The story of Alice Walker’s childhood scar provides the most basic metaphor of her novels: the idea that radical change is possible even under the worst conditions. Although she was never able to regain the sight in one eye, Walker’s disfigurement was considerably lessened: I used to pray every night that I would wake up and somehow it would be gone. I couldn’t look at people directly because I thought I was ugly.Then when I was fourteen, I visited my brother Bill [who] took me to a hospital where they removed most of the scar tissue—and I was a changed person. I promptly went home, scooped up the best-looking guy, and by the time I graduated from high school, I was valedictorian, voted “Most Popular,” and crowned queen!
The idea that change and personal triumph are possible despite the odds is central to all of Walker’s writing. Her work focuses directly or indirectly on the ways of survival adopted by black women, usually in the South, and is presented in a prose style characterized by a distinctive combination of lyricism and unflinching realism. Walker’s women attempt not merely to survive, but to survive completely with some sense of stability, despite the constant thread of family violence, physical and mental abuse, and a lack of responsibility on the part of the men in their lives. Walker is simultaneously a feminist and a supporter of civil rights, not only for African Americans but also for oppressed minorities everywhere.
Walker’s vision was shaped in part by a work from the first flowering of black writing in America: Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923). She said in 1974 about Toomer’s book that “it has been reverberating in me to an astonishing degree. I love it passionately; could not possibly exist without it.” Like Cane, the first part of which centers mainly on women in the South, Walker’s novels are made up of nearly equal parts of poetry, portraiture, and drama, broken up into a series of sections and subsections. Other important literary influences on Walker include Zora Neale Hurston, from whom she inherited a love of black folklore; Flannery O’Connor, who wrote of southern violence and grotesqueries from her home in Milledgeville, Georgia, less than ten miles from Walker’s childhood home; and Albert Camus, whose existentialism speaks to the struggle for survival and dignity in which Walker’s characters are engaged.
Walker herself has defined her “preoccupations” as a novelist: “The survival, the survival whole of my people. But beyond that I am committed to exploring the oppressions, the insanities, the loyalties, and the triumphs of black women.” The Third Life of Grange Copeland, on the surface a novel about the cycle of rage and violence torturing the lives of a father and his son, is as much about the recipients of that rage—the women and children whose lives are directly affected. Although the novel is unremitting in its picture of desperate poverty’s legacy of hatred, hopelessness, and cruelty, it concludes optimistically with Ruth Copeland’s hope for a release from sorrow through the redemption promised by the early days of the Civil Rights movement and by the knowledge and love inherited at the sacrificial death of her grandfather. These threads of political awareness and spirituality run throughout Walker’s work.
The Third Life of Grange Copeland
Writing in 1973, Walker observed that her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, “though sometimes humorous and celebrative of life, is a grave book in which the characters see the world as almost entirely menacing.” This dark view of life is common to Grange Copeland, the patriarch of a family farming on shares in rural Georgia, his son Brownfield, and the wives and daughters of both men. For all these characters, the world is menacing because of the socioeconomic position they occupy at the bottom of the scale of the sharecropping system. Father and son menace each other in this novel because they are in turn menaced by rage born out of the frustration of the system. Although the white people of the book are nearly always vague, nameless, and impersonal, they and the system they represent have the ability to render both Grange and Brownfield powerless.
It is not accidental that these characters’ names have agricultural connotations. “Grange” suggests a late nineteenth century association of farmers, a feudal farm and grain storage building, and a combination of graze and range, while “Brownfield” and “Copeland” are self-explanatory—for the inability to cope with the land is what leads both male characters along virtually parallel paths. For the father, the mere appearance of the white farm boss’s truck is enough to turn his face “into a unnaturally bland mask, curious and unsettling to see.” The appearance of the truck causes the son to be “filled with terror of this man who could, by his presence alone, turn his father into something that might as well have been a pebble or a post or a piece of dirt.” Although Grange is, in this same image, literally a piece of land, he eventually returns to the South and learns to live self-sufficiently, farming a section of soil he tricked his second wife into giving to him. Brownfield, in contrast, is never able to escape from the sharecropping system, although he sees that, like his father, he is “destined to be no more than overseer, on the white man’s plantation, of his own children.” Brownfield is able to live obliviously on a farm in Georgia, content to blame all his problems on others. The poor rural black workers of this novel are themselves little more than a crop, rotated from farm to farm, producing a harvest of shame and hunger, cruelty and violence.
