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Since 1968, when Once, her first work, was published, Alice Walker has written numerous poems, short stories, novels, and essays expressing with graceful and devastating clarity the relationship between the degree of freedom black women have within and without their communities. Her particular angle of vision is sharpened by her use of the history of black people in the United States, and therefore, of the South, where they were most brutally enslaved. Her works confront the pain and struggle of black people’s history, as exemplified in such classic novels as The Color Purple.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
An Outcast Turns to Literature
Walker was born February 9, 1944—the youngest of eight children, five boys and three girls—to Willie Lee and Minnie Tallulah Grant Walker, sharecroppers in Eatonton, Georgia. She remembers generally hating the southern sharecropper’s life with its backbreaking field work and declaring smugly at age two and a half, ”I’m the prettiest.” However, her sense of self drastically changed one day when she was eight years old. A game of cowboys and Indians with her brothers took a tragic turn as one of them shot her in the eye with his BB gun. The injury left her blind in her right eye, with a scar that she felt made her ugly and disfigured.
When Walker was fourteen, her favorite brother, Bill, paid to have the scar tissue removed. Still she perceived herself as an outcast. In her isolation, she turned to reading and began to write poems. Walker was blessed with a mother who, in spite ofthe fact that she had never read a book herself, appreciated her youngest daughter’s need to do so. Minnie Lou Walker knew the value to her children of the education that she never received and resisted indignantly any white landowner’s hints that sharecroppers’ children did not need to go to school.
Walker started school at age four, when her mother could no longer take her into the fields with her, and went on to become valedictorian at her high school. Walker recalls her mother’s buying her three gifts that gave her increasing degrees of freedom: a sewing machine to provide the independence of making her own clothes, a suitcase to allow her the freedom to travel, and a type-writer to enable her to pursue her art. When, because of her injured eye, the state of Georgia offered Walker a ”rehabilitation scholarship” to Spelman, a black women’s college in Atlanta, she was able to put all three gifts to use.
The Early Works
Walker spent two and a half years at Spelman, where she was an active participant in the civil rights movement, which sought to achieve equal rights for black Americans. She then transferred to Sarah Lawrence, a women’s college in Bronxville, New York, where she was one of only six black students. During this period, Walker began writing Once. The collection is comprised of her first published poems, which are about love, death, Africa, and the civil rights movement, and her first published story. Walker has often said that all of her poems were a result of her emergence out of a period of despair.
After Walker finished college, she spent a brief time in New York’s Lower East Side. 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. While in Mississippi, Walker collected folklore from ordinary black women and recorded the details of their everyday lives. Her first collection of short stories, In Love and Trouble (1973), powerfully demonstrates the push and pull between the shackles of tradition and the desire for transformation in these black women.
In her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), Walker shows how the racist fabric of the American South affects the black family. Because the Copeland men are thwarted by society in their drive for control of their lives—the American definition of manhood—they vent their frustrations by inflicting violence on their wives. Walker’s second novel, Meridian (1976), parallels some of her own experiences as a young woman active in the civil rights movement; the main character also experiences an unwanted pregnancy followed by an abortion, much like Walker herself during her years at college.
Walker Composes a Classic
In the late 1970s, Walker was back living in New York City, teaching 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. At this time, she began her third novel, but did not complete it until after she relocated to the San Francisco area in California. Such a move was necessary to the completion of The Color Purple (1982) because Walker was having trouble crafting the story of a rural early twentieth-century Southern black woman while in the bustling Big Apple. It was not until she got a place in the country outside San Francisco that her characters’ spirit and language came rushing out.
The Color Purple spans generations of one poor black family in the context of rural Southern history. The emphases in the novel are on the oppression black women experience in their relationships with black men and the sisterhood they must share with each other in order to liberate themselves. Walker also explores “forbidden” sexual themes, focusing on incest in a black family and portraying a lesbian relationship as natural and freeing. Walker revealed that the novel’s protagonist, Celie, was based on the story of her great-grandmother, who at twelve, was raped and abused. Nevertheless, 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. Walker allowed herself five years to write The Color Purple. It took her less than one. In 1983, the novel won both the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the American Book Award for fiction.
In the Wake of The Color Purple
Walker’s fourth novel, The Temple of My Familiar, came out in 1989. Walker has called the book a romance of the past five hundred thousand years. One character, Miss Lissie, has lived through all of those half-million years. Reincarnation provides Walker with a means of encapsulating in one character centuries of the history of black womanhood. She traces both African and South American religions back to goddesses who were dethroned because of man’s jealousy. The Temple of My Familiar stayed on The New York Times bestseller list for more than four months.
