Each month, the editors of the Oxford African American Studies Center provide insights into black history and culture by offering specially commissioned featured essays, photo collections, and a selected list of articles to further guide the reader. The September 2006 report explores the contributions of women to American literature. Twice a week we’ll offer additional articles that expand on that topic.
In this article from The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature, Stefanie K. Dunning looks at the life and works of Alice Walker.
Alice Walker, perhaps best known for her Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Color Purple (1982), has always been committed to social and political change. This was nowhere clearer than in The Color Purple, which brought to light questions of sexual abuse and violence in the black community, while demonstrating the liberatory possibilities inherent in every life. The Color Purple tells the story of Celie, who is the victim of systematic gender oppression, at the hands of first her stepfather and then her husband. Despite the severe abuse Celie endures, she is a triumphant character who ultimately achieves a free and comfortable life. The principal male character—Celie’s husband, Albert—is also redeemed and so transcends his abusive past. Many critics have argued that The Color Purple is Walker’s best work, noting its inspired epistolary style (i.e., written in the form of letters) and the dynamic voice of its protagonist.
Although The Color Purple was an enormous success, it sparked considerable controversy. Some black men, who felt that her portrayals of them reinforced animalistic and cruel stereotypes about black masculinity, condemned Walker for her complexly drawn male characters. These unfair criticisms coincided with the premiere of the film The Color Purple, which did not depict domestic abuse in the complicated ways the book did. This iniquitous criticism obscured the significance of the novel, which exposed aspects of black female struggle unfamiliar to a mainstream American readership. Yet long before The Color Purple drew the attention of popular audiences, Alice Walker’s work had already established her as an accomplished artist and activist. Her work explores race, gender, sexuality, and class, building on Walker’s observations and experiences as a child and young adult in the rural South.
Childhood and Youth
Alice Walker was born on 9 February 1944 in Eatonton, Georgia. She was the youngest of eight children. Walker’s parents were sharecroppers, which meant that they farmed land belonging to someone else in exchange for living there. The system of sharecropping was one of cruel inequity; black workers were often exploited for their labor and rarely were paid what the crop they produced was worth. Because of this, Walker has often said that the system of sharecropping was worse than slavery because unlike slavery, sharecropping masqueraded as paid labor when in reality it was not. Walker was a hard worker and applied these lessons to her studies. Walker was an excellent student and valedictorian of her high school class; for her academic achievements she won a scholarship to Spelman College and ultimately completed her education at Sarah Lawrence College.
After graduating from college, Walker participated in various progressive movements. Never content simply to wait for an injustice to disappear or be rectified by someone else, Walker was active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and worked in the voter registration drives. She had the opportunity to meet Martin Luther King Jr., and she attended the March on Washington. Embodying the feminist adage that “the personal is political,” Walker was married to a Jewish civil rights lawyer, Mel Leventhal, and they became the only legally married interracial couple in Mississippi at the time. She was also among the first people in the United States to teach a women’s studies course, which she instituted at Wellesley College. That these events had quite an impact on the young Walker is evident in her writing.
Art as Activism
Just as her experience growing up in the rural South in a sharecropping community would influence and shape her later work, so too did her experiences with activism during the civil rights movement. In Walker’s work, the relationship between her activism and her art is clear, as she repeatedly examines and exposes oppression. Walker does not simply draw back the curtain on injustice; she also imagines the transcendence of that injustice in her work. For this reason, it has often been said that all of Walker’s novels have “happy endings.” What this suggests about Walker is not that she is unrealistic but rather that she is interested in ways people who have been marginalized can overcome oppression.
Her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), clearly draws on her experiences as a child in a sharecropping community and offers not only a critique of gender and race relations under that system but also a vision of what is possible through change. The Third Life of Grange Copeland depicts the family of Grange, his wife, Mem, and their son, Brownfield. Sharecropping renders Grange abusive and neglectful of his family; he leaves them and goes north. When his mother commits suicide, Brownfield decides to go in search of his father but never makes it farther than a few miles from home. Slipping into the same cycle of sharecropping and abuse that characterized his parents’ relationship, Brownfield becomes far more abusive than his father and ultimately ends up in jail for murdering his wife. Grange returns, largely reformed during his time in the North, to lovingly raise his granddaughter, Ruth, who, as the heroine, anticipates the strong female protagonists that characterize Walker’s work.
