As an African-American novelist, short–story writer, essayist, poet, critic, and editor, Alice Walker’s plethora of literary works examines many aspects of African American life as well as historical issues that are further developed by Walker’s unique point of view. Writers like Alice Walker make it possible to bring words and emotions to voices and events that are often silenced. Far from the traditional image of the artist, she has sought what amounts to a personal relationship with her readers.
She has also taken positions of passionate advocacy, most notably in her campaign against ritual genital mutilation of young women, a practice still institutionalized in many parts of the world, as well as the fight for equal rights for African Americans. Her writing has been praised around the world, increasing its profound impact on literature, social and political areas of American life. Moreover, Walker’s turbulent childhood in addition to growing up during an era where African-Americans like herself were fighting for freedom, increased her dedication to become both a reflective and revolutionary author.
Alice Malsenior Walker was born on February 9, 1944, in Eatonton, Georgia, to Willie Lee and Minnie Tallulah Grant-Walker. Like many of Walker’s fictional characters, she was the daughter of a sharecropper and the youngest of eight children (Bates, Alice Walker: A Critical Companion). Alice’s father had always taken education very seriously in an era where the schooling of black children, especially black females, was very rare. Nevertheless, Willie enrolled his young daughter in school at the age of four where she was then able to skip two grades up to first grade due to her intellectual potential (Bates, Alice Walker: A Critical Companion).
Though it may seem like Alice’s father was unorthodox, Willie was “blind to his own sexism. ” He believed that the traditional role of women was to take care of the house as well as the children. Due to his opinion on the limits of being a women, Alice’s relationship with her father declined over time and was even reflected upon in some of her novels (Bates, Alice Walker: A Critical Companion). Although Walker did indeed challenge the wisdom of her father, she clung tight to her mother for comfort and formed an unbreakable bond.
Minnie Walker was Alice’s greatest support system. She approved of Alice’s ebellious ways as a young girl in addition to teaching her life lessons that would be underlying tones in her multiple works (Bates, Alice Walker: A Critical Companion). Walker was a confident young girl until 1952, when an accident involving a BB gun left her blinded her in one eye. Although her older brother offered to pay for an operation to correct the impairment, Walker would never fully recover the sight of her right eye. The young Alice Walker would begin wearing glasses for the remainder of her life. The ridicule and loneliness that was created from her blindness led Walker into writing her first poetry pieces.
She found that writing demanded peace and quiet, but these were difficult things to come by when ten people lived in four rooms (Bates, Alice Walker: A Critical Companion). It was then that Walker became secluded and reserved and dreamed of suicide, but at the same time found solace in writing and became an observer rather than a participator in everyday life. Walker attended segregated schools which would be described as inferior by current standards, yet she recalled that she had terrific teachers who encouraged her to believe the world she was reaching for actually existed (Bates, Alice Walker: A Critical Companion).
Although Walker grew up in a poor environment, she was supported by her community and by the knowledge that she could choose her own identity. Moreover, Walker insisted that her mother granted her “permission” to be a writer and gave her the social, spiritual, and moral substance for her stories. Later before attending college, Alice would ask her mother permission to become a professional writer (Bates, Alice Walker: A Critical Companion). Alice concentrated and studied hard in school.
She graduated as valedictorian from her high school and went on to attend the local Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. She was greatly influenced by one of her professors there named Howard Zin, who she worked closely with on civil rights rallies. She became a volunteer for registered voters of Georgia and began attending political rallies for civil rights. Zin would eventually become an influence for some of Alice Walker’s later writing. In 1963, Walker left Spelman for Sarah Lawrence College, a place housing only a handful of African American people, most of them men.
This was Walker’s predecessor to participating in many civil rights demonstrations and meeting Martin Luther King at his home in recognition of her invitation to the Youth World Peace Festival in Finland (Bates, Alice Walker: A Critical Companion). 1964 was the turning point for Alice Walker. Realising that she was pregnant she contemplated suicide and slept with her razor under her pillow for three nights (Bates, Alice Walker: A Critical Companion). During the same week, Walker again turned to writing as a natural outlet for her distress. She stopped writing only to eat and sleep.
