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Alice Walker 1944–

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American novelist, short story writer, essayist, poet, critic, and author of children's books.

The following entry presents criticism of Walker's work through 1996. See also Alice Walker Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 5, 6, 9, 19, 27.

The acclaimed writer of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple (1982), Walker sees writing as a way to correct wrongs that she observes in the world, and has dedicated herself to delineating the unique dual oppression from which black women suffer: racism and sexism. Her work is an exploration of the individual identity of the black woman and how embracing her identity and bonding with other women affects the health of her community at large. Walker describes this kinship among women as "womanism," as opposed to feminism.

Biographical Information

Walker was born and raised in Eatonton, Georgia, where her father was a sharecropper. When she was eight years old her brother shot her with his BB gun, leaving her scarred and blind in one eye. The disfigurement made Walker shy and self-conscious, leading her to try writing to express herself. The accident also had a permanent impact on her relationship with her father: his inability to obtain proper medical treatment for her forever colored her relationship with him, and they remained estranged for the rest of his life. In contrast, Walker notes that she respected her mother's strength and perseverance in the face of poverty, recalling how hard her mother worked in her garden to create beauty in even the shabbiest of conditions. Despite her disadvantaged childhood, Walker won the opportunity to continue her education with a scholarship to Spelman College. She attended Spelman for two years, but became disenchanted with what she considered a puritanical atmosphere there and transferred to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, to complete her education. It was while at Sarah Lawrence that Walker wrote her first collection of poetry, Once (1968), in reaction to a traumatic abortion. Walker shared the poems with one of her teachers, the poet Muriel Rukeyser, whose agent found a publisher for them. After college, Walker moved to Mississippi to work as a teacher and a civil rights advocate. In 1967, she married Melvyn Leventhal, a Jewish civil rights attorney; they became the first legally married interracial couple to reside in Jackson, Mississippi. She and Leventhal had a daughter, Rebecca; they divorced some years later. While working in Mississippi, Walker discovered the writings of Zora Neale Hurston, an author who would have a great influence on Walker's later work. Walker eventually edited a collection of Hurston's fiction called I Love Myself When I Am Laughing … and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader (1979). In addition to poetry, Walker has written short stories, collected in In Love and Trouble (1973) and You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down (1981), and several novels, most notably The Color Purple, which received both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award.

Major Works

Walker's work is occupied with the task of what Alma Freeman calls "unveiling the soul of the black woman," as Hurston endeavored before her. Walker's first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), introduces many of the themes that would become prevalent in her work, particularly the domination of powerless women by equally powerless men. The novel follows three generations of a black southern family of sharecroppers and its patriarch, Grange Copeland, as they struggle with racism and poverty. In Grange's "first life" he tortures his wife until she commits suicide. His son Brownfield inherits his sense of helplessness and hatred, and eventually murders his own wife. In Grange's "second life" he attempts to escape to the industrial North. Walker does not present industrial labor as a viable solution to the poverty of the South, however, and in his "third life" Grange returns to his southern home. At the end of the novel, Grange has become a compassionate man who longs to atone for the legacy of hate he has left his family, attempting to help his granddaughter Ruth escape from her father (Brownfield) and the South as a gesture of his remorse. Another theme in Walker's fiction is the way in which the black woman's attempt to be whole relates to the health of her community. The attempt at wholeness comes from remaining true to herself and fighting against the constraints of society, as in the stories from Walker's collection In Love and Trouble. Meridian (1976) is considered an autobiographical work. The title character was born in the rural South, like Walker, and uses education as a means of escape. Pregnant and married to a high school dropout, Meridian struggles with thoughts of suicide or killing her child, but eventually decides to give the child up and attend college. After graduating she enters an organization of black militants in Mississippi, but realizes that she is not willing to kill for the cause. With this knowledge she resolves to return to rural Mississippi to help its residents struggle against oppression. In The Color Purple, Walker uses the form of letters in creating a woman-centered focus for her novel. The letters span thirty years in the life of Celie, a poor southern black woman who is victimized physically and emotionally by her stepfather, who repeatedly rapes her and then takes her children away from her, and by her husband, an older widower who sees her more as a mule than as a wife. The letters are written to God and Celie's sister, Nettie, who escaped a similar life by becoming a missionary in Africa. Celie overcomes her oppression with the intervention of an unlikely ally, her husband's mistress, Shug Avery. Snug helps Celie to find self-esteem and the courage to leave her marriage. By the end of the novel, Celie is reunited with her children and her sister. The Temple of My Familiar (1989) is an ambitious novel recording 500,000 years of human history. The novel's central character, Miss Lissie, is a goddess from primeval Africa who has been incarnated hundreds of times throughout history. She befriends Suwelo, a narcissistic university professor whose marriage is threatened by his need to dominate and sexually exploit his wife. Through a series of conversations with Miss Lissie and her friend Hal, Suwelo learns of Miss Lissie's innumerable lives and experiences—from the prehistoric world in which humans and animals lived in harmony under a matriarchal society to slavery in the United States—and regains his capability to love, nurture, and respect himself and others. In Possessing the Secret of Joy, (1992) Walker examines the practice of female genital mutilation. The novel focuses on Tashi, a woman who willingly requests the ritual, in part because she is unaware of what the ceremony involves. Since discussion of the ritual is taboo in her culture, Tashi is ignorant of the profound impact the procedure will have on her life. The ritual is further examined in Warrior Marks, (1994), a nonfiction account of this ceremony still practiced throughout the world. Walker also collaborated with Indian filmmaker Pratibha Parmar to produce a film with the same title. The book covers the making of the film as well as bringing to light the consequences of this practice.

Critical Reception

Walker earned high praise for The Color Purple, especially for her accurate rendering of black folk idioms and her characterization of Celie. Peter S. Prescott echoed the opinion of most reviewers when he called Walker's work "an American novel of permanent importance, that rare sort of book which (in Norman Mailer's felicitous phrase) amounts to 'a diversion in the fields of dread'." Despite the nearly unanimous praise, there are several widely debated aspects of Walker's writing. One such aspect is her portrayal of black male characters as archetypes of black men in modem society. Many reviewers condemn her portrayals of black men as unnecessarily negative, pointing to the vile characters in some of her work and to her own comments about black men as evidence of enmity on her part. Other critics assert that the author, in presenting flawed characters, reveals typical shortcomings in the hope that real people burdened with these flaws will recognize themselves in her stories and strive to improve. Some reviewers also assert that Walker's work contains positive images of black men that are often ignored by critics. Beyond her portrayal of black men, some reviewers have found fault with Walker's characterization in general, opposing her tendency to refer to characters only with pronouns, thereby encouraging readers to consider the characters exemplary of anyone to whom that pronoun could apply. Finally, much of Walker's work is viewed as political in intent, at times to the detriment of its literary value. In contrast, reviewers praise works such as In Love and Trouble for balancing the art of storytelling with political concerns. Reviewers often praise Walker in her use of oral storytelling tradition, finding her work most convincing when she employs anecdotal narrative. Overall, critics commend her ability to incorporate a message within her narratives. In commenting on Possessing the Secret of Joy, Alyson R. Buckman states that [Walker's] "text acts as a revolutionary manifesto for dismantling systems of domination," echoing the sentiments of many reviewers. Critics have also lauded the nonfictional Warrior Marks for its exposure of the practice of female genital mutilation. Walker's work consistently reflects her concern with racial, sexual, and political issues—particularly with the black woman's struggle for spiritual survival. Addressing detractors who fault her "unabashedly feminist viewpoint," Walker explained: "The black woman is one of America's greatest heroes…. Not enough credit has been given to the black woman who has been oppressed beyond recognition."

Principal Works

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Once (poetry) 1968
The Third Life of Grange Copeland (novel) 1970
Five Poems (poetry) 1972
In Love and Trouble (short stories) 1973
Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems (poetry) 1973
Langston Hughes, American Poet (biography for children) 1974
Meridian (novel) 1976
Good Night, Willie Lee, I'll See You in the Morning (poetry) 1979
I Love Myself When I Am Laughing … and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader [editor] (fiction) 1979
You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down (short stories) 1981
The Color Purple (novel) 1982
In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose (essays) 1983
Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful (poetry) 1984
Living by the Word: Selected Writings 1973–1987 (essays) 1988
To Hell with Dying (juvenile) 1988
The Temple of My Familiar (novel) 1989
Finding the Green Stone [with Catherine Deeter] (juvenile) 1991
Her Blue Body Everything We Know: Earthling Poems 1965–1990 (poetry) 1991
Possessing the Secret of Joy (novel) 1992
Warrior Marks [with Pratibha Parmar] (nonfiction) 1994
The Same River Twice (essays) 1996

Barbara Christian (essay date March/April 1981)

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SOURCE: "The Contrary Women of Alice Walker," in The Black Scholar, Vol. 12, No. 2, March/April 1982, pp.21-30, 70-1.

[In the following essay, Christian discusses how the women of Walker's In Love and Trouble fight to embrace their individual spirits and to overcome convention.]

In Love and Trouble, Alice Walker's collection of short stories, is introduced by two seemingly unrelated excerpts, one from The Concubine by the contemporary West African writer, Elechi Amadi, the other from Letters to a Young Poet by the early 20th century German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. In the first excerpt, Amadi describes the emotional state of the young girl, Ahurole, who is about to be engaged. She is contrary, boisterous at one time, sobbing violently at another. Her parents conclude that she is "unduly influenced by agwu, her personal spirit," a particularly troublesome one. Though the excerpt Walker chose primarily describes Ahurole's agwu, it ends with this observation: "Ahurole was engaged to Ekwueme when she was 8 days old."

The excerpt from Rilke beautifully summarizes a view of the living, setting up a dichotomy between the natural and the social order:

… people have (with the help of conventions) oriented all their solutions toward the easy and toward the easiest side of the easy; but it is clear that we must hold to what is difficult; everything in nature grows and defends itself in its own way, and is characteristically and spontaneously itself, seeks at all costs to be so against all opposition.

How are these two excerpts from strikingly different traditions related and why are they the preludes, the tone-setters to a volume of short stories about black women?

I am coordinating a seminar on the works of Alice Walker. We have read and discussed Once, Walker's first volume of poetry, and the The Third Life of Grange Copeland, her powerful first novel. The tension in the class has steadily risen. Now we are approaching In Love and Trouble. There is a moment of silence as class starts. Then one of the black women, as if bursting from an inexplicable anger says: "Why is there so much pain in these books, especially in this book?" I know this student; her life has much pain in it. She is going to school against all odds, in opposition to everything and everyone, it would seem. She is conscious of being black; she is struggling, trying to figure out why her relationships as a woman are so confused, often painful. She repeats her question adding a comment—"What kind of images are these to expose to—(pause)?" To whom, she will not say. "I don't want to see this, know this." There is more anger, then silence. But she is riveted on the stories in this and other class sessions, and insists on staying in this class. She seems to all appearances, to be together, well-dressed, even stylish, a strong voice and body, an almost arrogant, usually composed face. But now she is angry, resistant, yet obsessed by these stories.

Alice Walker has produced a significant body of work since 1968, when Once, her first volume of poetry, was published. Since then she has published two other volumes of poetry, Revolutionary Petunias, 1973, and Goodnight Willie Lee, I'll See You in the Morning, in 1979; in addition to In Love and Trouble she has published two novels, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, 1970, and Meridian, 1976; A Children's Biography of Langston Hughes, 1974. She has also edited an anthology of the work of Zora Neale Hurston, I Love Myself … in 1979, and has written any number of articles among which "In Search Of Our Mother's Gardens" (1974) and "One Child of One's Own" (1978); stand out as significant essays written by a black woman. Another collection of short stories You Can't Keep A Good Woman Down has just been published. Walker, has been a consistently prolific writer of poetry, essays and fiction. A young writer, she is already acclaimed by many as one of America's finest novelists.

Walker's already substantial body of writing, though varied, is characterized by specific recurrent motifs. Most obvious is her attention to the black woman as creator and how her attempt to be whole relates to the health of her community. This theme is certainly focal to Walker's first collection of stories In Love and Trouble.

Who are the characters in these stories? What happens to them? More to the point, what do they do that should cause this young black woman, and many others like her to be so affected? What have they or she to do with agwu or with Rilke's words?

In these 11 stories, Walker's protagonists share certain external characteristics that at first might seem primarily descriptive. All are female; all are black; most are Southern; all are involved in some critical relationship—to lover, mother, father, daughter, husband, woman, tradition, God, nature—that causes them some discomfit. But the external characteristics so easily discerned, are not emblems. They are far more complex and varied. The words, Southern black woman, as if they were a sort of verbal enchantment, evoke clusters of contradictory myths, images, stories, meanings according to different points of view. Who is a Southern black woman? To a white man, those words might connote a mammy, a good looking wench, or Dilsey, as it did to Faulkner. To a white woman it might connote a servant, a rival, or a wise indefatigable adviser, as it did to Lillian Hellman. To a black man, it might connote a charming, soft-spoken, perhaps backward woman, or a religious fanatic and a vale of suffering as it did to Richard Wright. But what does being a Southern black woman mean to her, or to the many that are her?

Focal to Walker's presentation is the point of view of individual black Southern girls or women who must act out their lives in the web of conventions that is the South—conventions that they may or may not believe in, may or may not feel at ease in, conventions that may or may not help them to grow. And because societal conventions in the South have much to do with the conduct of relationships—man and woman, young and old, black and white, our female protagonists, by their very existence, must experience and assess them. So naturally, Walker's women are in love and trouble. However, unlike Toomer's women in Cane, who too are restricted by their race, sex, and origins, Walker's women are not silent. Her women are not presented through a perceptive male narrator, but through the private voices of their imaginations or through their dearly paid for words or acts.

The way in which Walker uses point of view, character is not mere technique, but an indication of how free her protagonists are to be themselves within the constraints of convention. If they cannot act, they speak. If they cannot speak, they can at least imagine, their interiority being inviolate, a place where they can exercise autonomy, be who they are. Through act, word or dream, they naturally seek to be "characteristically and spontaneously" themselves. In order to defend the selves they know they are, they must hold to what is difficult, often wishing, however that they were not so compelled. As all natural things, they must have themselves—even in conflict. So their agwu, their personal spirits are troubled, as they strain against their restraints. And their acts, words, dreams take on the appearance, if not of madness, of contrariness.

What specifically are some of the conventions that so restrict them, causing their spirits to be troubled even as they seek love? It is interesting to me that the stories from this volume my students found most disturbing take place within the imagination of the character. And that often that character mentally sees herself as different from her external self. She sees a different self—a dangerous self, as if a reflection in a mirror.

Roselily is such a character. The form of her story, itself a marriage ceremony, is a replica of the convention, the easy solution to which she has been oriented. As a poor black woman with four illegitimate children, she is, it seems, beyond redemption. Thus, her wedding day, attended as it is by satin voile, and lily of the valley, is from any number of viewpoints a day of triumph. But she, how does she see it? Walker does not use "I," the first person point of view, but the pronoun "She" throughout this marriage ceremony, as if Roselily is being seen from an external point of view. Yet what she does is dream: "She dreams; dragging herself across the world." It is as if even in Roselily's mind, the being who wonders about, questions this day of triumph, is both herself, and yet not herself.

Troubled, though feeling she should not be troubled, Roselily's meditation on the words of the ceremony is intensely focussed, almost fixated on images of entrapment. "She feels old. Yoked." "Something strained upward behind her eyes. She thinks of the something as a rat trapped, cornered, scurrying to and fro in her head peering through the window of her eyes." Even the flowers in her hand, flowers associated with the sweet South, seem "to choke off three and four and five years of breath." Yet because of her condition, she feels she should not feel this way. She should want: "Respect, a chance to build. Her children at last from underneath the detrimental wheel." What she feels is—trapped in her condition—trapped in her deliver from that condition.

As Roselily struggles with her agwu, as she resists the urge to rip off satin voile, to toss away lily of the valley, her dreaming also gives us insight into the complexity, sheer weight of the conventions that have trapped her. Different sets of values are affecting her life. They are as different, as they are black, in the way they restrict her or allow her to grow. One set of values seems to be giving way to another, satin voile to black veil. Tradition is undergoing change, affecting the society's definition of her role as a woman, intensifying the conflict within herself.

She comes from a Southern black community, poor, Christian, rural, its tradition held together by "cemeteries and the long sleep of grandparents mingling in the dirt." Here she can be "bare to the sun." But she must be poor; she must work in a sewing plant—work from which no growth will occur, work only for the purpose of survival. Here she must be a mother, preferably within the confines of marriage, where her sensuality will be legitimatized and curbed. But even without marriage she must be a mother. Tradition decrees it. Here the responsibility of her children's fathers are minimized, their condition as restricted as hers except they have mobility, can drive by "waving or not waving." Here the quality of suffering is legitimatized by Christianity, as rooted in sorrow as the graves of her grandparents. Here there is nothing new, as the cars on the highway whiz by, leaving behind a lifestyle as rooted in the past as the faces at this country wedding.

What is new comes from the North, challenging this traditional way of life. New gods arise, affecting the quality of Roselily's life. What freedoms do these new conventions afford her? The nameless New England father of her fourth child, brings the god of social justice. Though he exalts common black people, he cannot "abide TV in the living room, 5 beds in 3 rooms, no Bach except from 4-6 on Sunday afternoons." He cannot abide the backward ways of the people that in the abstract he wants to save.

To the man she is marrying, God is Allah, the devil is the white man, and work is building a black nation. But he cannot abide the incorrect ways of Roselily's community, their faith in a white Christian God and their tolerance of sensuality. Just as the old women in the church feel that he is "like one of their sons except that he had somehow got away from them," he feels that this community is black except that it has gotten away from its blackness. For him, a veiled black woman in his home is a sign of his righteousness, and in marrying Roselily he is redeeming her from her backward values. With him, she will have black babies to people the nation.

