Alice Walker | Critical Essay by Philip M. Royster

This literature criticism consists of approximately 33 pages of analysis & critique of Alice Walker.
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Critical Essay by Philip M. Royster

SOURCE: "In Search of Our Fathers' Arms: Alice Walker's Persona of the Alienated Darling," in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 20, No. 4, Winter, 1986, pp. 347-70.

In the following essay, Royster discusses the complicated relationship between Walker and her audience and asserts that Walker's female protagonists are representations of Walker's perceptions of herself.

Alice Walker's third novel. The Color Purple, is fueling controversy in many black American communities. Afro-American novelist/critic David Bradley recalls "sens[ing] that The Color Purple was going to be ground zero at a Hiroshima of controversy." Some women have found it difficult to lay the book down unfinished; some men have bellowed with rage while reading it (as well as afterwards). It appears that Walker's depiction of violent black men who physically and psychologically abuse their wives and children is one of the poles of the controversy and that her depiction of lesbianism is another.

Many critics have praised the novel, especially for its use of a black dialect that reviewers laud in such terms as "positively poetic," "eloquent," and "masterful." A reviewer in the New Yorker labeled the novel "fiction of the highest order." Peter Prescott called it "an American novel of permanent importance." A Publishers Weekly reviewer considers the book "stunning and brilliantly conceived"; Mel Watkins regards the novel as "striking and consummately well-written"; and Dinitia Smith believes that "at least half the book is superb, it places … [Walker] in the company of Faulkner."

Yet, not all of those who have read the novel have liked it, including many black women. David Bradley observes that "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." One of the strongest responses to the novel has come from Trudier Harris, who believes the novel should be ignored because of its portrayal of a protagonist that is not merely idiosyncratic but unrealistic, and because the book's portrayal of domestic violence is based on unwholesome stereotypes of black folk and their communities that appeal to spectator readers.

This polarization of responses to The Color Purple may be better understood by focusing attention on Walker's expressed fictive and nonfictive attitudes towards her role as a writer, her intended audience, and the issues of sexuality and aggression.

Walker has committed her efforts to at least two great social movements that have stimulated the alteration of consciousness in the last half of the twentieth century: the Civil Rights Movement and the Women's Liberation Movement. Walker's involvement with these movements both generates and reflects her intention, first articulated in 1973, to champion as a writer the causes of black people, especially black women: "I am preoccupied with the spiritual survival, the survival whole, of my people. But beyond that, I am committed to exploring the oppressions, the insanities, the loyalties, and the triumphs of black women."

In a 1984 interview, Walker revealed that, since childhood, she has seen herself as a writer who rescues: "'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.'" Walker's fiction confronts such issues as racism, intraracism, sexism, neocolonialism, and imperialism in order to transform both society and the individual. She expressed her commitment to change in 1973 with the affirmation: "I believe in change: change personal, and change in society." In The Color Purple, she seems to be preoccupied with the task of overcoming black male sexist exploitation of black women.

Yet, along with this commitment to change, Walker holds other attitudes that have the potential to frustrate her goals. She indirectly announced one such attitude in Revolutionary Petunias & Other Poems through a persona who articulates the position of an outcast to the social order: "Be nobody's darling; / Be an outcast. / Qualified to live / Among your dead." The concerns of this fictive persona resound in Walker's nonfictive voices, but in the nonfiction the speaker expresses a need to be both somebody's darling (that somebody is usually an older man) and an outcast (who uses her art as a means to rescue victims). The personas in both her fiction and nonfiction also experience feelings of inadequacy as rescuers, and they appear to be both infatuated with and plagued by notions concerning suicide, death, and the dead. (Although Walker seems to consider herself to be a medium, she simultaneously articulates perennial fantasies concerning suicide.)

Walker's perception of herself as a writer who is a social outcast apparently began after her brother blinded one of her eyes with a bb gun when she was eight years old: "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 no longer felt like the little girl I was. I felt old, and because I felt I was unpleasant to look at, filled with shame. I retreated into solitude, and read stories and began to write poems." The accident seems to have led Walker to feel both alienated from her environment and perceptive of people and their lives. Her confidence in her insight undoubtedly helped to prepare her for the role of a rescuer, yet the fact that she no longer felt like a little girl engendered attitudes that would ultimately frustrate her goal. Her experiences of the loss of her childhood, the shame of a disfiguring scar, and social inadequacy would soon give rise, in her writing, to voices with tones of resentment, anger, and bitterness, on the one hand, and voices that articulate the desire to feel again like a little girl (or a darling to older men), on the other. The speaker of one of her poems that appears in The American Poetry Review expresses something of the intensity of Walker's alienation when she asserts: "I find my own / small person / a standing self / against the world." One of the comforts for the outcast persona is her as-yet-unending search for father figures with whom to be a darling. This search influences Walker's fictions, which portray women with frustrated psychosexual attitudes towards men (Ruth towards Grange, Meridian towards both Eddie and Truman, and Celie towards both Alfonso and Albert), and colors her expressed nonfictional attitudes concerning men.

