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Critical Essay by David Bradley
SOURCE: "Novelist Alice Walker Telling the Black Woman's Story," in The New York Times Magazine, January 8, 1984, pp. 25-37.
In the following essay, Bradley traces the development of Walker's career and discusses the strengths and weaknesses of her writing.
I first met Alice Walker the way people used to: Someone I liked and respected pressed a dogeared copy of one of her books into my hands and said, "You've got to read this." The book was In Love & Trouble, a collection of stories written between 1967 and 1973. Some of them had been published previously in periodicals directed at a primarily black readership, in the feminist standard, Ms., and in mainstream magazines like Harper's, a spectrum that hinted at the range of Alice Walker's appeal, just as the book's eventual winning of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters' Rosenthal Award was a harbinger of honors to come, including the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
My reaction to the book was complicated. Some of the stories I judged professionally. "The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff," the story of an old black woman who comes to a conjurer seeking revenge against a white woman who had humiliated her long ago, does not really work; the use of an educated apprentice to tell the tale seems intrusive and false. On the same professional basis, I liked "Roselily," a stark tableau of a wedding between a Northern Muslim and a black Southern woman.
But my reaction to other stories forced me out of the shelter of professional detachment. I was moved deeply by "The Welcome Table," in which an old, dying black woman is expelled bodily from a white church, but meets up with Jesus on the highway. I was horrified yet mesmerized by "The Child Who Favored Daughter," in which a bitter, sullen, Bible-thumping sharecropper, full of confusion and guilt over the wanton life and eventual suicide of his sister, imprisons, tortures and eventually kills (by hacking off her breasts) his own daughter, who has shown an interest in boys. My response, in the end, was overwhelming admiration. For I was, at the time, trying to figure out how a writer should balance the demands of technique with the demands of emotion, of honest plotting and storytelling with larger political concerns. Alice Walker seemed to have found some kind of answer. Her technique was flawless—her plots inexorable, her images perfect, her control, even of the roiling Freudian undercurrents in "The Child Who Favored Daughter," unwavering. Yet there was in every story, even the ones that did not seem to work, a sense of someone writing not simply to be writing, but because she wanted to make people see things.
I did not resolve to imitate her—I had enough sense to know that her way was not precisely mine—but I did decide to emulate her. I also decided to read everything she ever wrote (which now includes 10 books, the latest being In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose).
I first met Alice Walker in person in the summer of 1975, when she accepted my invitation to lunch. Alice Walker, who is now 39, was then 31; I was only 24. By that time, I had gone a long way toward reading everything she had ever published. I had only skimmed her first book of poems, Once, which was published in 1968 when she was 24, but completed by the time she was 21. But I had studied her second volume of poems, Revolutionary Petunias & Other Poems, which came out in 1973.
I was no lover of contemporary poetry, particularly the "radical" poetry of the 1960's and early 1970's. Some of it had moral force and authenticity, and some of the poets had a sense of craft. But the sentiments of nonjudgmental liberalism that characterized the movements of the period had made it possible for every idiot with a Bic pen and a Big Chief pencil tablet to claim to be a poet, so long as he or she was a member of some oppressed group, imitated Orwell's use of pigs as the symbol of the oppressor and occasionally stapled together a rudimentary chapbook of poems that seemed unified only because they were repetitious.
But Alice Walker's Revolutionary Petunias was about as far from that airheaded tradition as Leonardo da Vinci is from Andy Warhol. Her sense of line was precise, her images clear, simple, bitingly ironic, the book unified by the symbol of flowers. "These poems," Alice Walker writes, "are about … (and for) those few embattled souls who remain painfully committed to beauty and to love even while facing the firing squad."
Those "embattled souls" included members of her own large (eight children) family: a sister who escaped, through education, the narrow and impoverished world of Alice Walker's native Eatonton, Ga. ("Who saw me grow through letters / The words misspelled But not / The longing"); her uncles visiting from the North ("They were uncles…. / Who noticed how / Much / They drank / And acted womanish / With they do-rags"); her grandfather, seen at the funeral of her grandmother, Rachel Walker:
My grandfather turns his creaking head
away from the lavender box.
