|Poet, short story writer, novelist, essayist, anthologist, teacher, editor, publisher, womanist and activist, Alice Malsenior Walker was born at home on February 9, 1944, under the sign of Aquarius in the town of Ward Chapel, a neighboring community of Eatonton, Georgia. She is the eighth and last child of Willie Lee Walker and Minnie Lou Tallulah Grant Walker. In 1994, Walker changed her middle name to Tallulah-Kate, in honor of her mother and of Kate Nelson, her paternal grandmother.
As a self-described “daughter of the rural peasantry,” Walker grew up in a loving household in the years following the end of the Great Depression. Though poor, the family was rich in kindness and perspective. From her parents and siblings, Walker learned to value the beauty in nature. Her family also nurtured Walker’s artistic aspirations, which included painting and music along with writing. Walker was particularly close to her mother, Minnie Lou Walker, whose fearlessness, love of beauty, and legendary gardening skills are celebrated in Walker’s landmark essay, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.”
Perhaps the most shaping experience of Walker’s childhood and adolescence occurred in 1952 when she was eight years old. Playing cowboys and Indians with her older brothers Curtis and Bobby, Curtis accidentally shot Walker in the eye with a BB gun. To avoid punishment, the brothers concocted a fiction and pressured their sister to accept it. The physical result was that Walker lost the sight in her right eye, which developed a disfiguring white scar. Psychologically, Walker grew more introspective, contending with feelings of sadness, alienation, and betrayal. “An accident became,” as she recalled, “‘my accident’—thereby absolving my brothers of any blame.”
In her biography of Walker, Evelyn White provides us with the writer’s most current observations on this event, one that in many ways prepared the ground for her becoming a writer: “The unhappy truth is that I was left feeling a great deal of pain and loss and forced to think I had somehow brought it on myself,” Walker remembers. “It was very like a rape. It was the first time I abandoned myself, by lying, and is at the root of my fear of abandonment. It is also the root of my need to tell the truth, always, because I experienced, very early, the pain of telling a lie.”
Several years after her injury, when Walker was fourteen, her older brother William provided her with the resources and encouragement to undergo eye surgery. In place of a white “glob,” a tiny blue sphere now marks the place where Walker was shot. She describes the impact of this transforming surgery in the essay “Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self.”
Walker attended primary and middle school at East Putnam Consolidated, established in 1948 under the leadership of her father, Willie Lee Walker. She subsequently attended the only high school open to blacks in segregated Eatonton, Butler-Baker High, graduating in 1961 as class valedictorian.
With “three magic gifts” from her mother in hand—a typewriter, a sewing machine, and a suitcase—Walker enrolled at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1961, where she quickly became involved in the civil rights movement. She also developed important friendships with two teachers, the historians Howard Zinn and Staughton Lynd. With the assistance of Lynd, Walker transferred to Sarah Lawrence College in 1964. At Sarah Lawrence, Walker’s commitment to becoming a writer was nurtured by her teachers, in particular the social philosopher Helen Lynd (mother of Staughton Lynd), and the poets Jane Cooper and Muriel Rukeyser.
After graduating from Sarah Lawrence in 1965, Walker accepted a position with the New York City Department of Welfare. A year later, with a $2,000 travel grant from the philanthropist Charles Merrill, she moved to Jackson, Mississippi, and worked for the Legal Defense Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Under the supervision of lawyer and activist Marian Wright Edelman, Walker took depositions from blacks who had been evicted from their homes for attempting to register to vote. While at the Legal Defense Fund, Walker met Melvyn Leventhal, a Jewish civil rights lawyer from New York City and a graduate of New York University’s Law School. Walker and Leventhal married in 1967. Two years later on November 17, 1969, their first and only child, Rebecca Grant, was born. Walker and Leventhal divorced in 1976.
Walker is a prolific writer in multiple genres. Her fiction, in particular her novels, have established her as a canonical figure in American letters, as well as a major figure in what scholars term the renaissance in African American women’s writings of the 1970s.