Walker’s 1997 collection of essays, Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer’s Activism, offers her clearest statements yet on her own personal spiritual evolution. Her spiritual journey takes on both public and political overtones when she explains how it has proved to be the source of her activism. In this collection, she makes explicit why traditional Christianity failed to meet the needs of blacks trapped within the Southern sharecrop-ping system that was the world of her childhood, and thus why it failed to offer those of her parents’ generation a means of expressing the mystical intimacy with the land that they enjoyed.
Included in Anything We Love Can Be Saved under the title, “Treasure,” is the acceptance speech Walker gave when she was the recipient of the California Governor’s Award for Literature in 1994. Ironically, a few weeks after learning that she was to be designated a “treasure” of the State of California, she learned that her short story “Roselily” and her essay ”Am I Blue?” had been removed from the California State Achievement Test for tenth graders. The controversy over the removal of these works from the test became the basis for the slender 1996 volume titled Alice Walker Banned. The two works in question are reprinted in the volume, as are letters to the editors of various newspapers and transcripts from the hearings about the ban, as well as an excerpt from The Color Purple and an outline of the debate over its appropriateness for young readers.
Walker stormed through the remainder of the twentieth century with the violent, sexually graphic novel By the Light of My Father’s Smile in 1998, in which she rails against male-dominated society. At the beginning of the twenty-first century with her far more accessible and critically lauded short story collection Way Forward Is with a Broken Heart (2000). The novel Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart followed in 2005. Widely viewed as a major voice for contemporary black women, Walker continues to blend art and activism while living in Mendocino, California.
Works in Literary Context
Local color (also known as regionalism) refers to poetry or literature that focuses on a specific region. The work may be written in a local dialect or overly concerned with regional customs, landmarks, or topography. As filtered through the author’s worldview, the resulting work is often imbued with a strong sense of sentimentality or nostalgia. William Faulkner is often cited as an important regionalist writer in American literature, with his fictional Yoknapatawpha County—the setting for many of his works—heavily based on the region of Mississippi where he lived. While Walker’s work tends to veer away from sentimentality, she often uses local color to conjure a strong sense of the southern regions in which many of her works take place.
Walker coined the term “womanism” in her book In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983). She used the term to describe a branch of feminism pertaining specifically to black women. The tenets of womanism preach respect for and belief in the ability of women to make worthwhile contributions to society. The womanism movement of the 1980s fully integrated African Americans into the feminism movement, of which they were often excluded.
Works in Critical Context
The Color Purple
Although Walker’s earlier works received favorable critical response, The Color Purple was widely regarded as the author’s breakthrough novel. The New York Times began its review of the novel by declaring it to be Walker’s ”most impressive” before stating that this is ”[n]o mean accomplishment, since her previous books . . . have elicited almost unanimous praise for Miss Walker as a lavishly gifted writer.” The Times suggests that the book’s structure (it is composed of letters) is largely responsible for its effectiveness because ”without the intrusion of the author, [it] forces intimate identification with the heroine.” However, the Times did not ignore the criticism most often voiced about the novel when it mentioned the book’s ”somewhat pallid portraits of the males.”
Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart
Walker’s Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart split critics far more drastically than did The Color Purple. While Nicole Moses of January Magazine calls the book ”entertaining and enlightening” before declaring it ”Walker’s latest masterpiece,” The New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani pans this story of a popular writer on a spiritual quest. ”If this novel did not boast the name of Alice Walker, who won acclaim some two decades ago with ‘The Color Purple,’ it’s hard to imagine how it could have been published,” Kakutani seethes, concluding the novel to be ”a remarkably awful compendium of inanities.”
- O’Brien, John. Interviews with Black Writers. New York: Liveright, 1973: 185-211.
- Pratt, Louis, and Darnell D. Pratt. Alice Malsenior Walker: An Annotated Bibliography 1968-1986. Westport, Conn.: Meckler, 1988.
- Tate, Claudia. Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum, 1983: 175-187.
- Britt, Donna. ”Alice Walker and the Inner Mysteries Unraveled.” The Washington Post (May 8, 1989): B1, B4.
- Jaynes, Gregory. ”Living by the World.” Life 12 (May 1989): 61-64.
- Kakutani, Michiko. ”If the River is Dry, Can You Be All Wet?” The New York Times (April 20, 2004).
- Moses, Nicole. ”Heart Matters.” January Magazine (August 2004).
- Washington, Mary Helen. ”Alice Walker: Her Mother’s Gifts.” Ms. 10 (June 1982): 38.
- Watkins, Mel. ”Some letters Went to God.” The New York Times (July 25, 1982).
- Wilson, Sharon. ”A Conversation with Alice Walker.” Kalliope 6, no. 2 (1984): 37-45.
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