by Nona Blyth Cloud
Alice Walker (1944 – ) is famous for her novels, especially her third novel, The Color Purple.
Since it was first published in 1982, The Color Purple earned the National Book Award for Fiction and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the first time it was awarded to an African-American woman. Five million copies, in 25 languages, have been sold. It was made into a film in 1985 that was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, grossed over $98,000,000, and launched Oprah Winfrey into stardom.
But she published Revolutionary Petunias, a book of poetry, almost ten years before The Color Purple turned Alice Walker into a literary phenomenon.
The first poem of Petunia’s opening section, In These Dissenting Times, was untitled:
I shall write of the old men I knew
And the young men
And of the gold toothed women
Mighty of arm
Who dragged us all
Alice Walker was born in Eatonton, Georgia, about 78 miles from Atlanta. It was also home to Joel Chandler Harris, who wrote the Uncle Remus fables in the late 19th century.
Eatonton is a dairy farming community, which had fewer than 2500 residents in the 1940s and 50s of Alice Walker’s childhood. There are two lakes, a small national forest and a Native American archaeological site nearby. Her parents, Willie Lee and Minnie Lou Grant Walker, were sharecroppers. Alice was the youngest of their eight children.
She has said of her father, that he was “wonderful at math but a terrible farmer.” He earned only $300 a year from sharecropping and dairy farming. Her mother worked as a maid, 11 hours a day for $17 a week.
The “Jim Crow” laws, which enforced the South’s racial segregation, made it hard for a child of black sharecroppers to get an education. Minnie Lou Walker was once told by a white plantation owner that black people had “no need for education.” Alice remembers her mother saying, “You might have some black children somewhere, but they don’t live in this house. Don’t you ever come around here again talking about how my children don’t need to learn how to read and write.” Minnie Lou Walker enrolled her daughter in first grade when Alice was only four years old.
When she was 8 years old, Alice was shot in the right eye with a BB pellet while playing cowboys and Indians with two of her brothers. Whitish scar tissue in her damaged eye made her self-conscious and withdrawn. “For a long time, I thought I was very ugly and disfigured,” she told John O’Brien in Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives, Past and Present. She found solace in reading and writing poetry.
The injury to her eye made her eligible for a partial college scholarship. Her mother’s work as a maid helped pay the rest of the costs for her education.
Alice Walker went to Spelman College. Like many others, she was inspired by Martin Luther King, and became part of the Civil Rights movement, participating in voter registration, sit-ins and other protests. In 1962 she was invited to the home of Dr. King, in recognition of her attendance at the Youth World Peace Festival in Finland.
She completed her B.A. at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. While at Sarah Lawrence, Walker visited Africa as part of a study-abroad program. She graduated in 1965 — the same year she sold her first short story. She published her first book, Once: Poems, in 1968, containing poems about the civil rights movement, her personal anguish about deciding to get an abortion, and her travels to Africa.
The rhythms of her poems, especially the early ones, echo the cadence of her Georgia upbringing.
The Old Men Used to Sing
The old men used to sing
And lifted a brother
Out the door
I used to think they
Knowing how to
They shuffled softly
With the flowers
Than with the widow
After they’d put the
And stood around waiting
After college, Walker worked as a social worker for the NYC Department of Welfare. In 1967, she married Melvyn Rosenman Leventhal, a white civil rights attorney. They moved to Jackson, Mississippi, where Walker worked as the black history consultant for Head Start, and also was a writer-in-residence for Jackson State College (later Jackson State University) and Tougaloo College. She finished her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, in 1969, the same year her daughter, Rebecca Grant, was born. Her marriage ended in 1977.
I WILL KEEP BROKEN THINGS
I will keep broken
the big clay pot
with raised iguanas
of their wise
heads sheared off;
I will keep broken things: the old slave market basket brought to
my door by Mississippi a jagged
in its sturdy dark
I will keep broken things:
The memory of
those long delicious night swims with you;
I will keep broken things:
In my house
there remains an honored shelf
on which I will keep broken things.
Their beauty is
they need not ever be “fixed.”
I will keep your wild
free laughter though it is now missing its
I will keep broken things:
I will keep broken things.
I will keep you:
pilgrim of sorrow.
I will keep myself.