He does not cry. But looks afraid.
For years he called her "Woman";
shortened over the decades to
On the cut stone for "Oman's" grave
he did not notice
they had misspelled her name.
They also included the women and the old men of Eatonton, and they also included figures from the larger world of political struggle. She mourned:
The quietly pacifist peaceful
to make room for men
Who shout. Who tell lies to
children, and crush the corners
off of old men's dreams.
And she attacked on their behalf the con men of the revolution who: "… said come / Let me exploit you; / Somebody must do it / And wouldn't you / Prefer a brother?"
Those embattled souls included Alice Walker herself. She writes with sadness and defiance of the price she had paid for loving and marrying a white man, a civil-rights lawyer named Mel Leventhal. In "While Love Is Unfashionable," she writes:
While love is dangerous
let us walk bareheaded
beside the Great River.
Let us gather blossoms
She made clear her love of peacefulness, but left no doubt as to her determination to ignore the standards of society and appeal to higher judges: "Be nobody's darling; / Be an outcast. / Qualified to live / Among your dead."
It took no unique perception to be enthralled by Revolutionary Petunias, which had already been enthusiastically reviewed, nominated for the National Book Award and given the Lillian Smith Award. However, unlike a number of reviewers, I was even more taken with Alice Walker's first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, published in 1970, in which a black sharecropper, enslaved by circumstances and eternal debt, breaks free of the destructive cycle at the point where he would have slain his wife, who has betrayed him with the white landowner. Instead, he abandons her and his son, Brownfield, and heads north. Consumed with hatred for Grange, Brown field never the less echoes his father's sins in more sinister harmonic; he destroys his wife's intellect, batters her and their three daughters and eventually kills her. The youngest daughter, Ruth, is taken in by Grange, now returned and transformed by time and experience into a wise and saintly old man. He nurtures and protects Ruth, in the end to the point of killing his own son and sacrificing his own life.
There is, to be fair to its critics, a lot not to like about the novel. Its structure is weak; despite the basic three-part plot implied by the title, the book is chopped up into 11 "parts" and 48 short chapters. The plot itself is both episodic and elliptical; the crucial "second life," which would have shown Grange Copeland's transformation, is largely missing.
But there is much to admire, especially in the "third life," in which Grange Copeland emerges as one of the richest, wisest and most moving old men in fiction. His speeches, never preachy, always set perfectly in context, ring with complex truth. Speaking of the difference between himself and his son:
"But when he become a man himself, with his own opportunity to righten the wrong I done him by being good to his own children, he had a chance to become a real man, a daddy in his own right. That was the time he should have just forgot about what I done to him—and to his ma. But he messed up with his children, his wife and his home, and never yet blamed hisself. And never blaming hisself done made him weak … By George, I know the danger of putting all the blame on somebody else … And I'm bound to believe that that's the way the white folks can corrupt you even when you done held up before. 'Cause when they got you thinking that they're to blame for everything they have you thinking they's some kind of gods!"
Much of Grange's humanity comes out in his interactions with Ruth, a sweet, sassy, feisty, precocious child ("I never in my life seen a more womanish gal," says Grange). Their dialogues are dramatic expressions of an unabashedly universalist philosophy.
But much as I admired Revolutionary Petunias and The Third Life of Grange Copeland, it was one of Alice Walker's essays, "The Unglamorous but Worthwhile Duties of the Black Revolutionary Artist," that compelled me to meet her. At the time, I was awaiting the publication of my first novel and trying to figure out how I would deal with the political nonsense that seems to always attend the appearance of even the most nonpolitical book by a black.
Alice Walker "told" me: "The truest and most enduring impulse I have is simply to write. It seems necessary for me to forget all the titles, all the labels and all the hours of talk, and to concentrate on the mountain of work I find before me. My major advice to young black artists would be that they shut themselves up somewhere away from all the debates about who they are and what color they are and just turn out paintings and poems and short stories and novels."
