Alice Walker has published two collections of her prose, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (1983) and Living by the Word (1988). Together they form a rich compendium of speeches, book and movie reviews, travelogues, memoirs and journal entries, letters, historical reflections, and essays proper. Many pieces are reprinted from the feminist monthly magazine Ms., where Walker was a contributing editor beginning in 1974.
Others originally appeared in publications ranging from Black Scholar to the Socialist Review.
Walker is best known for her work as a novelist. Her 1982 novel The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize and an American Book Award, and was made into a movie by Steven Spielberg. It also sparked a series of public controversies, some of which she recounts in her essays. Though her nonfiction prose collections have been less well known in the mass market, a few individual essays are commonly anthologized, notably “Beauty: When the Other Dancer Is the Self” (1983), “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” (1974), and “Am I Blue?” (1986). These selections epitomize themes that pervade her essays: identity, self-esteem, connection to one’s ethnic and artistic roots, the health of the soul in all living beings, and the interconnection of oppressions.
Walker investigates these themes while writing about a variety of social concerns, and the anthologies reveal her political development. Starting with her first published essay (“The Civil Rights Movement: What Good Was It?,” 1967), she takes up her pen in support of civil rights and black pride, using personal memories to support her philosophies. One lecture, “Oppressed Hair Puts a Ceiling on the Brain” (1987), discusses Walker’s realization that letting her hair grow out naturally would be a crucial step in her political and spiritual development. Her narratives are not exclusively selfreferential;
she uses other writers’ ideas to augment her rhetoric. For example, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” argues that if black women want to be writers, they need rooms of their own as Virginia Woolf prescribed.
In her early essays, Walker often uncritically invokes white writers while calling for a black feminist politics based in essentialism—the idea that blacks can relate to oppression because they are black. In later writings, her perspective becomes more courageous, complicated, and internally consistent: Walker explores her own mixed ethnicity and encourages all people to explore their own complex genealogies. Many essays reflect on the position of blacks in the historically charged American South, where she herself grew up. Walker has continued to write about race in essays published after these anthologies;
in 1994 the Monthly Review printed a 1992. speech called “The Story of Why I Am Here: or, A Woman Connects Oppressions.”
The strategy of connecting oppressions gains weight as Walker’s philosophy develops.
She ties race to gender by coining the now famous term “womanist,” its primary definition being “A black feminist or feminist of color” (and its most pithy summation being “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender”). From her concerns with racism and feminism in her early work, she works toward an understanding of Native Americans, homosexual freedom, respect for the poor and for the oppressed citizens of other nations. An all-encompassing spirituality motivates her related efforts to save the trees, animals, and the earth. Oppression in any form, she implies, is of importance to anyone who is capable of concern.
Walker experiments with different rhetorical techniques to make social issues into compelling reading. She often juxtaposes quotations from many writers in quick succession, which allows her to give voice to many perspectives. Quotations from her own journals appear alongside excerpts from newspapers, student essays, or poetry, with selected words italicized for editorial emphasis.
Walker also makes political points in the process of telling a story. For instance, her essay about journeying with her mother to look at Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home, only a few miles from her own childhood home in Eatonton, Georgia, is a wry, wise reflection on how race and class can influence a writer’s financial and critical success (“Beyond the Peacock: The Reconstruction of Flannery O’Connor,” 1972). The chronicle of a trip to China examines social dynamics in mental “snaps” that form a verbal photo album (“A Thousand Words: A Writer’s Pictures of China,” 1985).
The conversational, loosely connected tone of these essays is that of a storyteller recounting favorite tales. Walker sometimes even recycles the same event in more than one essay, shaping the details to fit the occasion. The storytelling metaphor reflects Walker’s veneration for Zora Neale Hurston, an early 20th-century black novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist whose accounts of southern black storytelling gave Walker the confidence to write from her own experiences of growing up black in the South. In her loving essays about Hurston, Walker honors her ancestors through writing, also showing how artistic expression itself is part of her legacy from black southern women.
Perhaps because she is writing for social change, Walker’s essays are generally—and sometimes disingenuously—optimistic. Ending with an uplifting resolution is one way to register hope for the future, and to activate others to work toward a better world. Her optimism also reads as a pleasant ramble through the author’s mind, but her goodhumored attitude about any experience can ring false, especially when it obscures political realities of the situation at hand.
