Alice Walker Breaks Out As One of the Leading Female Voices in African American Literature

Alice Walker Breaks Out As One of the Leading Female Voices in African American Literature

An African American writer and activist Alice Walker began publishing her fiction and poetry during the latter years of the Black Arts movement in the 1960’s. Born in 1944 in Eatonton, Georgia, to sharecropper parents,  she knew racism and poverty only too well and with works expressing the need for the tackling of such issues she has become one of the best-known and most highly respected writers from the U.S. along with such writers as Toni Morrison and Gloria Naylor , commonly associated with the post-1970s surge in African American women’s literature.  

Her activism started after being educated at Spelman College and Sarah Lawrence College, where Walker, in a commencement speech spoke out against the silence of that institution’s curriculum to African-American culture and history. Active in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement in the South, she used her own and others’ experiences as material for her searing examination of politics and black-white relations in her novel Meridian (1976).

Beginning with her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Walker has focused on such issues as sexual and racial realities within black communities as well as the unavoidable connections between family and society. For exposing the former, she has been criticized by some African-American male critics and theorists; for exploring the latter, she has been awarded numerous prizes while winning the hearts and minds of countless black and white readers.

Walker’s heroes, often women in the African-American community struggling to emerge from a history of oppression and abuse,  find strength in binding with other women and turnng to the African past in the search for alternatives to this rapacious technological civilization. 

Her most famous work, coming out in 1982, The Color Purple written in epistolary form, chronicles the life of a poor and abused southern black American woman  growing up between 1909 and 1947 in a town in Georgia who after her long suffering of abuse at the hands of several men eventually triumphs over oppression and attains self-realization through affirming female relationships.  

Infused with incest, lesbian love, and sibling devotion,Color Purple also introduces blues music as a unifying thread in the lives of many of the characters. In it, she brought together many of the characters and themes of her previous works thus creating “an American novel of permanent importance.”

Narrated through the voice of Celie, The Color Purple is structured through a series of letters written by a southern black woman (Celie), reflecting a history of oppression and abuse suffered at the hands of the men. Celie writes about the misery of childhood incest, physical abuse, and loneliness in her “letters to God.” After being repeatedly raped by her stepfather, Celie is forced to marry a widowed farmer with three children. Yet her deepest hopes are realized with the help of a loving community of women, including her husband’s mistress, Shug Avery, and Celie’s sister, Nettie. Celie gradually learns to see herself as a desirable woman, a healthy and valuable part of the universe.

The novel charts Celie’s resistance to the oppression surrounding her, and the liberation of her existence through positive and supportive relations with other women.  Perhaps even more than Walker’s other works, [The Color Purple] especially affirms that the most abused of the abused can transform herself.

Set in rural Georgia during segregation, The Color Purple brings components of nineteenth-century slave autobiography and sentimental fiction together with a confessional narrative of sexual awakening.

The book was resoundingly praised for its masterful recreation of black folk speech, in which, Walker converts Celie’s “subliterate dialect into a medium of remarkable expressiveness, color, and poignancy,” which he found impossible to imagine Celie apart from; for “through it, not only a memorable and infinitely touching character but a whole submerged world is vividly called into being.”  The Color Purple (1982) has been praised for Walker’s forthright depiction of taboo subjects and her clear rendering of folk idiom and dialect. It has generated the most public attention as a book and as a major motion picture. The novel won both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award, and was made into a popular motion picture which received several Academy Award nominations.  

The awards and its being adapted into a film by Steven Spielberg brought the book together with Walker herself to the attention of mainstream America thus becoming known to an even wider audience. The musical stage adaptation of the book premiered at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta in 2004 and opened on Broadway in 2005.

But this brought her not only fame but controversy as well. She was widely criticized for negative portrayals of men, though many critics admitted that the movie presented more simplistic negative pictures than the book’s more nuanced portrayals. For men come in  mostly for a raw deal with Walker’s harshest critics condemning her portrayal of black men in the novel as “male-bashing.”  A recurrent feature in her fiction are black males representing a generation of men who ‘had failed women and themselves.’ It, however, established her as a dominant voice in the quest for a new black identity.

The Color Purple became a point of demarcation in Walker’s work, being both the completion of the cycle of novels she announced in the early 70’s and the beginning of new emphases for her as a writer. For fourteen years earlier Walker had declared herself an African American woman writer who was committed to exploring the lives of black women completing the cycle demonstrating: “the survival and liberation of black women through the strength and wisdom of others.”  