Whether Southern or Northern, traditional or modern, rural or urban, convention confines Roselily to a role, a specific manifestation of some dearly held principle. As a result, her agwu though expressed only in her dreaming, is even more troubled by change. For even as she glimpses possibilities, she is left with the same vision of confinement. She can only dream that "she wants to live for once. But doesn't quite know what that means. Wonders if she has ever done it. If she ever will." Not even the I do that she must speak in order to accept the delivery from her condition is allowed, in this story, to interrupt the dreaming. She does not speak aloud. Her dreaming is as separate from her external behavior, as this Mississippi country church is from her future home, cinder-filled Chicago. But at least she can, in her imagination, know her confinement to be troublesome and recognize in a part of herself that this change is not the attainment of her fulfillment.

As the first story in this volume, Roselily's meditation on her condition touches major themes that will be explored in most of the others. Distinctions between the shells of convention, to which people are usually oriented, and the marrow of a living, functional black tradition is examined in most of these stories in terms of the span and degree of freedom afforded the black woman. Like "Roselily," "Really, Doesn't Crime Pay," focusses on the limited image of black femaleness within Southern tradition. Only now the image is no longer a "peasant" one but a black and middle class one as modified by the sweet smelling idealizations of the Southern Lady.

Both Roselily and Myrna's stories are couched in the images of sweet smelling flowers. But while Roselily's name emphasizes the natural quality of her Southern environment, Myrna buys her artificial scents from the shopping mall. Her creamed, perfumed body proclaims her a well kept lady and evoked images of the delicate, decorative Southern belle. But the South's mystique, as evoked through Roselily's name and Myrna's perfumes chokes rather than pleases both these women. Natural or artificial, peasant or lady, they are trapped by myth.

To all appearances, for that is what counts, Myrna has succeeded in ways that Roselily had not. Myrna, after all is married to Reul (Rule), an ambitious Southern black man, who wants her to have babies that he will support, and who insists on keeping her expensively dressed and scented. But, although Reul and Roselily's new husband are worlds apart, they agree on basic tenets: that the appearance and behavior of their wives mirror the male's values, and that their women stay at home and have babies. Both women must, in their physical make-up, be the part. Roselily must be clearly black; Myrna must look non-black, like a Frenchwoman or an Oriental. Both must wear appropriate uniforms: Roselily's black veil, Myrna's frilly dresses. Both must withdraw from the impure outer world, providing a refuge for their husband and children. But while Roselily does not know what she wants to do, when she is rested, Myrna knows that she wants to write, must write.

As in "Roselily," "Really, Doesn't Crime Pay" takes place within the imagination of the character. But while Roselily dreams during her wedding, Myrna's imagination is presented through her entries in her writing notebook. Unlike Roselily then, whose critical musings never move beyond her interior, Myrna's break for freedom lies in trying to express herself in words. However, like Roselily, as Myrna confronts the conventions she is expected to adhere to, she also experiences discomfit within her agwu.

As is often true with Walker's stories, the first few sentences succinctly embodies the whole:

September 1961

page 118

I sit here by the window in a house with a 30 year mortgage looking down at my Helena Rubenstein hands…. And why not? Since I am not a serious writer, my nails need not be bitten off. My cuticles need not have jagged edges.

These first lines not only tell us that Myrna's story will be told through her entries in her writing notebook, we also begin to realize that she knows her value is perceived to be in her appearance and social position, not in her creativity. And because she has no external acknowledgement of her value as a writer, she, with some irony, doubts her own ability. Her husband's words to her, written as an entry, clearly summarizes society's view:

Everytime he tells me how peculiar I am for wanting to write stories, he brings up having a baby or going shopping, as if these things are the same. Just something to occupy my time.

As a result of her own doubts, constantly reinforced by her husband, magazines, billboards, other women, doctors, Myrna is open, both sexually and artistically to Mordecai, an artiste. He rips her off on both counts precipitating the mental breakdown and her aborted murder of her husband that we see developing in her entries.

The presentation of entries, which begin with September 1961, go back in time and finally move beyond that date, is crucial to Myrna's story. For when we meet her, she has already tried to write and been rebuffed by her husband. She has been ripped off by Mordecai, has attempted murder, has been confined to a mental institution and has eventually been returned to her husband. Like Caroline Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper, the entries that make up the substance of this story express the anger and rage, in madly logical terms, which drive the house-prisoned woman writer crazy.

But the story goes beyond that impotent rage. Having tried the madness of murder and failed, Myrna concocts a far more subtle way, contrariness rather than madness, to secure her freedom. Now she says yes to everything, the smiles, the clothes, sex, the house, until she has yessed her husband to fatigue. She triumphantly tells us that "the women of the community feel sorry for him to be married to such a fluff of nothing," and she confides that "he knows now that I intend to do nothing but say yes until he is completely exhausted." Cunningly, she secretly takes "the Pill," insuring her eventual triumph over him. But it is her discovery of the magnificence of the manipulation of words that brings her to a possible resolution of her troubled agwu. Like Ralph Ellison's nameless narrator's grandfather in Invisible Man, she yesses them to death, though in a peculiarly female way.

In saying yes to mean no Myrna uses the manipulative power of the word and secures some small victory. But it is a victory achieved from the position of weakness, for she has no alternative. Like countless Southern belles, she has found that directness based on self-autonomy is ineffectual and that successful strategies must be covert. Such strategies demand patience, self-abnegation, falsehood. Thus at the end of this story, Myrna has yet to act: "When I am quite, quite tired of the sweet, sweet smell of my body, and the softness of these Helena Rubenstein hands, I will leave him and this house."

What happens then when a black woman goes against convention, transgresses a deeply felt taboo, and says No directly and aloud? In perhaps the most powerful, certainly the most violent story of this volume, the woman in "The Child Who Favored Daughter," speaks practically one word in the entire story, "No." By saying "No" with such firmness she resists convention, insisting on the inviolability of her agwu.

This story is as important in the light it sheds on the black men in other stories, Reul, and Roselily's Muslim husband, as it is in its own right. Moving back and forth between the imaginations of the woman and her father, it presents in almost cinematic rhythm, a black male and female point of view. In committing the most damnable act for a black woman, falling in love with a white man, the Child who favored Daughter sorely touches the vulnerability of the black man who has felt the whips of racism. To a compelling degree, Reul's desire that Myrna be feminine and Roselily's husband's insistence that she be pure and sheltered are related to these men's need to be on par with the white man. To have a wife who is a visual representation of one's financial achievement, or to protect and keep pure the black woman, despite the white man's often successful attempts to drag down the race, are goals essential to their view of themselves as men. Racism then has the effect, not only of physically and economically restricting these men, but also of reinforcing their need to imitate the oppressor's conventions in order to match his worth.

But "The Child Who Favored Daughter," though encompassing the sexist results of racism, goes beyond them. For it is based on an apparently universal ambivalence men have toward the sexuality of their female kin, especially their daughters. Thus, it begins with an epigraph, the equivalent of which is found in every culture:

     That my daughter should
     fancy herself in love
     with any man
     How can this be?
                   Anonymous

And only a few words later, Walker underlines the result of such a sentiment. Succinctly defining patriarch, while exposing its absurdity, she introduces the father in this story in conceptual terms: "Father, judge, giver of life."

Walker juxtaposes points of view of the Child and her Father by using the parts of this definition, judge, giver of life, as pivotal areas of contrast. As Father, the man judges his daughter based on one piece of evidence, a letter she has written to her white lover. As in "Really, Doesn't Crime Pay," the written word takes on immense significance as proof of the woman's autonomy outside the realm of the man's kingdom. In an indelible way, the Child's written words are proof not only of her crime against her Father and societal conventions, but also of her consciousness in committing it. Thus we are introduced to her: "She knows he has read the letter," as she prepares herself for his inevitably harsh judgment. Her Father, too, is mesmerized by the letter itself, for it is both a proclamation of her separateness from him, and, ironically, a judgment on his life. The words he selects to remember from the letter heighten our sense of his vulnerability: '"Jealousy is being nervous about something that has never, and probably won't ever, belong to you."'

Again, as in "Roselily," although we are inside the characters' psyches, Walker uses the third person "She" and "He" rather than the first person "I." But here, its usage has a different effect; for unlike Roselily, neither the Child nor her Father are presenting a different self to the world. Rather the "She" and "He" used in the absence of personalized names give the characters, an archetypal quality, as if the Child stands not only for this individual black woman, but for all daughters who have transgressed against their father's law; and the Father stands not only for this bitter black man, but for all fathers who have been sinned against by their daughters.

That particular interpretation of the Child's act is organic to the story since the Father, not the Child defines himself as a patriarch. The Child does not see him as Father but as her father. There are other men who exist besides him; other laws that also govern. Her act proclaims this. Her words in the letter make it clear that she cannot be owned. It is precisely this difference in their interpretation of their roles that causes his agwu to be so agonized that it inflicts trouble on hers.

To the man in this story, he is Father, she is Daughter, a possessive relationship that admits no knowledge of any individual histories or desires. It is true that he clings to an individual history, his sense of his first betrayal by a woman who he loves. But that apparently individual story leads us back to the archetypal, for this woman is his sister, is called "Daughter," the original Daughter, rather than a particular name. Her image blots out all individualized details in other women, until all women, especially those who are "fragmented bits of himself," are destined to betray him. Sister, Daughter, he perceives them and their actions as a judgment of his own worth and capacity to be loved. From his perspective, because they have such power over him, they cannot exist apart from him. They must exist for him; because of him. Thus he must control them: "If he cannot frighten her into chastity with his voice he will threaten her with the gun." That he feels is his right as Father, as "judge."

The authority vested in him as Father implies then not only that he has the power to enforce obedience, but that he has a right to this power precisely because he is the "giver of life." Walker intensifies the archetypal tone of this tale by repeating two sets of poetic motifs in a relationship of tension between nature and time. One motif, "Lure of flower smells / The sun" emphasizes the sensuality of nature. The other "Memories of Once / Like a mirror reflecting" transforms the temporal into an eternal moment, obliterating the possibility of redemption. The Father's perception of himself as the "giver of life" is juxtaposed in the story to the keen awareness of his sister and daughter's sexuality, vital and beyond his control. He is affected by their sensual bodies, naturally capable of giving life, his daughter's "slight, roundly curved body," his sister, "honey, tawny, wild and sweet." His ambivalence toward that part of them that he can never have, that part of them that will naturally take them away from him, intensifies the physical feeling of betrayal he imagines has been dealt him by women.

"Father, judge, giver of life," yet he cannot control it. Has he created it? Walker uses, throughout this story, images of Nature which overwhelm his senses: "the lure of flower smells," the busy wasps building their paper houses, the flower body of the Child. All around the Father life escapes his control, in much the same way that his daughter's body and her will overpowers him. Like Nature, his sister, and daughter, are "flowers who pledge no allegiance to banners of any man." As he will burn the wasps' paper houses down "singeing the wings of the young wasps before they get a chance to fly or to sting him," he must protect himself from "the agony of unnameable desire" caused by his sensuous wayward daughter.

If he cannot control the life he has given, then he must take it back. The violence the Father inflicts on his Daughter, for he literally cuts off her sexual organs in biblical fashion. ("If their right hand offend thee, cut it off") confirms his own sexual desire for her. It also underscores his fear of her proclaimed autonomy, her independence from him, which is based on her sexuality. In destroying her sexually, he is destroying that unknowable part of himself that he feels is slipping out of his control:

… he draws the girl away from him as one pulling off his own arm and with quick slashes of his knife leaves two bleeding craters the size of grapefruit on her bronze chest (emphasis mine).

This Father kills his Daughter, not with the phallic gun, but with a knife, the instrument used in sacrificial blood ritual. He sacrifices her, to his definition of himself, what he and therefore she should be. And the brutality of his act also suggests that he must doubly kill her since he cannot attack the other object of his rage, her white lover. He kills in one blow, his desire for her and his long-frustrated rage at the white man. No longer can the white man despoil his sister or his daughter, for they no longer exist; no longer must he love what he cannot control. Now he is left with "the perfection of an ancient dream, his nightmare" and the gun, the child he now cradles, which he can completely control.

The Father's troubled agwu stands in contrast to the child's throughout this ballad of a tale. Her agwu is threatened from without; but it is not troubled within. Like Nature, she must be herself, grow and defend herself in her own way, not as defined by her father nor society. She must have herself even though she has learned that "it is the fallen flower most earnestly hated, most easily bruised," and that she has been that fallen flower the moment her father presumed to give her life. So, she cannot "abandon her simple way of looking at simple flowers." So she accepts her father's beating, rising from it strong-willed and resolved, and she cannot, will not deny that she loves whom she loves. It is her composure, paradoxically her contrariness, and her lack of torment which echoes for the father the original daughter's preference for the Other, worse—her complete indifference to his pained love. Thus, her ability to be so surely herself results in her destruction. Her inner spirit and her outer actions are as one, she is a woman. To her Father though, she must act and speak as a Child, though she may think as a woman, for then her sexuality will not be a danger to him.

"The Child Who Favored Daughter" lyrically analyzes two constraints of convention which, when fused, are uniquely opposed to the growth of black women. For it merges the impact of racism, not only on society but on the person, with the threat woman's sexuality represents to patriarchal man. One feeds the other, resulting in dire consequences for the black woman who insists on her own autonomy, and for whom love, the giver of life, knows "nothing of master and slave." For such a woman strikes at the heart of hierarchy, which is central to racism and sexism, two variants of the patriarchal view of life.

The young protagonists of "Roselily," "Really, Doesn't Crime Pay," and "The Child Who Favored Daughter," develop from one story to the next in their awareness of the conventions imposed upon them, and in their insistence on growing and defending themselves in their own way. Associated with the flowers of the South, their relationship to sweet-smelling nature mirror their consciousness. Thus, Walker presents Roselily as one who clutches lily of the valley, the symbol of her new condition, even as she questions her deliverance, though only in one part of her mind. Myrna does more than dream. Although she douses herself with gardenia perfume, the symbol of her comfortable prison, she writes of her intention to free herself, and has learned the difficult strategy of saying yes to mean no. The Child Who Favors Daughter goes even one step further. She will not give up "her simple way of looking at simple flowers," and her spoken word, "No" is a declaration of her internal freedom of mind. She is destroyed by her father and by convention, however, precisely because she tries to grow in her own way.

She is very much like most of Walker's elder protagonists in that their agwu's too, are not troubled from within so much as they are from without. A major difference between the Child and these elders, Hannah Kemhoff, Mama in "Everyday Use," the old woman in "The Welcome Table" is that they have survived. Perhaps they too had walked the paths of a Roselily or Myrna until they came to the realization that there is nothing more precious than being characteristically and spontaneously themselves. Too, they have become the repositories of a living tradition, which they know not only in conventional forms but more importantly in its spirit.

The old woman in "The Welcome Table" exemplifies the agwu that, though troubled from without, is aware of what is necessary for its fullness and tranquility. Her story is about her relationship to God which, for her, is above and beyond any conventions to which people have oriented their solutions. In contrast to the young flower heroines of this volume, she is described in nature imagery that expresses endurance rather than sensuality: "She was angular and lean as the color of poor gray Georgia earth, beaten by king cotton and the extreme weather." Rather than smelling of flowers, she smells of "decay and musk—the fermenting scent of onionskins and rotting greens."

Again, Walker uses the third person, "She" and "They," rather than the first person "I." This time she uses it so that we can hear both the old woman's mind and those opposed to her agwu, so that we can experience the contrast in spirit. For what she must do is prepare herself to be welcomed into the arms of her Jesus. For that overwhelming reason, she goes to the big white church without any regard for the breach of Southern convention she is committing. All that she is concerned with is the "singing in her head." In contrast they see her act as contrariness. For they see her as black and old, doubly terrifying to them because one state awaits them all, and the other frightens them. So they are able to throw her out of their church even as they beseech their God, according to convention, for protection and love.

Walker contrasts the two points of view in "The Welcome Table" in much the same way as she does the Child and the Father in "The Child Who Favored Daughter." Neither the old black woman nor the white congregation has names or specific identifying characteristics, except that each lives in Georgia. This absence of personalized detail gives the characters a quality that is both archetypal and Southern while it emphasizes the contrast in the way the old woman and the white congregation relate to Southern convention.

On one hand the white congregation does not see the old woman as worthy enough to enter their church, precisely because she is black and old, yet, they relate to her in familial terms for exactly the same reasons. Their confusion about how they are to react to her unconventional act is expressed in their uncertainty about whether they addressed her in the traditional familiar terms, "Auntie," or "Grandma." Their emphasis on this point is characteristic of the contradictions inherent in the white South's relation to its black folk. The old woman on the other hand is clear about her actions. She ignores them, is clearly bothered by these people who claim familial ties with her, yet know her or care about her not at all. In ignoring the conventions, she exposes the tradition of black and white familial ties as nothing more than form. All the sacred words of this tradition are brought into question by her simple act: "God, mother, country, earth, church…. It involved all that and well they knew it."

It is significant too, that the white men, all of whom seem younger than the old black woman, are the ones who express this confusion. It is the white women who are clear about their true relationship to this old black woman, for they do not idealize it. From their point of view, in her coming to their church, this old black woman challenges the very thing that gives them privilege. Both they and she are women—but they are white, their only claim to the pedestal on which they so uneasily stand. They know they can only hold their position if that pedestal is identified with the very essence of Southern convention, and that this old woman, and others like her, are literally and symbolically the bodies upon which that pedestal rests. Just as sexism is reinforced by racism in "The Child Who Favored Daughter," so in "The Welcome Table" racism distorts the natural relationship that should exist between woman and woman, and mutes the respect, according to convention and nature, that the young should have for the old.