I wanted to meet Alice Walker, I realized, because there were things I needed to learn from her.
We ate in a deli on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan and talked of many things—of the 1930's anthropologist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston, whose work Alice Walker had discovered while doing research "in order to write a story that used authentic black witchcraft." The results had been "The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff," and something less purely professional. Alice Walker fell in love with Hurston. "What I had discovered," she had told the Modern Language Association a few months before our lunch, "was a model. A model who, as it happened, had provided … as if she knew someday I would come along wandering in the wilderness, a nearly complete record of her life."
We talked of my own model, Jean Toomer, one of Hurston's forerunners of whose major work, Cane, Alice Walker had written, "I love it passionately; could not possibly exist without it."
She spoke of her years in the South, her impoverished childhood in Eatonton, the two years she had spent at Atlanta's elite black women's college, Spelman, before she found a way to escape from what she felt to be its puritanical atmosphere to an elite white women's college, Sarah Lawrence; her years in Mississippi as a civil-rights worker and teacher, a vulnerable position made more so because of her marriage to Leventhal. She spoke, too, of her turning away from formal religion. "I just need a wider recognition of the universe," she would explain years later.
She had little to say about publishing. Breaking into the business had not required the usual years of frustration. She had written most of the poems in Once during a short, frenzied week following a traumatic abortion while at Sarah Lawrence. One of her teachers, the poet Muriel Rukeyser, gave them to her own agent, who showed them to Hiram Haydn, then an editor at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, who almost immediately accepted them.
Alice Walker in person was as many faceted as Alice Walker in print. She was a scholar of impressive range, from African literature to Oscar Lewis, the noted anthropologist. She was an earthy Southern "gal"—as opposed to lady. Her speech was salted with down-home expressions, but peppered with rarified literary allusions. She was an uncompromising feminist, capable of hard-nosed, clear-eyed analysis; she was also given to artless touching and innocent flirtation. She had a sneaky laugh that started as a chuckle and exploded like a bomb. Her eyes sparkled—I did not know then, and surely could not tell, that one of them had been blinded in a childhood accident.
I left Alice Walker in the lobby of the building that housed Ms. magazine, of which she was then a contributing editor, feeling both elated and uneasy—elated because I had liked her every bit as much as I had liked her books, and uneasy because I thought, as I had watched her walk toward the elevators, that the world into which she was moving was a steam-driven meat grinder, and she the tenderest of meat. The black movement, with which she still identified, was split on questions of anti-Semitism, integration, class, region, religion and, increasingly, sex. The women's movement, of which she was perhaps the most artistic and evocative contemporary spokesperson, was increasingly being accused of racism, and had factions of its own.
Alice Walker was black, a pacifist but a rejector of the organized religions to which that tradition belonged. She was married to a white, indeed, a Jew. She was a rejector of black middle-class education and pretensions, and an acceptor of white upper-class education—but not pretensions. She was a Southerner in the "liberal" North, a feminist who was also a wife and a mother. She was also sensitive enough to be hurt by criticism.
I worried for her. I watched her go. I wished her well.
I saw Alice Walker only twice in the next seven years: once, in 1976 at a party celebrating the publication of her second novel, Meridian; again, in 1983, at the ceremony where she accepted the American Book Award for her third novel, The Color Purple, which would, a few days later, be announced as the winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Between those occasions, I had no real conversations with her; I had even allowed our real acquaintance, based on her work, to lapse.
That was, in part, because I had become busy with my own writing and teaching. But I had also been terribly disappointed by Meridian and the collection of short stories that followed in 1981, You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down.
