She Who Struggles: Alice Walker

"Tell the truth, have you ever found God in a church? I never did. I just found a bunch of folks hoping for him to show. Any God I ever felt in church I brought in with me. And I think all the other folks did too. They come to church to share God, not find God."
–The Color Purple

She’s called the “Mother of Womanism” and according to her, “Womanism is to feminism as purple is to lavender.” She is an acclaimed author, activist, and poet: she’s written 5 novels, 4 books of essays, and 5 poetry books, she’s the first African American to receive a Pulitzer Prize for fiction (The Color Purple, 1982), recipient of the Lilian Smith Award, and the American book award. Still, there is more behind the public portrayal of Alice Walker: there is a real woman. A woman that doesn’t eat meat, made history by having the first legal interracial marriage in the state of Mississippi, loves Bob Marley and Sweet Honey in the Rock, detests female circumcision and nuclear weapons. She rejects conventional religions opting for what she calls “paganism” – minus the negative connotation often associated with the word. Feeling more comfortable partaking in the rituals of her African and Native American ancestors, she composes a religion by borrowing various rituals of different African and Native American tribes.

Why is Alice Walker important to us? If she were simply a struggling writer that had not received recognition for her works, would I still be writing about her? If I had the chance to meet her privately and hear her story: yes. Alice Walker’s life has been a struggle: to define herself as a woman, fight against racism, trying to find love, and manage external pressures. She’s not a writer because she needed a creative outlet, she began writing because her other outlet was going to be suicide. She’s not an acclaimed writer solely based off her talent, but because she writes from a heart of painful and meaningful experiences. Besides the fact that she was born on February 9, 1944, in Eatonton, Georgia, Alice Walker was a confident girl. However, when she was eight years old her brother, while playing a chaotic game of Cowboys and Indians, accidentally shot her in her right eye with a BB gun. After this incident, she lost the sight in her right eye and became a recluse. Since she often dreamed of committing suicide, she turned to writing poetry and short stories. This withdrawal led her to become a spectator of life rather than a participator.

Walker graduated high school as prom queen and valedictorian despite her personal struggles. She left for Spelman College in 1961 with three symbolic gifts from her mother: a suitcase for when she traveled the world, a sewing machine for self-sufficiency, and a typewriter as a means of expressing her creativity. While attending Spelman College, she was involved in the Civil Rights Movement demonstrations and was invited to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s home in 1962 in recognition of her invitation to Finland to participate in the Youth World Peace Festival. In her junior year, she found out that she received a scholarship from Sarah Lawrence College in New York. After persuasion from professors at Spelman, she left the heart of the civil rights activities to join the “handful of black students” that attended this prestigious university. This transfer opened up a gate of experience and growth for Walker: she got the chance to travel to Africa and Europe, was mentored by poet Muriel Ruykeyser and writer Jane Cooper, and got one of her works published with the help of Langston Hughes. This work was entitled To Hell With Dying, which was inspired by an unexpected pregnancy in 1964, an abortion, and depression following the ordeal.

Walker graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1965 and returned to Georgia and her activity in the Civil Rights Movement. While down there, she met and fell in love with a Jewish law student named Mel Leventhal who aspired to be a civil rights lawyer. He encouraged Walker in her writing and she moved to New York with him so that he could finish school. Finally, they moved to Mississippi and married there, even though they faced many threats because they were an interracial couple. The couple became even happier when Walker found out that she was pregnant, but with the news of King’s assassination, she fell into a deep depression and miscarried. Walker has taught at several universities including Jackson State University, Tougaloo College, and Wellesley College.

Walker did manage to give birth to a baby girl Rebecca around the same time that The Third Life of Grange Copeland was published. A turning point in Walker’s life came with her discovery of Zora Neale Hurston, a Harlem Renaissance writer when she began teaching one of the first women in literature-based courses in the U.S. She wanted to introduce her students to black female writers also. Inspired by Hurston’s work, Walker visited her grave in Florida and put a marker there. Inspiration from Hurston’s discovery helped Walker be editor of Ms. Magazine, write Meridian, In Love & Trouble: Stories of Black Women, and her second volume of poetry Revolutionary Petunias & Other Poems. Unfortunately, in 1978 when Meridian was published, her marriage with Leventhal ended. The success of Meridian convinced Walker to focus on writing full time. She moved to San Francisco, California, and fell in love with Robert Allen, editor of Black Scholar. Since then, she has lived with him in Mendocino, California. Her writing has been acclaimed and she continues to do charity work and speaks at various events and universities.

Unabashedly exploring hushed issues of sexuality, spirituality, race, and class, Walker works through her curiosities and opinions in her books and poems. More lies beneath a woman blinded in one eye. More than The Color Purple and a nice life in California. Past mistakes hurt still, memories of days when life wasn’t desired, remnants of joy and opinions that she once thought were truths until she lived longer and grew wiser, a world with ears and eyes open waiting to receive what this jewel will drop next. However, she is just a person trying to figure it out like the rest of us: allowing the Creator to use her as a vessel while she is doing it. Asé

“And so our mothers and grandmothers have, more often than not anonymously, handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see -- or like a sealed letter they could not plainly read.”
–Alice Walker

{ exclusive feature}
by Asha Taylor

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