According to white Southern thought, Christianity is the system upon which its culture and definition of woman and man is based. At the center of that system is the image of a white Jesus. Ironically Jesus' picture, which she has stolen from a white woman she worked for, is the old black woman's source of solace. But Walker does not present the old woman's white Jesus as an affront to her blackness; rather through the dynamics of her imagination and her culture, the old woman transforms this image into her own. For instead of being the meek and mild Jesus, her image of him is one of righteousness and justice. The words of the old spiritual, the epigraph of this story, embodies this old black woman's relationship to her Jesus:

      I'm going to sit at the welcome table
      shout my troubles over
      Walk and talk with Jesus
      Tell God how you treat me
      One of these days
                                  —Spiritual

One stereotypical image of the Southern black woman is that of the fanatically religious old mammy so in love with a white Jesus that she becomes the white man's pawn. "The Welcome Table" obliterates that image as it probes the depth of black Southern tradition. For this old woman cracks the conventional shell of white Southern Christianity, and penetrates the whiteness of Jesus' face to "the candle … glowing behind it," for she insists on the validity of her own faith and tradition, and on the integrity of her relationship with her God. Walker further reinforces the integrity of a black Christian tradition, of which Southern black women were the heralds, by dedicating her composition of her spiritual in prose form to Clara Ward, the great black gospel singer. For, like the slaves in their spirituals, the old black woman in "The Welcome Table" makes Christianity her own, going beyond its European images to its truth as it applies to her. It is her spirit that "walked without stopping."

This old woman's act, and the acts, words, even dreams of so many of Walker's protagonists in this volume appear to others, sometimes even to themselves, as manifestations of the innate contrariness of black women. The term, contrary, is used more often and with greater emphasis in Afro-American culture than it is in white culture. In fact, blacks often use it as if they all suffer from it. Yet behind their use of the word itself is a grudging respect for, sometimes even a gleeful identification with, a resistance to authority.

However, Walker's analysis of the contrariness of her main characters goes beyond the concept of unfocussed rebellion. Her women behave as if they are contrary, even mad, in response to a specific convention that restricts them, and they pay a price for their insistence on retaining their integrity. Even when they triumph, their stories are rooted in the pain…. Walker insists on probing both the white society and the black community's definition of black women. For in both worlds, words such as contrariness or a troublesome agwu are used to explain away many seemingly irrational acts of women; without having to understand them as appropriate responses. Her protagonists often discover that since they are black they are perceived by whites as "the other," or since they are women they are perceived by men as "the other." In either world they are not the norm. Their deviant behavior, then, is expected and therefore need not be understood.

That is why the excerpt from Amadi's The Concubine sets the tone so precisely for this volume, for Ahurole's contrariness, even in a black culture not yet affected by racism, is explained away as natural. Her life as an African woman is planned for her, regardless of her personality, desires, or development. And such a plan is so rooted in tradition, that Ahurole is allowed in her society to have this one outlet, which will neither change her situation or cause others to question it.

Yet Ahurole's story is not the story of Roselily, Myrna, The Child or the Old Woman. For these black women must not only bear the traditional definitions of women in their culture, they must confront, as well, the sexist myths of another race which oppresses them. The conventions that they are expected to hold to, are not even the conventions of their own communities, but ones imposed on them. It is no wonder then that these women seem mad whenever they insist on being "spontaneously and characteristically" themselves.

The stories in In Love and Trouble, provoke readers, especially black women, the audience to which they are clearly addressed, not only because of the pain or violence in them, but because Walker subversively admits to the contrariness of her black female protagonists. It is as if she says we do think as they suspect we do; we do speak and act as they say we do. What she does is to interpret that contrariness as healthy, as an attempt to be whole rather than as a defect of nature or as nonexistent. And in exposing the contrariness, in demonstrating its appropriateness, she assesses the false paths of escape from psychic violence that so many of us are wont to believe in or follow—those easy conventions that we would like to see as solutions. These stories act out Rilke's words, for they show that there is no possibility for any living being to be whole unless she can be who she is. More disturbing they show that no matter how she might want to appear, no matter what conventions are imposed on her, no matter how much she resists herself, she will oppose those who inflict trouble on her. In the final analysis then, these stories are about the most natural law of all, that all living beings must love themselves, must try to be free—that spirit will eventually triumph over convention, no matter what the cost.

David Bradley (essay date 8 January 1984)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7006

SOURCE: "Novelist Alice Walker Telling the Black Woman's Story," in The New York Times Magazine, January 8, 1984, pp. 25-37.

[In the following essay, Bradley traces the development of Walker's career and discusses the strengths and weaknesses of her writing.]

I first met Alice Walker the way people used to: Someone I liked and respected pressed a dogeared copy of one of her books into my hands and said, "You've got to read this." The book was In Love & Trouble, a collection of stories written between 1967 and 1973. Some of them had been published previously in periodicals directed at a primarily black readership, in the feminist standard, Ms., and in mainstream magazines like Harper's, a spectrum that hinted at the range of Alice Walker's appeal, just as the book's eventual winning of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters' Rosenthal Award was a harbinger of honors to come, including the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

My reaction to the book was complicated. Some of the stories I judged professionally. "The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff," the story of an old black woman who comes to a conjurer seeking revenge against a white woman who had humiliated her long ago, does not really work; the use of an educated apprentice to tell the tale seems intrusive and false. On the same professional basis, I liked "Roselily," a stark tableau of a wedding between a Northern Muslim and a black Southern woman.

But my reaction to other stories forced me out of the shelter of professional detachment. I was moved deeply by "The Welcome Table," in which an old, dying black woman is expelled bodily from a white church, but meets up with Jesus on the highway. I was horrified yet mesmerized by "The Child Who Favored Daughter," in which a bitter, sullen, Bible-thumping sharecropper, full of confusion and guilt over the wanton life and eventual suicide of his sister, imprisons, tortures and eventually kills (by hacking off her breasts) his own daughter, who has shown an interest in boys. My response, in the end, was overwhelming admiration. For I was, at the time, trying to figure out how a writer should balance the demands of technique with the demands of emotion, of honest plotting and storytelling with larger political concerns. Alice Walker seemed to have found some kind of answer. Her technique was flawless—her plots inexorable, her images perfect, her control, even of the roiling Freudian undercurrents in "The Child Who Favored Daughter," unwavering. Yet there was in every story, even the ones that did not seem to work, a sense of someone writing not simply to be writing, but because she wanted to make people see things.

I did not resolve to imitate her—I had enough sense to know that her way was not precisely mine—but I did decide to emulate her. I also decided to read everything she ever wrote (which now includes 10 books, the latest being In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose).

I first met Alice Walker in person in the summer of 1975, when she accepted my invitation to lunch. Alice Walker, who is now 39, was then 31; I was only 24. By that time, I had gone a long way toward reading everything she had ever published. I had only skimmed her first book of poems, Once, which was published in 1968 when she was 24, but completed by the time she was 21. But I had studied her second volume of poems, Revolutionary Petunias & Other Poems, which came out in 1973.

I was no lover of contemporary poetry, particularly the "radical" poetry of the 1960's and early 1970's. Some of it had moral force and authenticity, and some of the poets had a sense of craft. But the sentiments of nonjudgmental liberalism that characterized the movements of the period had made it possible for every idiot with a Bic pen and a Big Chief pencil tablet to claim to be a poet, so long as he or she was a member of some oppressed group, imitated Orwell's use of pigs as the symbol of the oppressor and occasionally stapled together a rudimentary chapbook of poems that seemed unified only because they were repetitious.

But Alice Walker's Revolutionary Petunias was about as far from that airheaded tradition as Leonardo da Vinci is from Andy Warhol. Her sense of line was precise, her images clear, simple, bitingly ironic, the book unified by the symbol of flowers. "These poems," Alice Walker writes, "are about … (and for) those few embattled souls who remain painfully committed to beauty and to love even while facing the firing squad."

Those "embattled souls" included members of her own large (eight children) family: a sister who escaped, through education, the narrow and impoverished world of Alice Walker's native Eatonton, Ga. ("Who saw me grow through letters / The words misspelled But not / The longing"); her uncles visiting from the North ("They were uncles…. / Who noticed how / Much / They drank / And acted womanish / With they do-rags"); her grandfather, seen at the funeral of her grandmother, Rachel Walker:

     My grandfather turns his creaking head
     away from the lavender box.
     He does not cry. But looks afraid.
     For years he called her "Woman";
     shortened over the decades to
     "Oman."
     On the cut stone for "Oman's" grave
     he did not notice
     they had misspelled her name.

They also included the women and the old men of Eatonton, and they also included figures from the larger world of political struggle. She mourned:

     The quietly pacifist peaceful
     always die
     to make room for men
     Who shout. Who tell lies to
     children, and crush the corners
     off of old men's dreams.

And she attacked on their behalf the con men of the revolution who: "… said come / Let me exploit you; / Somebody must do it / And wouldn't you / Prefer a brother?"

Those embattled souls included Alice Walker herself. She writes with sadness and defiance of the price she had paid for loving and marrying a white man, a civil-rights lawyer named Mel Leventhal. In "While Love Is Unfashionable," she writes:

     While love is dangerous
     let us walk bareheaded
     beside the Great River.
     Let us gather blossoms
     under fire.

She made clear her love of peacefulness, but left no doubt as to her determination to ignore the standards of society and appeal to higher judges: "Be nobody's darling; / Be an outcast. / Qualified to live / Among your dead."

It took no unique perception to be enthralled by Revolutionary Petunias, which had already been enthusiastically reviewed, nominated for the National Book Award and given the Lillian Smith Award. However, unlike a number of reviewers, I was even more taken with Alice Walker's first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, published in 1970, in which a black sharecropper, enslaved by circumstances and eternal debt, breaks free of the destructive cycle at the point where he would have slain his wife, who has betrayed him with the white landowner. Instead, he abandons her and his son, Brownfield, and heads north. Consumed with hatred for Grange, Brown field never the less echoes his father's sins in more sinister harmonic; he destroys his wife's intellect, batters her and their three daughters and eventually kills her. The youngest daughter, Ruth, is taken in by Grange, now returned and transformed by time and experience into a wise and saintly old man. He nurtures and protects Ruth, in the end to the point of killing his own son and sacrificing his own life.

There is, to be fair to its critics, a lot not to like about the novel. Its structure is weak; despite the basic three-part plot implied by the title, the book is chopped up into 11 "parts" and 48 short chapters. The plot itself is both episodic and elliptical; the crucial "second life," which would have shown Grange Copeland's transformation, is largely missing.

But there is much to admire, especially in the "third life," in which Grange Copeland emerges as one of the richest, wisest and most moving old men in fiction. His speeches, never preachy, always set perfectly in context, ring with complex truth. Speaking of the difference between himself and his son:

"But when he become a man himself, with his own opportunity to righten the wrong I done him by being good to his own children, he had a chance to become a real man, a daddy in his own right. That was the time he should have just forgot about what I done to him—and to his ma. But he messed up with his children, his wife and his home, and never yet blamed hisself. And never blaming hisself done made him weak … By George, I know the danger of putting all the blame on somebody else … And I'm bound to believe that that's the way the white folks can corrupt you even when you done held up before. 'Cause when they got you thinking that they're to blame for everything they have you thinking they's some kind of gods!"

Much of Grange's humanity comes out in his interactions with Ruth, a sweet, sassy, feisty, precocious child ("I never in my life seen a more womanish gal," says Grange). Their dialogues are dramatic expressions of an unabashedly universalist philosophy.

But much as I admired Revolutionary Petunias and The Third Life of Grange Copeland, it was one of Alice Walker's essays, "The Unglamorous but Worthwhile Duties of the Black Revolutionary Artist," that compelled me to meet her. At the time, I was awaiting the publication of my first novel and trying to figure out how I would deal with the political nonsense that seems to always attend the appearance of even the most nonpolitical book by a black.

Alice Walker "told" me: "The truest and most enduring impulse I have is simply to write. It seems necessary for me to forget all the titles, all the labels and all the hours of talk, and to concentrate on the mountain of work I find before me. My major advice to young black artists would be that they shut themselves up somewhere away from all the debates about who they are and what color they are and just turn out paintings and poems and short stories and novels."

I wanted to meet Alice Walker, I realized, because there were things I needed to learn from her.

We ate in a deli on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan and talked of many things—of the 1930's anthropologist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston, whose work Alice Walker had discovered while doing research "in order to write a story that used authentic black witchcraft." The results had been "The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff," and something less purely professional. Alice Walker fell in love with Hurston. "What I had discovered," she had told the Modern Language Association a few months before our lunch, "was a model. A model who, as it happened, had provided … as if she knew someday I would come along wandering in the wilderness, a nearly complete record of her life."

We talked of my own model, Jean Toomer, one of Hurston's forerunners of whose major work, Cane, Alice Walker had written, "I love it passionately; could not possibly exist without it."

She spoke of her years in the South, her impoverished childhood in Eatonton, the two years she had spent at Atlanta's elite black women's college, Spelman, before she found a way to escape from what she felt to be its puritanical atmosphere to an elite white women's college, Sarah Lawrence; her years in Mississippi as a civil-rights worker and teacher, a vulnerable position made more so because of her marriage to Leventhal. She spoke, too, of her turning away from formal religion. "I just need a wider recognition of the universe," she would explain years later.

She had little to say about publishing. Breaking into the business had not required the usual years of frustration. She had written most of the poems in Once during a short, frenzied week following a traumatic abortion while at Sarah Lawrence. One of her teachers, the poet Muriel Rukeyser, gave them to her own agent, who showed them to Hiram Haydn, then an editor at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, who almost immediately accepted them.

Alice Walker in person was as many faceted as Alice Walker in print. She was a scholar of impressive range, from African literature to Oscar Lewis, the noted anthropologist. She was an earthy Southern "gal"—as opposed to lady. Her speech was salted with down-home expressions, but peppered with rarified literary allusions. She was an uncompromising feminist, capable of hard-nosed, clear-eyed analysis; she was also given to artless touching and innocent flirtation. She had a sneaky laugh that started as a chuckle and exploded like a bomb. Her eyes sparkled—I did not know then, and surely could not tell, that one of them had been blinded in a childhood accident.

I left Alice Walker in the lobby of the building that housed Ms. magazine, of which she was then a contributing editor, feeling both elated and uneasy—elated because I had liked her every bit as much as I had liked her books, and uneasy because I thought, as I had watched her walk toward the elevators, that the world into which she was moving was a steam-driven meat grinder, and she the tenderest of meat. The black movement, with which she still identified, was split on questions of anti-Semitism, integration, class, region, religion and, increasingly, sex. The women's movement, of which she was perhaps the most artistic and evocative contemporary spokesperson, was increasingly being accused of racism, and had factions of its own.

Alice Walker was black, a pacifist but a rejector of the organized religions to which that tradition belonged. She was married to a white, indeed, a Jew. She was a rejector of black middle-class education and pretensions, and an acceptor of white upper-class education—but not pretensions. She was a Southerner in the "liberal" North, a feminist who was also a wife and a mother. She was also sensitive enough to be hurt by criticism.

I worried for her. I watched her go. I wished her well.

I saw Alice Walker only twice in the next seven years: once, in 1976 at a party celebrating the publication of her second novel, Meridian; again, in 1983, at the ceremony where she accepted the American Book Award for her third novel, The Color Purple, which would, a few days later, be announced as the winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Between those occasions, I had no real conversations with her; I had even allowed our real acquaintance, based on her work, to lapse.

That was, in part, because I had become busy with my own writing and teaching. But I had also been terribly disappointed by Meridian and the collection of short stories that followed in 1981, You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down.

In this I was, to all appearances, alone. Meridian had been touted by Newsweek as "ruthless and tender," by Ms. as "a classic novel of both feminism and the civil-rights movement," and by The New York Times Book Review as "a fine, taut novel that … goes down like clear water." But to me it seemed far more elliptical and episodic (three parts, 34 chapters) than her first novel, without having that novel's warmth and simplicity. The title character, an itinerant civil-rights worker, seems less pacifist than passive. She suffers from an intermittent paralysis of vague origins that, by the end of the book, she has managed to pass off to a weak skunk of a man, named Truman Held, a former lover who repeatedly betrayed her in order to be with white women. He seems to redeem himself years later by mothering her, accepting her illness and ignoring her sexuality.

The dialogue between Meridian and Truman Held, especially when compared to the easy conversation of Grange Copeland and Ruth, is just plain awful. ("Hah," he said bitterly, "why don't you admit you learned to hate me, to disrespect me, to wish I were dead. It was your contempt for me that made it impossible for me to forget.") The symbolic unity, so powerful in Revolutionary Petunias, is missing.

Many of the stories in You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down show the complexity and artistry of In love & Trouble. There is "A Sudden Trip Home in the Spring," in which a young, Southern black girl, a student at a Northern women's college, returns home for the funeral of her father, whom she has never understood, and discovers new sources of strength in her older brother and her grandfather. And there is "Fame," a day in the life of Andrea Clement White, an aging and proper black woman of letters, who goes to a literary-awards luncheon uttering acerbic comments: "… white liberals told you they considered what you said or wrote to be new in the world (and one was expected to fall for this flattery); one never expected them to know one's history well enough to recognize an evolution, a variation, when they saw it; they meant new to them."

But many of the stories are flawed by unassimilated rhetoric, simplistic politics and a total lack of plot and characterization. Some are hardly stories. One unsatisfying piece, "Coming Apart," through its complex publication history, hinted at what was going wrong. Commissioned as an introduction to a chapter on third-world women in a feminist collection of essays on pornography, the "story" had been published in Ms., entitled "A Fable," then republished in You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down, retitled and with a polemical, confusing and somewhat inaccurate introduction: "… the more ancient roots of modern pornography are to be found in the almost always pornographic treatment of black women who, from the moment they entered slavery, even in their own homelands, were subjected to rape as the 'logical' convergence of sex and violence."

Meridian and You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down upset me. Alice Walker seemed to have lost the balance of form and content that had made her earlier work so forceful. She had ignored the human power of situations in favor of polemical symbolism. Worse, she appeared to have got caught up in the business she had advised young writers to avoid—advice I had taken to the heart of my own existence. I was furious at Alice Walker. I felt … misled.