Like all of her heroines, Alice Walker is herself an agent of change. Walker once said that the best role model is someone who is always changing. Instead of desiring a long shelf life, Walker asserts that she wants to remain fresh. This commitment to fluidity and evolution characterizes both her life and her work. This is especially clear in her novel Meridian (1976). Walker’s experiences at Spelman College may have provided her with the setting for Meridian, the story of a young woman of the same name who attends a college, much like Spelman, for young black women and becomes a daring activist, willing to die in order to protect black people from injustice. It is a book that also draws on many themes in Walker’s own life, specifically her Native American heritage. In the novel, Meridian’s father educates her about the Native Americans who occupied the land before they did and shows her their ancient burial grounds, which are eventually destroyed in the course of the novel. Meridian also articulates Walker’s notion of “womanist” politics, in that it features a female protagonist evolving through the pain of gender and racial inequity.
Womanism and beyond
The term “womanist,” coined by Walker in 1983, asserts that not only gender oppression but also race oppression must be confronted, which affects and shapes gender in inexorable ways. Furthermore, the term “womanist” conjured a conception of blackness and womanness that feminist theory had been unable to represent; it not only provided the meaning of these intersecting identities but also connoted something of the spirit of them. Womanism enabled black women to articulate their commitment to gender liberation while not requiring them to forsake their struggle for race liberation as well. In womanism, Walker synthesized various liberation ideologies that have often been at odds. Womanism has repeatedly been invoked to describe the complicated interplay between race and gender faced by African-American women and represents another of Walker’s major contributions to the study of literature and feminism.
In keeping with her womanist politics, Walker continued to engage difficult issues in her later works. Her novel Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992) focuses on a character who was featured minutely in The Color Purple, Tashi. Tashi, an African woman married to Celie’s son in The Color Purple, subjects herself to the practice of female circumcision. In Possessing the Secret of Joy Walker explores her physical and emotional pain around this “traditional” African practice. This novel drew less mainstream controversy but engendered some academic controversy. Many scholars, especially scholars working in the area of Africa, saw Walker’s novel as an Americanized condemnation of African culture, arguing that she was an outsider interfering in a culture she knew nothing about. Walker, however, felt that she was able to understand what it means to be physically maimed because when she was eight years old her brother blinded her in one eye with a BB gun. In Walker’s view, a lifetime of partial blindness provided a fitting metaphor to help her understand the burden of going through life with a part of your body violently excised by a society that does not take seriously the pain inflicted on the bodies of girls. Walker referred to her blinded eye and the wounds born by the women who endured circumcision as “warrior marks” in a film of the same name she made about female genital mutilation with Pratibha Parmar. Despite the criticism engendered by Walker’s discussions of female genital mutilation, what remains indisputable is that Walker’s concern for young women was the impetus for the creation of the film and her book Possessing the Secret of Joy.
Like Possessing the Secret of Joy, much of Walker’s work is characterized by a thematic interest in cultures and people outside the American context. These themes are fully developed in her novel The Temple of My Familiar (1989). This novel features characters from a range of cultural backgrounds, including South American, African American, and Native American. Walker’s interest in Latin-American culture, which was first articulated in The Temple of My Familiar, can also be seen in her novel, By the Light of My Father’s Smile (1998). In another work, Walker focused on questions of interpersonal and communal healing. Titled The Way Forward Is with a Broken Heart (2000), this work is a semifictionalized account of her relationship with her former husband and chronicles other important relationships in her life. She also wrote Sent by Earth: A Message from the Grandmother Spirit after the Bombing of the World Trade Center and Pentagon (2001), which proposed peace, love, and healing as antidotes to tragedy and tyranny.
Walker’s work demonstrates a remarkable grasp of the political realities of systematic oppression. Walker is such a prolific writer that it would be impossible to discuss all of her work; she has written in almost every form and genre. Her first published work, in fact, was a book of poems called Once (1968). Her poetry embodies some of her most profound insights. Walker’s legacy of activism is to be found not only in her work but also in her contribution to the lives of emerging writers and in her homage to the black writers who preceded her. Because of Walker’s interest in Zora Neale Hurston, Hurston’s book Their Eyes Were Watching God is now considered an essential African-American text. Walker has also written about Langston Hughes, another figure important in her life, and established a scholarship for emerging writers in the name of Hughes and Hurston at Spelman College. In this way, Walker has unambiguously contributed to the art of writing, both on and off the page. Like her work, which always offers the unexpected but necessary commentary, Alice Walker is an artist who has succeeded at remaining fresh.
(photograph courtesy of the Austin/Thompson Collection, by permission of University of Pennsylvania, Schoenberg Center)