discernment will inevitably keep throwing women of color back upon themselves, where there is, indeed, so much work, of a feminist nature, to be done.... To the extent that black women disassociate themselves from the women's movement, they abandon their responsibilities to women throughout the world. This is a serious abdication from and misuse of radical black herstorical tradition: Harriet Tubman, Sojourner, Ida B. Wells and Fannie Lou Hamer would not have liked it. Nor do I.
Along with a vocal movement of other women of color, Walker has raised questions about the relationship of woman to her world that would have been unasked only a few decades before. What these writers are demonstrating in their works is that the relationships between persons are politically critical, and might, in fact, be a major determinant of the relationship of the people to the state. Walker's third work of poetry, Good Night Willie Lee, I'll See You in the Morning (1979) is permeated by that concern. Like Revolutionary Petunias, it is about the vital connection between love and lasting change, though now the emphasis is on the changing of love relationships between women and men as the foundation for a radical and irreversible transformation in society.
In this succinct volume of poetry, Walker presents her inner process of demystifying love, especially for women, as a disease or a total giving up of self. Without going through this process, the poet at her deepest level will be trapped by these pervasive societal definitions. Walker constructs a more healthy definition of love, based on cherishing self, for it is only through self-love that the self who can love is preserved. Yet she maintains the need to give herself without giving up self, as part of the true interconnectedness of all.
The movement of Good Night Willie Lee, I'll See You in the Morning is instructive for an understanding of Walker's process in all her work. The title refers to the last farewell her mother gave her father at his funeral. Her parents' love, though it might have been a troubled one, was Walker's first experience of love between woman and man. Using that frame, Walker moves through a five-part journey from a night of loss to a morning of hope based on a deeper understanding of love. The poet begins with the pain of a love that has declined into disease ("Did This Happen to Your Mother? Did Your Sister Throw Up a Lot?"). She takes a stand on the inviolability of her self ("On Stripping Bark From Myself"), which allows her to ask questions about her commitment to a wider love, a radical change in society, in "Facing the Way". In becoming able to act because she loves, she analyzes those historical losses and scars in "Early Losses" that may impede love, and is able to forgive herself and others in the final section, "Forgiveness". It is through this process that she is able to love and insist on being loved without possessiveness or fear. Particularly striking about this volume is that black women, their history and their understanding of love are Walker's primary guides.
Published a year later, Walker's second collection of short stories complements Good Night Willie Lee (1981). You Can't Keep A Good Woman Down was seen by critics who favored the work as her most blatant womanist book to date and by critics who disliked it as too polemical. In this volume Walker delved into issues raised by feminists in the 1970s--abortion, sadomasochism, pornography, interracial rape--issues often considered too topical for fiction. And she analyzed these issues from the perspective that intimate relationships are not only personal, they are political.
For example, "Porn" is a story about the sexual connection between a black man who prides himself on his sexual technique and a black woman who is "liberated," makes her own money, lives separately from her lover, and values her women friends. Walker focuses on the man's use of pornographic fantasies and the woman's reaction to them. She explores the way his fantasies underline his inability to make love to this woman with whatever flaws might result, because of his need to prove his superiority through his sexuality. His fantasies, as perceived by the woman, degrade her, him, and other people they know, for his porn collection uses stereotypes of black and white men and women. Her awareness of the insidiousness of his collection destroys the sexual pleasure she had believed they were sharing. Like "Porn", many of the stories in this volume show the connection between racist and sexist stereotypes, particularly in the area of sexuality, and reveal how it affects the quality of black women's lives.
You Can't Keep A Good Woman Down attempts a womanist technique as well as subject matter. Many of the stories are not classic in form--that is, they are not presented as finished, objective products. Rather, the author's subjective positions are obvious and the stories are presented as in process. Feminist thinkers of the 1970s asserted a link between process (the unraveling of thought and feeling) and the way women perceive the world. Walker experiments with this technique as a more honest and vital rendering of the truth. Her technique is especially evident in "Advancing Luna--and Ida B. Wells", a story about a young Southern black woman's growing understanding of the complexity of interracial rape. Because of the historical connection between rape and lynching, sex and race, that continues even today, the author cannot end her story conclusively. There are two endings, "After Thoughts" and "Discarded Notes and Postscripts", as Walker discloses her own thought processes.