By the time I watched her receive the American Book Award, my anger had faded. By then, I had had some taste of what it is like to scribble in obscurity and then suddenly have people ripping manuscripts out of your hands before you have satisfied yourself and publishing them for reasons and standards far removed from yours. I no longer felt that Alice Walker had misled me; I believed she had been misled, and pressured in ways she could not possibly ignore. When Gloria Naylor, the black woman who won the American Book Award for first novels in 1983, acknowledged the debt that she and other black female writers owed Alice Walker, I could only think, what a heavy burden that tribute must be.

When Alice Walker rose to make her own acceptance speech, I could not help thinking of Andrea Clement White, who tells an interviewer, "In order to see anything, and therefore to create … one must not be famous" and could only summon up the energy to accept her "one hundred and eleventh major award" after hearing a small, dark-skinned girl sing an old slave song. I wondered who, if anybody, was singing for Alice Walker. I had not then, you see, read The Color Purple.

I rediscovered Alice Walker through reading The Color Purple. In my case, though, the rediscovery almost did not happen. I had read enough about the book to want to avoid it like the plague.

I had read that it was an epistolary novel, with most of the letters written by Celie, a black Southern woman, the victim of every virulent form of male oppression short of actual femicide, who eventually finds true love and orgasm in the arms of another woman. The description made me fear the book would be as disjointed as Meridian and as polemical as most of You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down.

I also sensed that The Color Purple was going to be ground zero at a Hiroshima of controversy. In June 1982, Gloria Steinem, in a profile of Alice Walker published in Ms., had written about an "angry young novelist," male and implicitly black, who had been miraculously tamed by Alice Walker's writing. This, Miss Steinem said, was "a frequent reaction of her readers who are black men." But she then went on to question the thoroughness, integrity and motivation of all Alice Walker's reviewers, especially those black and male. "It's true," she wrote, "that a disproportionate number of her hurtful, negative reviews have been by black men. But those few seem to be reviewing their own conviction that black men should have everything white men have had, including dominance over women…." That position would make expressing any reservations about The Color Purple risky business for a black man, and indeed, I had heard rumblings about the review Mel Watkins, a black man, had written in The New York Times, because he had criticized the male portraits as "pallid" and the letters not written by Celie as "lackluster and intrusive" even though he termed the book "striking and consummately well written."

At the same time, I had heard some people—not all of them white and/or male—expressing some misgivings about the book. One black poet, Sonia Sanchez, criticized Alice Walker's theme of black male brutality as an overemphasis. Another black woman told me The Color Purple was "a begging kind of piece" and she was "getting tired of being beat over the head with this women's lib stuff, and this whole black woman/black man, 'Lord have mercy on us po' sisters,' kind of thing" in Alice Walker's work.

On the other hand, one white woman told me that once she had gotten through the first few depressing letters, "The rest was so uplifting and true, it made me cry."

All this considered, The Color Purple seemed a good book to stay away from. But then someone I liked and respected pressed a dogeared copy of The Color Purple into my hands and said, "You've got to read this."

I did and discovered a novel that seems a perfect expression of what, in my mind, makes Alice Walker Alice Walker. The epistolary form is perfectly suited to her experience and expertise with short forms—what in another book would have been choppiness is short and sweet. There is plenty of political consciousness, but it emerges naturally from the characters, instead of being thrust upon them. That Celie—after being repeatedly raped and beaten by a man she thinks of as her father, having him take the children she bears him away, and then, knowing that his brutality has rendered her sterile, hearing him tell her future husband, "And God done fixed her. You can do everything just like you want to and she ain't gonna make you feed it or clothe it"—should find herself uninspired by the thought of sex with men, and be drawn to a woman who shows her love and introduces her to ecstasy seems less a "message" of radical feminist politics and more an examination of human motivation. That the other woman, Shug Avery, should fall in love with a man gives any such message a counterpoint.

No matter what polemical byways Alice Walker might have strayed into, she had, in the process of creating The Color Purple, become a writer far more powerful than she had been. Before she had touched me and inspired me. This time, along about page 75, she made me cry.

On an airplane at 35,000 feet, I was suddenly scared to death. I was on my way to talk to Alice Walker, prepatory to writing about her, and I was reading my homework: galley proofs of Alice Walker's newest book, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose, essays, speeches and reviews written over 17 years—nearly her entire adult life.

The book made me see an error in my thinking about Alice Walker. I had allowed myself to become so mesmerized by The Color Purple and the fond recollections it inspired of Revolutionary Petunias and The Third Life of Grange Copeland that I had forgotten the works that came between. I had, therefore, set out to write about Alice Walker confident I would not be doing anything "hurtful," but rather testifying that she has a miraculous ability to transubstantiate the crackers and grape juice of political cant into the body and blood of human experience.

Yet Alice Walker, in her time, has produced some crackers and some grape juice, and that surely must show up in a collection such as In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens. Reading it, I realized I had more or less refused to really see Alice Walker. I had picked and chosen aspects of her, deciding which I would respond to, which I would not.

In Search of Our Mother's Gardens forced me to look at all of her. As it turned out, much in the book is not only pleasing, but impressive and moving. Alice Walker, the award-winning poet, novelist and short-story writer, proves herself the master of yet another form. Her descriptions are elegant. Her sarcasm is biting, her humor pointed.

Nor is her artistry merely a matter of rhetorical form. The content of much of her statements places so many troublesome controversies in proportion and perspective. Her 1976 speech, "Saving the Life That Is Your Own," deposits the question of differences between literature written by blacks and whites into the appropriate circular file.

But there is also much that dismays me. Some of those things can be written off to polemical excess, such as her discounting of the ability of literature to reach across racial lines or her proclamation that she had once attempted to "suppress" statements made by another black female writer.

But other excesses are more troubling because they form, it seems, a pattern indicating Alice Walker has a high level of enmity toward black men. Her early praise of individual male writers seems to have been transformed over time to dismissal and disdain: Richard Wright's exile from Mississippi she no longer finds "offensive" but proof of his place of favor; Toomer is no longer a genius not to be thrown away but a disposable commodity ("Cane … is a parting gift … I think Jean Toomer would want us to keep its beauty but let him go"). Black male writers, in general, are possibly less insightful than their white male counterparts who, "It is possible … are more conscious of their own evil," and are guilty of "usually presenting black females as witches and warlocks."

Her acidity flows beyond black male writers. It pours over men who are attracted to light-skinned women—including, apparently, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ("Only Malcolm X, among our recent male leaders, chose to affirm, by publicly loving and marrying her, a black woman.") It spatters, in general, men she considers fundamentally illiterate: "And look at the ignorance of black men about black women. Though black women have religiously read every black male writer who came down the pike … few black men have thought it of any interest at all to read black women."

The pattern makes me see that some of the "hurtful" criticism is demonstrably true: Black men in Alice Walker's fiction and poetry seem capable of goodness only when they become old like Grange Copeland, or paralyzed and feminized, like Truman Held. If they are not thus rendered symbolically impotent, they are figures of malevolence, like Ruth's murderous father, Brownfield, or the black "brothers" in Revolutionary Petunias ("and the word / 'sister' / hissed by snakes / belly-low, / poisonous, / in the grass. / Waiting with sex / or tongue / to strike. / Behold the brothers!").

Yet In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens has a wealth of honest self-revelation, enough to help me understand where some of that pattern—as well as some of Alice Walker's brilliance—came from. She writes of the aftermath of an accident that befell her at age 8, when her brother accidentally shot her with a BB gun, blinding an eye and filling her with a dread of total blindness as well as leaving her with a disfiguring scar.

After that accident, she felt her family had failed her, especially her father. She felt he had ceased to favor her, and, as a child, blamed him for the poverty that kept her from receiving adequate medical care. He also, she implies, whipped and imprisoned her sister, who had shown too much of an interest in boys, as had the farmer in "The Child Who Favored Daughter." In company with her brothers, her father had failed to "give me male models I could respect."

The picture that emerged is of a very unhappy existence, but, ironically, the loss of her sight enabled her to see those truths that imbue her writing: "For a long time, I thought I was ugly and disfigured. This made me shy and timid, and I often reacted to insults that were not intended … I believe, though, that it was from this period … that I really began to see people and things…."

Five years ago, Alice Walker sold her small house in Brooklyn and flew to San Francisco in search of a place she had dreamed of without ever seeing, "a place that had mountains and the ocean." In time, she and her companion, Robert Allen, a writer and editor of the journal Black Scholar (she is now divorced from Leventhal), found a small, affordable house in Mendocino County, north of the city, in a locale that looked, to Alice Walker, like Georgia. She planted a hundred fruit trees around the house, just as her mother had "routinely adorned with flowers whatever shabby house we were forced to live in."

In San Francisco itself, Alice Walker also found an apartment, which she decorated to her taste—wood, clay, earth tones and, of course, several shades of purple. The apartment, a four-room, third-floor walkup, is in close proximity to Divisadero Street, the main thoroughfare in the black ghetto many San Franciscans maintain does not exist. Alice Walker has traveled far, but has not removed herself from anything. As I settle down in her apartment to talk to her for the first time in the better part of a decade, I wish she had; fatigue is obvious in her features and the tone of her voice. Once she had reminded me of Ruth; now, she reminds me of Meridian.

But unlike Meridian, Alice Walker is not paralyzed. She sits in a comfortable wooden rocker, in constant, rhythmic motion, and talks of the fight she has put up to keep the term "womanist" in the subtitle of In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens.

"I just like to have words," she explains, "that describe things correctly. Now to me, 'black feminist' does not do that. I need a word that is organic, that really comes out of the culture, that really expresses the spirit that we see in black women. And it's just … womanish." Her voice slips into a down-home accent. "You know, the posture with the hand on the hip, 'Honey, don't you get in my way.'" She laughs. It is almost the same laugh that she used in the Lexington Avenue deli, but now it is deeper, fuller, more certain.

She goes on, expounding on a theme that had grown through You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down and her later essays: her dissatisfaction with white feminists.

"You see," she says, "one of the problems with white feminism is that it is not a tradition that teaches white women that they are capable. Whereas my tradition assumes I'm capable. I have a tradition of people not letting me get the skills, but I have cleared fields, I have lifted whatever, I have done it. It ain't not a tradition of wondering whether or not I could do it because I'm a woman."

But womanism, in Alice Walker's definition, is not just different from feminism; it is better. "Part of our tradition as black women is that we are universalists. Black children, yellow children, red children, brown children, that is the black woman's normal, day-to-day relationship. In my family alone, we are about four different colors. When a black woman looks at the world, it is so different … when I look at the people in Iran they look like kinfolk. When I look at the people in Cuba, they look like my uncles and nieces."

One of them looked like her father. The resemblance was part of the inspiration for one of her most moving essays, "My Father's Country Is the Poor."

I ask her about her father.

"He died in '73," she says sadly. "He was racked with every poor man's disease—diabetes, heart trouble. You know, his death was harder than I had thought at the time. We were so estranged that when I heard—I was in an airport somewhere—I didn't think I felt anything. It was years later that I really felt it. We had a wonderful reconciliation after he died."

I laugh, thinking that she is alluding to something she had written in the essay, that it is "much easier … to approve of dead people than of live ones." But she is serious: "I didn't cry when he died, but that summer I was in terrible shape. And I went to Georgia and I went to the cemetery and I laid down on top of his grave. I wanted to see what he could see, if he could look up. And I started to cry. And all of the knottedness that had been in our relationship dissolved. And we're fine now."

That year was the epicenter of some general upheaval in her life. In 1973, she wrote the answers to questions published in a collection called Interviews with Black Writers, and later in In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens. "Writing poems," she writes, "is my way of celebrating with the world that I have not committed suicide the evening before."

"I don't even remember," she says at first, when I ask if 1973 had been a particularly difficult year, but then she goes on to recall that it marked, besides the death of her father, her escape from Mississippi, which had "just about driven me around the bend," a period of physical separation from her husband, who had stayed behind to work, while she and her daughter, Rebecca, went to Cambridge, Mass. There she had discovered that "when I am ill and feel pain, things take on a certain extra clarity … something opens up and you begin to see things that you just wouldn't if you were surrounded by happy-go-lucky folk."

I remind her of another time of trauma she had written in that interview, when she, young, alone, pregnant and suicidal, "allowed myself exactly two self-pitying tears…. But I hated myself for crying, so I stopped."

Alice Walker laughs about that now. "Well, you know, I cry so much less than I used to. I used to be one of the most teary people. But I've been really happy here."

But writing is also a part of the reason she cries less. "I think," she says, "writing really helps you heal yourself. I think if you write long enough, you will be a healthy person. That is, if you write what you need to write, as opposed to what will make money, or what will make fame."

As when we talked before, and as when I have read Alice Walker at her best, I find myself being enchanted by her vision of things. She sees the writing process as a kind of visitation of spirits. She eschews the outline and other organizing techniques, and believes that big books are somehow antithetical to the female consciousness ("the books women write can be more like us—much thinner, much leaner, much cleaner"). Later, I will realize that her methods would make it well nigh impossible for her to write a long, sustained narrative and suspect the belief is something of a rationalization—and the kind of sexist comment a male critic would be pilloried for making. Yet when she says it, it seems a wonderful, magical way to write a book. But there is nothing mystical about what she sees as her role in life.

"I was brought up to try to see what was wrong and right it. Since I am a writer, writing is how I right it. I was brought up to look at things that are out of joint, out of balance, and to try to bring them into balance. And as a writer that's what I do. I just always expected people to understand. Black men, because of their oppression, I always thought, would understand. So the criticism that I have had from black men, especially, who don't want me to write about these things, I'm just amazed."

"You come down very heavy on the men," I say. "How about the black women?"

"Oh, I get to them. But I am really aware that they are under two layers of oppression and that even though everybody, the men and the women, get twisted terribly, the women have less choice than the men. And the things that they do, the bad choices that they make, are not done out of meanness, out of a need to take stuff out on people…."

Her statement seems contradictory.

"In your writing," I suggest, "it's clear that you love old men. But they don't make out too well when they're young. None of them do."

"Well," she says, "one theory is that men don't start to mature until they're 40." She laughs, and I start to laugh, too. But then I realize her voice has taken on a certain rhetorical tone, and it makes me angry—because she herself is not yet 40. Then she slips out of the rhetorical tone, begins to explain, as she often does, how her perception of the general comes from intense feelings about the personal: "I knew both my grandfathers, and they were just doting, indulgent, sweet old men. I just loved them both and they were crazy about me. However, as young men, middle-aged men, they were … brutal. One grandfather knocked my grandmother out of a window. He beat one of his children so severely that the child had epilepsy. Just a horrible, horrible man. But when I knew him, he was a sensitive, wonderful man."

"Do you think your father would have eventually gotten to be like your grandfather?" I asked her.

"Oh," she says wistfully, "he had it in him to be."

I ask her how her political involvements have affected her writing; if she has ever become aware of how the "brotherhood" or the "sisterhood" might see a particular piece, and thought about changing it.

"I often think about how they will see it, some of them," she says. "I always know that there will be many who will see it negatively, but I always know there will be one or two who will really understand. I've been so out of favor with black people, I figure if I can take that, I can be out of favor with anybody. In some ways, I'm just now becoming a writer who is directed toward 'my' people. My audience is really more my spirit helpers." She explains what a spirit helper does by describing a dream she had recently about one of them, Langston Hughes: "It was as if we were lovers, but we were not sexual lovers, we were just … loving lovers. Knowing it was a dream made me so unhappy. But then Langston, in his role of spirit helper, sort of said, 'But you know, the dream is real. And that is where we will always have a place.' I feel like that with all of them. They're as real to me as most people. More real."

Later, alone in my hotel room, I try to make sense of Alice Walker or, more correctly, of my feelings about her. I am not sure that I like her as much as I once did, that she sees as deeply and as clearly as I once thought. Yet I am sure that there is no one I like more as a writer, or who is possessed of more wisdom—that there is no writer in this country more worthy of the term seer. I would like to forget about 30 percent of what she has written and said. And yet the remaining 70 percent is so powerful that, even in this quandary, I am listening to the tapes of our conversation, and thumbing through her books, looking for an answer.

And it is there. On the tape, I hear her talking of her own reaction to her beloved Zora Neale Hurston: "I can't remember all the times that I would be appalled by some of the views that she held. But it wasn't her fault that she had to report things a certain way. That was what she found." And in the final essay in In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, Alice Walker writes of how her daughter had finally liberated her from her sense that she is disfigured, and her fear that her own child will be alienated by her artificial eye. "Mommy," Rebecca tells her, "there's a world in your eye."

Yes indeed, I think, there is a world in Alice Walker's eye. It is etched there by pain and sacrifice, and it is probably too much to expect that anything so violently created would be free of some distortion. But it is nevertheless a real world, full of imaginary people capable of teaching real lessons, of imparting real wisdom capable of teaching real lessons.

Alma S. Freeman (essay date Spring 1985)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3387

SOURCE: "Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker: A Spiritual Kinship," in Sage, Vol. II, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 37-40.

[In the following essay, Freeman compares the journeys of the main characters of several of Walker's works, including Meridian, to the protagonist of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God.]

Zora Neale Hurston, born in Florida near the turn of the twentieth century, was, for thirty years, the most prolific Black woman writer in the United States. Alice Walker, born in Georgia some forty years later, is one of the most prolific Black women writers in America today. Not only do both women stand as exemplary representatives of the achievement of the American Black woman as writer, but their fiction reveals a strong spiritual kinship. Though separated by place and by time, these two Black women writers, inevitably it seems, were drawn together, and Zora Hurston became an important influence in Alice Walker's life.

