Born: (1944- )
Recognized as one of the leading voices among black American women writers, Alice Walker has produced an acclaimed and varied body of work, including poetry, novels, short stories, essays, and criticism. Her writings portray the struggle of black people throughout history, and are praised for their insightful and riveting portraits of black life, in particular the experiences of black women in a sexist and racist society. Her most famous work, the award-winning and best-selling novel The Color Purple, chronicles the life of a poor and abused southern black woman who eventually triumphs over oppression through affirming female relationships. Walker has described herself as a "womanist" — her term for a black feminist — which she defines in the introduction to her book of essays, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose, as one who "appreciates and prefers women's culture, women's emotional flexibility ... women's strength" and is "committed to [the] survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female."
A theme throughout Walker's work is the preservation of black culture, and her female characters forge important links to maintain continuity in both personal relationships and communities. According to Barbara T. Christian in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Walker is concerned with "heritage," which to Walker "is not so much the grand sweep of history or artifacts created as it is the relations of people to each other, young to old, parent to child, man to woman." Walker admires the struggle of black women throughout history to maintain an essential spirituality and creativity in their lives, and their achievements serve as an inspiration to others. In Our Mother's Gardens, Walker wrote: "We must fearlessly pull out of ourselves and look at and identify with our lives the living creativity some of our great-grandmothers were not allowed to know. I stress 'some' of them because it is well known that the majority of our great-grandmothers knew, even without 'knowing' it, the reality of their spirituality, even if they didn't recognize it beyond what happened in the singing at church — and they never had any intention of giving it up."
Walker's women characters display strength, endurance, and resourcefulness in confronting — and overcoming — oppression in their lives, yet Walker is frank in depicting the often devastating circumstances of the "twin afflictions" of racism and sexism. "Black women are called, in the folklore that so aptly identifies one's status in society, the 'mule of the world,' because we have been handed the burdens that everyone else — everyone else — refused to carry," Walker stated in Our Mothers' Gardens. Mary Helen Washington in Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature noted that "the true empathy Alice Walker has for the oppressed woman comes through in all her writings.... Raising an ax, crying out in childbirth or abortion, surrendering to a man who is oblivious to her real name — these are the kinds of images which most often appear in Ms. Walker's own writing." Washington adds that the strength of such images is that Walker gives insight into "the intimate reaches of the inner lives of her characters; the landscape of her stories is the spiritual realm where the soul yearns for what it does not have."
Walker's beginnings as a writer are in the small rural town of Eatonton, Georgia, where she was the youngest of eight children of impoverished sharecroppers. Both of her parents were storytellers, and Walker was especially influenced by her mother, whom she described in Our Mothers' Gardens as "a walking history of our community." A childhood accident at the age of eight left Walker blind and scarred in one eye, which, partially corrected when she was fourteen, left a profound influence on her. "I believe ... that it was from this period — from my solitary, lonely position, the position of an outcast — that I began really to see people and things, really to notice relationships and to learn to be patient enough to care about how they turned out.... I retreated into solitude, and read stories and began to write poems." Walker has commented that as a southern black growing up in a poor rural community, she possessed the benefit of "double vision." She explained in Our Mothers' Gardens: "Not only is the [black southern writer] in a position to see his own world, and its close community ... but he is capable of knowing, with remarkably silent accuracy, the people who make up the larger world that surrounds and suppresses his own."
Walker was an excellent student and received a scholarship to Spelman College in Atlanta, and later to Sarah Lawrence College in the Bronx, New York. While in college, she became politically aware in the Civil Rights Movement and participated in many demonstrations. Her first book of poems, Once, was written while she was a senior at Sarah Lawrence and was accepted for publication the same year. Walker wrote many of the poems in the span of a week in the winter of 1965, when she wrestled with suicide after deciding to have an abortion. The poems recount the despair and isolation of her situation, in addition to her experiences in the Civil Rights Movement and of a trip she had made to Africa. Though not widely reviewed, Once marked Walker's debut as a distinctive and talented writer. Carolyn M. Rodgers in Negro Digest noted Walker's "precise wordings, the subtle, unexpected twists ... [and] shifting of emotions." Christian remarks that already in Once, Walker displayed what would become a feature of both her future poetry and fiction, an "unwavering honesty in evoking the forbidden, either in political stances or in love."