Walker’s first published work of fiction, “To Hell With Dying” (1967), was published when she was just twenty-three years old. It appeared in The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers, edited by Langston Hughes. The story, which chronicles the ups and downs of Mr. Sweet and the two children who work to keep him alive, was republished in 1988 as a children’s book, with illustrations by Catherine Deeter. Other works of children’s literature by Walker include Langston Hughes: American Poet (1974), Finding the Green Stone (1991), and Why War is Never A Good Idea (2007).
Walker published her debut novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, in 1970. The book chronicles the life of the Copelands, a family of sharecroppers in rural 1920’s Georgia. It is followed by Meridian (1976), Walker’s meditation on the modern civil rights movement, as well as her tribute to Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923) and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). In 1982 Walker published The Color Purple, an epistolary novel exploring the trials and triumphs of Celie, a largely unschooled, but earnest and increasingly independent young woman who unburdens herself in her powerful letters to God. For this artistic achievement, Walker was awarded the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (the first African American woman writer to receive this award) and the National Book Award.
Walker’s other novels include The Temple of My Familiar (1989), which explores, among many things, black women’s spirituality through the ages. Possessing the Secret of Joy appeared in 1992 and details the horrors and repercussions of female genital mutilation through the coming of age of its heroine Tashi, a character first introduced in The Color Purple. Walker’s commitment to exposing the devastating effects of female genital mutilation led to the 1993 documentary Warrior Marks, a collaboration with the British-Indian filmmaker Pratibha Parmar. Walker treats the important themes of father-daughter relationships, sexuality, and spirituality in By the Light of My Father’s Smile, published in 1998. In Now is the Time to Open Your Heart (2004), her most recent novel, Walker offers a rich and illuminating exploration of love, spirituality, and the search for wholeness in the modern age.
In addition to her novels, Walker has published several volumes of poetry. Her first book, Once, published in 1968, contains poems written both in Africa and during her senior year at Sarah Lawrence. Walker’s other poetry collections include: Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems (1973), Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning (1979), Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful (1984), Her Blue Body Everything We Know (1991), Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth (2003), and A Poem Traveled Down My Arm (2003). Walker’s most recent volume of poems is Good Times Require Furious Dancing (2010). As a poet, Walker treats a range of themes—freedom and individual expression, suicide, spirituality, love, the power of activism, ecology, civil rights—in free verse that recalls, for its spareness and lyricism, such poets as Langston Hughes, Theodore Roethke, Gwendolyn Brooks, Okot p’Bitek, and Zen Buddhist poetry.
Walker is an accomplished writer of short fiction and the author of four collections of short stories: In Love and Trouble (1973); You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down (1981); Alice Walker: The Complete Stories (1994); and The Way Forward Is with a Broken Heart (2000). The defining characteristics of Walker’s short fiction are economy, a commitment to examine rather than turn away from the troubling and violent aspects of human experience, and, above all, beautiful language and compelling storytelling.
Walker’s first major work of nonfiction, written in her early twenties and published in 1967, won first prize and $300 in a national essay contest sponsored by the American Scholar. Entitled “The Civil Rights Movement: What Good Was It?” the essay established Walker as a public intellectual and led to a writing fellowship at the prestigious MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. Of Walker’s writing in this genre, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (1983) is the most celebrated. In this debut collection of essays, she introduces her definition of womanism, redefines the literary tradition among African American women writers, and offers incisive commentary on such writers and national leaders as Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Flannery O’ Connor, Virginia Woolf, Buchi Emecheta, Toni Morrison, Ernest J. Gaines, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mrs. Coretta Scott King.