Walker moved to northern California, where she lives and writes today, and has academic ties with UC Berkeley. She’s an advocate for antinuclear and environmental causes. Her protests against female circumcision in Africa and the Middle East have made her a strong voice for international women’s rights. She’s also been a contributing editor of Ms. magazine, and is a co-founder of Wild Tree Press.
I Said to Poetry
I said to Poetry: “I’m finished
Having to almost die
before some weird light
comes creeping through
is no fun.
“No thank you, Creation,
no muse need apply.
I’m out for good times–
at the very least,
some painless convention.”
Poetry laid back
and played dead
until this morning.
I wasn’t sad or anything,
Poetry said: “You remember
the desert, and how glad you were
that you have an eye
to see it with? You remember
that, if ever so slightly?”
I said: “I didn’t hear that.
Besides, it’s five o’clock in the a.m.
I’m not getting up
in the dark
to talk to you.”
Poetry said: “But think about the time
you saw the moon
over that small canyon
that you liked so much better
than the grand one–and how suprised you were
that the moonlight was green
and you still had
one good eye
to see it with
Think of that!”
“I’ll join the church!” I said,
huffily, turning my face to the wall.
“I’ll learn how to pray again!”
“Let me ask you,” said Poetry.
“When you pray, what do you think
Poetry had me.
“There’s no paper
in this room,” I said.
“And that new pen I bought
makes a funny noise.”
“Bullshit,” said Poetry.
“Bullshit,” said I.
For all her accomplishments and international fame, Alice Walker has remained grounded. She treasures time spent in her garden — her deep affection for working there shows in this poem:
GOING OUT TO THE GARDEN
Going out to the garden
to plant seeds
for my winter greens
-the strong, fiery mustard
& the milder
I saw a gecko
like the rest of us
from the heat.
Geckos like heat
I know this
but the heat
these last few days
has been excessive
& for them.
A spray of water
from the hose
touched its skin:
I thought it would
There are crevices
to hide in:
the garden wall
is made of stones.
did the gecko
not run away
looking for more.
I gave it.
from the green
Is it the end
of the world?
It seemed to ask.
is it Paradise?
I bathed it
until we were both
of the troubles
of this world
at least for this moment:
this moment of pleasure
as I with so much happiness
Alice Walker travels far, lives much and writes about it all. It’s a remarkable journey, a story even more fantastic than the Br’er Rabbit tales told by her hometown’s other literary alumni.
- “Untitled” (I shall write) from Revolutionary Petunias & Other Poems, © 1973 by Alice Walker, Harvest Book/Harcourt Brace & Co
- “The Old Men Used to Sing” from Revolutionary Petunias & Other Poems, © 1973 by Alice Walker, Harvest Book/Harcourt Brace & Co
- “I Will Keep Broken Things” from The Cushion in the Road: Meditation and Wandering as the Whole World Awakens to Being in Harm’s Way. © 2013 by Alice Walker, The New Press — http://www.ayearofbeinghere.com/2014/07/alice-walker-i-will-keep-broken-things.html
- “I Said to Poetry” from Collected Poems: Her Blue Body Everything We Know – 1965-1990, © 2005 by Alice Walker, Phoenix/Orion Publishing — http://www.math.buffalo.edu/~sww/poetry/walker_alice.html#gray
- “Going Out to the Garden” from The World Will Follow Joy: Turning Madness Into Flowers, © 2012 by Alice Walker, The New Press —
- Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/alice-walker
- Georgia Encyclopedia: http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/alice-walker-b-1944
- Once: Poems(also see below), Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1968.
- Five Poems,Broadside Press (Highland Park, MI), 1972.
- Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems(also see below), Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1973.
- Goodnight, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning(also see below), Dial (New York, NY), 1979.
- Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful,Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1984.
- Alice Walker Boxed Set—Poetry: Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning; Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems; Once, Poems,Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1985.
- Her Blue Body Everything We Know: Earthling Poems, 1965-1990 Complete,Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1991.
- A Poem Traveled down My Arm: Poem and Drawings,Random House (New York, NY), 2002.
- Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth: New Poems,Random House (New York, NY), 2003.
FICTION: NOVELS, EXCEPT AS NOTED
- The Third Life of Grange Copeland,Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1970.
- In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women,Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1973.
- Meridian,Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1976.
- You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down(short stories), Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1981.
- The Color Purple,Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1982.
- Alice Walker Boxed Set—Fiction: The Third Life of Grange Copeland, You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down, and In Love and Trouble,Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1985.