Thankfully, through the help of a friend, Walker was able to attain a safe abortion. The end product of weeks of anguish was, among other things, a story entitled “To Hell with Dying” and with the help of teacher Muriel Ruykeyser this was published in 1965 (Bates, Alice Walker: A Critical Companion). In the same year, she graduated from Lawrence College. After moving to New York City in November of the same year Walker worked for the welfare system. She soon moved back however and in 1966 fell in love with civil rights lawyer Melvyn Laventhal. They met while working at the Head Start Program in Mississippi.
The marriage was extremely controversial as Mel Leventhal was Jewish and Caucasian and Walker was African American (Bates, Alice Walker: A Critical Companion). The union between the couple was the first legal marriage in the state of Mississippi that was inter-racial. In 1968, one year into the marriage, Alice published her poetry collection, “Once. ” This was followed by Mel and Alice’s birth of their first daughter, Rebecca, but the marriage eventually fell apart under the turmoil and strife of the time period (Bates, Alice Walker: A Critical Companion).
Alice Walker’s writings continued to create discussions and controversy in both the literary and political arenas. Between 1968 and 1971, Alice would be a teacher in the Black Studies programs at two different colleges. She spent a year at Jackson State College and another year teaching at Tougaloo College. Alice Walker’s writing career would surge in the 1970’s with the publishing of her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (Smith, Jessie). The predominant issues and themes of her writings were civil rights based. Many of her stories and poems focus on rape, sexism, racism, violence, segregation and relationship problems.
It would later be openly announced that Alice Walker had a bi-sexual orientation (Bates, Alice Walker: A Critical Companion). In 1973, Alice Walker joined Ms. Magazine to publish short stories and poetry. She would also publish many different articles focusing on the theme of civil rights, animal rights and environmental issues. In 1973, Walker would publish the short story collection, “In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women”, and the poem collection, “Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems”. Her second novel talked about the life of being an activist in the civil rights and political movements in the South.
It is believed that much of Meridian parallels or reflects on Walker’s own life. Meridian was published in 1976 and earned Walker much recognition (Smith, Jessie). The focus of the book was accepting one’s mistakes and taking full responsibility for our actions. There were no excuses made and people greatly admired and respected Walker for this writing piece (Bates, Alice Walker: A Critical Companion). Her political venues later turned from the problems of segregation and racism in the South to issues abroad. During her junior year in college, Alice Walker did her internship in Uganda.
Her experiences in Uganda led her to stand against female genital mutilation; however, the process of female genital mutilation is still practiced today. During her college years, Alice Walker also visited Cuba on several occasions and would take an open political stand against the Cuban Embargos. Her political and social concerns were not strictly limited to the plight of black women in America but were on a global social and political scale (Bates, Alice Walker: A Critical Companion). After the publication of The Color Purple in 1982, Alice Walker would become a huge name virtually everywhere.
The Color Purple would be turned into a movie and a Broadway play (Smith, Jessie). There was a great deal of controversy over the book because the black culture was shown as patriarchal and whites were shown as sexist and racist. The Color Purple looks head on at the situations and plights of the black woman without the worries of being politically or socially correct. The Color Purple was so powerful in character development and insights into issues that it won Alice Walker the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1983.
It would later also receive the American Book Award (Bates, Alice Walker: A Critical Companion). In 1992, she would o onto write the novel, Possessing My Secret Joy which would feature the characters that were descendants from The Color Purple. The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was certainly the most distinguished of all her honors and awards but Alice Walker would go on to receive many others. In 1969 she received the Lillian Award from the National Endowment of the Arts for her publication of Third Life of Grange Copeland. In 1974, Walker received the Rosanthal Award from the Institute of Arts and Letters and the Radcliffe Institute Fellowship for the writing and publication of In Love and Trouble (Bates, Alice Walker: A Critical Companion).