Zora Neale Hurston died in 1960. Alice Walker was not to encounter Zora Hurston and her work until the late 1960's. At this time, Alice was working with the Civil Rights Movement and collecting folklore stories in Mississippi. She was also "writing a story that required accurate material on voodoo practices among rural southern Blacks of the thirties," and she was finding the available resources, written primarily by "white, racist anthropologists and folklorists of the period," disappointing and insulting. Then she discovered Mules and Men, Zora Hurston's book recounting her folklore expeditions in the South and relating the stories she had found there. Direct influences from Mules and Men can be seen in Alice Walker's short story "The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuss," a story obviously based on an incident that happened to Alice's mother in the thirties during the Depression. Like Alice's mother, Hannah in the story receives a box of clothes from a relative who lives in the North. She wears one of the dresses from the box into town to get food which is being distributed by the Red Cross. When Hannah presents her voucher, she is shamed and humiliated by a young white woman who refuses to give her food because she is so finely dressed. Unlike Alice's mother, who got the food she needed from a neighbor, Hannah endures extreme suffering as a result of the incident. Her husband deserts her, one by one her children starve to death, and she gradually becomes a broken woman, mutilated both in spirit and body. Finally, when she is awaiting death, Hannah, driven by years of pain and remorse, visits the local rootworker to seek revenge on "the little moppet." Into this story-line, Alice Walker weaves material on voodoo practices from Zora Hurston's book of folklore. For instance, the central character of the story, an apprentice in the rootworking trade, quotes a "curse prayer" used and taught by rootworkers, and she indicates that she "recited it straight from Zora Neale Hurston's book, Mules and Men," while engaging in a voodoo ritual with Hannah Kemhuss. Moreover, Alice Walker dedicates the story "In grateful memory of Zora Neale Hurston."

In Mules and Men, Alice Walker not only found the authentic folklore material that she needed for her own writing, but she also perceived a spiritual sister to whom she became intensely devoted. The following statements recorded in the Foreword of Robert Hemenway's biography of Zora Neale Hurston reflect the essence of Alice's commitment to Zora Hurston and her work:

Condemned to a deserted island for life, with an allotment of ten books to see me through, I would choose, unhesitatingly, two of Zora's: Mules and Men, because I would need to be able to pass on to younger generations the life of American blacks as legend and myth, and Their Eyes Were Watching God, because I would want to enjoy myself while identifying with the black heroine, Janie Crawford, as she acted out many roles in a variety of settings, and functioned (with spectacular results!) in romantic and sensual love. There is no other book more important to me than this one.

By 1979, Alice Walker had read Their Eyes Were Watching God about eleven times, and she declared, "It speaks to me as no other novel, past or present, has ever done … There is enough self-love in that one book—love of community, culture, traditions—to restore a world. Or create a new one. Alice Walker was so inspired by Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God that she wrote the following poem entitled "Janie Crawford" which appears in her book of poems Good Night Willie Lee, I'll See You in the Morning:

     I love the way Janie Crawford
     left her husbands the one who wanted
     to change her into a mule
     and the other who tried to interest her
     in becoming a queen
     a woman unless she submits is neither a mule
     nor a queen
     though like a mule she may suffer
     and like a queen pace
     the floor

Zora Neale Hurston exerted such a strong influence in Alice Walker's life that Alice set out to bring back into public attention the work, for many years out of print, of the woman whom she had grown to admire, respect, and revere—a sister artist who "followed her own road, believed in her gods, pursued her own dreams, and refused to separate herself from the 'common' people." Feeling a strong spiritual kinship with her sister writer, Alice Walker, posing as a niece, traveled to Fort Pierce, Florida, found the segregated cemetery there, and placed a tombstone, proclaiming "a genius of the South," to honor Zora Hurston's unmarked grave. Another of Alice Walker's lasting tributes to Zora Neale Hurston is embodied in I Love Myself When I Am Laughing …: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader which Alice edited and dedicated to "Zora Neale Hurston … wherever she is now in the universe with the good wishes and love of all those who have glimpsed her heart through her work." Alice Walker is one who has truly glimpsed the heart of Zora Neale Hurston. From her first short story collection In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women to her latest novel The Color Purple, Ms. Walker, in her own fiction, is keeping alive, extending, and expanding the vital literary tradition that Zora Neale Hurston established in Their Eyes Were Watching God—a tradition which embodies a strong dedication to unveiling the soul of the Black woman.

A comparison of three of Alice Walker's Black women characters with Zora Neale Hurston's Janie Crawford underscores the bond of kinship that exists between Zora's and Alice's exploration of the experiences of the Black woman in the United States. Such a comparison also reveals the author's powerful and poignant portrayal of what it feels like, inside, to be a Black woman struggling to become an autonomous, well-integrated "self" in a society in which her options are severely limited. These four women begin their lives imprisoned by roles and by images and notions of womanhood that conflict directly with their history and with their own vigorous concept of themselves as Black women. Initially, for instance, they find themselves locked in loveless, unfulfilling marriages from which they appear to have no escape and which stifle their dreams, their creativity, and their desire for growth and freedom. Such a situation engenders in these characters a tension that forces them to make personal choices concerning their development as whole human beings. Fighting against both racial and sexual oppression, they choose either a life of continued subservience, anguish, and pain, or they opt to become growing, emergent women who seek to take control of their own lives.

In Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, the sixteen-year-old Janie Crawford, against her own adamant protests, is forced, by her relentless grandmother, to marry Logan Killicks, a hard-working man who is much older than Janie but who owns property and has a degree of status in the community. The grandmother's motivation is clear. She wants to protect Janie from being sexually exploited, as she and Janie's mother have been, by men both Black and white. She also wants to see the dreams she had for herself and for her own daughter realized. Janie's grandmother has internalized the values of white society, which define "what a woman oughta be and do." Denied the opportunity to fulfill the woman's traditional role, she wants this for Janie—the security, protection, respectability, and the material possess ions that a good provider like Logan Killicks can give. Dependent on whites all of her life for mere survival, the grandmother wishes to break this dependency for Janie. But she simply transfers it to the man she forces Janie to marry and sets in motion another cycle of dependency for Janie. Janie soon becomes convinced that Logan cannot give her the sweetness, beauty, and adventure she desires in marriage. And she leaves him for Jody Starks, a fast-talking, ambitious man who promises her love and excitement. Jody carries Janie to a newly founded all-Black community in Florida where he becomes a "big voice" and where he places her on a "pedestal," and, like Logan, treats her as property. Janie finds fulfillment only when Jody dies and she leaves the town with Tea Cake, a younger man and a free spirit, who loves and respects her for the person that she is.

Roselily, the central character of the first story in Alice Walker's collection In Love and Trouble, faces a kind of entrapment similar to Janie's. Young, Black, and poor, living in the rural South, the mother of four children, all by a different man, Roselily marries a Muslim man in order to escape a brutal life of labor in a sewing plant. She stands during her marriage ceremony weighed down with images of quicksand, ropes, chains, and handcuffs. As Janie sees her blossoming, fruit-bearing pear tree—her symbol of life, fertility, and freedom—"desecrated" by her grandmother, so Roselily thinks of flowers choked to death; she feels like a rat cornered. Even the veil she wears reminds her of a kind of servitude that she longs to be free of. It is the same kind to which Janie Crawford is subjected. All Logan wants Janie to be is his maid, his cook, and a laborer on his farm; all Jody wants her to be is "Mrs. Mayor Starks" whose "place is in de home" and the humble clerk in his store. The religion of the man whom Roselily is marrying requires, like Jody demands of Janie, that she wear her hair covered, that she separate herself from the men, and that she take her place in the home. But this is Roselily's only chance to be respectable, to achieve status and prestige, and to provide a better life for her children. Despite her misgivings, her feelings of entrapment, she marries the man, and she will go to live in Chicago, have more children regardless of her wishes, and endure.

Alice Walker's Myrna in "Really, Doesn't Crime Pay?" another story from In Love and Trouble, also endures, despite her aspirations to be a writer. Like Janie during her marriage to Jody, Myrna is placed on a pedestal by her hardworking husband, Ruel. And she aspires to be the perfect wife and lady—keeping house, cooking meals, painting her face, polishing her fingernails, visiting the shopping center daily buying hats she would not dream of wearing, dresses already headed for the Goodwill, and shoes that will mold and mildew in her closet. Then she meets Mordecai Rich who praises her for her intelligence and creativity. Mordecai is an aspiring writer, "a vagabond, scribbling down impressions of the South, from no solid place, going to none." As Jody Starks and Tea Cake do for Janie, Mordecai promises Myrna love and excitement. She gives herself to him completely. Not only do they engage in passionate love-making, but Myrna shares with Mordecai her interest in writing and the volumes of stories that she has drafted but has kept hidden from Ruel. Unlike Janie, however, Myrna does not leave with Mordecai, instead, one day, he suddenly disappears. And later, Myrna reads one of her stories in a magazine, "filled out and switched about," authored by Mordecai Rich. Thereafter, she suffers a nervous breakdown, attempts to kill Ruel with a chain saw, and spends some time in a mental institution.

Unlike Roselily, Myrna does, in her own way, fight against her entrapment. Myrna's most important act of rebellion, her only sense of freedom, rests in taking the Pill. Ruel desperately wants a child, and he struggles very hard to make Myrna conceive. She consents to his every wish. She even visits the doctor at Ruel's request to see about "speeding up the conception of the child." But she never tells Ruel that she "religiously" takes the Pill, and this engenders in her a feeling of triumph over him, a sense of independent choice. At the end of the story, Myrna exults in her deceptively won freedom:

It is the only spot of humor in my entire day, when I am gulping that little yellow tablet and washing it down with soda pop or tea…. When he is quite, quite tired of me I will tell him how long I've relied on the security of the Pill.

Meridian Hill, the central character of Alice Walker's novel Meridian, begins her life, like Janie, Roselily, and Myrna, as a woman with few choices. Meridian, however, bears a special relationship to Janie Crawford because, unlike Roselily and Myrna, Janie and Meridian become women who make options for themselves, who finally choose a life of their own. In Janie's story and in Meridian's story, we see Black women developing a consciousness, an awareness, which allows them to arrive at a deepened sense of self and to grow stronger by speaking from and for that self. They thus are able to take control of their own destiny. Both Janie and Meridian then are involved in a quest for identity. Each woman struggles to affirm the "self" which she knows exists beneath the false images imposed upon her because she is Black and female. Janie's search is deeply personal, her vision intensely romantic. She seeks and finally finds a sense of fulfillment through fusion with another "self." Meridian, however, possesses a deeply social and moral vision. Her story emanates from a broader social and political context than does Janie's. As Mary Helen Washington notes, Meridian "evolves from a woman trapped by racial and sexual oppression to revolutionary figure, effecting action and strategy to bring freedom to herself and other poor disenfranchised Blacks in the South."

Against her wishes, the teenaged Meridian, like the sixteen-year-old Janie, is forced into an unfulfilling marriage. Meridian becomes pregnant; she reluctantly marries Eddie, the father of her child, and makes an effort at being a "proper" wife and mother. Finding this role confining and intolerable, she harbors thoughts of killing her child; then she contemplates suicide rather than harm her own baby. Finally, her marriage ends, and she gives her child away believing she is saving both lives. From this point, Meridian moves through college and the Civil Rights Movement into a revolutionary group where she discovers that she cannot kill for the Revolution. Her spirit broken, she begins a sort of physical degeneration. She loses her hair, dons a cap and dungarees, lives alone in small rooms in small southern towns trying to find her own health while she helps the Black people in these towns find power. She is followed by Truman Held, a man whom she sincerely loves but whom she must finally reject in an effort to get a hold of her own life.

Like Janie Crawford, Meridian Hill leaves the men in her life to search for fulfillment as a human being. While Janie abandons Logan and the memory of Jody, journeys to the horizon with Tea Cake, and finds a satisfying love, Meridian leaves Eddie and Truman, turns inward, and travels back through many generations to free herself. She identifies with her mother's great-grandmother, a slave but also an artist who became famous and bought her freedom by painting lasting decorations on barns. She remembers her father's grandmother, the mystical and high-spirited Feather Mae, and she, like Feather Mae, experiences an ecstatic communion with the past atop the Sacred Serpent, an Indian burial mound. At college Meridian learns about the slave woman and storyteller Louvinie and the Sojourner. She also expresses deep sensitivity for her own mother who, through suffering and sacrifice, fulfilled her dreams of becoming a school teacher. Such an anchor in her ancestral past gives Meridian a sense of strength and continuity, a knowledge of herself as a creative human being, which helps to fortify and to free her from a need for dependence on another person in her quest for identity.

Through the total range of her experiences, Meridian creates a new self—an androgynous self; she is transformed, as symbolized by the wasting illness from which she recovers and returns "to the world cleansed of sickness." Meridian's androgynous quality, expressed in physically androgynous features, is communicated through a passage near the end of the novel when she visits a prison and the inmates ask, "Who was that person? That man / woman person with a shaved part in close-cut hair? A man's blunt face and thighs a woman's breast?" Here, Meridian appears as a symbol of one who has creatively united the masculine and feminine opposites and achieved a state of unconscious wholeness. As she leaves Truman for the last time, he recognizes the change in her:

What he felt was that something in her was exactly the same as she had always been and as he had, finally, succeeded in knowing her. That was the part he might now sense but could not see. 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.

Janie Crawford does not reach the androgynous state that Meridian achieves. Janie longs for it, as symbolized by her mystical experience of the pear tree, an androgynous symbol with roots sinking into the feminine earth and branches stretching forth to the masculine sky. For Janie, the tree represents a loving harmony between the masculine and feminine forces of nature, a union which she desires to attain. Throughout her story, she seeks this unity, this wholeness. But she relies first on Logan and Jody and then on Tea Cake rather than searching within herself to realize it. Finally, she kills Tea Cake in self-defense and thereby frees herself. Through this symbolic act, Janie breaks the cycle of dependency set in motion by her grandmother. Janie ends her story alone, settling down in her own private room, at peace with herself, wrapped in loving memories of Tea Cake. But her experience of happiness is still tied to him. Significantly neither Zora nor Alice endorses isolation as a way of life, but each of their protagonists finds it necessary to be alone in order to achieve insight and growth. At the end of the novel, Janie, alone in her room, is prepared to embark upon the inward voyage that Meridian undertakes. We might even say that Meridian Hill finishes the struggle that Janie Crawford begins, for the end of Their Eyes Were Watching God marks the beginning of another story, a story which Alice Walker takes up and completes in Meridian. Thus, Alice Walker further reveals her strong dedication to accomplishing the task to which Zora Neale Hurston, her sister writer, had earlier devoted her creative energy.

"A people must define itself" writes Ralph Ellison in Shadow and Act. It is thus the duty of the American Black woman to dispel the myths and burst the stereotypes surrounding her character, personality, and experience. Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker are two of the several Black women writers who have sought to fulfill this task. In their literary works, we hear the Black woman speak. She speaks in a loud voice—with power and with fervor, but always with compassion and grace—as she defines, affirms, and preserves in literature the essential humanity of her own group.

Philip M. Royster (essay date Winter 1986)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9859

SOURCE: "In Search of Our Fathers' Arms: Alice Walker's Persona of the Alienated Darling," in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 20, No. 4, Winter, 1986, pp. 347-70.

[In the following essay, Royster discusses the complicated relationship between Walker and her audience and asserts that Walker's female protagonists are representations of Walker's perceptions of herself.]

Alice Walker's third novel. The Color Purple, is fueling controversy in many black American communities. Afro-American novelist/critic David Bradley recalls "sens[ing] that The Color Purple was going to be ground zero at a Hiroshima of controversy." Some women have found it difficult to lay the book down unfinished; some men have bellowed with rage while reading it (as well as afterwards). It appears that Walker's depiction of violent black men who physically and psychologically abuse their wives and children is one of the poles of the controversy and that her depiction of lesbianism is another.

Many critics have praised the novel, especially for its use of a black dialect that reviewers laud in such terms as "positively poetic," "eloquent," and "masterful." A reviewer in the New Yorker labeled the novel "fiction of the highest order." Peter Prescott called it "an American novel of permanent importance." A Publishers Weekly reviewer considers the book "stunning and brilliantly conceived"; Mel Watkins regards the novel as "striking and consummately well-written"; and Dinitia Smith believes that "at least half the book is superb, it places … [Walker] in the company of Faulkner."

Yet, not all of those who have read the novel have liked it, including many black women. David Bradley observes that "one black poet, Sonia Sanchez, criticized Alice Walker's theme of black male brutality as an overemphasis. Another black woman told me The Color Purple was 'a begging kind of piece' and she was 'getting tired of being beat over the head with this women's lib stuff, and this whole black woman/black man, "Lord have mercy on us po' sisters," kind of thing' in Alice Walker's work." One of the strongest responses to the novel has come from Trudier Harris, who believes the novel should be ignored because of its portrayal of a protagonist that is not merely idiosyncratic but unrealistic, and because the book's portrayal of domestic violence is based on unwholesome stereotypes of black folk and their communities that appeal to spectator readers.

This polarization of responses to The Color Purple may be better understood by focusing attention on Walker's expressed fictive and nonfictive attitudes towards her role as a writer, her intended audience, and the issues of sexuality and aggression.

Walker has committed her efforts to at least two great social movements that have stimulated the alteration of consciousness in the last half of the twentieth century: the Civil Rights Movement and the Women's Liberation Movement. Walker's involvement with these movements both generates and reflects her intention, first articulated in 1973, to champion as a writer the causes of black people, especially black women: "I am preoccupied with the spiritual 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."

In a 1984 interview, Walker revealed that, since childhood, she has seen herself as a writer who rescues: "'I was brought up to try to see what was wrong and right it. Since I am a writer, writing is how I right it.'" Walker's fiction confronts such issues as racism, intraracism, sexism, neocolonialism, and imperialism in order to transform both society and the individual. She expressed her commitment to change in 1973 with the affirmation: "I believe in change: change personal, and change in society." In The Color Purple, she seems to be preoccupied with the task of overcoming black male sexist exploitation of black women.

Yet, along with this commitment to change, Walker holds other attitudes that have the potential to frustrate her goals. She indirectly announced one such attitude in Revolutionary Petunias & Other Poems through a persona who articulates the position of an outcast to the social order: "Be nobody's darling; / Be an outcast. / Qualified to live / Among your dead." The concerns of this fictive persona resound in Walker's nonfictive voices, but in the nonfiction the speaker expresses a need to be both somebody's darling (that somebody is usually an older man) and an outcast (who uses her art as a means to rescue victims). The personas in both her fiction and nonfiction also experience feelings of inadequacy as rescuers, and they appear to be both infatuated with and plagued by notions concerning suicide, death, and the dead. (Although Walker seems to consider herself to be a medium, she simultaneously articulates perennial fantasies concerning suicide.)