Walker returned to the South after college and worked in voter registration in Georgia and as an instructor in black history in Mississippi. She was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.'s message, as she recounted in Our Mothers' Gardens, that being a southern black meant "I ... had claim to the land of my birth." Walker continued to write poetry and fiction, and began to further explore the South she came from. She described in Our Mothers' Gardens of being particularly influenced by the Russian writers, who spoke to her of a "soul ... directly rooted in the soil that nourished it." She was also influenced by black writer Zora Neale Hurston, who wrote lively folk accounts of the thriving small, southern black community she grew up in. Walker stated in Our Mothers' Gardens how she particularly admired the "racial health" of Hurston's work: "A sense of black people as complete, complex, undiminished human beings, a sense that is lacking in so much black writing and literature."
With the help of a 1967 McDowell fellowship, Walker completed her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, published in 1970. The novel depicts cycles of male violence in three generations of an impoverished southern black family (the Copelands) and displays Walker's interest in social conditions that affect family relationships, in addition to her recurring theme of the suffering of black women at the hands of men. The novel revolves around a father (Grange) who abandons his abused wife and young son (Brownfield) for a more prosperous life in the North, and returns years later to find his son similarly abusing his own family. Christian writes that the men in the novel are "thwarted by the society in their drive for control of their lives — the American definition of manhood — [and] vent their frustrations by inflicting violence on their wives." Critics praised the realism of the novel, CLA Journal contributor Peter Erickson, who noted that Walker demonstrated "with a vivid matter-of-factness the family's entrapment in a vicious cycle of poverty." However, Walker was also faulted for her portrayal of black men as violent, an aspect which is frequently criticized in her work. Walker responded to such criticism in an interview with Claudia Tate in "Black Women Writers at Work: "I know many Brownfields, and it's a shame that I know so many. I will not ignore people like Brownfield. I want you to know I know they exist. I want to tell you about them, and there is no way you are going to avoid them."
Walker's short story collections, In Love and Trouble (1973) and You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down (1981) expand upon the problems of sexism and racism facing black women. In Love and Trouble features thirteen black female protagonists — many of them from the South — who, as Christian notes, "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." In Our Mothers' Gardens, Walker stated that her intent in the stories was to present a variety of women — "mad, raging, loving, resentful, hateful, strong, ugly, weak, pitiful, and magnificent" — as they "try to live with the loyalty to black men that characterizes all of their lives." Barbara Smith in Ms. praised the collection, stating it "would be an extraordinary literary work if its only virtue were the fact that the author sets out consciously to explore with honesty the textures and terror of black women's lives." Smith added: "The fact that Walker's perceptions, style, and artistry are also consistently high makes her work a treasure."
The stories in You Can't Keep a Good Women Down represented an evolution in subject matter, as Walker delved more directly into mainstream feminist issues such as abortion, pornography, and rape. Although a number of critics remarked that the polemic nature of the stories detracted from their narrative effect, Walker again demonstrated, according to Christian, "the extent to which black women are free to pursue their own selfhood in a society permeated by sexism and racism."
Walker explored similar terrain in her acclaimed 1976 novel, Meridian, in which she recounts the personal evolution of a young black woman against the backdrop of the politics of the Civil Rights Movement. Structurally complex, the novel raises questions of motherhood for the politically-aware female, and the implications for the individual of being committed to revolution. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Marge Piercy praised Meridian as "a fine, taut novel that accomplishes a remarkable amount" and noted that Walker "writes with a sharp critical sense as she deals with the issues of tactics and strategy in the civil rights movement, with the nature of commitment, the possibility of interracial love and communication, the vital and lethal strands in American and black experience, with violence and nonviolence." The novel received much critical recognition and was praised for its deft handling of complex subject matter. Years after its publication, Robert Towers commented in the New York Review of Books that Meridian "remains the most impressive fictional treatment of the 'Movement' that I have yet read."