Unlike the men of the novel, the women are menaced by both blacks and whites, by both the agricultural system and the “strange fruit” it produces. Margaret, Grange’s first wife, is both physically and mentally degraded by her husband and then sexually exploited by a white truck driver, resulting in her second pregnancy. Unable to cope with this situation, Grange deserts his family, after which his wife poisons both her child and herself. Following his father’s pattern, Brownfield marries and begins to work the land, but after “a year when endless sunup to sundown work on fifty rich bottom acres of cotton land and a good crop brought them two diseased shoats for winter meat.” he too begins to abuse his wife.
Although Brownfield’s wife, Mem, is a schoolteacher intelligent enough to try to break the cycle of raising others people’s crops, her brief rebellion against her husband’s malevolent beatings and mental tortures is a failure: He is able to subjugate her through repeated pregnancies that sap her rebellion as they turn her once rich and strong body into a virtual wasteland of emaciation. Because her body, which represents the land of the South, is still able to produce children despite its depleted condition, Brownfield is enraged enough to murder her in retaliation for her physical shape: “He had murdered his wife because she had become skinny and had not, with much irritation to him, reverted, even when well-fed, to her former plumpness.Plumpness and freedom from the land, from cows and skinniness, went all together in his mind.” Despite his irrational abuse of her, Mem is not ashamed “of being black though, no matter what he said.Color was something the ground did to the flowers, and that was an end to it.”
What the ground did to these generations of southern black people is the subject of Walker’s novel—the whole lurid history of violence, hatred, and guilt that she chronicles in this story of one family’s griefs. By the book’s end, Brownfield Copeland has murdered his wife and an unnamed albino baby, while Grange Copeland has murdered his son Brownfield—first spiritually, then physically—and indirectly has killed his first wife and her infant.
Walker’s characters are allegorical representations of the classic modes of survival historically adopted by black Americans in dealing with their oppression. Brownfield identifies with whites by daydreaming of himself on a southern plantation, sipping mint juleps, and then by bargaining for his freedom with the sexual favors of black women. Both of Grange’s wives attempt to be true to the white stereotype of black women as promiscuous sexual beings, free of any moral restraints. Brownfield’s wife, Mem, attempts the passive resistance advocated by Martin Luther King, Jr., but she is destroyed by what her husband calls “her weaknessforgiveness, a stupid belief that kindness can convert the enemy.” Brownfield’s daughter, Daphne, who calls herself the Copeland Family Secret Keeper, tries the strategy of inventing a falsely romantic history of the past, of the good old days when her father was kind, echoing those historical revisionists who try to argue that slavery was not that bad. Brownfield’s other daughters try to stay away from their father altogether, regarding him “as a human devil” of whom they were afraid “in a more distant, impersonal way. He was like bad weather, a toothache, daily bad news.”
Each of the title character’s three lives (at home in the South as a sharecropper married to Margaret; in the North as a hustler of alcohol, drugs, and women; and finally back in the South as a farmer married to Josie and rearing his granddaughter Ruth) parallels a traditional survival strategy, which Grange summarizes as follows: “The white folks hated me and I hated myself until I started hating them in return and loving myself. Then I tried just loving me, and then you, and ignoring them much as I could.” To put it another way, Grange tries at first to adapt to the system by believing what whites say about blacks; then he turns to the classic escape of the runaway slave—heading North to freedom; finally, he tries the technique of praising black life while ignoring whites altogether. A large part of the novel’s devastation is caused by the repeated use of these techniques, not against whites, but against other members of the Copeland family. Only Ruth, the granddaughter through whom Grange seeks redemption, is able to deal with whites in an intelligent, balanced, nondestructive yet independent way. She has learned from her grandfather, and from her family history, that pure hatred becomes self-hatred, and violence begets self-violence; she therefore becomes the novel’s symbol of the new black woman, ready to assume her place in black history as a courageous worker in the Civil Rights movement, which the rest of her family has been groping to discover.