Although You Can't Keep A Good Woman Down is clearly different in subject matter and style from Walker's previous works, it shares with them her fundamental values. Like her first collection of short stories, this book proves the extent to which black women are free to pursue their own selfhood in a society permeated by sexism and racism. But while the protagonists of In Love and Trouble wage their struggle in spite of themselves, the heroines of You Can't Keep A Good Woman Down consciously challenge conventions. Published eight years apart, these two collections are rooted in the same perspective yet demonstrate a clear progression of theme. And though the stories of You Can't Keep A Good Woman Down are contemporary in subject matter, they proceed, like Meridian, from the deeply felt history of black women.
Walker's third novel, The Color Purple (1982), exemplifies her belief that history is a necessary element of depth, that nothing is a product of the immediate present. Walker finished the novel after she and her husband divorced in 1977, and she moved to San Francisco. But she started writing it in New York City, where she tells us her major character, a rural early twentieth-century Southern black woman, seemed to elude her. It was not until she got a place in the country outside San Francisco that her characters' spirit, their language came rushing out. Whatever else critics may have said about this latest of Walker's works, they all agree that the black folk speech in which most of it is written is superb and resonates with a history of feeling and experience that is specifically Afro-American.
As is true of Walker's other two novels, this work spans generations of one poor black family in the context of rural Southern history. Again, the image of quilting is central to its concept. Yet this novel is also a further development in Walker's womanist process. It is written as a series of letters, reminding us that letters, along with diaries, were the dominant mode of expression allowed women in the West. In using the epistolary style, Walker is able to combine the subjective and the objective. As Celie, the main character, records the details of her life, she does so in images and in language that express the impact of oppression on her spirit as well as her resistance to it. Walker's subject matter is also emphatically womanist, for the emphases in The Color Purple are on the oppression black women experience in their relationship with black men and the sisterhood they must share with each other in order to liberate themselves. As a vehicle for these themes, two sisters' letters--Celie's to God, Nettie's to Celie and finally Celie's to Nettie--provide the novel's form. Form and content, then, are inseparable.
Walker continues to explore "forbidden" sexual themes, as she did in You Can't Keep A Good Woman Down . In The Color Purple she focuses on incest in a black family and portrays a lesbian relationship as natural and freeing. And like many of the protagonists in her short stories, the heroines of her third novel triumph despite the tremendous odds against them. In an interview in California Living, Walker reveals that Celie was based on the story of her great-grandmother who at twelve was raped and abused. Yet though the story ends happily, Walker does not flinch from presenting the sexual abuse, the wife-beatings, and the violence that Celie undergoes in a society that demeans her as a woman. As in all of her works, violence is a result of the unnatural ideologies of sexism and racism. And though many readers and critics would prefer to ignore it, Walker has always insisted on exposing the violence inflicted upon black women's bodies and spirits.
In The Color Purple Walker adds another dimension to the sexism black women experience. Through Nettie, Celie's sister, who escapes her condition in the South to become a missionary, Walker describes the subordination of women to men in Africa. She therefore suggests that sexism for black women does not derive from racism, though it is qualitatively affected by it. "We're going to have to debunk the myth that Africa is a haven for black people--especially black women. We've been the mule of the world there and the mule of the world here." Nettie's letters also provide other dimensions of history. They graphically demonstrate Afro-Americans' knowledge of their ancestral link to Africa, which, contrary to American myth, predates the black power movement of the 1960s; and they emphasize concrete ways in which colonization disrupts African life and values.
The Color Purple is remarkable in language, radical themes, and technique. Perhaps even more than Walker's other works, it especially affirms that the most abused of the abused can transform herself. It completes the cycle Walker announced a decade ago: the survival and liberation of black women through the strength and wisdom of others.
Alice Walker now lives in San Francisco. In 1981 she was the keynote speaker at a dinner honoring Rosa Parks on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the civil rights movement. In 1982 she appeared with Tillie Olsen at a benefit held by the Women's Party for Survival against nuclear weapons. Her message was a devastating as her written works. Reading an ancient curse that Zora Neale Hurston discovered in the South and that Walker used in the story "The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff", a curse that sounds alarmingly like a nuclear holocaust, Walker warned the audience that "only justice can stop a curse."
Mostly, Alice Walker writes. She continues to observe and listen to black women wherever they are, as her San Francisco stories "A Letter" and "Source" indicate. And she has recently completed a collection of essays entitled In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose, published in 1983. Walker writes that "Guided by my heritage of a love of beauty and a respect for strength--in search of my mother's garden, I found my own."
From: Christian, Barbara T. "Alice (Malsenior) Walker." Afro-American Fiction Writers After 1955, edited by Thadious M. Davis and Trudier Harris-Lopez, Gale, 1984. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 33.