The issue of audience identification is especially important in a multi-cultural society in which one culture creates institutions that exploit, manipulate, and dominate other cultures. What a writer understands of her own relationships to the dialectical tensions between the exploiter and the exploited, the oppressor and the oppressed, or the persecutor and the victim is important. Does the writer see herself as the rescuer or champion of the exploited, uncontaminated herself by oppression or oppressive values; does she regard herself as being involved in the circle of the victims; or is she drawn unwittingly into the circle of the persecutors? Frantz Fanon articulates some of the issues for the "native intellectual" struggling with the influence of the "colonial bourgeoisie" in The Wretched of the Earth. These issues influence the writer's fictive and nonfictive voices and the reader's interpretations of the writer's texts, so despite the pitfalls yawning as one leaps from a writer's recorded assertions and perceptions to a theory for understanding that writer's fiction, it is urgent to examine Walker's attitudes towards her audience. Moreover, examining her written perceptions of and attitudes towards her past experiences allows one to better understand her handling of the concepts of sexuality and aggression. It permits the critic to create a bridge of understanding that joins the writer, with her work, to more of her readers.

If Walker is an alienated writer who wants to rescue others by changing society, she needs an audience. Yet in a recent interview with Claudia Tate, Walker expresses contradictory attitudes towards the issue of audience. "I'm always happy to have an audience," Walker remarks. "… otherwise it would be very lonely and futile." But she adds that, although she is willing to, she usually does not consider the audience before writing. Rather, she writes what she thinks and feels, and does not worry whether or not she finds an audience. She says that writing is not about finding an audience but "expanding myself as much as I can and seeing myself in as many roles and situations as possible." However, earlier in the conversation she expresses the belief that "black women instinctively feel a need to connect with their audience, to be direct, to build a readership for us all…." By "us" she seems to mean black folk, because she goes on to say that "none of us will survive except in very distorted ways if we have to depend on white publishers and white readers forever. And white critics." Although she feels that she needs black readers, she believes that the "main problem" for black writers is that "black people, generally speaking, don't read."

If Walker's intention in writing The Color Purple was to lessen the oppression of black women by black men, a reasonable question is: To whom is the work directed—black men, black women, or both? Who is going to be responsible for ending sexist exploitation, and who is going to determine the means to that end? Walker's reaction to criticism of The Color Purple reveals that she is not satisfied with the responses from at least one segment of her audience: "'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.'" Walker's disappointment with criticism by black men suggests that she intends for them to be sitting in the audience before her stage waiting to be moved by her performance. Also, they could be looking over her shoulder to provide critical direction and approval as she writes. Whether or not black males make up both stage and critical audiences, a discrepancy exists between authorial intention and audience reaction. My work with Alice Walker's writings suggests that her recorded attitudes towards segments of her intended audience make it difficult for her to communicate effectively with them.

There is a revealing irony concerning Walker's perception of herself as an outcast: After she was partially blinded, Walker became alienated from a group already shunted to the edge of the social order—Southern black sharecroppers. After telling the story of her mother's being denied government flour because her hand-me-down clothes were better than the clothes worn by the white woman who distributed the flour, Walker asserts, "Outcasts to be used and humiliated by the larger society, the Southern black sharecropper and poor farmer clung to his own kind and to a religion that had been given to pacify him as a slave but which he soon transformed into an antidote against bitterness." Walker perceives herself as an outcast of those whom she regards as having themselves been cast out.

Despite this doubled burden of alienated feelings, Walker, in 1970, spoke of wanting very consciously to write to blacks from the rural South. Desiring to be a poet whose work derives from the Southern rural experience, she asserted that she "want[ed] to write poetry that is understood by one's people, not by the Queen of England." From a comment in 1971 it is clear that Walker feels a moral commitment to communicate to her stage or listening audience of people with whom she shares roots, for she asserts that "it is unfair to the people we expect to reach to give them a beautiful poem if they are unable to read it." The title of the essay from which this quote is taken, "Duties of the Black Revolutionary Artist," reinforces the notion that it is Walker's intention not merely to communicate with but also to rescue victims. Thus, it appears that Walker is alienated from the group she wants to rescue.

Along with wanting to help the poor, Walker attacks the new black middle class for forsaking its rescuing responsibilities by manifesting selfishly materialistic rather than altruistic and radical concerns. Yet this purportedly irresponsible class is the one to which Walker belongs not by birth but by education and occupation. In short, she here repeats the pattern, established as a child, of feeling alienated from the class with whom she shares an identity.

The theme of the alienated rescuer becomes more strident in a 1973 interview, in which Walker articulates more of her perceptions of the role of a responsible writer: "The writer … must be free to explore, otherwise she or he will never discover what is needed {by everyone) to be known. This means, very often, finding oneself considered 'unacceptable' by masses of people who think that the writer's obligation is not to explore or to challenge, but to second the masses' motions, whatever they are. Yet the gift of loneliness is sometimes a radical vision of society or one's people that has not previously been taken into account." These remarks suggest more than Walker may have realized. Is the voice that of a sturdy, no-nonsense revolutionary or of a victim of her own past and her romantic ideals? Her assertion that everyone needs to know what an artist discovers seems presumptuous and paternalistic (or should that be maternalistic?). The fact that she passively accepts (or actively invites) being cast out ("unacceptable") and lonely, as if she has no options, suggests that she feels like a victim of the very people she is supposed to be rescuing. Although Walker seems to be tough on leadership that approves the actions of its following, in 1979 she would dedicate a collection of her poems to her romantic ideal of a "quiet man [who] always said, 'Let the people decide.'"

It seems clear that her alienation is not so much a product of her writing career as her writing career is a response to the alienation that she has entertained since childhood. Walker's courting of her own alienation is even more apparent in a 1973 interview, in which she defended her right to live in Mississippi with her white husband (the couple later divorced): "Otherwise, I'd just as soon leave. If society (black or white) says, Then you must be isolated, an outcast—then I will be a hermit. Friends and relatives may desert me, but the dead … are a captive audience." The persona here readily embraces the role of the outcast.