Walker's perception of herself as a writer who is a social outcast apparently began after her brother blinded one of her eyes with a bb gun when she was eight years old: "I believe … that it was from this period—from my solitary, lonely position, the position of an outcast—that I began really to see people and things, really to notice relationships and to learn to be patient enough to care about how they turned out. I no longer felt like the little girl I was. I felt old, and because I felt I was unpleasant to look at, filled with shame. I retreated into solitude, and read stories and began to write poems." The accident seems to have led Walker to feel both alienated from her environment and perceptive of people and their lives. Her confidence in her insight undoubtedly helped to prepare her for the role of a rescuer, yet the fact that she no longer felt like a little girl engendered attitudes that would ultimately frustrate her goal. Her experiences of the loss of her childhood, the shame of a disfiguring scar, and social inadequacy would soon give rise, in her writing, to voices with tones of resentment, anger, and bitterness, on the one hand, and voices that articulate the desire to feel again like a little girl (or a darling to older men), on the other. The speaker of one of her poems that appears in The American Poetry Review expresses something of the intensity of Walker's alienation when she asserts: "I find my own / small person / a standing self / against the world." One of the comforts for the outcast persona is her as-yet-unending search for father figures with whom to be a darling. This search influences Walker's fictions, which portray women with frustrated psychosexual attitudes towards men (Ruth towards Grange, Meridian towards both Eddie and Truman, and Celie towards both Alfonso and Albert), and colors her expressed nonfictional attitudes concerning men.

The issue of audience identification is especially important in a multi-cultural society in which one culture creates institutions that exploit, manipulate, and dominate other cultures. What a writer understands of her own relationships to the dialectical tensions between the exploiter and the exploited, the oppressor and the oppressed, or the persecutor and the victim is important. Does the writer see herself as the rescuer or champion of the exploited, uncontaminated herself by oppression or oppressive values; does she regard herself as being involved in the circle of the victims; or is she drawn unwittingly into the circle of the persecutors? Frantz Fanon articulates some of the issues for the "native intellectual" struggling with the influence of the "colonial bourgeoisie" in The Wretched of the Earth. These issues influence the writer's fictive and nonfictive voices and the reader's interpretations of the writer's texts, so despite the pitfalls yawning as one leaps from a writer's recorded assertions and perceptions to a theory for understanding that writer's fiction, it is urgent to examine Walker's attitudes towards her audience. Moreover, examining her written perceptions of and attitudes towards her past experiences allows one to better understand her handling of the concepts of sexuality and aggression. It permits the critic to create a bridge of understanding that joins the writer, with her work, to more of her readers.

If Walker is an alienated writer who wants to rescue others by changing society, she needs an audience. Yet in a recent interview with Claudia Tate, Walker expresses contradictory attitudes towards the issue of audience. "I'm always happy to have an audience," Walker remarks. "… otherwise it would be very lonely and futile." But she adds that, although she is willing to, she usually does not consider the audience before writing. Rather, she writes what she thinks and feels, and does not worry whether or not she finds an audience. She says that writing is not about finding an audience but "expanding myself as much as I can and seeing myself in as many roles and situations as possible." However, earlier in the conversation she expresses the belief that "black women instinctively feel a need to connect with their audience, to be direct, to build a readership for us all…." By "us" she seems to mean black folk, because she goes on to say that "none of us will survive except in very distorted ways if we have to depend on white publishers and white readers forever. And white critics." Although she feels that she needs black readers, she believes that the "main problem" for black writers is that "black people, generally speaking, don't read."

If Walker's intention in writing The Color Purple was to lessen the oppression of black women by black men, a reasonable question is: To whom is the work directed—black men, black women, or both? Who is going to be responsible for ending sexist exploitation, and who is going to determine the means to that end? Walker's reaction to criticism of The Color Purple reveals that she is not satisfied with the responses from at least one segment of her audience: "'I just always expected people to understand. Black men, because of their oppression, I always thought, would understand. So the criticism that I have had from black men, especially, who don't want me to write about these things, I'm just amazed.'" Walker's disappointment with criticism by black men suggests that she intends for them to be sitting in the audience before her stage waiting to be moved by her performance. Also, they could be looking over her shoulder to provide critical direction and approval as she writes. Whether or not black males make up both stage and critical audiences, a discrepancy exists between authorial intention and audience reaction. My work with Alice Walker's writings suggests that her recorded attitudes towards segments of her intended audience make it difficult for her to communicate effectively with them.

There is a revealing irony concerning Walker's perception of herself as an outcast: After she was partially blinded, Walker became alienated from a group already shunted to the edge of the social order—Southern black sharecroppers. After telling the story of her mother's being denied government flour because her hand-me-down clothes were better than the clothes worn by the white woman who distributed the flour, Walker asserts, "Outcasts to be used and humiliated by the larger society, the Southern black sharecropper and poor farmer clung to his own kind and to a religion that had been given to pacify him as a slave but which he soon transformed into an antidote against bitterness." Walker perceives herself as an outcast of those whom she regards as having themselves been cast out.

Despite this doubled burden of alienated feelings, Walker, in 1970, spoke of wanting very consciously to write to blacks from the rural South. Desiring to be a poet whose work derives from the Southern rural experience, she asserted that she "want[ed] to write poetry that is understood by one's people, not by the Queen of England." From a comment in 1971 it is clear that Walker feels a moral commitment to communicate to her stage or listening audience of people with whom she shares roots, for she asserts that "it is unfair to the people we expect to reach to give them a beautiful poem if they are unable to read it." The title of the essay from which this quote is taken, "Duties of the Black Revolutionary Artist," reinforces the notion that it is Walker's intention not merely to communicate with but also to rescue victims. Thus, it appears that Walker is alienated from the group she wants to rescue.

Along with wanting to help the poor, Walker attacks the new black middle class for forsaking its rescuing responsibilities by manifesting selfishly materialistic rather than altruistic and radical concerns. Yet this purportedly irresponsible class is the one to which Walker belongs not by birth but by education and occupation. In short, she here repeats the pattern, established as a child, of feeling alienated from the class with whom she shares an identity.

The theme of the alienated rescuer becomes more strident in a 1973 interview, in which Walker articulates more of her perceptions of the role of a responsible writer: "The writer … must be free to explore, otherwise she or he will never discover what is needed {by everyone) to be known. This means, very often, finding oneself considered 'unacceptable' by masses of people who think that the writer's obligation is not to explore or to challenge, but to second the masses' motions, whatever they are. Yet the gift of loneliness is sometimes a radical vision of society or one's people that has not previously been taken into account." These remarks suggest more than Walker may have realized. Is the voice that of a sturdy, no-nonsense revolutionary or of a victim of her own past and her romantic ideals? Her assertion that everyone needs to know what an artist discovers seems presumptuous and paternalistic (or should that be maternalistic?). The fact that she passively accepts (or actively invites) being cast out ("unacceptable") and lonely, as if she has no options, suggests that she feels like a victim of the very people she is supposed to be rescuing. Although Walker seems to be tough on leadership that approves the actions of its following, in 1979 she would dedicate a collection of her poems to her romantic ideal of a "quiet man [who] always said, 'Let the people decide.'"

It seems clear that her alienation is not so much a product of her writing career as her writing career is a response to the alienation that she has entertained since childhood. Walker's courting of her own alienation is even more apparent in a 1973 interview, in which she defended her right to live in Mississippi with her white husband (the couple later divorced): "Otherwise, I'd just as soon leave. If society (black or white) says, Then you must be isolated, an outcast—then I will be a hermit. Friends and relatives may desert me, but the dead … are a captive audience." The persona here readily embraces the role of the outcast.

As to the question of Walker's adequacy as a rescuer of others, a substantial case could be constructed from her own admissions to argue to the contrary. For example, she asserts that, "always a rather moody, periodically depressed person, after two years in Mississippi I became—as I had occasionally been as a young adult—suicidal." In 1973, she confides, "the threat of self-destruction plagued me as it never had before." Although Walker had moved to Mississippi to help rescue sharecroppers and other victims as part of her commitment to the Civil Rights Movement, it appears that she herself stood in need of a helping hand. David Bradley calls our attention to Walker's having observed that "writing poems … is my way of celebrating with the world that I have not committed suicide the day before." While in Mississippi, Walker also felt inadequate in her rescuing role as mother: "I … found motherhood onerous, a threat to my writing."

Walker traces the source of her urge to commit suicide to what appears to be guilt concerning the inadequacy of her work in the Movement: "I believe that part of my depression came out of anguish that I was not more violent than I was…. The burden of a nonviolent, pacifist philosophy in a violent, nonpacifist society caused me to feel, almost always, as if I had not done enough." Walker's comment suggests that she had not assimilated the fundamental precepts of Gandhi's Satyagraha, the "soul-force" or "truth-force" which gives one power to end persecution and oppression by inflicting suffering not on "the opponent but on one's self." Accustomed to practicing self-denial, Gandhi knew how to withstand this suffering without feeling like a victim or a persecutor, and he became a successful rescuer; Walker lacked Gandhi's special talents. Gandhi also reminds those who would struggle against oppressive violence that "by using similar means we can get only the same thing that they got." That is, instead of remaining a faithful rescuer of victims, one would become a persecutor were one to adopt the violent means of the persecutor. Alice Walker's languishing for the want of more violent means suggests that she has been inadequately prepared to be a rescuer of victims. Permitting suffering to be inflicted on oneself is more difficult for many people than inflicting it on others; to withstand, one must practice informed self-denial. Attention to the past exposes the shortcomings of violent would-be rescuers. Gandhi says that the "belief that there is no connection between the means and the end is a great mistake. Through that mistake even men who have been considered religious have committed grievous crimes."

Walker's comments in 1976 suggest that she may be becoming both more sensitive to and yet more alienated from black folk: "Writing this now, in New York City, it is impossible not to feel that black people who are poor are lost completely in the American political and economic system, and that black people and white people who are not have been turned to stone. Our moral leaders have been murdered, our children worship power and drugs, our official leadership is frequently a joke, usually merely oppressive. Our chosen and most respected soul-singer—part of whose unspoken duty is to remind us who we are—has become a blonde." Here it is not merely the Southern black sharecropper but all of America's poor blacks who are cast out, and their outcast plight is no longer mitigated by adaptations of their "slave" religion, for now they are completely lost. Other blacks (and whites) she accuses of being insensitive; the children (the future) worship false gods; adequate leaders have been assassinated, and those leaders who remain are bankrupt. To cap it all, Aretha Franklin has betrayed black folk and their culture by dyeing her hair. This is Walker's perception of black people, the ones she wants to rescue by bringing them the truth that all of them need to know.

Influencing her recorded perception of the folk is Walker's tendency to over-generalize by creating large categories and then describing the contents of those categories in ways that suggest, reflect, and undoubtedly encourage hopelessness. Walker's attitudes towards black folk suggest more about who she is and the way she writes than they do about who black folk are. If it is true that everywhere she looks she sees the worst, she may be projecting onto the backs of the folk something of her own consciousness, and if that is the case, then she is using black people for her own scapegoat victims. In other words, just as Gandhi, the spiritual and philosophical father of the nonviolent philosophy of the Civil Rights Movement, had forewarned, the would-be rescuer has become the persecutor, not of her persecutors but of the very victims she is committed to rescuing.

Walker would articulate more of her perceptions of black people in 1977, when she asserted that life in America had destroyed racial solidarity in Northern cities and reduced her to doubting whether she could survive being assaulted by a black person:

The bond of black kinship—so sturdy, so resilient—has finally been broken in the cities of the North. There is no mutual caring, no trust. Even the rhetoric of revolutionary peoplehood is hissed out threateningly. The endearment "sister" is easily replaced with "bitch." My fear is past grief, and if I were ever attacked or robbed by another black person I doubt I'd recover. This thought itself scares me. There is also the knowledge that just as I'm afraid of them, because I no longer know what behavior to expect, they're afraid of me. Of all the vile things that have happened to us in America, this fear of each other is to me the most unbearable, the most humiliating.

In this passage Walker sounds more like a victim than a rescuer: The racial bond is broken, and she fears for her own well-being. I do not wish to overlook the issues of Walker's right to her feelings and of violence among the oppressed (it is a well-known truth that victims adopt the world view of their persecutors), but adequate rescuers are not intimidated by that violence. Nor are they intimidated by their own fear of violence, for even if the rescuer experiences fear, adequacy is maintained by suffering privately, as did Martin Luther King, Jr., rather than by sowing seeds of panic in the passions of the populace. Again, Walker's response reflects her alienation from the oppressed.

In her interview with Claudia Tale, Walker, while discussing the judgment needed to improve the interpersonal relationships between black men and women as portrayed in Shange's for colored girls …, asserts: "Judgment is crucial because judgment is lacking in black people these days." She must have sensed the inflammatory potential of this remark because she attempts to clarify it by distinguishing her meaning to be a regret that the community will no longer come to the rescue of women who are accosted by dirty-mindedmen. Both the remark and the clarification arise from the fantasies of an alienated darling who blames the folk for the misery of the group and who avoids assuming responsibility for herself. Walker's voice becomes even more strident when she chews on her notion that the community neglects its writers because it does not respect itself: "If the black community fails to support its own writers, it will never have the knowledge of itself that will make it great. And for foolish, frivolous and totally misinformed reasons—going directly back to its profound laziness about the written message as opposed to one that's sung—it will continue to blunder along, throwing away this one and that one, and never hearing or using what is being said." Undoubtedly such attitudes helped to distance Walker from her black community. Black folk may be less misinformed than Walker's comments suggest. How many of them would rush to catch pearls cast by someone who is not merely terrified of them but also believes them to be profoundly lazy and without judgment? This is one instance among many when it becomes difficult to distinguish Walker's voice from those of the bourgeoisie that has colonized her people.

Walker articulates the chasm she perceives between herself and black Americans in her 1984 interview with David Bradley: "'I've been so out of favor with black people, I figure if I can take that, I can be out of favor with anybody. In some ways, I'm just now becoming a writer who is directed toward "my" people. My audience is really more my spirit helpers.'" Walker is here referring to the dead, such as Langston Hughes, with whom she believes herself to be in contact through such media as dreams. Walker's statement is ambiguous with regard to whether the "spirit helpers" and black people are critical or stage audiences. Apparently, she believes that her "spirit helpers" are part of the critical audience looking over her shoulder, but black people form a stage audience ("toward 'my' people"). A less favorable interpretation would be that the "spirit helpers" are also her stage audience. But if that is the case, then she has abandoned all of her notions of the writer's social responsibility, possibly to fulfill her outcast's vision of becoming "Qualified to live / Among your dead."

After considering Alice Walker's assertions of alienation from black people, it is indeed ironic to examine her approval, in 1971, of Coretta King's vision that black women who feel compassion, love justice, and have resisted embitterment will become leaders of mankind. Walker says of Mrs. King:

… she says something that I feel is particularly true: "Women, in general, are not a part of the corruption of the past, so they can give a new kind of leadership, a new image for mankind. But if they are going to be bitter or vindictive they are not going to be able to do this. But they're capable of tremendous compassion, love, and forgiveness, which if they use it, can make this a better world. When you think of what some black women have gone through, and then look at how beautiful they still are! It is incredible that they still believe in the values of the race, that they have retained a love of justice, that they can still feel the deepest compassion, not only for themselves but for anybody who is oppressed; this is a kind of miracle, something we have that we must preserve and pass on."

Coretta King is drawing a picture of a female rescuer of the race who is adequate for her role; that is, one who maintains it without switching to the roles of either victim or persecutor. Although Walker admires the image, she does not appear to be cut of that cloth. King might be speaking indirectly of her perceptions of Walker, challenging the writer to rise above them.

But Walker does not use King's ideal to measure herself; rather, she challenges the ideal with her own feminist concern: "I want to know her opinion of why black women have been antagonistic toward women's liberation. As a black woman myself, I say, I do not understand this because black women among all women have been oppressed almost beyond recognition—oppressed by everyone." Walker's complaint suggests that she perceives a psychic distance between herself and the community of black women, who, generally speaking (and this was even more true in 1971), are unwilling to join a white women's movement. Walker's emotional generalization that everyone oppresses black women, one of her hobbyhorses, is an exaggeration that reflects her alienation: Accustomed to viewing herself as an outcast, Walker here places black women generally in opposition to everyone else.

By 1973 Walker apparently had found an ally in Barbara Sizemore, after the latter's assertion that nationalist organizers, such as Amiri Baraka, keep black women in inferior positions in their organizations. Both Walker and Sizemore shared a vision of black women more radical than most in 1973, for, even at an American college conference on black women, Walker was to experience considerable distance between herself and most of the other black women present: "It was at the Radcliffe symposium that I saw that black women are more loyal to black men than they are to themselves, a dangerous state of affairs that has its logical end in self-destructive behavior." Often, Walker's nonfictive assertions emphasize the worst in people and groups, and she then proceeds to inflate the consequences of her perceptions. Her remarks on the loyalty of black women to black men is interesting in the light of her hankering to be the darling of older men and her bitterness towards younger ones. It is difficult to refrain from wondering whether the political rhetoric masks such basic feelings as envy, resentment, and anger, for if the women Walker maligns actually feel loyalty towards black men (or anyone else, for that matter), they have achieved something that cannot be found in Walker's writing. Her warning of the self-destruction in store for black women may be little more than a projection onto them of her own suicidal urges.

