Walker, Alice (1944—)

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Walker, Alice (1944—)

Alice Walker won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award for her 1982 novel The Color Purple. By that time she was already a well-established and published writer, but it was the Pulitzer that catapulted her into international recognition. Her books have since been translated into more than two dozen languages, and it was Steven Spielberg's 1985 film adaptation of the novel that brought her to the widespread attention of mainstream audiences. Both the book and the film were controversial, and Walker's fame was accompanied by severe criticism. In The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult (1996), a book containing essays, journal entries, letters, and her original, never-used screenplay for the film, Walker addresses the criticism that the film was not true to her book: "Though The ColorPurple is not what many wished, it is more than many hoped, or had seen on a movie screen before." She acknowledges that most hurtful were the accusations that she hated black men and had portrayed them in stereotypical and demeaning ways. Although Walker openly advocates black sisterhood, she also openly and adamantly advocates the spiritual survival of all black people, men and women. It is this preoccupation, to use her own term, that properly describes her life and her life's work of writing and activism.

Writing became important to Walker at an early age as a survival mechanism. Born Alice Malsenior Walker on February 9, 1944, in Eatonton, Georgia, she was the eighth child of Willie Lee and Minnie Lou Grant, southern sharecroppers. Walker has described the houses in which her family lived while she was growing up as "shabby" and "crowded," and she therefore spent a great deal of time out of doors; her writing is partly rooted in her need for space. When she was just eight years old, one of her brothers accidentally shot her in the eye with a BB gun, which blinded her in that eye and left her physically and emotionally scarred. She writes poignantly in "Beauty: When the Other Dancer Is the Self," of how years later, her young daughter Rebecca helped her to see herself as "beautiful, whole and free." She also describes how fear of losing sight in the other eye enabled her to imagine life with all its injustices and all its beauty. As she put it, she "dashed about the world madly … storing up images against the fading light."

The dual themes of beauty and injustice permeate Walker's work and can explain the interrelationship of her writing and activism, as well as her popularity. Although critics have focused on the homosexuality and violence in The Color Purple, Walker juxtaposes images of rape, incest, and other examples of physical and emotional abuse with love, loyalty, pleasurable and empowering sex, parental joy, and the communal bonding of men and women. It was the characters' stories of joy and sorrow, rather than the negative depictions of black men, that helped keep The Color Purple on the New York Times Bestseller List for over a year. Similarly, in Possessing the Secret of Joy, another of her bestselling novels, Walker attacks the practice of female genital mutilation as she simultaneously depicts the beauty of love and sex between the young African woman Tashi and her American husband, Adam, who both appeared in The Color Purple.

Although it largely explores the oppressions and triumphs of black women, her collection of essays In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens (1983) holds interest for anyone who, like Walker, thinks black women are "fascinating creatures." Both black and white women have praised its significant contribution to their own feminist enterprises. With these essays, Walker articulates the silences of generations of women whose stories were told through their everyday work such as quilting, gardening, and cooking. At the outset, she defines the term "womanish" and suggests that it may be useful in helping black women talk about their feminism in culturally specific ways. Still, throughout the various essays she provides a space for white feminists to discover the commonalities of women's oppression by emphasizing her belief that we are all part of one larger life story. Her 1976 novel Meridian is another example of her determination to revise the zero image of black women. In it she explores the important roles they played in the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, the success of which has historically been attributed to men. It is also partly because of Walker's dedication to the spiritual survival of her people generally and black women specifically that the life and work of Zora Neale Hurston have been recovered. Hurston was a black woman writer and anthropologist who participated significantly in the Harlem Renaissance. In making a personal sojourn to Florida to find and mark Hurston's grave site, Walker has also helped restore dignity to a woman whose contributions to African American literature and culture are manifold but who died in poverty and obscurity.

Walker continues to be a prolific writer. She has authored six novels, as well as numerous collections of poetry, essays, short stories, and several children's books. She also continues to write about controversial issues, regardless of criticism, and remains popular because the issues are most often those that affect everyday people—ranging from the Million Man March and O. J. Simpson to repressed female sexuality and the need for struggle. She has said that she writes about controversial issues out of love, not hate, a reflection of her belief, as she expresses it in the Preface to The Same River Twice, that "Art is the mirror, perhaps the only one, in which we can see our true collective face. We must honor its sacred function. We must let art help us."

—Jacquelyn Y. McLendon

Further Reading:

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, editors. Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York, Amistad, 1993.

Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1983.

——. The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult. New York, Scribner, 1996.

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Walker, Alice (1944—)

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