As to the question of Walker's adequacy as a rescuer of others, a substantial case could be constructed from her own admissions to argue to the contrary. For example, she asserts that, "always a rather moody, periodically depressed person, after two years in Mississippi I became—as I had occasionally been as a young adult—suicidal." In 1973, she confides, "the threat of self-destruction plagued me as it never had before." Although Walker had moved to Mississippi to help rescue sharecroppers and other victims as part of her commitment to the Civil Rights Movement, it appears that she herself stood in need of a helping hand. David Bradley calls our attention to Walker's having observed that "writing poems … is my way of celebrating with the world that I have not committed suicide the day before." While in Mississippi, Walker also felt inadequate in her rescuing role as mother: "I … found motherhood onerous, a threat to my writing."

Walker traces the source of her urge to commit suicide to what appears to be guilt concerning the inadequacy of her work in the Movement: "I believe that part of my depression came out of anguish that I was not more violent than I was…. The burden of a nonviolent, pacifist philosophy in a violent, nonpacifist society caused me to feel, almost always, as if I had not done enough." Walker's comment suggests that she had not assimilated the fundamental precepts of Gandhi's Satyagraha, the "soul-force" or "truth-force" which gives one power to end persecution and oppression by inflicting suffering not on "the opponent but on one's self." Accustomed to practicing self-denial, Gandhi knew how to withstand this suffering without feeling like a victim or a persecutor, and he became a successful rescuer; Walker lacked Gandhi's special talents. Gandhi also reminds those who would struggle against oppressive violence that "by using similar means we can get only the same thing that they got." That is, instead of remaining a faithful rescuer of victims, one would become a persecutor were one to adopt the violent means of the persecutor. Alice Walker's languishing for the want of more violent means suggests that she has been inadequately prepared to be a rescuer of victims. Permitting suffering to be inflicted on oneself is more difficult for many people than inflicting it on others; to withstand, one must practice informed self-denial. Attention to the past exposes the shortcomings of violent would-be rescuers. Gandhi says that the "belief that there is no connection between the means and the end is a great mistake. Through that mistake even men who have been considered religious have committed grievous crimes."

Walker's comments in 1976 suggest that she may be becoming both more sensitive to and yet more alienated from black folk: "Writing this now, in New York City, it is impossible not to feel that black people who are poor are lost completely in the American political and economic system, and that black people and white people who are not have been turned to stone. Our moral leaders have been murdered, our children worship power and drugs, our official leadership is frequently a joke, usually merely oppressive. Our chosen and most respected soul-singer—part of whose unspoken duty is to remind us who we are—has become a blonde." Here it is not merely the Southern black sharecropper but all of America's poor blacks who are cast out, and their outcast plight is no longer mitigated by adaptations of their "slave" religion, for now they are completely lost. Other blacks (and whites) she accuses of being insensitive; the children (the future) worship false gods; adequate leaders have been assassinated, and those leaders who remain are bankrupt. To cap it all, Aretha Franklin has betrayed black folk and their culture by dyeing her hair. This is Walker's perception of black people, the ones she wants to rescue by bringing them the truth that all of them need to know.

Influencing her recorded perception of the folk is Walker's tendency to over-generalize by creating large categories and then describing the contents of those categories in ways that suggest, reflect, and undoubtedly encourage hopelessness. Walker's attitudes towards black folk suggest more about who she is and the way she writes than they do about who black folk are. If it is true that everywhere she looks she sees the worst, she may be projecting onto the backs of the folk something of her own consciousness, and if that is the case, then she is using black people for her own scapegoat victims. In other words, just as Gandhi, the spiritual and philosophical father of the nonviolent philosophy of the Civil Rights Movement, had forewarned, the would-be rescuer has become the persecutor, not of her persecutors but of the very victims she is committed to rescuing.

Walker would articulate more of her perceptions of black people in 1977, when she asserted that life in America had destroyed racial solidarity in Northern cities and reduced her to doubting whether she could survive being assaulted by a black person:

The bond of black kinship—so sturdy, so resilient—has finally been broken in the cities of the North. There is no mutual caring, no trust. Even the rhetoric of revolutionary peoplehood is hissed out threateningly. The endearment "sister" is easily replaced with "bitch." My fear is past grief, and if I were ever attacked or robbed by another black person I doubt I'd recover. This thought itself scares me. There is also the knowledge that just as I'm afraid of them, because I no longer know what behavior to expect, they're afraid of me. Of all the vile things that have happened to us in America, this fear of each other is to me the most unbearable, the most humiliating.

In this passage Walker sounds more like a victim than a rescuer: The racial bond is broken, and she fears for her own well-being. I do not wish to overlook the issues of Walker's right to her feelings and of violence among the oppressed (it is a well-known truth that victims adopt the world view of their persecutors), but adequate rescuers are not intimidated by that violence. Nor are they intimidated by their own fear of violence, for even if the rescuer experiences fear, adequacy is maintained by suffering privately, as did Martin Luther King, Jr., rather than by sowing seeds of panic in the passions of the populace. Again, Walker's response reflects her alienation from the oppressed.