In her 1982 novel, The Color Purple, Walker brought together many of the characters and themes of her previous works in a book which Peter S. Prescott in Newsweek proclaimed "an American novel of permanent importance." The Color Purple is a series of letters written by a southern black woman (Celie), reflecting a history of oppression and abuse suffered at the hands of the men. The book was resoundingly praised for its masterful recreation of black folk speech, in which, as Towers noted, Walker converts Celie's "subliterate dialect into a medium of remarkable expressiveness, color, and poignancy." Towers added: "I find it impossible to imagine Celie apart from her language; through it, not only a memorable and infinitely touching character but a whole submerged world is vividly called into being."
The novel charts Celie's resistance to the oppression surrounding her, and the liberation of her existence through positive and supportive relations with other women. Christian notes that "perhaps even more than Walker's other works, [The Color Purple] 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." The novel won both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award, and was made into a popular motion picture which received several Academy Award nominations.
Her 1989 novel, The Temple of My Familiar, described by Walker as "a romance of the last 500,000 years," represents a departure of sorts for the author, and critical opinion was mixed upon its publication. J. M. Coetzee in the New York Times Book Review described it as "a mixture of mythic fantasy, revisionary history, exemplary biography and sermon" which is "short on narrative tension, long on inspirational message." In the novel, Walker features six characters, three men and three women, who relate their views on life through recounting memories of ancestors and spirits from past cultures. While a number of reviewers faulted the ideological weight of the novel, others commented that the book remained faithful to the concerns of Walker's works. Luci Tapahonso noted in the Los Angeles Times Book Review that the novel focuses on familiar Walker themes, such as "compassion for the oppressed, the grief of the oppressors, acceptance of the unchangeable and hope for everyone and every thing."
While Walker's works speak strongly of the experiences of black women, critics have commented that the messages of her books transcend both race and gender. According to Gloria Steinem in Ms., Walker "comes at universality through the path of an American black woman's experience.... She speaks the female experience more powerfully for being able to pursue it across boundaries of race and class." Jeanne Fox-Alston in the Chicago Tribune Book World called Walker "a provocative writer who writes about blacks in particular, but all humanity in general." In her 1988 prose collection, Living by the Word: Selected Writings, 1973-1977, Walker discusses, through essays and journal entries, topics such as nuclear weapons and racism in other countries. Noel Perrin in the New York Times Book Review wrote that although Walker's "original interests centered on black women, and especially on the ways they were abused or underrated ... now those interests encompass all creation." Derrick Bell commented in the Los Angeles Times Book Review that Walker "uses carefully crafted images that provide a universality to unique events." Living by the Word presents "vintage Alice Walker: passionate, political, personal, and poetic."
The early 1990s were a difficult time for Walker, for she ended her 13-year relationship with Robert Allen and contracted Lyme disease. But none of these things stopped her from writing. Shortly before addressing the controversy of The Color Purple in The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult, Walker produced another book which brought about much controversy in the critical world, Possessing the Secret of Joy, in 1992. The book focused on Tashi, a young woman living in the fictional African country of Olinka, who is forced by her tribe to take part in the rituals of female circumcision, a process which ruins the rest of Tashi's life. The novel describes graphically the process of female genital mutilation and the repercussions of such actions, including not only physical and psychological problems, but also an inability to keep intact gender. Before the book is finished, Tashi loses all pleasure from sexual encounters, gives birth to a mentally-challenged son, and due to the traumatic nature of the chain of events, is driven to murder the woman who initially circumcised her.
A year later, Walker continued to bring female genital mutilation to the forefront of social consciousness by producing a book and a documentary called Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blindings of Women. Much like Possessing the Secret of Joy, Warrior Marks, looks at the repercussions of the mutilation traditions in many societies, but instead of fictionalizing the issue as she did in Possessing the Secret of Joy Walker instead decided to work from a documentary standpoint. The film and the book attempted to search out the meanings behind the traditional ceremonies of female genital mutilation and in turn looked for reasons why the tradition was still carried on in modern times.