Even with all of her popularity, Alice Walker went on to write and publish such popular short stories and novels as You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down: Stories in 1982, Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self in 1983, To Hell with Dying in 1988, The Temple of My Familiar in 1989, Finding the Green Stone in 1991, and Possessing the Secret of Joy in 1992 (Bates, Alice Walker: A Critical Companion). Walker continues to publish poetry collections as well. During her battle with Lymes Disease, Walker wrote The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult and a collection of political essays named Anything We Love Can Be Saved: a Writer’s Activism.
Within three years she has written a further three books, By the Light of My Father’s Smile in 1998, The Way Forward is with a Broken Heart in 2000 and A Long Walk of Freedom in 2001. In light of the tragedy at the World Trade Centre in New York City, she wrote her most recent work: Sent by Earth: A Message from the Grandmother Spirit After the Bombing of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon (Bates, Alice Walker: A Critical Companion). Being an African American growing up in the United States during the 1950s was far from easy.
There was segregation in most cities and whites fought against any chance of black freedom. However, by the 1950s, African Americans began to mobilize in earnest against discrimination. They lived in the same culture as white Americans and they wanted to enjoy equal rights. From the 1950s through the 1970s, movements for civil and social rights, equality, and justice swept the United States. Mainstream beliefs about the freedom of African Americans were challenged and protesters prompted the government to intervene and act on behalf of their equality principles.
Activists were prominent in local marches, revolts, and peaceful protests that placed thousands of people on the national stage of a continental confrontation. However, people also witnessed major setbacks and difficulties over winning the white men’s approval of equal rights. Overtime, with the perserverence and determination of many human rights advocates, African Americans gained greater access to education and a much broader set of career oppurtunities. As for the justice system during the Civil Rights era, the landmark case of Brown vs.
Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas upheld the activists demand to outlaw segregation in public schools (Brennan). Enacted in 1954, this major case symbolized the official start of the Civil Rights movement. A year after this ruling, the Montgomery Bus Boycott hit headlines across the country. Blacks were tired of giving up their seats to white people and being forced to sit in the back of the bus. It was then that Rosa Parks refused to move after the driver ordered her to allow a white man to sit down where she was.
This sparked a mode of resistance in which this one-day boycott turned into a year long rebellion. Not one black person rode the Montgomery City Lines for 383 days (Brennan). At first the bus companies did not even press for compromise. Therefore, when they realized that nearly three-fourths of their customers were black, they were already quickly losing money. However, this did not stop organizations like the Montgomery Improvement Association from planning the next steps of boycott.
At this point, popular leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. s well as Ralph Abernathy rose to become powerful leaders that would soon dominate the political scene when it came to question over equal rights (Brennan). When it came to peaceful protests, activists like King were arrested for their actions but quickly bailed out by their supporters to allow for the continuation of a steady fight. By 1956, the Montgomery Improvement Association and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People(NAACP) attempted to end segregation of the city bus lines through the justice system.
After months of legal dispute, the Montgomery City Lines were forced to end it’s policies on racial segregation on December 20,1956 (Brennan). As a result, the bus boycott ended the following day. Especially in the south, whites believed that any change in the social standings of society would disrupt the power balance between blacks and whites. Ultimately, they believed that if African Americans had any power whatsoever that resembled the whites, they would abuse it and revolt, trying to dominate southern society. Throughout the decade, black fears heightened as a result of brutal attacks from groups like the KKK and other gangs.
In this time period, the KKK was experiencing its second resurgence since World War I and the popularity of lynching increased (Brennan). The inhumane morals of whites who lynched blacks was publicized in newspapers by journalists such as Ida B. Wells, who additionally worked for the Anti-Lynching Bureau (Brennan). It was no surprise that African Americans felt the need to be equal especially after they served in World War II. Nearly one million blacks served for their country during the 1940s and they believed that America was just as much of their country as it was the whites (Brennan).