Walker’s second novel, Meridian, picks up chronologically and thematically at the point where her first novel ends. Meridian describes the struggles of a young black woman, Meridian Hill, about the same age as Ruth Copeland, who comes to an awareness of power and feminism during the Civil Rights movement, and whose whole life’s meaning is centered in the cycles of guilt, violence, hope, and change characteristic of that dramatic time. Thematically, Meridian picks up the first novel’s theme of self-sacrificial murder as a way out of desperate political oppression in the form of the constant question that drives Meridian Hill: “Will you kill for the Revolution?” Meridian’s lifelong attempt to answer that question affirmatively (as her college friends so easily do) while remaining true to her sense of responsibility to the past, her sense of ethics, and her sense of guilt of having given to her mother the child of her teenage pregnancy constitutes the section of the novel titled “Meridian.”
The second third of the novel, “Truman Held,” is named for the major male character in thenarrative. The third major section of the novel, “Ending,” looks back at the turmoil of the Civil Rights movement from the perspective of the 1970’s. Long after others have given up intellectual arguments about the morality of killing for revolution, Meridian is still debating the question, still actively involved in voter registration, political activism, and civil rights organization, as though the movement had never lost momentum. Worrying that her actions, now seen as eccentric rather than revolutionary, will cause her “to be left, listening to the old music, beside the highway,” Meridian achieves release and atonement through the realization that her role will be to “come forward and sing from memory songs they will need once more to hear. For it is the song of the people, transformed by the experiences of each generation, that holds them together.”
In 1978, Walker described Meridian as “a book ’about’ the Civil Rights movement, feminism, socialism, the shakiness of revolutionaries and the radicalization of saints.” Her word “about” is exact, for all of these topics revolve not chronologically but thematically around a central point—theprotagonist, Meridian Hill. In some ways, Meridian is a saint; by the book’s end she has sustained her belief in the Civil Rights movement without losing faith in feminism and socialism, despite family pressures, guilt, literally paralyzing self-doubts, the history of the movement, and the sexism of many of its leaders. In contrast, Truman Held represents those males who were reported to have said that “the only position for a woman in the movement is prone.”
Although Truman Held is Meridian’s initial teacher in the movement, she eventually leaves him behind because of his inability to sustain his initial revolutionary fervor and because of his misogyny. Unlike Brownfield Copeland, Truman argues that women are of less value than they should be, not because of skinniness, but because “black women let themselves gothey are so fat.” Later in the novel, Truman marries a white civil rights worker whose rape by another black man produces disgust in him, as much at his wife as at his friend. When Truman seeks Meridian out in a series of small southern hamlets where she continues to persuade black people to register to vote and to struggle for civil rights, he tells her that the movement is ended and that he grieves in a different way than she. Meridian answers, “I know how you grieve by running away. By pretending you were never there.” Like Grange Copeland, Truman Held refuses to take responsibility for his own problems, preferring to run away to the North.
Meridian’s sacrificial dedication to the movement becomes a model for atonement and release, words that once formed the working title of the book. Meridian could also have been called “The Third Life of Meridian Hill” because of similarities between Meridian’s life and Grange Copeland’s. Meridian leads three lives: as an uneducated child in rural Georgia who follows the traditional pattern of early pregnancy and aimless marriage, as a college student actively participating in political demonstrations, and as an eccentric agitator—a performer, she calls herself—unaware that the movement has ended. Like Grange Copeland in another sense, Meridian Hill is solid proof of the ability of any human to change dramatically by sheer will and desire.
Meridian is always different from her friends, who, filled with angry rhetoric, ask her repeatedly if she is willing to kill for the revolution, the same question that Grange asked himself when he lived in the North. This question haunts Meridian, because she does not know if she can or if she should kill, and because it reminds her of a similar request, posed in a similar way by her mother: “Say it now, Meridian, and be saved. All He asks is that we acknowledge Him as our Master. Say you believe in Himdon’t go against your heart.” In neither case is Meridian able to answer yes without going against her heart. Unlike her college friends and Truman Held, who see the movement only in terms of future gains for themselves, Meridian is involved with militancy because of her past: “But what none of them seemed to understand was that she felt herself to be, not holding on to something from the past, but held by something in the past.”