Just as Walker’s individual essays generally end optimistically, her anthologies build toward a holistic sense of connection. At the end of In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Walker focuses on a sense of wholeness that she finds in herself through her relationship with her daughter. With a child to tend and love, Walker feels connected to a lineage of women. At the end of Living by the Word, she communes with trees, whose fate she sees as being tied to the future of all living beings on the earth. It is fitting that her essay anthologies culminate in a garden, a search for which has inspired her to write, and the love of which now motivates her to continue fighting for justice.
Alice Malsenior Walker. Born 9 February 1944 in Eatonton, Georgia. Studied at Spelman College, Atlanta, 1961–63; Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York, 1963–65, B.A., 1965. Voter registration and Head Start program worker, Mississippi, and with the New York City Department of Welfare, mid–1960s. Married Melvyn R.Leventhal, 1967 (divorced, 1976): one daughter. Taught at Jackson State College, Mississippi, 1968–69, Tougaloo College, Mississippi, 1970–71, Wellesley College, Massachusetts, 1972–73, University of Massachusetts, Boston, 1972–73, and Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, after 1977; Distinguished Writer, University of California, Berkeley, Spring 1982; Fannie Hurst Professor, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, Fall 1982.
Contributing editor, Ms. magazine, from 1974. Cofounder and publisher, Wild Trees Press, Navarro, California, 1984–88. Awards: several grants and fellowships; American Scholar Prize, for essay, 1967; Lillian Smith Award, for poetry, 1973; American Academy Rosenthal Award, 1974; American Book Award, 1983; Pulitzer Prize, 1983;
O.Henry Award, 1986; Langston Hughes Award, 1989; California Governor’s Arts Award, 1994; honorary degrees from two universities.
Essays and Related Prose
In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, 1983
Living by the Word: Selected Writings 1973–1987, 1988
The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult: A Meditation on Life, Spirit, Art, and the Making of the Film, “The Color Purple,” Ten Years Later, 1996
Anything We Love Can Be Saved, 1997
Other writings: five novels (The Third Life of Grange Copeland, 1970; Meridian, 1976; The Color Purple, 1982; The Temple of My Familiar, 1989; Possessing the Secret of Joy, 1992), two collections of short stories (In Love and Trouble, 1973; You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down, 1981), poetry (including Once, 1968; Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems, 1973; Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful, 1984;
Her Blue Body Everything We Know, 1991), and books for children.
Banks, Erma Davis, and Keith Byerman, Alice Walker: An Annotated Bibliography, 1968–1986, New York: Garland, 1989
Kirschner, Susan, “Alice Walker’s Nonfictional Prose: A Checklist, 1966–1984,” Black American Literature Forum 18, no. 4 (Winter 1984):162–63
Pratt, Louis H., and Darnell D.Pratt, Alice Malsenior Walker: An Annotated Bibliography 1968–1986, Westport, Connecticut: Meckler, 1988
Allan, Tuzyline Jita, “A Voice of One’s Own: Implications of Impersonality in the Essays of Virginia Woolf and Alice Walker,” in The Politics of the Essay: Feminist Perspectives, edited by Ruth-Ellen Joeres and Elizabeth Mittman, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993:131–47
Bloom, Harold, editor, Alice Walker, New York: Chelsea House, 1989
Carter, Nancy Corson, “Claiming the Bittersweet Matrix: Alice Walker, Sandra Cisneros, and Adrienne Rich,” Critique 35, no. 4 (1994):195–204
Fernald, Anne, “A Room, a Child, a Mind of One’s Own: Virginia Woolf, Alice Walker and Feminist Personal Criticism,” in Virginia Woolf: Emerging Perspectives, edited by Mark Hussey and Vara Neverow, New York: Pace University Press, 1994:245–51
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and K.A.Appiah, editors, Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, New York: Amistad, 1993
Grimes, Dorothy, “Womanism,” in Global Perspectives on Teaching Literature: Shared Visions and Distinctive Visions, edited by Sandra Ward Lott, Maureen S.G.Hawkins, and Norman McMillan, Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English,
1993:65–75 Wincell, Donna Hasty, Alice Walker, New York: Twayne, 1992
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