10 Reasons to Love Alice Walker

12th Sep 2013

Alice Walker
We love Alice Walker, author of The Colour Purple, bane of the Klu Klux Klan and inventor of the term "womanist" - here's 10 reasons why you should love her too...

1. The Color Purple (1982)

Walker was the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, which she won for her third novel, The Colour Purple. It went on to be adapted into a Steven Spielberg film nominated for 11 Academy Awards and is still running as a musical produced by Oprah Winfrey, previously nominated for 11 Tony Awards.

Spielberg has discussed the pressure he felt in directing such a hotly-anticipated film adaptation and has conceded that he now regrets not having the courage to fully portray the lesbian relationship that the story dictated.

In a world where racism, sexism, violence and disability shaming was normal, she didn’t accept the place that prejudice handed her, she went about changing the world.2. Prejudice made her an activist, not a victim

Walker grew up as a poor, African-American woman who considered herself to be disabled and disfigured, in the white supremacist Southern USA. In a world where racism, sexism, violence and disability shaming was normal, she didn’t accept the place that prejudice handed her, she went about changing the world.

Her parents fought for her to have an education, rather than working in the fields as was expected of a child of black sharecroppers. She’s since made it count, and convinced others to do the same, even when that expression means getting arrested.

3. She’s a prolific and versatile author

She’s the author of seven novels, four children’s books, four short story collections, and volumes of essays and poetry. She’s won a variety of prestigious awards for everything from adult novels to picture books.

She carries her activism over into her writing too. For example her bestseller Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992) details the effects of female genital mutilation.

4. The Tracy Chapman affair

Walker dated Tracy Chapman in the ‘90s. OK, we shouldn’t define people by their partners, particularly people who excel in their field, but damn: Tracy Chapman.

I was going to claim to be too big a snob to dignify with comment the thought that people might not know who Chapman is, but then I remembered that I’m already writing a feature on Alice Walker from a no-previous-knowledge perspective.

OK, Chapman is a multi-platinum and multi-Grammy-Award winning singer-songwriter whose songs include “Fast Car”, “Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution” and “Baby Can I Hold You”. She’s also 20 years younger than Walker. If you’re too young to know Chapman, go look her up and enjoy hearing her work.

5. The Klu Klux Klan targeted her

She was married to Melvyn Leventhal, a male white Jewish activist, in 1967, making them the first legally married inter-racial couple in Mississippi, and a target for the Klu Klux Klan. Anyone doing enough to promote race relations to upset the Klu Klux Klan that badly is worth our attention.

6. She’s still upsetting the establishment

The University of Michigan recently rescinded her invitation to speak, and then reissued it. Whatever her views, she has something right if she’s so fearlessly outspoken that a University has to later apologise for the insensitivity they showed to the principles of academic freedom by disinviting her.

7. She puts her money where her mouth is

She was awarded the Lennon/Ono Peace Grant in Reykjavik, Iceland and donated the proceeds to an orphanage for the children of AIDS victims in East Africa.

8. She doesn’t slow down

She’s nearly seventy and she’s still writing, with two new books out this year. If I’d won the Pulitzer prize before I was forty I’d rest on my laurels a bit, maybe take a little time off. Not saying I’m proud of it, but there it is.

She has said that when people reach their sixties they should be allowed to retire, but her output continues and we’re only just catching up with some of her ideas. People argue about whether she still shows the same form, whether her topics have changed too much. I hope that when I’m seventy people still argue about me.

9. She channelled misfortune into creativity

Her brother shot her in the eye, probably deliberately, leaving her with scarring, malalignment and visual impairment. She still lied to protect him and describes it as traumatic and yet helpful to her writing and world view.

Similarly many of her books are drawn from her own experiences of segregation and patriarchy making them powerful insights into under-represented perspectives.

10. She introduced the term womanist

In her book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983) Walker sets out the term womanism as being “to feminism as purple is to lavender”. The term womanist did exist before she used it, but she was responsible for specifying its use to imply a black feminist or feminist of colour.

She felt that a more inclusive inter-sectional term than feminist was needed, which could better incorporate the issues faced by women of colour including the interaction of sexism, racism, and economic exploitation.

Sian Lawson

(Image via Santa Clara University)