She described the three types of women characters she felt were missing from much of the literature of the United States.

Firstly, there were those who were exploited both physically and emotionally. Their lives were narrow and confining and they were driven sometimes to madness. These were typified in Margaret and Mem Copeland in her first novel.

Secondly there were those who were victims not so much of physical violence as of psychic violence, thus becoming women alienated from their own culture.

The third type represented most effectively by Celie and Shug in The Color Purple are those African American women who despite the oppression they suffer achieve some wholeness and create spaces for other oppressed communities.

Refusing to ignore the tangle of personal and political themes, Walker has produced half a dozen novels, two collections of short stories, numerous volumes of poetry, and books of essays. Though she has attained fame and recognition in many countries, she has not lost her sense of rootedness in the South or her sense of indebtedness to her mother for showing her what the life of an artist entailed.     

Writing of this central experience in her famous essay, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” she talks about watching her mother at the end of a day of back-breaking physical labor on someone else’s farm return home only to walk the long distance to their well to get water for her garden planted each year at their doorstep.   Walker observed her design that garden, putting tall plants at the back and planting so as to have something in bloom from early spring until the end of summer.   Though Walker did not recognize what she was seeing at the time, the adult Walker now sees her mother as an artist full of dedication, a keen sense of design and balance, and a tough conviction that life without beauty is unbearable.

Recognized as one of the leading voices among black American women writers, Alice Walker has produced an acclaimed and varied body of work, including poetry, novels, short stories, essays, and criticism. Her writings portray the struggle of black people throughout history, and are praised for their insightful and riveting portraits of black life, in particular the experiences of black women in a sexist and racist society.  

Walker has described herself as a “womanist” – referring to a black feminist – which she defines in the introduction to her book of essays, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, as one who “appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility … women’s strength” and is “committed to [the] survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female.”  

A theme throughout Walker’s work is the preservation of black culture, with her female characters forging important links to maintain continuity in both personal relationships and communities

Walker is concerned with “heritage,” which to her “is not so much the grand sweep of history or artifacts created as it is the relations of people to each other, young to old, parent to child, man to woman.”  

 Further Readings:Alice Walker Directory

  • Allan, Tuzyline. Womanist and Feminist Aesthetics: A Comparative Review. Athens: Ohio UP, 1995.
  • Butler-Evans, Elliott. Race, Gender, and Desire: Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Toni Cade Bombara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1989.
  • Russell, Sandi. Render Me My Song: African-American Women Writers from Slavery to the Present. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.
  • I Love Myself When I Am Laughing…& Then Again When I Am Looking Mean & Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader. Zora Neale Hurston; Alice Walker, editor. Trade Paperback, 1979.
  • In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose: Alice Walker, Trade Paperback, 1984 (originally 1983) Alice Walker & Zora Neale Hurston: The Common Bond: Lillie P. Howard, Contributions in Afro-American & African Series #163 (1993) Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult: A Meditation on Life, Spirit, Art & the Making of the Film, The Color Purple, Ten Years Later: Alice Walker, 1997 (originally 1996).
  • Alice Walker Banned: The Banned Works: Alice Walker, edited and with commentary by Patricia Holt, Hardcover, 1996.
  • Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer’s Activism: Essays, Speeches, Statements and Letters. Alice Walker, Hardcover, 1997. Also Paperback.
  • Alice Walker: An Annotated Bibliography: Erma D. Banks and Keith Byerman, Hardcover, 1989.
  • Alice Walker: Harold Bloom, editor. Library Binding, January 1990. Critical essays on The Color Purple and other works by Alice Walker.
  • Erma Davis Banks and Keith Byerman, Alice Walker: An Annotated Bibliography, 1968-1986 (New York: Garland, 1989).
  • Harold Bloom, ed., Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” Modern Critical Interpretations series (New York: Chelsea House, 2000).
  • Ikenna Dieke, ed., Critical Essays on Alice Walker (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999).
  • Henry Louis Gates and K. A. Appiah, eds., Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives Past and Present (New York: Amistad Press, 1993).
  • Maria Lauret, Alice Walker, Modern Novelists series (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000).
  • Evelyn C. White, Alice Walker: A Life (New York: Norton, 2004).
  • Donna Haisty Winchell, Alice Walker (New York: Twayne, 1992).
  • The Color Purple, writ. Alice Walker and Menno Meyjes, dir. Steven Spielberg (Burbank, Calif.: Warner Bros., 1985). Qiana Whitted, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut

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