- The Temple of My Familiar,Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1989.
- Possessing the Secret of Joy,Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1992.
- Everyday Use,edited by Barbara Christian, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, NJ), 1994.
- By the Light of My Father’s Smile,Random House (New York, NY), 1998.
- The Way Forward Is with a Broken Heart,Random House (New York, NY), 2000.
- Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart: A Novel,Random House (New York, NY), 2004.
- Langston Hughes: American Poet(biography), Crowell (New York, NY), 1973, revised edition, illustrated by Catherine Deeter, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2002.
- To Hell with Dying,illustrations by Catherine Deeter, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1988.
- Finding the Green Stone,Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1991.
- In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose,Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1983.
- Living by the Word: Selected Writings, 1973-1987,Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1988.
- (With Pratibha Parmar)Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1993.
- Alice Walker Banned,with introduction by Patricia Holt, Aunt Lute Books (San Francisco, CA), 1996.
- Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer’s Activism,Random House (New York, NY), 1997.
- (With Francesco Mastalia and Alfonse Pagano)Dreads: Sacred Rites of the Natural Hair Revolution, Artisan (New York, NY), 1999.
- Photo of a young Alice Walker
- Detail from photo of Ugandan basket
- Photo of Alice Walker
- Old basket
- Narrow canyon
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud
Wonderful, Nona. Thank you so much!
You’re very welcome Joy
I came upon a documentary about her and her life that I thoroughly enjoyed. But one of the things I took away from that was the impression that her accomplishments did harm her family, in particular her daughter, who is now grown. Apparently they have quite the tumultuous mother – daughter relationship. Absenteeism in critical moments perhaps.
Kudos to her accomplishments nevertheless, or maybe just a little less.
Hi Nate –
A very wise woman told me years ago that there are at least three sides to every story.
While I’m sure that Alice Walker, like all parents, made her share of mistakes in raising her daughter, I wonder if other factors influenced how the documentary presented “the facts” – like the narrative of a successful woman being a bad mother drawing more attention than one that simply says she was an OK but not outstanding parent.
Here’s Alice Walker’s version, from her website:
BEGINNING IN THE LATE 1990s I became aware that my daughter, Rebecca Grant Walker Leventhal, aka Rebecca Walker, was, for her own purposes, making wildly untrue comments, in private talks, lectures, and in the media, about her childhood experiences with her father and me. As years passed, these charges grew in variety and intensity and centered primarily on my deficiencies as a mother. I was not a perfect mother, whatever that means, but I was good enough. The pain of being unfairly and publicly accused of willful harm, by someone I gave birth to, and raised, to the limits of my ability, someone I’ve deeply loved, has been at times almost unbearable. For the past decade or so I have borne this injustice as well as I could, in silence, for the most part, but now, being on the other side of the trauma to some degree, I begin to see unexpected ways uncontested slander harms us. This is what I wish to share.
Six or seven years ago I discovered Wikipedia. I am “old school” and used to relying on the ancient writer’s tools: dictionaries, encyclopedias, a thesaurus. It seemed so invitingly easy and quick that I thought to check out my own name. There, as if verified by The Gods of We Know Everything, appeared some of my daughter’s most distorted comments about me. Presented as legitimate information. As if they were true.
There is the ‘”fact” of our “estrangement” as if I participated in manufacturing, establishing or maintaining one. It is true that after years of verbal and fear of physical abuse I resigned as personal mother, in favor of being the same kind of mother to my biological daughter that I am to non-biological ones: protective and loving but demanding of courtesy and respect.
There is the “fact” that my daughter was removed from my will, in favor of “a distant relative.” My
daughter has not been removed from my will to this day. That a first cousin, my brother’s son, was asked to assume end of life duties for me, in no way impacted on the rest of my will. But why should the subject of my will even appear in Wikipedia? Whose business is it what is in my will?
There is the “fact” that I have not spoken to my daughter since the birth of her son, Tenzin, which I suppose is meant to make it more conceivable that I’ve never been permitted to see him. (All I can say to this is: Hang on, Grandson!)
I learn via Wikipedia that my daughter was banished because she questioned my “ideology”! I’m the kind of mother who would cheer.
There is my daughter’s quote about feeling like a symbol of interracial solidarity rather than “a cherished daughter” that is attributed to me. Further establishing a self-pitying tone that begins to grate.
I see I’m also second cousin to Reggie Watts whom I do not know.