In her interview with Claudia Tale, Walker, while discussing the judgment needed to improve the interpersonal relationships between black men and women as portrayed in Shange's for colored girls …, asserts: "Judgment is crucial because judgment is lacking in black people these days." She must have sensed the inflammatory potential of this remark because she attempts to clarify it by distinguishing her meaning to be a regret that the community will no longer come to the rescue of women who are accosted by dirty-mindedmen. Both the remark and the clarification arise from the fantasies of an alienated darling who blames the folk for the misery of the group and who avoids assuming responsibility for herself. Walker's voice becomes even more strident when she chews on her notion that the community neglects its writers because it does not respect itself: "If the black community fails to support its own writers, it will never have the knowledge of itself that will make it great. And for foolish, frivolous and totally misinformed reasons—going directly back to its profound laziness about the written message as opposed to one that's sung—it will continue to blunder along, throwing away this one and that one, and never hearing or using what is being said." Undoubtedly such attitudes helped to distance Walker from her black community. Black folk may be less misinformed than Walker's comments suggest. How many of them would rush to catch pearls cast by someone who is not merely terrified of them but also believes them to be profoundly lazy and without judgment? This is one instance among many when it becomes difficult to distinguish Walker's voice from those of the bourgeoisie that has colonized her people.

Walker articulates the chasm she perceives between herself and black Americans in her 1984 interview with David Bradley: "'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.'" Walker is here referring to the dead, such as Langston Hughes, with whom she believes herself to be in contact through such media as dreams. Walker's statement is ambiguous with regard to whether the "spirit helpers" and black people are critical or stage audiences. Apparently, she believes that her "spirit helpers" are part of the critical audience looking over her shoulder, but black people form a stage audience ("toward 'my' people"). A less favorable interpretation would be that the "spirit helpers" are also her stage audience. But if that is the case, then she has abandoned all of her notions of the writer's social responsibility, possibly to fulfill her outcast's vision of becoming "Qualified to live / Among your dead."

After considering Alice Walker's assertions of alienation from black people, it is indeed ironic to examine her approval, in 1971, of Coretta King's vision that black women who feel compassion, love justice, and have resisted embitterment will become leaders of mankind. Walker says of Mrs. King:

… she says something that I feel is particularly true: "Women, in general, are not a part of the corruption of the past, so they can give a new kind of leadership, a new image for mankind. But if they are going to be bitter or vindictive they are not going to be able to do this. But they're capable of tremendous compassion, love, and forgiveness, which if they use it, can make this a better world. When you think of what some black women have gone through, and then look at how beautiful they still are! It is incredible that they still believe in the values of the race, that they have retained a love of justice, that they can still feel the deepest compassion, not only for themselves but for anybody who is oppressed; this is a kind of miracle, something we have that we must preserve and pass on."

Coretta King is drawing a picture of a female rescuer of the race who is adequate for her role; that is, one who maintains it without switching to the roles of either victim or persecutor. Although Walker admires the image, she does not appear to be cut of that cloth. King might be speaking indirectly of her perceptions of Walker, challenging the writer to rise above them.

But Walker does not use King's ideal to measure herself; rather, she challenges the ideal with her own feminist concern: "I want to know her opinion of why black women have been antagonistic toward women's liberation. As a black woman myself, I say, I do not understand this because black women among all women have been oppressed almost beyond recognition—oppressed by everyone." Walker's complaint suggests that she perceives a psychic distance between herself and the community of black women, who, generally speaking (and this was even more true in 1971), are unwilling to join a white women's movement. Walker's emotional generalization that everyone oppresses black women, one of her hobbyhorses, is an exaggeration that reflects her alienation: Accustomed to viewing herself as an outcast, Walker here places black women generally in opposition to everyone else.

By 1973 Walker apparently had found an ally in Barbara Sizemore, after the latter's assertion that nationalist organizers, such as Amiri Baraka, keep black women in inferior positions in their organizations. Both Walker and Sizemore shared a vision of black women more radical than most in 1973, for, even at an American college conference on black women, Walker was to experience considerable distance between herself and most of the other black women present: "It was at the Radcliffe symposium that I saw that black women are more loyal to black men than they are to themselves, a dangerous state of affairs that has its logical end in self-destructive behavior." Often, Walker's nonfictive assertions emphasize the worst in people and groups, and she then proceeds to inflate the consequences of her perceptions. Her remarks on the loyalty of black women to black men is interesting in the light of her hankering to be the darling of older men and her bitterness towards younger ones. It is difficult to refrain from wondering whether the political rhetoric masks such basic feelings as envy, resentment, and anger, for if the women Walker maligns actually feel loyalty towards black men (or anyone else, for that matter), they have achieved something that cannot be found in Walker's writing. Her warning of the self-destruction in store for black women may be little more than a projection onto them of her own suicidal urges.

In an article that appeared the following year (1974), Walker would articulate more explicitly the complaint, camouflaged with epithets that assert that black women manipulate or destroy black men, against black women's playing the role as America's "mules":

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. We have also been called "Matriarchs," "Superwomen," and "Mean and Evil Bitches." Not to mention "Castraters" and "Sapphire's Mama." When we have pleaded for understanding, our character has been distorted; when we have asked for simple caring, we have been handed empty inspirational appellations, then stuck in the farthest corner. When we have asked for love, we have been given children. In short, even our plainer gifts, our labors of fidelity and love, have been knocked down our throats. To be an artist and a black woman, even today, lowers our status in many respects, rather than raises it: and yet, artists we will be.

Walker seems to be saying more emphatically that everyone exploits black women no matter what those women do to appease their persecutors. Her concerns over the status of black women writers and her perception of the plight of black women seem like caricatures that might be captioned, "Poor me."