In this I was, to all appearances, alone. Meridian had been touted by Newsweek as "ruthless and tender," by Ms. as "a classic novel of both feminism and the civil-rights movement," and by The New York Times Book Review as "a fine, taut novel that … goes down like clear water." But to me it seemed far more elliptical and episodic (three parts, 34 chapters) than her first novel, without having that novel's warmth and simplicity. The title character, an itinerant civil-rights worker, seems less pacifist than passive. She suffers from an intermittent paralysis of vague origins that, by the end of the book, she has managed to pass off to a weak skunk of a man, named Truman Held, a former lover who repeatedly betrayed her in order to be with white women. He seems to redeem himself years later by mothering her, accepting her illness and ignoring her sexuality.
The dialogue between Meridian and Truman Held, especially when compared to the easy conversation of Grange Copeland and Ruth, is just plain awful. ("Hah," he said bitterly, "why don't you admit you learned to hate me, to disrespect me, to wish I were dead. It was your contempt for me that made it impossible for me to forget.") The symbolic unity, so powerful in Revolutionary Petunias, is missing.
Many of the stories in You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down show the complexity and artistry of In love & Trouble. There is "A Sudden Trip Home in the Spring," in which a young, Southern black girl, a student at a Northern women's college, returns home for the funeral of her father, whom she has never understood, and discovers new sources of strength in her older brother and her grandfather. And there is "Fame," a day in the life of Andrea Clement White, an aging and proper black woman of letters, who goes to a literary-awards luncheon uttering acerbic comments: "… white liberals told you they considered what you said or wrote to be new in the world (and one was expected to fall for this flattery); one never expected them to know one's history well enough to recognize an evolution, a variation, when they saw it; they meant new to them."
But many of the stories are flawed by unassimilated rhetoric, simplistic politics and a total lack of plot and characterization. Some are hardly stories. One unsatisfying piece, "Coming Apart," through its complex publication history, hinted at what was going wrong. Commissioned as an introduction to a chapter on third-world women in a feminist collection of essays on pornography, the "story" had been published in Ms., entitled "A Fable," then republished in You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down, retitled and with a polemical, confusing and somewhat inaccurate introduction: "… the more ancient roots of modern pornography are to be found in the almost always pornographic treatment of black women who, from the moment they entered slavery, even in their own homelands, were subjected to rape as the 'logical' convergence of sex and violence."
Meridian and You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down upset me. Alice Walker seemed to have lost the balance of form and content that had made her earlier work so forceful. She had ignored the human power of situations in favor of polemical symbolism. Worse, she appeared to have got caught up in the business she had advised young writers to avoid—advice I had taken to the heart of my own existence. I was furious at Alice Walker. I felt … misled.
By the time I watched her receive the American Book Award, my anger had faded. By then, I had had some taste of what it is like to scribble in obscurity and then suddenly have people ripping manuscripts out of your hands before you have satisfied yourself and publishing them for reasons and standards far removed from yours. I no longer felt that Alice Walker had misled me; I believed she had been misled, and pressured in ways she could not possibly ignore. When Gloria Naylor, the black woman who won the American Book Award for first novels in 1983, acknowledged the debt that she and other black female writers owed Alice Walker, I could only think, what a heavy burden that tribute must be.
When Alice Walker rose to make her own acceptance speech, I could not help thinking of Andrea Clement White, who tells an interviewer, "In order to see anything, and therefore to create … one must not be famous" and could only summon up the energy to accept her "one hundred and eleventh major award" after hearing a small, dark-skinned girl sing an old slave song. I wondered who, if anybody, was singing for Alice Walker. I had not then, you see, read The Color Purple.
I rediscovered Alice Walker through reading The Color Purple. In my case, though, the rediscovery almost did not happen. I had read enough about the book to want to avoid it like the plague.
I had read that it was an epistolary novel, with most of the letters written by Celie, a black Southern woman, the victim of every virulent form of male oppression short of actual femicide, who eventually finds true love and orgasm in the arms of another woman. The description made me fear the book would be as disjointed as Meridian and as polemical as most of You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down.