In an article that appeared the following year (1974), Walker would articulate more explicitly the complaint, camouflaged with epithets that assert that black women manipulate or destroy black men, against black women's playing the role as America's "mules":

Black women are called, in the folklore that so aptly identifies one's status in society, "the mule of the world," because we have been handed the burdens that everyone else—everyone else—refused to carry. We have also been called "Matriarchs," "Superwomen," and "Mean and Evil Bitches." Not to mention "Castraters" and "Sapphire's Mama." When we have pleaded for understanding, our character has been distorted; when we have asked for simple caring, we have been handed empty inspirational appellations, then stuck in the farthest corner. When we have asked for love, we have been given children. In short, even our plainer gifts, our labors of fidelity and love, have been knocked down our throats. To be an artist and a black woman, even today, lowers our status in many respects, rather than raises it: and yet, artists we will be.

Walker seems to be saying more emphatically that everyone exploits black women no matter what those women do to appease their persecutors. Her concerns over the status of black women writers and her perception of the plight of black women seem like caricatures that might be captioned, "Poor me."

In 1974, Walker also attended a conference of the National Black Feminist Organization and reported somewhat defensively: "We sat together and talked and knew no one would think, or say, 'Your thoughts are dangerous to black unity and a threat to black men.' Instead, all the women understood that we gathered together to assure understanding among black women, and that understanding among women is not a threat to anyone who intends to treat women fairly." Angry with reporters from black newspapers for not covering the conference meetings, Walker chides the black press by appealing to the model of black participation, support, and coverage of women's issues and meetings established by Frederick Douglass and his famous newspaper the North Star: " … his newspaper would have been pleased to cover our conference…. He understood that it is not incumbent upon the slave to make sure her or his uprising is appropriate or 'correct.' It is the nature of the oppressed to rise against oppression. Period. Women who wanted their rights did not frighten him, politically or socially, because he knew his own rights were not diminished by theirs." Walker rejects the concepts of appropriateness and correctness here and in her fiction (through the protagonist, Meridian, for example) because she believes they have been used to keep black women in check. She reassures those well-intentioned black men disturbed with the fear that the organization of black women will drive a wedge deeper into the split between black men and black women. On the other hand, she is also warning black male chauvinists that their dominance is coming to an end.

She is less convincing when she chooses to browbeat black women into supporting her concerns: "To the extent that black women dissociate themselves from the women's movement, they abandon their responsibilities to women throughout the world." Appealing to the women's sense of guilt, Walker seems determined to distract the women from whatever else they are doing so that they can do what she thinks best. The punitive rhetoric, with its emotional appeal, undoubtedly fails to bring Walker any closer to many black folk, especially black women, who are not about to open the door to someone else giving orders. This seemingly radical persona stands in stark contrast to the romantic ideal of the patient and compassionate revolutionary to whom she dedicates the poems of Good Night, Willie Lee. As the dedication suggests, intelligent and competent organizers enable people to get where the people want to go, at their own pace, without haranguing or condemning them, and with respect for the right of each to self-determination.

Walker's assertions concerning criticism of black women are sometimes blatantly contradictory. For example, she demurely states that one of her "great weaknesses, which I am beginning to recognize more clearly than ever around the Michele Wallace book, is a deep reluctance to criticize other black women." Yet when she returns to the subject of Black Macho …, she attacks the book with enough zest and zeal to suggest that she is not unfamiliar with a critical posture towards black women. (Also, compare this assertion of reluctance with the opinions quoted above concerning the soul singer who became a blonde and regarding black women who are loyal to black men.)

On the other hand, in 1984, when David Bradley criticized her for failing to be as tough on black women as on black men, Walker responded not merely by excusing black women's weaknesses but also by arguing that the motives of women are less reprehensible than those of men: "'But I am really aware that they are under two layers of oppression and that even though everybody, the men and the women, get [sic] twisted terribly, the women have less choice than the men. And the things that they do, the bad choices that they make, are not done out of meanness, out of a need to take stuff out on people.'" The persona is clever enough to reach for feminist rhetoric, "two layers of oppression" (as if black men have not been and are not still sexually and racially exploited by black women and white people), but she destroys the credibility of her position with feminist (or would this be womanist?) psychology: the assertion of gender-determined meanness. Of course, behind this image of meanness stands an old folk image that Walker caricatures for the reader. Black folklore and street talk are full of images of "mean and evil" black men and black women. Some people have called them devils or criminals and have wanted to roast them or at least put them in jail, but black folk brought up to understand their own culture know that this "mean and evil" has little to do with the mean and evil of the white folk. The individuals black folk label as "mean and evil" are usually in rebellion from a white power structure and its values (check out Miles Davis, for example, or Pilate Dead). In the lore, mean and evil black folk were primarily self-determining blacks who brooked no exploitation, manipulation, or dependency. Gender-determined meanness exists only as a joke among the folk who know and as a means for projection for those who don't. A woman might say, "Niggers are mean!" (she is discussing the merits of black men or, to be more precise, the black men that she has encountered); what she means is, "I can't find one to do as I tell him." Wise women know that they are finding language to express their frustration, not uncovering the emotional anatomy of the opposite sex. (I don't wish to ignore the issue of mutual violence between the sexes, but that is another matter.)

In 1980 Walker would applaud the coming out of the closet of black lesbians, reflected by the publication of Conditions: Five. The Black Women's Issue, which also includes the work of non-lesbian writers. The attitudes that engender this support certainly must bring her closer to black lesbian women and the liberal-minded, but, undoubtedly, they aggravate the already troubled waters with a large number of black folk who possess more conservative, often homophobic values. Walker's accepting attitude towards lesbianism apparently influences her depiction of the affair between Celie and Shug in The Color Purple.

Yet despite Walker's liberal thinking, when she comes to champion a cause that has long been a concern for most black people—the intraracism against dark, black women—, she does not refrain from exposing her pessimistic vision of the future of the race: "To me, the black black woman is our essential mother—the blacker she is the more us she is—and to see the hatred that is turned on her is enough to make me despair, almost entirely, of our future as a people." This is not the first time for Walker's despairing, nor, I suspect, will it be her last. It is important to note that she is losing hope for an audience about and to whom she writes. The problems in communication between Walker and black folk may have something to do with this defeatist attitude that seems to filter her vision. It is also important not to overlook Walker's judgment of women based on their color. Although she appears to be arguing against intraracism, in actuality her proposition that the darker a black woman the closer she is to being the "essential mother" of the race can only serve to fan the fires of rancor and recrimination that have been raging among black people of different shades at least since slavery days. Walker's proposition, whether or not she is aware of it, has the effect of becoming a thinly cloaked attack on Afro-American mulattoes; it shunts them aside (or places them on a lower rung of Walker's ladder of blackness) as the outcast bastards of the slave plantation's white adulterers and fornicators. Like Walker's notion that black women suffer more and are less guilty than black men, her intraracial remarks constitute a persecutory proposition, elevating one victim, casting down another, and dividing the race.

A contrast with another black woman novelist might serve to expose the gratuitous character of Walker's reasoning. Toni Morrison has also considered the issue of intraracism and has come up with a proposition, within the plotting of her fourth novel, Tar Baby, which does not carry the invidious intent that lies beneath Walker's assertion. Morrison argues that some women of the race do not maintain the "ancient properties," the personal psychological characteristics that allow a woman to value caring for the well-being of the black family and the black race and to exhibit a healthy acceptance of her own sexuality. It is not the color of one's skin that determines this in Morrison's novel (although the mulatto character, Jadine, does have problems with her womanhood traceable to, among other sources, white reactions to her skin color) but, rather, whether or not a woman has first learned to be a daughter—that is, to love and to respect the mothers, mother figures, and parents responsible for her nurturing. Morrison argues that, if a woman learns to be a daughter, then she will be able to be a wife to a black man and a mother to black children and a nurturer and preserver of black people. Were one to initiate a search for the "essential mothers" with whom Walker seems to be concerned, skin color might prove a less dependable criterion than the characteristics identified by Morrison.

One might, moreover, question whether Walker seriously believes what she has articulated. For example, would her intraracial proposition hold true for men also? If so, then how is one to understand Walker's marriage (now terminated) to a white man or her relationships with light-skinned black men? Are the latter any less "essential" than dark-skinned black men (such as her father)? Or perhaps men don't qualify for entering the pantheon of racial "essentials." Walker continues her crusade on behalf of dark-skinned black women when she attacks black male political leaders who seem to prefer light-skinned women to dark: "For the dark-skinned black woman it comes as a series of disappointments and embarrassments that the wives of virtually all black leaders … appear to have been chosen for the nearness of their complexions to white alone."

What Wallace Thurman called intraracism is a corollary of America's white racism. The slaves and their descendants have been taught to get as close to whiteness as possible, in as many ways as possible. Blacks have taught each other to "marry up"; that is, to marry lighter-skinned blacks (if whites were unattainable or unwanted), a practice that has been called by blacks themselves "putting a little color into the race." In reaction to this value preference and its consequences, blacks (and whites, for somewhat different reasons) who feel admiration, covetousness, jealousy, or envy have scapegoated mulattoes. Intraracism is divisive, and it is disheartening to see Walker engaged in it.

The distance some black folk feel from Alice Walker may be a reflection of her involvement with white feminists. Whatever that involvement has been, she seems to be discovering some of the wisdom about working with whites that many other folk in the struggle have been teaching each other (or learning the hard way) for generations:

… in America white women who are truly feminist—for whom racism is inherently an impossibility—are largely outnumbered by average white women for whom racism, inasmuch as it assures white privilege, is an accepted way of life. Naturally, many of these women, to be trendy, will leap to the feminist banner…. What was required of women of color was to learn to distinguish between who was the real feminist and who was not, and to exert energy in feminist collaborations only when there is little risk of wasting it. The rigors of this discernment will inevitably keep throwing women of color back upon themselves….

As the Laguna of Leslie Silko's Ceremony lament the loss of Little Sister (the mother of the novel's protagonist, Tayo) to the corrupted and degrading embrace of exploitative white men and their culture, so do black folk fear that their young angry women, afflicted with the victim's alienation from her own self as well as her oppressed group and its roots, will squander the energy and future of the clan or tribe in a futile search for liberation among the very people responsible for and benefiting from the oppression of the race. The wisdom of the folk suggests that most white women will sleep with white men, despite the movement for gay liberation. To expect these white women to act for the benefit of black people by wresting political and economic power from white men and redistributing that power to black folk (along with white women?) seems to be unrealistic. Toni Morrison (bless her soul for not biting her tongue) characterizes white feminism as a family fight in which it is unwise for outsiders to become involved ("What the Black Woman Thinks"). Although most folk want to see an end to sexual exploitation, many still believe that the real battle lines will be drawn over racial and class exploitation. Walker's continual search for the real feminist seems somewhat unsophisticated in the light of the history and experience of black and white contact in struggle. One might indeed lament that her "women of color" have to be thrown "back upon themselves." It makes them seem to be reactionary assimilationists rather than assertive leaders with vision and direction for the future of black women and black people. To be assertive, visionary leaders of black people, black women may have to feel a greater loyalty towards black men (about whom they know) than towards "women throughout the world" (about whom they know little), and this is precisely the possibility that Walker has gone on record as lamenting.

Undoubtedly, Walker's alienation from black men influences her portrayal of them in fiction. Her audiences may achieve greater tolerance of her perceptions of men if they consider Walker's portrayal of male characters as part of the aftermath of the childhood accident in which she was blinded in one eye after her brother shot her with a bb gun. David Bradley asserts that "after that accident, she felt her family had failed her, especially her father. She felt he had ceased to favor her, and, as a child, blamed him for the poverty that kept her from receiving adequate medical care. He also, she implies, whipped and imprisoned her sister, who had shown too much interest in boys…. In company with her brothers, her father had failed to 'give me male models I could respect.'" Walker's disenchantment sounds like that of a child who no longer feels like her father's darling. She seems to be at odds with her father, her brothers, and her family. Walker is more explicit about her disenchantment in an article first published in 1975: "I desperately needed my father and brothers to give me male models I could respect, because white men … offered man as dominator, as killer, and always as hypocrite. My father failed because he copied the hypocrisy. And my brothers—except for one—never understood they must represent half the world to me, as I must represent the other half to them." Walker's assertion of a mutual need between men and women to reflect the opposite half of the world is discordant with her disapproval of the loyalty some black women feel towards black men. Her perception that there was an absence of adequate young-adult male images within her childhood influences her literary portrayals of young black males: The central characters are flat stereotypes depicting, as Bradley notes, images of malevolence or impotence. Also, one might ask whether Walker's alienated perception of the males in her family was involved with her decision to marry a white man, despite her articulation of a problem with the image of the white male.

Walker's father died in 1973, before she had effected a reconciliation with him, and his death aggravated her alienation before it propelled her toward confronting it. She told David Bradley: "'You know, his death was harder than I had thought at the time. We were so estranged that when I heard—I was in an airport somewhere—I didn't think I felt anything. It was years later that I really felt it. We had a wonderful reconciliation after he died.'" Walker's estrangement seems to date from her childhood accident. It also appears that her hardheartedness towards her father prevented her grieving for him until quite a while after his death. The year 1973 also marks Walker's last year in Mississippi, when she continued her struggles against depression and the urge to commit suicide: "My salvation that last year was a black woman psychiatrist who had also grown up in the South. Though she encouraged me to talk about whether or not I had loved and/or understood my father, I became increasingly aware that I was holding myself responsible for the conditions of black people in America. Unable to murder the oppressors, I sat in a book-lined study and wrote about lives…." The correspondence between the issue that Walker holds against herself and that which precipitated her alienation from her father is startling: She feels just as inadequate at rescuing black people as she felt he was inadequate at rescuing her after the childhood accident.

As the concerns of her therapist suggest, Walker seems ignorant of her father's life. It may be this ignorance that she tried to relieve on the visit to her father's grave that she reports in the Bradley interview: "'I didn't cry when he died, but that summer I was in terrible shape. And I went to Georgia and I went to the cemetery and I laid down on top of his grave. I wanted to see what he could see, if he could look up. And I started to cry. And all the knottedness that had been in our relationship dissolved. And we're fine now.'" Since Walker elsewhere says that it took years for her to allow herself to grieve for her father, it is difficult to take literally this assertion of dissolved knottedness. Moreover, this account seems to undercut her 1975 statement concerning her father's sexism: "It was not until I became a student of women's liberation ideology that I could understand and forgive my father." The persona of the poem "Good Night, Willie Lee, I'll See You in the Morning" insists that there is real forgiveness of the father and a "healing / of all our wounds," but the more the persona speaks of forgiveness the less assured the reader feels that Walker's fundamental attitude towards her father has changed, especially when one considers her fictive portrayal of men. Yet it is certain that finding ways to forgive her father has been a continuing concern of Alice Walker's.

In 1975 she had not yet laid to rest the ghost of her father. She reveals that she perceives older men as father figures: "Dr. Benton, a friend of Zora [Neale Hurston]'s and a practicing M.D. in Fort Pierce, is one of those old, good-looking men whom I always have trouble not liking. (It no longer bothers me that I may be constantly searching for father figures; by this time, I have found several and dearly enjoyed them all.)." Speaking of Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps in 1971, Walker observed that "We must cherish our old men." And, speaking of old men as a category, she notes, "I love old men." The persona's attitudes and attachments to older men suggest that she may be in search of someone with whom she can play the role of darling, even daughter, to complete a circle involving a father figure that she abandoned in childhood in the aftermath of an accident. Elderly black men are portrayed with at least approval and often veneration because she liked her grandfathers who to her appeared to be gentle, in contrast to younger adult black males. Walker says, "'I knew both my grandfathers and they were just doting, indulgent, sweet old men. I just loved them both and they were crazy about me.'" An ongoing effect of her childhood accident seems to be that she sees younger men (who would be in the age range that her father was when she became alienated from him and her brothers) with a jaundiced eye.

Walker's attitude towards her father is further uncovered by the connections she draws between a dream she had of him while she was in Cuba (during which he returned to look at her with something missing in his eyes) and her meeting with a Cuban revolutionary, Pablo Diaz, once a poor sugar cane cutter who had risen to the role of an "official spokesperson for the Cuban Institute for Friendship Among Peoples." Of Diaz she says, "Helping to throw off his own oppressors obviously had given him a pride in himself that nothing else could, and as he talked, I saw in his eyes a quality my own father's eyes had sometimes lacked: the absolute assurance that he was a man whose words—because he had helped destroy a way of life he despised—would always be heard, with respect, by his children." Walker's response to the Cuban revolutionary exposes circular and emotional reasoning: She may not respect her father because, since he did not bring about the end to his own oppression, he did not afford any assurance that what he said would be respected. Walker might be paraphrased, "I don't respect you because you don't expect me to respect you"; or, more to the point, "I don't respect you because you have not fulfilled my expectations." It appears that in her nonfictive assertions concerning her father, Walker plays the role of a victim who has become angry and bitter because the person she expects to rescue her is himself a victim (as well as a persecutor). (This attitude is similar to that she expresses when she attacks the judgment of the black community that will not protect black women accosted by black men.) She will not bear the sight of her father's anguish; she will not bear its weight on her consciousness. And his anguish is all the more unbearable because Walker, as a child, naturally expected him to be her protector, her comforter, her inspiration, her rescuer. Undoubtedly, one should not expect an eight-year-old, gripped by the physical and psychic trauma of impending blindness, to cope with the imperfection of her father (and also her older brothers). Moreover, to his plight as a sharecropper, one must add whatever may have been his personal shortcomings in order to get an accurate picture of the child's confrontation with his inadequacies. Walker was not merely disappointed but also frustrated by her father's anguish: She could not rescue him or make him into what she wanted or expected him to be, just as she has been unable to rescue black people. In other words, her continual rejection and condemnation of black people because they are either victims, persecutors, or inadequate rescuers may be, indeed, a reflection of her unresolved attitudes towards her father. Walker's suicidal impulses may be the result of her feeling like a child who is unable to be a daughter and a darling because no one appears (or remains) adequate to be the father she discarded as a child. Like a pendulum, Walker's recorded attitudes swing slowly back and forth between a victim's suicidal depression and a persecutor's deadly anger and thirst for revenge. The personas of the adult Walker continue to reject the father of her youth (all young men) waiting for her in her dreams and search out older men who fit her perceptions of her grandfathers, who appear to be adequate enough to rescue her, and for whom she can be a darling. She may be in search of not so much our mothers' gardens as our fathers' protecting arms.