Part of the past’s hold on her is the sense of guilt she feels about her relationships with her parents. Although her father taught her the nature of the oppression of minorities through his knowledge of American Indians, her strongest source of guilt comes from her mother, who argues, like Brownfield Copeland, that the responsibility for all problems stems from outside oneself: “The answer to everything,” said Meridian’s mother, “is we live in America and we’re not rich.” Meridian’s strongest sense of past guilt comes from the knowledge she gains when she becomes pregnant: “It was for stealing her mother’s serenity, for shattering her mother’s emerging self, that Meridian felt guilty from the very first, though she was unable to understand how this could possibly be her fault.”
Meridian takes the form of a series of nonchronological sections, some consisting of only a paragraph, some four or five pages long, that circle around the events of Meridian’s life. The writing is clear, powerful, violent, lyrical, and often symbolic. Spelman College, for example, is here called Saxon College. The large magnolia tree in the center of the campus, described with specific folkloric detail, is destroyed by angry students during a demonstration: “Though Meridian begged them to dismantle the president’s house instead, in a fury of confusion and frustration they worked all night, and chopped and sawed down, level to the ground, that mighty, ancient, sheltering music tree.” This tree (named The Sojourner, perhaps for Sojourner Truth) expands symbolically to suggest both the senseless destruction of black ghettos by blacks during the turmoil of the 1960’s and Meridian Hill herself, who receives a photograph years later of The Sojourner, now “a gigantic tree stump” with “a tiny branch, no larger than a finger, growing out of one side.” That picture, suggesting as it does the rebirth of hope despite despair, also evokes the last vision of Meridian expressed by the now-shamed Truman Held: “He would never see ’his’ Meridian again. The new part had grown out of the old, though, and that was reassuring. This part of her, new, sure and ready, even eager, for the world, he knew he must meet again and recognize for its true value at some future time.”
The Color Purple
Like Walker’s first two novels, The Color Purple is unusual in style: It presents the author’s familiar and yet fresh themes—survival and redemption—in epistolary form. Most of the novel’s letters are written by Celie, an uneducated, unloved black woman living in rural Georgia in the 1920’s; Celie’s letters are written in what Walker calls “black folk English,” a language of wit, strength, and natural humor. Ashamed of having been raped by her stepfather, a man whom Celie thinks at the time is her father, she begins to send letters to God, in the way that children send letters to Santa Claus, because her rapist told her to tell nobody but God. Although her early letters tell of rape, degradation, and pain, of her stepfather’s getting rid of the two children born of his cruelty, the tone is nevertheless captivating, ironic, and even humorous. Soon the despair turns into acceptance, then into understanding, anger, rebellion, and finally triumph and loving forgiveness as the fourteen-year-old Celie continues to write until she reaches an audience, some thirty years later. Like the author, who began writing at the age of eight and has turned her childhood experiences in rural Georgia into novels of violence, hatred, understanding, love, and profound hope for the future, Celie is a writer, a listener, a thinker, and a promoter of Walker’s constant theme: “Love redeems, meanness kills.”
Like Meridian Hill, Celie compares herself to a tree. After her stepfather’s repeated rapes, Celie is sold into a virtual state of slavery to a man who beats her, a man she does not know, love, or talk to, a man she can never call anything but Mr. ——, an ironic throwback to a convention of the eighteenth century English epistolary novel. Celie tries to endure by withholding all emotion: “I make myself wood. I say to myself, Celie, you a tree. That’s how come I know trees fear man.” Like The Sojourner, or like the kudzu vine of the deep South that thrives despite repeated attempts to beat it back, Celie continues to express her fears and hopes in a series of letters written in a form of black English that is anything but wooden. The contrast between the richly eccentric prose of Celie’s letters and the educated yet often lifeless sentences of her sister Nettie’s return letters supports Walker’s statement that “writing The Color Purple was writing in my first language.” The language of the letters is at first awkward, but it is never difficult to follow. As Celie grows in experience, in contact with the outside world, and in confidence, her writing gradually becomes more sophisticated and more like standard written English, but it never loses its originality of rhythm and phrase.