In 1974, Walker also attended a conference of the National Black Feminist Organization and reported somewhat defensively: "We sat together and talked and knew no one would think, or say, 'Your thoughts are dangerous to black unity and a threat to black men.' Instead, all the women understood that we gathered together to assure understanding among black women, and that understanding among women is not a threat to anyone who intends to treat women fairly." Angry with reporters from black newspapers for not covering the conference meetings, Walker chides the black press by appealing to the model of black participation, support, and coverage of women's issues and meetings established by Frederick Douglass and his famous newspaper the North Star: " … his newspaper would have been pleased to cover our conference…. He understood that it is not incumbent upon the slave to make sure her or his uprising is appropriate or 'correct.' It is the nature of the oppressed to rise against oppression. Period. Women who wanted their rights did not frighten him, politically or socially, because he knew his own rights were not diminished by theirs." Walker rejects the concepts of appropriateness and correctness here and in her fiction (through the protagonist, Meridian, for example) because she believes they have been used to keep black women in check. She reassures those well-intentioned black men disturbed with the fear that the organization of black women will drive a wedge deeper into the split between black men and black women. On the other hand, she is also warning black male chauvinists that their dominance is coming to an end.

She is less convincing when she chooses to browbeat black women into supporting her concerns: "To the extent that black women dissociate themselves from the women's movement, they abandon their responsibilities to women throughout the world." Appealing to the women's sense of guilt, Walker seems determined to distract the women from whatever else they are doing so that they can do what she thinks best. The punitive rhetoric, with its emotional appeal, undoubtedly fails to bring Walker any closer to many black folk, especially black women, who are not about to open the door to someone else giving orders. This seemingly radical persona stands in stark contrast to the romantic ideal of the patient and compassionate revolutionary to whom she dedicates the poems of Good Night, Willie Lee. As the dedication suggests, intelligent and competent organizers enable people to get where the people want to go, at their own pace, without haranguing or condemning them, and with respect for the right of each to self-determination.

Walker's assertions concerning criticism of black women are sometimes blatantly contradictory. For example, she demurely states that one of her "great weaknesses, which I am beginning to recognize more clearly than ever around the Michele Wallace book, is a deep reluctance to criticize other black women." Yet when she returns to the subject of Black Macho …, she attacks the book with enough zest and zeal to suggest that she is not unfamiliar with a critical posture towards black women. (Also, compare this assertion of reluctance with the opinions quoted above concerning the soul singer who became a blonde and regarding black women who are loyal to black men.)

On the other hand, in 1984, when David Bradley criticized her for failing to be as tough on black women as on black men, Walker responded not merely by excusing black women's weaknesses but also by arguing that the motives of women are less reprehensible than those of men: "'But I am really aware that they are under two layers of oppression and that even though everybody, the men and the women, get [sic] 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.'" The persona is clever enough to reach for feminist rhetoric, "two layers of oppression" (as if black men have not been and are not still sexually and racially exploited by black women and white people), but she destroys the credibility of her position with feminist (or would this be womanist?) psychology: the assertion of gender-determined meanness. Of course, behind this image of meanness stands an old folk image that Walker caricatures for the reader. Black folklore and street talk are full of images of "mean and evil" black men and black women. Some people have called them devils or criminals and have wanted to roast them or at least put them in jail, but black folk brought up to understand their own culture know that this "mean and evil" has little to do with the mean and evil of the white folk. The individuals black folk label as "mean and evil" are usually in rebellion from a white power structure and its values (check out Miles Davis, for example, or Pilate Dead). In the lore, mean and evil black folk were primarily self-determining blacks who brooked no exploitation, manipulation, or dependency. Gender-determined meanness exists only as a joke among the folk who know and as a means for projection for those who don't. A woman might say, "Niggers are mean!" (she is discussing the merits of black men or, to be more precise, the black men that she has encountered); what she means is, "I can't find one to do as I tell him." Wise women know that they are finding language to express their frustration, not uncovering the emotional anatomy of the opposite sex. (I don't wish to ignore the issue of mutual violence between the sexes, but that is another matter.)

In 1980 Walker would applaud the coming out of the closet of black lesbians, reflected by the publication of Conditions: Five. The Black Women's Issue, which also includes the work of non-lesbian writers. The attitudes that engender this support certainly must bring her closer to black lesbian women and the liberal-minded, but, undoubtedly, they aggravate the already troubled waters with a large number of black folk who possess more conservative, often homophobic values. Walker's accepting attitude towards lesbianism apparently influences her depiction of the affair between Celie and Shug in The Color Purple.

Yet despite Walker's liberal thinking, when she comes to champion a cause that has long been a concern for most black people—the intraracism against dark, black women—, she does not refrain from exposing her pessimistic vision of the future of the race: "To me, the black black woman is our essential mother—the blacker she is the more us she is—and to see the hatred that is turned on her is enough to make me despair, almost entirely, of our future as a people." This is not the first time for Walker's despairing, nor, I suspect, will it be her last. It is important to note that she is losing hope for an audience about and to whom she writes. The problems in communication between Walker and black folk may have something to do with this defeatist attitude that seems to filter her vision. It is also important not to overlook Walker's judgment of women based on their color. Although she appears to be arguing against intraracism, in actuality her proposition that the darker a black woman the closer she is to being the "essential mother" of the race can only serve to fan the fires of rancor and recrimination that have been raging among black people of different shades at least since slavery days. Walker's proposition, whether or not she is aware of it, has the effect of becoming a thinly cloaked attack on Afro-American mulattoes; it shunts them aside (or places them on a lower rung of Walker's ladder of blackness) as the outcast bastards of the slave plantation's white adulterers and fornicators. Like Walker's notion that black women suffer more and are less guilty than black men, her intraracial remarks constitute a persecutory proposition, elevating one victim, casting down another, and dividing the race.