I also sensed that The Color Purple was going to be ground zero at a Hiroshima of controversy. In June 1982, Gloria Steinem, in a profile of Alice Walker published in Ms., had written about an "angry young novelist," male and implicitly black, who had been miraculously tamed by Alice Walker's writing. This, Miss Steinem said, was "a frequent reaction of her readers who are black men." But she then went on to question the thoroughness, integrity and motivation of all Alice Walker's reviewers, especially those black and male. "It's true," she wrote, "that a disproportionate number of her hurtful, negative reviews have been by black men. But those few seem to be reviewing their own conviction that black men should have everything white men have had, including dominance over women…." That position would make expressing any reservations about The Color Purple risky business for a black man, and indeed, I had heard rumblings about the review Mel Watkins, a black man, had written in The New York Times, because he had criticized the male portraits as "pallid" and the letters not written by Celie as "lackluster and intrusive" even though he termed the book "striking and consummately well written."
At the same time, I had heard some people—not all of them white and/or male—expressing some misgivings about the book. One black poet, Sonia Sanchez, criticized Alice Walker's theme of black male brutality as an overemphasis. Another black woman told me The Color Purple was "a begging kind of piece" and she was "getting tired of being beat over the head with this women's lib stuff, and this whole black woman/black man, 'Lord have mercy on us po' sisters,' kind of thing" in Alice Walker's work.
On the other hand, one white woman told me that once she had gotten through the first few depressing letters, "The rest was so uplifting and true, it made me cry."
All this considered, The Color Purple seemed a good book to stay away from. But then someone I liked and respected pressed a dogeared copy of The Color Purple into my hands and said, "You've got to read this."
I did and discovered a novel that seems a perfect expression of what, in my mind, makes Alice Walker Alice Walker. The epistolary form is perfectly suited to her experience and expertise with short forms—what in another book would have been choppiness is short and sweet. There is plenty of political consciousness, but it emerges naturally from the characters, instead of being thrust upon them. That Celie—after being repeatedly raped and beaten by a man she thinks of as her father, having him take the children she bears him away, and then, knowing that his brutality has rendered her sterile, hearing him tell her future husband, "And God done fixed her. You can do everything just like you want to and she ain't gonna make you feed it or clothe it"—should find herself uninspired by the thought of sex with men, and be drawn to a woman who shows her love and introduces her to ecstasy seems less a "message" of radical feminist politics and more an examination of human motivation. That the other woman, Shug Avery, should fall in love with a man gives any such message a counterpoint.
No matter what polemical byways Alice Walker might have strayed into, she had, in the process of creating The Color Purple, become a writer far more powerful than she had been. Before she had touched me and inspired me. This time, along about page 75, she made me cry.
On an airplane at 35,000 feet, I was suddenly scared to death. I was on my way to talk to Alice Walker, prepatory to writing about her, and I was reading my homework: galley proofs of Alice Walker's newest book, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose, essays, speeches and reviews written over 17 years—nearly her entire adult life.
The book made me see an error in my thinking about Alice Walker. I had allowed myself to become so mesmerized by The Color Purple and the fond recollections it inspired of Revolutionary Petunias and The Third Life of Grange Copeland that I had forgotten the works that came between. I had, therefore, set out to write about Alice Walker confident I would not be doing anything "hurtful," but rather testifying that she has a miraculous ability to transubstantiate the crackers and grape juice of political cant into the body and blood of human experience.
Yet Alice Walker, in her time, has produced some crackers and some grape juice, and that surely must show up in a collection such as In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens. Reading it, I realized I had more or less refused to really see Alice Walker. I had picked and chosen aspects of her, deciding which I would respond to, which I would not.
In Search of Our Mother's Gardens forced me to look at all of her. As it turned out, much in the book is not only pleasing, but impressive and moving. Alice Walker, the award-winning poet, novelist and short-story writer, proves herself the master of yet another form. Her descriptions are elegant. Her sarcasm is biting, her humor pointed.
Nor is her artistry merely a matter of rhetorical form. The content of much of her statements places so many troublesome controversies in proportion and perspective. Her 1976 speech, "Saving the Life That Is Your Own," deposits the question of differences between literature written by blacks and whites into the appropriate circular file.
