Alice Walker Biography

Alice Walker Biography

Alice Walker was the eighth child of sharecroppers. Despite the economic hardships of her family, she was remarkably dedicated to her education and graduated with degrees from both Sarah Lawrence and Spelman College. While attending school, Walker became frustrated with the lack of literature on the culture and history of the black experience, so she challenged educational institutions to create a representative curriculum. In the 1960s, Walker became involved in the civil rights movement. Her experiences became the basis for her excellent novel Meridian. Her best-known work, however, is The Color Purple. Critics and audiences alike have praised its richly drawn female characters and seemingly effortless use of black vernacular. With six novels to her name, Walker also remains very active politically, championing women’s issues and women’s work.

Facts and Trivia

  • Alice Walker was the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (1983) for her novel The Color Purple. The book was also turned into a successful film, garnering eleven Academy Award nominations.
  • Walker and her then-husband Melvyn Leventhal, who was white and Jewish, were the first racially integrated couple to live in Mississippi.
  • Walker did not simply complain about the lack of black studies in colleges. She created and taught the first class in the United States to be devoted to African American women writers at Wellesley College.
  • Walker has said that she considers herself to be a “pagan” or “an earth-worshipper.” She says she meditates daily and views Christmas as a celebration of the solstice.
  • Walker coined the term womanist, a word she derived from the common phrase “you’re acting womanish.” Walker wants to turn the negative connotation of the phrase into something positive, so she defines womanist as “a woman who loves other women sexually or non-sexually and men sexually and non-sexually. Loves music, loves to dance...loves the spirit. A woman is to feminist as lavender is to purple.”

Biography

Article abstract: Walker, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award, has dedicated her life to establishing a literary canon of African American women writers and to encouraging the “survival whole” of all women. She has actively sought to win recognition for literary “foremothers” such as Zora Neale Hurston and to place their contributions within the fabric of her own artistry.

Early Life

Alice Walker was born on February 9, 1944, into a family of sharecroppers near Eatonton, Georgia. Her father, Willie Lee Walker, was the grandson of slaves. Walker’s enslaved paternal great-great-grandmother, Mary Poole, had walked from Virginia to Georgia carrying two of her children on her hips. Walker’s relationship with her father became strained as she grew into adolescence and showed a proclivity for intellectual pursuits. Although her father was brilliant, his educational opportunities had been limited, and he feared that education would place barriers between him and his children. When Walker left her home for Spelman College in Atlanta, her relationship with her father ended.

Minnie Tallulah Grant Walker, Walker’s mother, realized how important education was for her daughter. Minnie Walker, a farmhand and domestic worker, greatly desired an education for her daughter. She enrolled Walker in the first grade at the age of four and excused her from household chores so that she might have time for her reading and schoolwork. Minnie Walker saved the money she earned as a domestic in the town of Eatonton and bought several gifts that had a great impact upon her daughter’s life. These gifts included a sewing machine that enabled Walker to make her own clothes, a suitcase, and a typewriter, of which she later made good use.

When Walker was eight years old, a shot fired from her brother’s BB gun permanently blinded her right eye. Convinced that the resulting scar tissue in her eye was disfiguring and ugly, she retreated into solitude. She spent the next seven to eight years reading voraciously and writing poems. Walker was the valedictorian of her high school class, and when she was graduated in 1961, she was offered a scholarship to Spelman College in Atlanta. After traveling to Africa in 1964, Walker returned to the United States and entered Sarah Lawrence College. She soon discovered that she was pregnant, and just as quickly she found herself depressed and on the verge of suicide. Walker made a decision to end the pregnancy instead of her life and subsequently wrote her first published short story, “To Hell with Dying.” She also produced Once (1965), her first published collection of poems, during her years at Sarah Lawrence.

While she was attending college, Walker spent her summers working for the Civil Rights movement in Georgia. She was graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1965, and after graduation, she became even more involved in the Civil Rights movement. In 1967, Walker was married to lawyer Mel Leventhal and moved with him to Mississippi. Leventhal worked as a civil rights attorney in the Jackson school desegregation cases, and Walker worked with Head Start programs and held writer-in-residence positions at Tougaloo College and Jackson State University. She subsequently taught at Wellesley College, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the University of California at Berkeley, and Brandeis University. In 1969, Walker’s only child, Rebecca, was born.

Life’s Work

In 1970, while she was working on her short story “The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff,” Alice Walker discovered the works of Zora Neale Hurston. Her discovery of Hurston had a profound effect on Walker. Walker described Hurston as her literary “foremother,” and in her essay “Zora Neale Hurston” (1979), Walker states that were she condemned to spend her life on a desert island with an allotment of only ten books, she would choose two of Hurston’s books: Mules and Men (1935) and Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). In August, 1973, Walker traveled to Florida to locate Hurston’s grave. She had a marker placed on the spot that was most likely Hurston’s grave and then dedicated herself to calling attention to Hurston’s genius. Through Walker’s efforts, Hurston’s work received the critical acclaim that it deserved.

In 1970, Walker published her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland. Although Grange Copeland is the protagonist of the novel, Walker focuses on his treatment of African American women. Walker’s main concerns in her novels are the powerlessness of African American women and sexist behavior on the part of men. In 1972, after the publication of The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Walker left Mississippi to teach at Wellesley College and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

The following year, Walker published a book of poetry, Revolutionary Petunias (1973), for which she won the Lillian Smith Award. This small volume of poems is a celebration of people who refuse to fit into other people’s molds. She also published a book of short stories, In Love and Trouble (1973). The stories in this first collection depict African American women who are victimized by racism and/or sexism. They are women who are not whole, are often mute, and who are used and abused by the men they love.