A contrast with another black woman novelist might serve to expose the gratuitous character of Walker's reasoning. Toni Morrison has also considered the issue of intraracism and has come up with a proposition, within the plotting of her fourth novel, Tar Baby, which does not carry the invidious intent that lies beneath Walker's assertion. Morrison argues that some women of the race do not maintain the "ancient properties," the personal psychological characteristics that allow a woman to value caring for the well-being of the black family and the black race and to exhibit a healthy acceptance of her own sexuality. It is not the color of one's skin that determines this in Morrison's novel (although the mulatto character, Jadine, does have problems with her womanhood traceable to, among other sources, white reactions to her skin color) but, rather, whether or not a woman has first learned to be a daughter—that is, to love and to respect the mothers, mother figures, and parents responsible for her nurturing. Morrison argues that, if a woman learns to be a daughter, then she will be able to be a wife to a black man and a mother to black children and a nurturer and preserver of black people. Were one to initiate a search for the "essential mothers" with whom Walker seems to be concerned, skin color might prove a less dependable criterion than the characteristics identified by Morrison.

One might, moreover, question whether Walker seriously believes what she has articulated. For example, would her intraracial proposition hold true for men also? If so, then how is one to understand Walker's marriage (now terminated) to a white man or her relationships with light-skinned black men? Are the latter any less "essential" than dark-skinned black men (such as her father)? Or perhaps men don't qualify for entering the pantheon of racial "essentials." Walker continues her crusade on behalf of dark-skinned black women when she attacks black male political leaders who seem to prefer light-skinned women to dark: "For the dark-skinned black woman it comes as a series of disappointments and embarrassments that the wives of virtually all black leaders … appear to have been chosen for the nearness of their complexions to white alone."

What Wallace Thurman called intraracism is a corollary of America's white racism. The slaves and their descendants have been taught to get as close to whiteness as possible, in as many ways as possible. Blacks have taught each other to "marry up"; that is, to marry lighter-skinned blacks (if whites were unattainable or unwanted), a practice that has been called by blacks themselves "putting a little color into the race." In reaction to this value preference and its consequences, blacks (and whites, for somewhat different reasons) who feel admiration, covetousness, jealousy, or envy have scapegoated mulattoes. Intraracism is divisive, and it is disheartening to see Walker engaged in it.

The distance some black folk feel from Alice Walker may be a reflection of her involvement with white feminists. Whatever that involvement has been, she seems to be discovering some of the wisdom about working with whites that many other folk in the struggle have been teaching each other (or learning the hard way) for generations:

… in America white women who are truly feminist—for whom racism is inherently an impossibility—are largely outnumbered by average white women for whom racism, inasmuch as it assures white privilege, is an accepted way of life. Naturally, many of these women, to be trendy, will leap to the feminist banner…. What was required of women of color was to learn to distinguish between who was the real feminist and who was not, and to exert energy in feminist collaborations only when there is little risk of wasting it. The rigors of this discernment will inevitably keep throwing women of color back upon themselves….

As the Laguna of Leslie Silko's Ceremony lament the loss of Little Sister (the mother of the novel's protagonist, Tayo) to the corrupted and degrading embrace of exploitative white men and their culture, so do black folk fear that their young angry women, afflicted with the victim's alienation from her own self as well as her oppressed group and its roots, will squander the energy and future of the clan or tribe in a futile search for liberation among the very people responsible for and benefiting from the oppression of the race. The wisdom of the folk suggests that most white women will sleep with white men, despite the movement for gay liberation. To expect these white women to act for the benefit of black people by wresting political and economic power from white men and redistributing that power to black folk (along with white women?) seems to be unrealistic. Toni Morrison (bless her soul for not biting her tongue) characterizes white feminism as a family fight in which it is unwise for outsiders to become involved ("What the Black Woman Thinks"). Although most folk want to see an end to sexual exploitation, many still believe that the real battle lines will be drawn over racial and class exploitation. Walker's continual search for the real feminist seems somewhat unsophisticated in the light of the history and experience of black and white contact in struggle. One might indeed lament that her "women of color" have to be thrown "back upon themselves." It makes them seem to be reactionary assimilationists rather than assertive leaders with vision and direction for the future of black women and black people. To be assertive, visionary leaders of black people, black women may have to feel a greater loyalty towards black men (about whom they know) than towards "women throughout the world" (about whom they know little), and this is precisely the possibility that Walker has gone on record as lamenting.