But there is also much that dismays me. Some of those things can be written off to polemical excess, such as her discounting of the ability of literature to reach across racial lines or her proclamation that she had once attempted to "suppress" statements made by another black female writer.
But other excesses are more troubling because they form, it seems, a pattern indicating Alice Walker has a high level of enmity toward black men. Her early praise of individual male writers seems to have been transformed over time to dismissal and disdain: Richard Wright's exile from Mississippi she no longer finds "offensive" but proof of his place of favor; Toomer is no longer a genius not to be thrown away but a disposable commodity ("Cane … is a parting gift … I think Jean Toomer would want us to keep its beauty but let him go"). Black male writers, in general, are possibly less insightful than their white male counterparts who, "It is possible … are more conscious of their own evil," and are guilty of "usually presenting black females as witches and warlocks."
Her acidity flows beyond black male writers. It pours over men who are attracted to light-skinned women—including, apparently, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ("Only Malcolm X, among our recent male leaders, chose to affirm, by publicly loving and marrying her, a black woman.") It spatters, in general, men she considers fundamentally illiterate: "And look at the ignorance of black men about black women. Though black women have religiously read every black male writer who came down the pike … few black men have thought it of any interest at all to read black women."
The pattern makes me see that some of the "hurtful" criticism is demonstrably true: Black men in Alice Walker's fiction and poetry seem capable of goodness only when they become old like Grange Copeland, or paralyzed and feminized, like Truman Held. If they are not thus rendered symbolically impotent, they are figures of malevolence, like Ruth's murderous father, Brownfield, or the black "brothers" in Revolutionary Petunias ("and the word / 'sister' / hissed by snakes / belly-low, / poisonous, / in the grass. / Waiting with sex / or tongue / to strike. / Behold the brothers!").
Yet In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens has a wealth of honest self-revelation, enough to help me understand where some of that pattern—as well as some of Alice Walker's brilliance—came from. She writes of the aftermath of an accident that befell her at age 8, when her brother accidentally shot her with a BB gun, blinding an eye and filling her with a dread of total blindness as well as leaving her with a disfiguring scar.
After that accident, she felt her family had failed her, especially her father. She felt he had ceased to favor her, and, as a child, blamed him for the poverty that kept her from receiving adequate medical care. He also, she implies, whipped and imprisoned her sister, who had shown too much of an interest in boys, as had the farmer in "The Child Who Favored Daughter." In company with her brothers, her father had failed to "give me male models I could respect."
The picture that emerged is of a very unhappy existence, but, ironically, the loss of her sight enabled her to see those truths that imbue her writing: "For a long time, I thought I was ugly and disfigured. This made me shy and timid, and I often reacted to insults that were not intended … I believe, though, that it was from this period … that I really began to see people and things…."
Five years ago, Alice Walker sold her small house in Brooklyn and flew to San Francisco in search of a place she had dreamed of without ever seeing, "a place that had mountains and the ocean." In time, she and her companion, Robert Allen, a writer and editor of the journal Black Scholar (she is now divorced from Leventhal), found a small, affordable house in Mendocino County, north of the city, in a locale that looked, to Alice Walker, like Georgia. She planted a hundred fruit trees around the house, just as her mother had "routinely adorned with flowers whatever shabby house we were forced to live in."
In San Francisco itself, Alice Walker also found an apartment, which she decorated to her taste—wood, clay, earth tones and, of course, several shades of purple. The apartment, a four-room, third-floor walkup, is in close proximity to Divisadero Street, the main thoroughfare in the black ghetto many San Franciscans maintain does not exist. Alice Walker has traveled far, but has not removed herself from anything. As I settle down in her apartment to talk to her for the first time in the better part of a decade, I wish she had; fatigue is obvious in her features and the tone of her voice. Once she had reminded me of Ruth; now, she reminds me of Meridian.