Based on Walker’s great-grandmother, a slave who was raped at age twelve by her owner, Celie works her way from ignorance about her body and her living situation all the way through to an awakening of her self-worth as well as to an understanding of the existence of God, the relations between men and women, and the power of forgiveness in uniting family and friends. Much of this transformation is brought about through the magic of a blues singer named Shug Avery, who guides Celie in understanding sexuality, men, and religion without causing her to lose her own fresh insights, naïve though they are.
The letters that make up the novel are something like the missives that the protagonist of Saul Bellow’s novel Herzog (1964) writes but never sends, in that they are often addressed to God and written in an ironic but not self-conscious manner. Because of the combination of dark humor and despair, the letters also evoke memories of the desperate letters from the physically and spiritually maimed addressed to the hero of Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts (1933). Although Celie is unlettered in a traditional sense, her ability to carry the complicated plot forward and to continue to write—first without an earthly audience, and then to her sister, whom she has not seen for more than twenty years—testifies to the human potential for self-transformation.
Discussing Celie’s attempts to confirm her existence by writing to someone she is not certain exists, Gloria Steinem says, “Clearly, the author is telling us something about the origin of Gods: about when we need to invent them and when we don’t.” In a sense, Shug Avery becomes a god for Celie because of her ability to control the evil in the world and her power to change the sordid conditions of Celie’s life. Early in the book, when Celie is worrying about survival, about rape, incest, beatings, and the murder of her children, her only source of hope is the name “Shug Avery,” a name with a magical power to control her husband. Not even aware that Shug is a person, Celie writes, “I ast our new mammy bout Shug Avery. What it is?” Finding a picture of Shug, Celie transfers her prayers to what is at that point only an image: “I see her there in furs. Her face rouge. Her hair like somethin tail. She grinning with her foot up on somebody motocar. Her eyes serious tho. Sad some.An all night long I stare at it. An now when I dream, I dream of Shug Avery. She be dress to kill, whirling an laughing.” Shug Avery becomes a god to Celie not only because she is pictured in the first photograph Celie has ever seen but also because she is dressed in a style that shows a sense of pride and freedom.
Once Celie’s sister’s letters begin to appear, mailed from Africa, where Nettie is a missionary, the ironic connection between the primitive animism of the Africans and Celie’s equally primitive reaction to Shug’s picture becomes clear. Although Nettie has crossed the ocean to minister to a tribe of primitive people, her own sister is living in inhuman conditions in Georgia: ignorance, disease, sexism, lack of control of the environment, and the ever-increasing march of white people. When Shug explains her own animistic religious beliefs—which include the notion that God is not a he or a she but an it (just as Celie once thought Shug Avery was an it)—Celie is converted to a pantheistic worship that makes her early identification with trees seem less naïve.
When the narrator of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” (1853) tries to explain Bartleby’s withdrawal from life, he thinks of the dead-letter office in which the scrivener was rumored to have worked and says, “On errands of life, these letters speed to death.” In contrast, Celie’s and Nettie’s letters, ostensibly written to people long thought to be dead, speed across the ocean on errands of life, where they grow to sustain not only the sisters in the book but also all those lucky enough to read them. As the author says of The Color Purple, “It’s my happiest bookI had to do all the other writing to get to this point.” For the reader who has gotten to this point in Walker’s career by reading all of her other books, there is no question that Walker’s name could be substituted for Celie’s in the author’s statement about her most recent novel: “Let’s hope people can hear Celie’s voice. There are so many people like Celie who make it, who come out of nothing. People who triumph.”
Possessing the Secret of Joy
The novels By the Light of My Father’s Smile and Possessing the Secret of Joy share strong characters whose sexual identities suffer because of the need of the individuals to conform to the societies in which they live. Only through death can Tashi and Mad Dog become complete and escape the male-dominated world and its restrictions.
Walker combines fact and fiction in Possessing the Secret of Joy to illustrate the effects that female genital mutilation has on the women who are subjected to the procedure. The main character, Tashi, an African tribal woman, willingly undergoes the traditional ritual of genital mutilation because of her desire to conform to her culture and feel complete. The procedure, however, leaves her physically and mentally scarred. Tashi realizes that she has been destroyed emotionally and made to feel as if she were something other than her true self. After her mutilation, she marries Adam Johnson and moves to the United States. She is renamed Evelyn Johnson, and the shift of her chapter headings from “Tashi” to “Evelyn” demonstrates the conflict within her as she struggles to find her true identity. That conflict leads her to madness.