What impressed many people about both the movie and the book is that it took a complete look at the issue, from both a cultural standpoint as well as a psychological standpoint. Many people were also surprised to learn that Walker was the driving force behind the movie version of Warrior Marks, for she used all of the money that was advanced to her by her publisher Harcourt for the nonfiction book on the subject to produce the documentary herself. Walker made it clear in both the movie and the book that her intent with these projects was to make the world-wide public aware that such practices were still going on and according to Publishers Weekly she was "determined to do what she could to rid the world of that barbaric, and often deadly, centuries-year-old tradition."
By the late 1990s Walker had turned to her own experiences in the world for subject matter for her essays and novels. In 1998 she put out a collection of essays entitled Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer's Activism which aimed at showing how through writing activism occurred and vice-versa. This idea had begun with Walker during her time making Warrior Marks and carried over into her becoming more socially and politically active on subjects such as the treatment of women in Ghana, the defense of Winnie Mandela, and the role of parents in the lives of children.
In 1999 Walker released By the Light of My Father's Smile, a novel that examines how a person's sexuality can influence the way in which people respond to them. This was an issue that Walker dealt with directly in her own life when she made it publicly known that she was homosexual in the mid-1990s. By the Light of My Father's Smile is also concerned with the idea of cultural diversity and spirituality, with the ghost of the father of the main character, Magdalena, unable to rest in the afterworld until he is able to accept the love between his daughter and a person of a mixed heritage.
In an attempt to chronicle many of the events of her life, Walker turned to the essay filled The Way Forward Is with a Broken Heart. In this book Walker examined her early marriage to a white man as well as, according to Black Issues Book Review, exploring the "complexity of love and race and family ... the contradictory nexus of sexual response and sexual responsibility and worries about past loves, unfamiliar therapists and weeping children." In a response to this book, Walker's daughter Rebecca wrote Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self, which revealed a very different side to Walker's personal life, about how she often treated her daughter poorly and how she was often selfish in her pursuit of her writing. Walker has taken a good deal of criticism since the release of Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self, but in response she told Black Issues Book Review, "In general, I don't seem to care very much about what people think ... I'm pretty clear about what I'm supposed to be doing here, and I do that."
In 2003 Walker returned to poetry, a medium she had not used since the mid-1980s, with her book Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth. Written in response to events such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the poems in the book focus on healing the spirit through experience and age in a world that is attempting to kill freedom. She told Black Issues Book Review, "I think that with time, we begin to understand a little better that some things we thought were horrible, unbearable ... can be bearable as we grow older. For instance, in my early poetry ... I wrote poems about suicide. And now I don't think about that very much. It's interesting because I think that to wage continuous war in the world is a kind of suicide. In a sense, the suicide that I see now is a global one. It's humanity that seems to be interested in ending itself. But I don't feel interested in ending myself. I think that's progress."
Walker continues to make the public aware of views, not only in media, but in her actions as well. In March of 2003 she joined with Maxine Hong Kingston and a group known as CodePink to protest the United States military action in Iraq and was arrested for demonstrating in a closed area in front of the White House and crossing police lines. Many critics have wondered whether the writer will ever slow down, but she told Black Issues Book Review, "I think all I can say is that now I'm an older person. I'm someone who has had much more experience than in the beginning. Bit in some ways, I'm concerned about the same issues, the same emotions. I'm concerned with the safety of our people, the planet, people who are in deep trouble around the world."
In 2004, Walker published another novel, Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart. The novel is a memorial to her paternal grandmother, who was murdered when Walker's father was a boy. Her novel's protagonist is named Kate Nelson, after her grandmother. The 57-year-old Nelson, who changes her name to Talkingtree, embarks on a physical and spiritual adventure, rafting down the Colorado River and then through the Amazonian rainforest. In Black Issues Book Review, Susan McHenry praised Walker's "embrace of the vagaries of human nature, her gentle, self-deprecating humor and profound philosophical insights."
In 2005, Walker's novel The Color Purple was adapted as a musical with a libretto by Marsha Norman and music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, premiering in New York, NY, at the Broadway Theater, 2005.
— Michael E. Muellero