But unlike Meridian, Alice Walker is not paralyzed. She sits in a comfortable wooden rocker, in constant, rhythmic motion, and talks of the fight she has put up to keep the term "womanist" in the subtitle of In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens.
"I just like to have words," she explains, "that describe things correctly. Now to me, 'black feminist' does not do that. I need a word that is organic, that really comes out of the culture, that really expresses the spirit that we see in black women. And it's just … womanish." Her voice slips into a down-home accent. "You know, the posture with the hand on the hip, 'Honey, don't you get in my way.'" She laughs. It is almost the same laugh that she used in the Lexington Avenue deli, but now it is deeper, fuller, more certain.
She goes on, expounding on a theme that had grown through You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down and her later essays: her dissatisfaction with white feminists.
"You see," she says, "one of the problems with white feminism is that it is not a tradition that teaches white women that they are capable. Whereas my tradition assumes I'm capable. I have a tradition of people not letting me get the skills, but I have cleared fields, I have lifted whatever, I have done it. It ain't not a tradition of wondering whether or not I could do it because I'm a woman."
But womanism, in Alice Walker's definition, is not just different from feminism; it is better. "Part of our tradition as black women is that we are universalists. Black children, yellow children, red children, brown children, that is the black woman's normal, day-to-day relationship. In my family alone, we are about four different colors. When a black woman looks at the world, it is so different … when I look at the people in Iran they look like kinfolk. When I look at the people in Cuba, they look like my uncles and nieces."
One of them looked like her father. The resemblance was part of the inspiration for one of her most moving essays, "My Father's Country Is the Poor."
I ask her about her father.
"He died in '73," she says sadly. "He was racked with every poor man's disease—diabetes, heart trouble. You know, his death was harder than I had thought at the time. We were so estranged that when I heard—I was in an airport somewhere—I didn't think I felt anything. It was years later that I really felt it. We had a wonderful reconciliation after he died."
I laugh, thinking that she is alluding to something she had written in the essay, that it is "much easier … to approve of dead people than of live ones." But she is serious: "I didn't cry when he died, but that summer I was in terrible shape. And I went to Georgia and I went to the cemetery and I laid down on top of his grave. I wanted to see what he could see, if he could look up. And I started to cry. And all of the knottedness that had been in our relationship dissolved. And we're fine now."
That year was the epicenter of some general upheaval in her life. In 1973, she wrote the answers to questions published in a collection called Interviews with Black Writers, and later in In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens. "Writing poems," she writes, "is my way of celebrating with the world that I have not committed suicide the evening before."
"I don't even remember," she says at first, when I ask if 1973 had been a particularly difficult year, but then she goes on to recall that it marked, besides the death of her father, her escape from Mississippi, which had "just about driven me around the bend," a period of physical separation from her husband, who had stayed behind to work, while she and her daughter, Rebecca, went to Cambridge, Mass. There she had discovered that "when I am ill and feel pain, things take on a certain extra clarity … something opens up and you begin to see things that you just wouldn't if you were surrounded by happy-go-lucky folk."
I remind her of another time of trauma she had written in that interview, when she, young, alone, pregnant and suicidal, "allowed myself exactly two self-pitying tears…. But I hated myself for crying, so I stopped."
Alice Walker laughs about that now. "Well, you know, I cry so much less than I used to. I used to be one of the most teary people. But I've been really happy here."
But writing is also a part of the reason she cries less. "I think," she says, "writing really helps you heal yourself. I think if you write long enough, you will be a healthy person. That is, if you write what you need to write, as opposed to what will make money, or what will make fame."
As when we talked before, and as when I have read Alice Walker at her best, I find myself being enchanted by her vision of things. She sees the writing process as a kind of visitation of spirits. She eschews the outline and other organizing techniques, and believes that big books are somehow antithetical to the female consciousness ("the books women write can be more like us—much thinner, much leaner, much cleaner"). Later, I will realize that her methods would make it well nigh impossible for her to write a long, sustained narrative and suspect the belief is something of a rationalization—and the kind of sexist comment a male critic would be pilloried for making. Yet when she says it, it seems a wonderful, magical way to write a book. But there is nothing mystical about what she sees as her role in life.