In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens is followed by five volumes of non-fiction prose. In Living By the Word (1988), a collection of essays, Walker revisits the writing of The Color Purple and addresses concerns such as the potentialities of certain forms of masculinity, our relation to the earth, and the meaning and value of folklore. In The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult (1996), she reexamines the controversies and condemnations generated by The Color Purple, the novel and the film. Anything We Love Can Be Saved (1997), featuring both essays and letters, is a record of Walker’s activism in which she pays tribute to such figures as Fidel Castro, Salman Rushdie, Audre Lorde, and others. Sent by Earth: a Message from the Grandmother Spirit (2001) is a meditation on the state of the nation and the world following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Through prose and poetry and by summoning such voices as Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk and peace advocate, Walker provides us with a searing condemnation of war in general and the Iraq war in particular. Walker’s most recent collection of essays is We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For (2006). In these essays and lectures she pays tribute, once again, to such figures as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Fidel Castro, and also challenges us to find, in this dissolving world, a practice that will sustain and direct us. In 2010, Walker published Overcoming Speechlessness: A Poet Encounters the Horrors in Rwanda, Eastern Congo, and Palestine/Israel. This is a searing and brilliant meditation on genocidal violence directed at women and children, among others. In this essay, Walker also establishes parallels between the events in Rwanda, Eastern Congo, and Gaza with the Holocaust and Trail of Tears.
As an anthologist, Walker lifted from obscurity and honored a writer who has served as an important model in her own artistic development: Zora Neale Hurston. She first heard Hurston’s name while auditing a course on poetry taught by the poet Margaret Walker at Tougaloo College in 1970. Walker encountered Hurston again in 1970 while doing research for a story that featured voodoo practices among rural Southern blacks. Walker’s investigations led her to Hurston’s Mules and Men (1935), a book on African American folklore. Further research on Hurston led to the publication of I Love Myself When I Am Laughing…and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader (1979). Containing writings by and about Hurston, including Walker’s “Looking for Zora,” this tribute to a forerunner and fellow artist served as the catalyst for the republication of the Florida writer’s corpus. The anthology also stimulated new scholarly interest in Hurston that resulted in her canonization as an American writer whose work, particularly the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), is now widely regarded as one of the most important works of twentieth-century American literature.
As Walker honed her craft as a writer, she also held a number of teaching appointments and initiated projects that reaffirmed her commitment to writing while also enhancing her national standing. In 1968 Walker was named writer-in-residence at Mississippi’s Jackson State University, and two years later she accepted the appointment of writer-in-residence at Tougaloo College. In 1972, Walker assumed a lectureship at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and Wellesley College, where she taught the first course on Black women writers. Walker returned to New York City in 1974 to become an editor at Ms., thus beginning a long and vital friendship with Gloria Steinem, one of the magazine’s co-founders. Wishing to support unpublished as well as emerging writers, Walker established Wild Trees Press in 1984, under whose auspices she has published such writers as J. California Cooper.
The Color Purple, now a classic of American literature, celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2007. The award-winning novel served as the inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film and has been adapted for the stage by Scott Sanders. Premiering at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater in September 2004, The Color Purple opened at New York City’s Broadway Theatre in December 2005. LaChanze starred as Celie and won a Tony Award for best leading actress in a musical in 2006. In 2010, Walker completed an audio recording of The Color Purple.
Walker’s writings have been translated into more than two dozen languages, and her books have sold more than ten million copies. Along with the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, Walker’s awards and fellowships include a Guggenheim Fellowship and a residency at Yaddo. In 2006 she was among the inaugural inductees into the California Hall of Fame; in 2009 she was awarded the James Weldon Johnson Medal for Literature by the James Weldon Johnson Institute of Emory University; and in 2010 she was awarded the Estelle Witherspoon Lifetime Achievement Award from the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund.
Walker has lectured widely in the United States and abroad. In 2010 she delivered the annual Steven Biko lecture in Cape Town, South Africa. Among her many intellectual interests, she is currently exploring the relationship between spirituality and creativity, and also between health and creativity. Walker’s research on this vital set of interrelated questions has placed her in conversation, both private and public, with such world figures as His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
- The Officers of the Alice Walker Literary Society
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