Emory Report
May 4, 2009
Volume 61, Number 30


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May 4
, 2009
Alice Walker’s visit brings art and archives alive

By Kim Urquhart

Students in Rudolph P. Byrd’s African American literature class were the first to use the Alice Walker archive when the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Books Library opened the collection to the public on April 23, giving scholars unprecedented access to the Pulitzer Prize winner’s life and work.

The young scholars sifted through papers, journals, memorabilia and letters, including drafts of writings such as “The Color Purple,” unpublished poems and correspondence with family, friends and colleagues. Stapled to the front of a manila file folder containing the first draft of Walker’s landmark essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” was a photograph of a garden.

The students wondered: Was this her mother’s garden?

The answer was no — the flowers pictured, brightly-colored cosmos, were grown in Walker’s own garden in California — but they were able to ask the primary source herself. Walker, at Emory for events surrounding the opening of her collection, made a surprise visit. The students were able to learn first-hand from what Byrd calls a “living archive.”

“I’ve gained a sense of importance in primary documents through my coursework at Emory,” said Candace Coffman, a history and women’s studies major. “So getting to touch these living documents of hers, to see her handwriting on the manuscripts, to see the process she went through to get to the printed word — and then to have the honor of having her there with us in the archives — was a real treat.”

Later, at the James Weldon Johnson Institute’s symposium “A Keeping of Records: The Art and Life of Alice Walker,” Coffman had another moment of scholarly discovery.

“I was looking at the final copy of ‘In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens’ and was thinking of the first drafts we had looked at in her archives, and I noticed little things that had changed. It was so enjoyable, to look at it and say, I know what came before,” said Coffman. “It’s like discovering a little secret about Alice Walker’s process as a writer.”

Visitors to the Woodruff Library can get their own behind-the-scenes look at Walker’s creative process at an exhibition that highlights the major periods, events and projects in Walker’s life in chronological order; explores her personal and professional life roles; and establishes the cultural and historical context in which she worked. “A Keeping of Records” is on view in the Schatten Gallery through September.

Coffman, who planned to return to the archives to prepare her final research paper for Byrd’s class, said she felt privileged to have the opportunity to take part in the range of the activities surrounding Walker’s campus visit. “I’m a part of this dialogue that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

The public also had the opportunity to engage in dialogue on important dimensions of the Georgia-born artist’s life and work through the symposium and a free lecture April 24.

Walker has given literary voice to the struggle for human rights, environmental issues, social movements and spirituality, as well as the quest for inner and world peace. For nearly three hours, she explored many of these issues with the audience gathered for her public talk “Reflections on the Turning of the Wheel.”

Walker’s activism and commitment to social justice were shaped by her childhood in segregated Putnam County, Ga. and her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement as a student at Spelman College. Her teacher and mentor at Spelman, historian Howard Zinn, was among the leading scholars, artists and activists who discussed and celebrated Walker’s life and art at the symposium.

Perhaps presenter feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who spoke of shared friendship and feminist-activist ideals, best summed up Walker’s influence: “It’s not about imitating or admiring Alice. Having seen Alice, whether on the page or in real life, helps all of us to be our own unique selves.”

Speaking on life and choice

“I think the gift of life is so incredible. I don’t intend to miss one second of it and I hope you won’t either,” Alice Walker told a packed Glenn auditorium April 24 in “Reflections on the Turning of the Wheel: Living a Life of Freedom and Choice.”

“I want to talk a little about how the world has changed. I’ve traveled a lot since I last saw you,” the author said, referring to her visit a year ago when she came to place her archive of writings, journals, photographs and memorabilia at Emory. “And I was telling you about going off into this new life of meditation and wandering.”

In fact, she noted, “The path that I am on seems to be attached to my foot.” And she told the audience some of the things she’d discovered about herself on that path, including her life at her house in Mexico and helping turtles get into the sea after birth; her political activism past with the American Indian Movement and her contribution in creating present-day “Obamaland”: (“The only English-American word they know in a lot of places is ‘Obama.’”) And how “writing in seclusion all those years I missed a lot. You do when you focus. And you understand that whatever the task is, it’s yours.”

About the exhibition: “I’m totally delighted and happy to be here. I love the exhibition. I want it to be something that is nourishing.”

—Leslie King