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Alice Walker is an African American writer, poet and activist for civil rights, the LGBTQ community and feminism. She is best known for her book turned screenplay and musical The Color Purple, which she published in 1982. In her novel, Walker addresses several issues about the tremendously low social position held by African American women in America’s southern communities by focusing the plot on lives of several Black women in rural Georgia in the 1930’s. The Color Purple earned Walker the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1983, making her the first black woman to win that prize, and the National Book Award for Fiction in 1983, as well.
Walker’s works such as The Color Purple, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, Everyday Use, and “Lest We Forget: An Open Letter to My Sisters” shows that she has been faced with anti-feminism and anti-womanism issues since she was a little girl and has been battling them till this very day.
Walker was introduced to oppression and inequality quite early in her life, whether she realized at the time or not, she eventually did.
When she did realize, it sparked a fire in her and she set on a journey to make the society acknowledge its racism, classism and sexism. In a letter titled Lest We Forget: An Open Letter to My Sisters Who Are Brave, Walker starts by detailing her beginning, “When I was born in 1944 my parents lived on a middle Georgia plantation that was owned by a white distant relative, Miss May Montgomery” (183).
She elaborates on by pointing all of the extensive work her family had to do for Miss May Montgomery and how she promised the Walker’s a life of equality and substance. They realize it was all a cover up when Walker’s father asked for a simple pay increase to support them and Montgomery responded with racial slurs and a explanation how he wasn’t worthy of a raise due to his race. After this young Walker, starts to notice all the not so little differences and that were prevalent in their community between the white and black women. These differences include the black students having to walk to school while white children were bused to their schools and how the white schools were made out of bricks while the black people in the city had to continuously build and rebuild their schools out of discarded army barracks because the racists kept burning down their buildings. These disadvantages were all too common and Walker set out to make life better for these suppressed people especially women in the African American community.
Black or African American feminism is a school of thought that is centered about the idea that racism and sexism work together to create Black women’s social issues and inequalities. In the essay titled No guarantees: Symposium on Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins, details that “in the 1980s, African American women were largely missing, as were black women’s interpretations of our own and others’ experiences, actions and perspectives” (2349). Several African American women were all involved in political customs that focused on preventing both racist and sexist actions from degrading women in their communities. Prominent African American women such as Anna Julia Cooper, Ida B. Wells, Sojourner Truth, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper raised their voice against inequalities of their time to help support and protect Black women’s rights in the nineteenth century. They have also worked amidst other systems of oppression, which have historically suppressed African American women. Their values, thoughts and activism could all be attributed to African American feminism of the modern period. Though at the time of their activism they did not introduce themselves as feminists, looking back they all completely embody the outspoken and committed spirit of a feminist.
Walker can be considered an essential voice in the feminist movement for African American women with complete certainty. In her article “Alice Walker’s Womanist Maternal”, Cheryl Hopson states that “Walker is part of a generation of Black feminists who broke the perceived and experienced silences of previous generations of Black women…” (222). Still encouraged by these nineteenth century pioneers, several African American women have continued to work toward the eradication of inequalities that stem from racism and sexism, but Walker’s strong writing style puts her on the forefront of modern feminism or as she would call it womanism.
In a society that thrives of the oppression of women and African Americans, it was inevitable for Walker to face criticism and literary attacks. So, to combat these obstacles, in 1994, Walker cofounded her own publishing company called Wild Trees Press with Robert Allen, a fellow writer. It was one of very few black-owned publishing companies due to the time period though they published books from people of several races. In addition to that, one of their other goals was to support the feminist movement. So, therefore, the books that were published by this company were all written by self-proclaimed feminists or the plot of the books were about women from the point of view of a feminist. With her personal success, Walker gave the authors that she decided to publish a platform to express their opinions and tell real and raw stories about women without worrying about the backlash that they may face unlike what other publishers were worried about.
Walker’s works have been instrumental in her efforts to free women from the chains of society especially women of color. Knowing this, Walker has made it job to include her activism each of literary works and has coined the term “womanist.” Womanist is a word that Walker coined in 1983 in her short story Coming Apart, which is a piece from her book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. Walker defines a “womanist as a black feminist or feminist of color” (100). Walker goes into further detail on this by also defining a womanist as “A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility and women’s strength… Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female” (45). Walker views this as a theory is critical to survival of the Black race and this theory covers different aspects of the Black community. Walker’s interest in womanism is due to her knowledge of the difference between white feminism and black feminism. In her previously mentioned letter Lest We Forget: An Open Letter to My Sisters Who Are Brave, Walker says “I wish I could say white women treated me and other black people a lot better than the men did, but I cannot. It seemed to me… that white women have copied…the behavior of their fathers and their brothers, and in the South” (184). Walker acknowledging that white women don’t treat black women any better than white men further proves her womanist theory by implying that black feminism is actually the epitome of achieving gender, class, and racial equality.
One of the biggest reasons that Walker is a respected is that the she isn’t afraid to tell the stories of so many women in America. In a Love Letter to Black Feminism, Lindsey states that “One of the many important interventions of Black Feminism is the emphasis on telling the stories of Black women” (1). In her book titled In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, Walker include a collection of 36 different written works that surround the idea of her womanist theory. Throughout the book, she tells stories about several black women, both unsung heroes and well-known African-Americans in their time alike. In her previously mentioned novel The Color Purple, Walker focuses on the fictional life of two young girls from the American south in the early 1900’s, named Celie and Nettie. Though the two characters are fictional, Walker’s book was so proudly accepted by so Black women because their lives were so relatable. In her review article titled Deity, Distortion and Destruction: A Model of God in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Norma Gregory states that “Celie learns to form supportive relationships and a network with other African [American] women” (365). The coming together of the African American women in Celie’s community is the epitome of what Walker’s womanist theory aims to prove. The next example that will be used is her short story titled Everyday Use. This story follows an African American woman living the American South who has two daughters that take two different paths to claiming their cultural identities. Once again, this story is immediately successful in the African American community due to the fact that identity crisis is huge and relatable issue in these communities.
Alice Walker has been fighting the anti-Black state in America for decades through her literary works. She has used her fiction to spread knowledge spread the world and especially the women in the African American communities. Throughout her time as a womanist, she has discussed several important issues such as domestic violence, interracial relationships, racism, sexism, classism, abortions, even topics about appropriation, pornography. As previously stated womanists work to beat the worked systems of oppression which have historically suppressed Black American women. Walker emerges as one when she starts to bring notice to the social, class and gender disparities between African American women and other groups of people in other communities that were obvious but nonetheless disregarded for centuries.
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