Undoubtedly, Walker's alienation from black men influences her portrayal of them in fiction. Her audiences may achieve greater tolerance of her perceptions of men if they consider Walker's portrayal of male characters as part of the aftermath of the childhood accident in which she was blinded in one eye after her brother shot her with a bb gun. David Bradley asserts that "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 interest in boys…. In company with her brothers, her father had failed to 'give me male models I could respect.'" Walker's disenchantment sounds like that of a child who no longer feels like her father's darling. She seems to be at odds with her father, her brothers, and her family. Walker is more explicit about her disenchantment in an article first published in 1975: "I desperately needed my father and brothers to give me male models I could respect, because white men … offered man as dominator, as killer, and always as hypocrite. My father failed because he copied the hypocrisy. And my brothers—except for one—never understood they must represent half the world to me, as I must represent the other half to them." Walker's assertion of a mutual need between men and women to reflect the opposite half of the world is discordant with her disapproval of the loyalty some black women feel towards black men. Her perception that there was an absence of adequate young-adult male images within her childhood influences her literary portrayals of young black males: The central characters are flat stereotypes depicting, as Bradley notes, images of malevolence or impotence. Also, one might ask whether Walker's alienated perception of the males in her family was involved with her decision to marry a white man, despite her articulation of a problem with the image of the white male.

Walker's father died in 1973, before she had effected a reconciliation with him, and his death aggravated her alienation before it propelled her toward confronting it. She told David Bradley: "'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.'" Walker's estrangement seems to date from her childhood accident. It also appears that her hardheartedness towards her father prevented her grieving for him until quite a while after his death. The year 1973 also marks Walker's last year in Mississippi, when she continued her struggles against depression and the urge to commit suicide: "My salvation that last year was a black woman psychiatrist who had also grown up in the South. Though she encouraged me to talk about whether or not I had loved and/or understood my father, I became increasingly aware that I was holding myself responsible for the conditions of black people in America. Unable to murder the oppressors, I sat in a book-lined study and wrote about lives…." The correspondence between the issue that Walker holds against herself and that which precipitated her alienation from her father is startling: She feels just as inadequate at rescuing black people as she felt he was inadequate at rescuing her after the childhood accident.

As the concerns of her therapist suggest, Walker seems ignorant of her father's life. It may be this ignorance that she tried to relieve on the visit to her father's grave that she reports in the Bradley interview: "'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 the knottedness that had been in our relationship dissolved. And we're fine now.'" Since Walker elsewhere says that it took years for her to allow herself to grieve for her father, it is difficult to take literally this assertion of dissolved knottedness. Moreover, this account seems to undercut her 1975 statement concerning her father's sexism: "It was not until I became a student of women's liberation ideology that I could understand and forgive my father." The persona of the poem "Good Night, Willie Lee, I'll See You in the Morning" insists that there is real forgiveness of the father and a "healing / of all our wounds," but the more the persona speaks of forgiveness the less assured the reader feels that Walker's fundamental attitude towards her father has changed, especially when one considers her fictive portrayal of men. Yet it is certain that finding ways to forgive her father has been a continuing concern of Alice Walker's.

In 1975 she had not yet laid to rest the ghost of her father. She reveals that she perceives older men as father figures: "Dr. Benton, a friend of Zora [Neale Hurston]'s and a practicing M.D. in Fort Pierce, is one of those old, good-looking men whom I always have trouble not liking. (It no longer bothers me that I may be constantly searching for father figures; by this time, I have found several and dearly enjoyed them all.)." Speaking of Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps in 1971, Walker observed that "We must cherish our old men." And, speaking of old men as a category, she notes, "I love old men." The persona's attitudes and attachments to older men suggest that she may be in search of someone with whom she can play the role of darling, even daughter, to complete a circle involving a father figure that she abandoned in childhood in the aftermath of an accident. Elderly black men are portrayed with at least approval and often veneration because she liked her grandfathers who to her appeared to be gentle, in contrast to younger adult black males. Walker says, "'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.'" An ongoing effect of her childhood accident seems to be that she sees younger men (who would be in the age range that her father was when she became alienated from him and her brothers) with a jaundiced eye.

Walker's attitude towards her father is further uncovered by the connections she draws between a dream she had of him while she was in Cuba (during which he returned to look at her with something missing in his eyes) and her meeting with a Cuban revolutionary, Pablo Diaz, once a poor sugar cane cutter who had risen to the role of an "official spokesperson for the Cuban Institute for Friendship Among Peoples." Of Diaz she says, "Helping to throw off his own oppressors obviously had given him a pride in himself that nothing else could, and as he talked, I saw in his eyes a quality my own father's eyes had sometimes lacked: the absolute assurance that he was a man whose words—because he had helped destroy a way of life he despised—would always be heard, with respect, by his children." Walker's response to the Cuban revolutionary exposes circular and emotional reasoning: She may not respect her father because, since he did not bring about the end to his own oppression, he did not afford any assurance that what he said would be respected. Walker might be paraphrased, "I don't respect you because you don't expect me to respect you"; or, more to the point, "I don't respect you because you have not fulfilled my expectations." It appears that in her nonfictive assertions concerning her father, Walker plays the role of a victim who has become angry and bitter because the person she expects to rescue her is himself a victim (as well as a persecutor). (This attitude is similar to that she expresses when she attacks the judgment of the black community that will not protect black women accosted by black men.) She will not bear the sight of her father's anguish; she will not bear its weight on her consciousness. And his anguish is all the more unbearable because Walker, as a child, naturally expected him to be her protector, her comforter, her inspiration, her rescuer. Undoubtedly, one should not expect an eight-year-old, gripped by the physical and psychic trauma of impending blindness, to cope with the imperfection of her father (and also her older brothers). Moreover, to his plight as a sharecropper, one must add whatever may have been his personal shortcomings in order to get an accurate picture of the child's confrontation with his inadequacies. Walker was not merely disappointed but also frustrated by her father's anguish: She could not rescue him or make him into what she wanted or expected him to be, just as she has been unable to rescue black people. In other words, her continual rejection and condemnation of black people because they are either victims, persecutors, or inadequate rescuers may be, indeed, a reflection of her unresolved attitudes towards her father. Walker's suicidal impulses may be the result of her feeling like a child who is unable to be a daughter and a darling because no one appears (or remains) adequate to be the father she discarded as a child. Like a pendulum, Walker's recorded attitudes swing slowly back and forth between a victim's suicidal depression and a persecutor's deadly anger and thirst for revenge. The personas of the adult Walker continue to reject the father of her youth (all young men) waiting for her in her dreams and search out older men who fit her perceptions of her grandfathers, who appear to be adequate enough to rescue her, and for whom she can be a darling. She may be in search of not so much our mothers' gardens as our fathers' protecting arms.