In 1976, Walker published her second novel. Meridian is the story of a young woman’s personal development in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. More autobiographical elements may be found in Meridian than in any other Walker narrative. Many of the struggles faced by Meridian were similar to struggles that Walker confronted in both her college years at a predominantly white women’s college and in her interracial marriage to a civil rights lawyer. In 1976, Walker’s marriage to Mel Leventhal ended in divorce, and two years later, Walker decided to move from New York City to San Francisco. A year after her move to the West Coast, Walker produced two more books. She published her second volume of African American women-centered poems, Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning (1979), and she produced an anthology of Zora Neale Hurston’s works, I Love Myself When I Am Laughing (1979).

Several literary critics, and even Walker herself, have compared Walker’s stories and novels to crazy quilts. The bits and pieces that she weaves together have much in common; they originate in the South and they reveal the lives of African American women in various stages of development. In 1981, Walker produced You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down, a volume of fourteen stories that address the blossoming creativity of women. One year later, she produced her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple (1982). The Color Purple is a series of ninety letters that Celie, Walker’s outwardly silent protagonist, addresses to God. These letters disclose Celie’s development of self and voice, while providing the reader with a vision of how the societal intersection of sexism and racism affects the African American family.

The themes of forgiveness and reconciliation are prominent in Walker’s writing. In Walker’s next novel, The Temple of My Familiar (1989), her characters work toward forgiving one another. Walker reveals much of her personality in her book of essays In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens (1983). Among other topics, she describes her discovery of and commitment to Zora Neale Hurston. Although Walker is a devoted mother, in her essay “One Child of One’s Own,” she openly and honestly describes her decision to have only one child. In Living by the Word (1988), her second volume of essays, her discussions range from the love she has for her daughter to her reactions to criticism of the treatment of men in her book The Color Purple (1985). In an interview with Oprah Winfrey in 1989, Walker discussed her critics’ failure to recognize the development of nurturance and sensitivity in her male characters. In The Color Purple, Albert asks Celie to remarry him, and in The Temple of My Familiar, Suwelo realizes that Carlotta, and all women, are beings with feelings and spirits.

In several of her essays in Living by the Word, Walker moves her focus from the individual to larger issues between the peoples of this world—indeed, to unity within the universe. Walker’s volumes of poetry Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful (1984) and Her Blue Body Everything We Know: Earthling Poems 1965-1990 Complete (1991) reflect her larger concern for the cultures of this world and the planet itself. In her novel Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992), Walker moves from African American culture to detail the misogyny contained in the hideous practice of female circumcision. She continued her examination of that practice in the 1993 book Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women, which she wrote with Pratibha Parmas. Since the mid-1980’s, Walker has lived in northern California. There she writes, communes with her friends, works in her garden, and prays to her Great Spirit.

Summary

Alice Walker has had a tremendous impact on the African American literary canon. In addition to being a major author of notable literature, Walker has enlarged the canon by bringing the works of Zora Neale Hurston before the public, and she has both written within and revised the tradition of African American women writers. Her literary contribution includes novels, short stories, essays, and poetry. Walker moved to the North and then to the West, but her writer’s soul returned to the South of her childhood; thence, she has given voice to previously silent and unseen generations of African American women. She has recognized their artistry and praised their resiliency and strength. Walker writes to and for women of all colors and cultures, urging them to know their inner selves and to bind up wounds resulting from centuries of silence and abuse. Walker believes in change, for the individual and for society, and for the “survival whole” of the African American woman. Although Walker has been labeled a feminist writer, she prefers the term “womanist” rather than “feminist,” for she believes that the term “womanist” captures the spirit of the African American woman. The spirit of the African American woman remains Walker’s primary commitment.

Bibliography

Bloom, Harold, ed. Alice Walker. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. This volume includes much of the best current criticism of Walker’s work. In his introduction, Harold Bloom discusses the impact of Zora Neale Hurston’s work on Walker, and Dianne F. Sadoff and Deborah E. McDowell also discusses the import of the Walker-Hurston relationship.

Christian, Barbara. Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers. New York: Pergamon Press, 1985. Christian includes two chapters about Alice Walker. “The Contrary Women of Alice Walker” is an analysis of the female protagonists of In Love and Trouble. “Alice Walker: The Black Woman Artist as Wayward” explores the ways in which Walker uses “forbidden” topics as a route to truth.

Christian, Barbara. Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. Barbara Christian traces the historical development of the literature of African American women. She then critically analyzes the works of three contemporary African American writers who are building from the earlier tradition that preceded them and are developing that tradition in a critical way. Chapter 6, “Novels for Everyday Use,” is an analysis of the early novels of Alice Walker.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, eds. Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad Press, 1993. The most complete collection of essays on Walker, this volume contains eleven reviews of her novels and sixteen critical essays on various aspects of her literature. The volume concludes with two well-regarded interviews in which Walker herself discusses her literary contributions.

Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983. A volume of Walker’s essays in which she traces the development of her intellectual life, from her search for a literary model and gifts of empowerment, through the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, toward what she terms “Breaking Chains and Encouraging Life.” Her first essay deals with the importance of models in an artist’s life, and one of her last essays is an account of how she wrote The Color Purple.

Winchell, Donna Haisty. Alice Walker. New York: Twayne, 1992. Donna Winchell combines critical analysis with biographical information to provide a study of all Walker’s works through 1991. Her comprehensive analysis includes Walker’s novels, short stories, essays, and poetry.