"I was brought up to try to see what was wrong and right it. Since I am a writer, writing is how I right it. I was brought up to look at things that are out of joint, out of balance, and to try to bring them into balance. And as a writer that's what I do. I just always expected people to understand. Black men, because of their oppression, I always thought, would understand. So the criticism that I have had from black men, especially, who don't want me to write about these things, I'm just amazed."
"You come down very heavy on the men," I say. "How about the black women?"
"Oh, I get to them. But I am really aware that they are under two layers of oppression and that even though everybody, the men and the women, get twisted terribly, the women have less choice than the men. And the things that they do, the bad choices that they make, are not done out of meanness, out of a need to take stuff out on people…."
Her statement seems contradictory.
"In your writing," I suggest, "it's clear that you love old men. But they don't make out too well when they're young. None of them do."
"Well," she says, "one theory is that men don't start to mature until they're 40." She laughs, and I start to laugh, too. But then I realize her voice has taken on a certain rhetorical tone, and it makes me angry—because she herself is not yet 40. Then she slips out of the rhetorical tone, begins to explain, as she often does, how her perception of the general comes from intense feelings about the personal: "I knew both my grandfathers, and they were just doting, indulgent, sweet old men. I just loved them both and they were crazy about me. However, as young men, middle-aged men, they were … brutal. One grandfather knocked my grandmother out of a window. He beat one of his children so severely that the child had epilepsy. Just a horrible, horrible man. But when I knew him, he was a sensitive, wonderful man."
"Do you think your father would have eventually gotten to be like your grandfather?" I asked her.
"Oh," she says wistfully, "he had it in him to be."
I ask her how her political involvements have affected her writing; if she has ever become aware of how the "brotherhood" or the "sisterhood" might see a particular piece, and thought about changing it.
"I often think about how they will see it, some of them," she says. "I always know that there will be many who will see it negatively, but I always know there will be one or two who will really understand. I've been so out of favor with black people, I figure if I can take that, I can be out of favor with anybody. In some ways, I'm just now becoming a writer who is directed toward 'my' people. My audience is really more my spirit helpers." She explains what a spirit helper does by describing a dream she had recently about one of them, Langston Hughes: "It was as if we were lovers, but we were not sexual lovers, we were just … loving lovers. Knowing it was a dream made me so unhappy. But then Langston, in his role of spirit helper, sort of said, 'But you know, the dream is real. And that is where we will always have a place.' I feel like that with all of them. They're as real to me as most people. More real."
Later, alone in my hotel room, I try to make sense of Alice Walker or, more correctly, of my feelings about her. I am not sure that I like her as much as I once did, that she sees as deeply and as clearly as I once thought. Yet I am sure that there is no one I like more as a writer, or who is possessed of more wisdom—that there is no writer in this country more worthy of the term seer. I would like to forget about 30 percent of what she has written and said. And yet the remaining 70 percent is so powerful that, even in this quandary, I am listening to the tapes of our conversation, and thumbing through her books, looking for an answer.
And it is there. On the tape, I hear her talking of her own reaction to her beloved Zora Neale Hurston: "I can't remember all the times that I would be appalled by some of the views that she held. But it wasn't her fault that she had to report things a certain way. That was what she found." And in the final essay in In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, Alice Walker writes of how her daughter had finally liberated her from her sense that she is disfigured, and her fear that her own child will be alienated by her artificial eye. "Mommy," Rebecca tells her, "there's a world in your eye."
Yes indeed, I think, there is a world in Alice Walker's eye. It is etched there by pain and sacrifice, and it is probably too much to expect that anything so violently created would be free of some distortion. But it is nevertheless a real world, full of imaginary people capable of teaching real lessons, of imparting real wisdom capable of teaching real lessons.
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