Tashi strives to understand her insanity and to interpret her recurring nightmares of a tower. With the help of her therapists, Mzee and Raye, and the members of her family, Tashi realizes the reasons for her insanity and gradually becomes stronger and able to face her nightmares and what they represent. The story is related through the eyes of all the main characters, a technique that provides insight into the effects that Tashi has on those around her. Through its main characters—Tashi, Olivia, and Adam—Possessing the Secret of Joy is connected to, but is not a sequel to, Walker’s previous novels The Color Purple and The Temple of My Familiar.
By the Light of My Father’s Smile
Walker’s sixth novel, By the Light of My Father’s Smile, follows the Johnson family on a journey through life and to rebirth through death. Magdalena, referred to as Mad Dog, discovers her sensuality and its connection with her spirituality while living with her parents in Mexico, where the parents are pretending to be missionaries in order to do an anthropological study of the Mundo people. Magdalena is acutely aware of her emotions and sensuality, and she is severely beaten by her father when he discovers her sexual activity.
Magdalena’s sister Susannah, shadowed by Magdalena’s anger and frustration, is awakened to her true desires by her friend Irene, who is able to survive and accept life on her own terms despite the restrictions placed on her by her society. Susannah realizes that her unhappiness is the result of having been “sucked into the black cloth” and hypocrisy of the world. All of the members of the Johnson family suffer through life searching for true love and happiness, which they find only in death. The story moves between the spiritual world and the physical world as the father watches his two daughters come to terms with their anger and their true spirits. As characters pass into the spiritual world, they are enlightened to their failings in the physical world and make amends with those they have injured. Only when acceptance of each soul is obtained can the four family members cross the river and live in eternity.
Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart
In Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart, Walker continues her theme of sexual and spiritual exploration. The novel opens with Kate Talkingtree, a fifty-seven-year-old African American woman, meditating in a group, in a large hall surrounded by redwood trees. When the group’s teacher begins to speak, Kate notices his southern European appearance and notes the description on the program that shows he has had a privileged upbringing among “educated and cultured people”; he has studied and lived in Europe and has been a “prominent professor at one of the country’s most famous universities.” As Kate looks around the circle, she notices that others in it have what she considers the same air of entitlement and that she is the only person of color there; for Kate, this makes what the teacher has said about “hot” revolutions in such countries as Africa and Cuba being less successful than the “cool” one introduced by Buddha twenty-five hundred years ago seem disingenuous. Unable to meditate from this point on and then awakening from a dream in which she has found an anaconda in her freezer and feels the need to kill it before it thaws, Kate decides that she must have a different kind of spiritual adventure.
As her lover, Yolo, watches her leave, Kate departs for a rafting expedition on the Colorado River with other women who are also seeking spiritual enlightenment. Although the pitching and plunging of the boat makes Kate ill, the nurturing and care that she receives from the other women contribute to a cleansing process as Kate remembers failed relationships, including the husband who became physically abusive when she suggested that they spend time apart and the opportunistic woman she married, who, it turned out, only wanted Kate for what she could get from her financially. At the same time Kate is having her spiritual retreat, Yolo is on his own quest, vacationing in Hawaii, where he encounters on the beach the body of a young man who has died from an overdose of crystal methamphetamine. Yolo meets the man’s mother, Alma, who explains that the drug has taken over the island.
Meanwhile, Kate listens to the stories of other women on the rafting expedition, including Lalika, who explains that she has been “incested” from the time she was able to crawl and was raped and beaten by patrolmen in the prison where she was incarcerated after murdering a man who raped her. Through the guidance of leaders Armando and Anunu, Kate begins to discover her own spiritual strength. When Kate and Yolo return from their adventures—Kate having healed her own wounds by communing with others among the walking wounded, and Yolo having helped a grieving mother heal as well as learning about the destructiveness of colonialism to indigenous Hawaiian culture—they realize that they are each other’s spiritual partners and invite those they met on their journeys to their nontraditional wedding.