If one accepts this insight, it is easy to explain the system of the characterization of Ruth, Grange, and Brownfield (as well as the other major characters of The Third Life of Grange Copeland); Meridian, the protagonist of Meridian; and Celie, the protagonist of The Color Purple. The major female characters are masks for Walker's perceptions of herself. None of them has an adequate relationship with a male character. The adult women do not enjoy sex with males. The last two novels end with protagonists who are certain never again to allow the possibility of sexual contact with a male. Alice Walker cannot afford to allow her protagonists to enjoy male sexuality, not merely because those protagonists believe that males, by nature, are inadequate humans (e.g., Celie's ridiculing of male genitalia along with her image of men as frogs or losers) but also because all the males with the potential for sexual relations with Walker's protagonists may be masks for her father.

For all Celie knew when Alfonso was raping her, he may as well have been her father. As a stepfather, no matter how inadequate, he is a parental figure. It is important to note that Celie allows herself to be repeatedly raped by this man, yet she protects Nettie so that Alfonso never touches her. One would have to give Celie much less credit for adequate human faculties than I do to think that she could know enough to protect Nettie but be too stupid to protect herself from Alfonso. And then she goes to Albert and plays the same game—"You go ahead and get away, Nettie, I'll stay back and let him abuse me. You wouldn't want him to do this awful thing to you; we both can see how terrible it is, but one of us must satisfy this male, and I think that I am the one who deserves to, probably because my esteem for myself is so low." Or something like that. (Friends with whom I have argued this issue are quick to assert the low self-esteem of Celie. Admitted, obviously, by definition. What I believe is interesting is not the psychological realism of the literary characterization, but the relationships that can be drawn between the characterization and Walker's perceptions of herself and her experiences.) Albert, Celie's husband, plays the same big-/mean-daddy role with Celie that Alfonso does: He beats her, forces her to work, ruts with her, and uses her as bait for Nettie. Later, Celie expresses some of her pent-up rage when she realizes that she wants to kill Albert and when she almost succeeds with a curse she lays on him. Appropriate to the attitudes of the novel, the malevolent Alfonso dies while screwing a child wife. Celie is up for only violent, abusive, and manipulative sexual relationships with father figures or parental figures to justify the anger and sublimate the desires of the alienated darling in search of a father. Celie never achieves mutual sexual equality with anyone. Even Shug, like Alfonso and Albert, takes advantage of her role as Celie's rescuer (that, along with her age, makes her more like a mother or parent). Shug successfully comers off the emotionally crippled Celie for sexual purposes and manipulates her into sitting on the porch (Hurston's Janie Starks knew better) while Shug chases around the country after her sexual fancies. Celie's homosexuality is clearly portrayed not as congenital but as a predilection or pathology that results from being the victim of not merely male but also father figure abusiveness: She is too afraid of her father to look at boys; she expresses a desire for only one person; and she seems unaware of the sexuality of other women.

I could go on with this, but the drift of the argument should be clear: Alice Walker's fictional characterizations include thinly disguised representations of perceptions of herself and her family that began in childhood. Unwittingly, she masquerades these perceptions, primarily the products of fantasies of sexuality and aggression, as the creations of a mature adult awareness, and she is then surprised by the responses of her intended audience, for whom she expresses more contempt than respect. She seems unaware that her readers may be reacting to their perceptions and intuitions of her feelings of hostility toward and alienation from them, and that those feelings unavoidably interfere with her ability to speak effectively to her audience. Feeling like an outcast of her own community, she has flirted and engaged herself with whites, undoubtedly searching for the acceptance and affirmation that she did not find at home, but she has discovered that they will not relinquish their racism, and so she appears to be searching for a way to return. If so, then the next critical step for black folk is to open their arms and embrace Alice Walker, to reassert the strength of the extended family, the unity of the tribe, with an acceptance and understanding that quells all anguish, including that which stems from the recognition that one bears the very evils one would extirpate from the social order—racism, sexism, and colorist values.

The rapprochement may be more easily secured by those who recognize that Walker's alienation is not unusual. With his depiction of the marginal man stranded between two cultures of a social order, Milton Gordon seems to be describing a pattern in Walker's life:

… most frequently he is a member of a minority group attracted by the subsociety and subculture of the dominant or majority group in the national society of which he is a part. Frustrated and not fully accepted by the broader social world he wished to enter, ambivalent in his attitude towards the more restricted social world to which he has ancestral rights, and beset by conflicting cultural standards, he develops, according to the classic conception, personality traits of insecurity, moodiness, hypersensitivity, excessive self-consciousness, and nervous strain.

Without this rapprochement it may be impossible for Alice Walker to achieve her goal of rescuing black people, especially black women.

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