If one accepts this insight, it is easy to explain the system of the characterization of Ruth, Grange, and Brownfield (as well as the other major characters of The Third Life of Grange Copeland); Meridian, the protagonist of Meridian; and Celie, the protagonist of The Color Purple. The major female characters are masks for Walker's perceptions of herself. None of them has an adequate relationship with a male character. The adult women do not enjoy sex with males. The last two novels end with protagonists who are certain never again to allow the possibility of sexual contact with a male. Alice Walker cannot afford to allow her protagonists to enjoy male sexuality, not merely because those protagonists believe that males, by nature, are inadequate humans (e.g., Celie's ridiculing of male genitalia along with her image of men as frogs or losers) but also because all the males with the potential for sexual relations with Walker's protagonists may be masks for her father.

For all Celie knew when Alfonso was raping her, he may as well have been her father. As a stepfather, no matter how inadequate, he is a parental figure. It is important to note that Celie allows herself to be repeatedly raped by this man, yet she protects Nettie so that Alfonso never touches her. One would have to give Celie much less credit for adequate human faculties than I do to think that she could know enough to protect Nettie but be too stupid to protect herself from Alfonso. And then she goes to Albert and plays the same game—"You go ahead and get away, Nettie, I'll stay back and let him abuse me. You wouldn't want him to do this awful thing to you; we both can see how terrible it is, but one of us must satisfy this male, and I think that I am the one who deserves to, probably because my esteem for myself is so low." Or something like that. (Friends with whom I have argued this issue are quick to assert the low self-esteem of Celie. Admitted, obviously, by definition. What I believe is interesting is not the psychological realism of the literary characterization, but the relationships that can be drawn between the characterization and Walker's perceptions of herself and her experiences.) Albert, Celie's husband, plays the same big-/mean-daddy role with Celie that Alfonso does: He beats her, forces her to work, ruts with her, and uses her as bait for Nettie. Later, Celie expresses some of her pent-up rage when she realizes that she wants to kill Albert and when she almost succeeds with a curse she lays on him. Appropriate to the attitudes of the novel, the malevolent Alfonso dies while screwing a child wife. Celie is up for only violent, abusive, and manipulative sexual relationships with father figures or parental figures to justify the anger and sublimate the desires of the alienated darling in search of a father. Celie never achieves mutual sexual equality with anyone. Even Shug, like Alfonso and Albert, takes advantage of her role as Celie's rescuer (that, along with her age, makes her more like a mother or parent). Shug successfully comers off the emotionally crippled Celie for sexual purposes and manipulates her into sitting on the porch (Hurston's Janie Starks knew better) while Shug chases around the country after her sexual fancies. Celie's homosexuality is clearly portrayed not as congenital but as a predilection or pathology that results from being the victim of not merely male but also father figure abusiveness: She is too afraid of her father to look at boys; she expresses a desire for only one person; and she seems unaware of the sexuality of other women.

I could go on with this, but the drift of the argument should be clear: Alice Walker's fictional characterizations include thinly disguised representations of perceptions of herself and her family that began in childhood. Unwittingly, she masquerades these perceptions, primarily the products of fantasies of sexuality and aggression, as the creations of a mature adult awareness, and she is then surprised by the responses of her intended audience, for whom she expresses more contempt than respect. She seems unaware that her readers may be reacting to their perceptions and intuitions of her feelings of hostility toward and alienation from them, and that those feelings unavoidably interfere with her ability to speak effectively to her audience. Feeling like an outcast of her own community, she has flirted and engaged herself with whites, undoubtedly searching for the acceptance and affirmation that she did not find at home, but she has discovered that they will not relinquish their racism, and so she appears to be searching for a way to return. If so, then the next critical step for black folk is to open their arms and embrace Alice Walker, to reassert the strength of the extended family, the unity of the tribe, with an acceptance and understanding that quells all anguish, including that which stems from the recognition that one bears the very evils one would extirpate from the social order—racism, sexism, and colorist values.

The rapprochement may be more easily secured by those who recognize that Walker's alienation is not unusual. With his depiction of the marginal man stranded between two cultures of a social order, Milton Gordon seems to be describing a pattern in Walker's life:

… most frequently he is a member of a minority group attracted by the subsociety and subculture of the dominant or majority group in the national society of which he is a part. Frustrated and not fully accepted by the broader social world he wished to enter, ambivalent in his attitude towards the more restricted social world to which he has ancestral rights, and beset by conflicting cultural standards, he develops, according to the classic conception, personality traits of insecurity, moodiness, hypersensitivity, excessive self-consciousness, and nervous strain.

Without this rapprochement it may be impossible for Alice Walker to achieve her goal of rescuing black people, especially black women.

Barbara T. Christian (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4425

SOURCE: "We Are the Ones That We Have Been Waiting For: Political Content in Alice Walker's Novels," in Women's Studies International Forum, Vol. 9, No. 4, 1986, pp. 421-26.

[In the following essay, Christian discusses the interdependence of individual and societal change in Walker's novels.]

Because women are expected to keep silent about their close escapes I will not keep silent.

                                   —(Walker, 1979)

There is no question that Alice Walker's works are directed towards effecting social change, that she is a writer with political intent. Black women writers have little choice in this regard. Even if they could manage blindness, deafness to the state of black people, their status, as black, female, writer, a triple affliction, would, at some point, force them to at least consider the effect of societal forces on the lives of individuals. I make this bold-faced statement at the beginning of this essay on political content in Walker's novels, because it seems to me that our supposedly most radical avant garde critics seem to consist upon the unimportance of external reality, that the text ought to be dispersed, deconstructed—that writers do not mean what they write, do not even know what they write, that language is devoid of meaning, and is primarily a system of signs that refer to other signs rather than to anything that exists. Probably many of these critics would agree, if they thought they could say it aloud, that the best text would be silence, and that such a term as a political writer is a backward reactionary one.

I am particularly concerned with emphasizing my disagreement with this point of view, since I believe it would demolish much of the tradition (a bad word, I am told) of Afro-American writers, who have always had to refer to that reality out there which has its all too real foot on their necks. Further, for women, whatever their race, who have been silenced for so long, the very essence of this supposedly radical literary theory would reduce their words to sound and fury without meaning. It strikes me ironic that as groups who have traditionally been silenced begin to 'penetrate' the literary market, we learn that neither the world nor meaning exists. That a text is but a reference to other texts.

Like many other black women writers, Walker intends her works to effect something in the world. That is why she speaks and that is why she writes. But in her work, intention is not the only political factor. The process of political changing, the envisioning of social transforming is central to her work. Her forms, themes, imagery, critiques are marked by her belief in a coherent yet developing philosophy of life (an ideology in other words), which has some relationship to external reality. Her works are not merely her fictions, they are her fictions in relation to the world.

The core of her works is clearly her focus on black women, on the freedom allowed them as an indicator of the health of our entire society. This focus may seem a simple one. But if one considers the reality of black women's conditions in American society, her focus must involve a complexity of vision, if that condition is to be probed. In looking at what it means to be a black woman in the world, one must confront the vortex of sexism, racism, poverty so integrated that the parts of the whole can hardly be separated.

Many of Walker's literary ancestors had attempted to illuminate one part of this vortex, racism, primarily because of the tremendous oppression black women and men have suffered because of their race. But in so doing these writers have not consciously probed the salient fact, that racism is most invidiously expressed in sexist terms and that often the forms used most effectively by racist institutions are based on this interrelationship. Thus, the slave was to relate to the master, the black to the white, as woman was to relate to man, in a submissive, obedient manner essentially, as a role to the real person, who was master, white, male. I wrote about this construct in Black Women Novelists by analysing the patriarchal plantation system, the major ideology that buttressed American slavery. And last year, I discussed this interrelationship as an underlying theme in all of black women's Fiction, though often unconsciously perceived by the writers themselves.

But Walker is certainly conscious about demonstrating the relationship between these two oppressions. One reason why her maternal ancestors had not approached this interrelationship was their fear that the other, the powerful other, whites, were listening, could read their published works, and that any critique of the behavior of black people would further be used by whites to further oppress the race. Walker, however, insists on placing black people at the center of her work both as subject and as audience. In portraying the sexism that exists in black communities and demonstrating its relationship, though not source in racism, she is speaking to her community about itself and its many participants. Walker's focus is itself an important political one, a breaking of silence which overthrows the oppressive stance fostered by racism, that white people are all that is important, that they are to blame for everything, that black people have no responsibility to themselves, their families, their institutions. Like Audre Lorde, another contemporary Afro-American woman poet, Walker proclaims that speaking the truth is necessary to survival, especially for those of us who were not meant to survive.

Walker's critiquing of her own community, her demonstration of the relationship between sexism and racism is already focal in her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland which was published in 1970. At a time when the prominent black writers of the day emphasized confrontation between the beleaguered black community and the powerful white society, Walker's novel showed how that confrontation affects the relationships between black women, men, and children in other words the family. If the family is the core of the community, within which values are nurtured, the place where black people relate to each other on the most intimate level, then one needs to look at that interaction in order to discuss political reality, political possibility. As in her other two novels, Meridian and The Color Purple, Walker traces the development of three generations of a black family. In contrast to her second and third, however the focus in Grange Copeland is on the Copeland men, their mistaken acceptance of the definition of maleness as power, an attribute they cannot possibly attain and how that results in their brutalization of their wives and children.

This subject was certainly a taboo one in the early 1970s since black writers were intent on idealizing nationhood. What Walker did was to show how racism is capable of distorting the individual's relationship to his own kin, because he is encouraged to blame everything on the white folks and not accept responsibility for his own actions. No nationhood was possible if violence in the family persisted. Too, she does not hesitate to expose the destruction of black women by their own relations. But Walker also shows the coming to consciousness of Grange Copeland in this novel, his awareness that his resistance against whites must begin with his love of himself and his own family. This is a part of the novel that many who condemn it for its pessimism refuse to acknowledge, stunned as they are by a critique that they do not wish to confront. Yet this coming to consciousness is an essential part of every Walker novel—an integral part of her political statement.

Walker's first novel is an indicator of her political stance, but also of her insights into political process. As in her other two novels, Grange Copeland also analyses how economic struggle is linked to racism and sexism for the people she focuses on are southern sharecroppers. Her protagonists must contend with the restrictiveness of the economic order, of capitalism on their lives, even as they do not understand its nature. The effects of capitalism on the southern black family cannot be understood only in terms of the present. Thus all her novels span generations, in other words, are rooted in history.

The process by which Walker interweaves the overall history of the Copeland family with the story of each generation of that family is an important aspect of her political vision. She uses quilting, a Southern womanist form, as a model for her first novel. Just as her maternal ancestors took bits of waste material and transformed them into patterned works, at once useful and beautiful, so Walker stitches together motifs repeated in each generation into a coherent pattern. Thus we are able to see how essential the motifs of racist terror and sexual violence are to the pattern of this family's history. Only when Grange learns to love himself and his granddaughter Ruth is the destructive pattern changed and a regenerative pattern begun. Even so the force of the previous history is so strong that the old pattern of destruction threatens the new one, as Brownfield Copeland attempts to destroy his father, Grange. By concluding the novel with the appearance of Civil Rights workers, Walker suggests the necessity not only for the personal change that Grange Copeland undergoes, but also that the pattern of this quilt will not be changed for long unless social change begins to occur.

Paradoxically, although Walker uses a womanist form in her first novel, the adult Copeland women are destroyed precisely because they do not understand the social forces that are arrayed against them as black women. Convinced by their culture that they can be 'the perfect wife' regardless of their economic and social context, they are defeated by the men in their own families, as well as by white society. Walker courageously opposes the widespread belief that black women always 'endure,' as she shows how terrifying are the oppressions that assail them. Such a portrayal was practically heresy in 1970, when black women were being continually exalted for their superhuman ability to survive anything, the implication being that they did not need, as urgently as others, relief from their condition. Although Margaret and Mem Copeland are destroyed, Ruth, the girl-woman of the Copelands' third generation has the possibility of surviving for she is given by her grandfather the knowledge about her culture and about white society that she will need. As importantly, she has a greater possibility of 'surviving whole' because asocial movement against racism may affect her life.

This historical dimension which is prevalent not only in Grange Copeland but in all of Walker's novels enables her to analyse the process by which the social order becomes oppressive, particularly of black women while giving her the space to show how they come to consciousness about the nature of their condition. Paradoxically, even as she focuses on the intimate relationships between black women and men, black parents and children, black women and black women, she is able to relate the quality of these relationships to the larger sweep of history. And her novels show, through this historical dimension, not only the repression that blacks have suffered but also their resistance to it. Thus a knowledge of their own history is one source for the coming to consciousness that her protagonists go through, a reminder that black people before them, black women before them have resisted powerful attempts of dehumanization. History, too, is an impetus for black women, a source of their understanding of their right to be themselves whatever the prevailing black ideology may be, as well as an indicator of the often painful process through which they must go to retain their integrity as human beings. Since much of the 'history' that is written omits black women, Walker and her sisters who write are reclaiming that history even as they create visions of new alternatives. And in so doing, they are primary political actors.

      'They were women then
      My mamma's generation
      Husky of voice—stout of
      Step
      With fists as well as
      Hands'

Meridian, Walker's second novel, is an even more graphic illustration of the importance of herstory to black women's lives. One of the novel's major themes is both a rich critique of the ideology of black motherhood in this country and a celebration of the true meanings of motherhood. By tracing the history of black people, not through battles or legislation, but in terms of the lives of mothers, Walker demonstrates how motherhood is 'an angle of seeing life,' of valuing all life, of resisting all that might destroy it—in other words that motherhood is not merely a biological state but an attitude towards life.

Even as she probes the meaning of motherhood, Walker's use of herstory also allows her to highlight the insidious ways in which both black and white society restrict, punish individual mothers even as they canonize motherhood. The political meaning of this analysis is tantamount to the freeing of woman, who solely has the potential of being a mother, and who has, for much of the world's history, been reduced to that role. Walker then, extends the definition of womanhood beyond the restrictive definition of biological motherhood, even as she beautifully expands the meaning of that state.

But Walker also extends the true meaning of mother, of cherishing life, to that of the revolutionary. For the novel Meridian relates this attitude to the spiritual/political principles of the Civil Rights movement, a social movement opposed to violence, the destruction of life, even as it had violence inflicted upon its members by the ruling classes. Meridian poses a major political question: 'When is it right to kill? Why isn't revolutionary murder, murder?' How does the acceptance of the culture of violence effect those who struggle for positive social transformation. 'What would the music be like?' It is a question critical to our world when revolutions sometimes self-destruct, and when sometimes the only actual change after a political revolution is a changing of the guards. Walker of course does not fully resolve the question but she does probe its meaning reminding us that those who consider killing in order to effect change must prepare themselves to go through their own personal revolution—that social change is impossible without personal change. The flawed Meridian pursues the question of revolutionary violence in the novel, an issue she can perceive, because from her point of view she has violated life at its deepest level. Because she feels guilt about giving up her son to others and about aborting her second pregnancy, Meridian is propelled on a search for spiritual and political health. Having sinned against biological motherhood, she becomes a mother by 'expanding her mind with action' which is directed toward the preservation of all life.

Meridian's form is itself a graphic image of revolution. It is both circular and ascending, the meaning of the word meridian, as Walker intersects the personal histories of Meridian, Truman and Lynne, actors in the Civil Rights movement, with the collective history of black people. Within this form, Walker carefully connects bits and pieces of these histories, as she creates an even more intricate quilt in this second novel. The meridian-like movement of the novel indicates a process of coming to consciousness for Meridian, which Truman at the end of the novel, can use as a source of inspiration and process if he is to become whole. In Meridian then, Walker suggests a process for all those who seek social change. Meridian must go backward in time in order to move forward beyond the point that she is at, continually seeking the connections between her personal history and communal history. It is through this process that Walker the writer is able to show the interrelationship of sexism, racism and economic deprivation not only on individuals and their families but also on the political movements they create. And how, as well, these areas of oppression must be struggled through, rather than ignored or talked out of existence. Only then is ascension possible.

      The Nature of this Flower Is to Bloom
      Rebellious. Living.
      Against the Elemental Crush.
      A Song of Color
      Blooming
      For Deserving Eyes.
      Blooming Gloriously
      For its Self.
      Revolutionary Petunia.

The forms that Walker creates then have political content. Perhaps, even more than Meridian, the form of her most recent novel, The Color Purple is dramatically political, for she employs a technique that is both associated with every day life and with women. The Color Purple is written entirely in letters. Not only is this a tour de force for Walker, the novelist, letters along with diaries were the only forms allowed women to record their herstory. Letters both express Celie's view of herself and her view of the world even as they show her development from a victimized girl to a woman who becomes strong enough to change her condition and to love herself. Letters are both a source of subjective information, Celie's feelings about herself, and objective information, the world in which she moves. Letters proclaim the woman-centered focus of this novel, a political statement in itself.

Also Walker distinguishes her woman protagonist as a black women by her language. Like Walker's other two novels, Color Purple traces three generations of a family, most emphatically this time from a woman's point of view. Like Grange Copeland the novel is a story about a rural Southern family, though not sharecroppers but small landowners. But Color Purple is distinguished from these other two novels by its use of black folk language which too develops in complexity as Celie becomes stronger, more articulate, older. By using this language in contrast to standard English, Walker affirms the value of Afro-American culture. This is no small political assertion. Attempts are always made to discredit the language of a people in order to discredit them; for it is in their language that a people's values are expressed. If there is any significant idea (and there are many) that Walker has learned from her literary maternal ancestor Zora Neale Hurston, it is this one.

Perhaps the most obvious measure of The Color Purple's political direction is the novel's focus on sexism within the black community. This is not a new subject for Walker. All her work exposes how sexism, is, tragically, a part of black mores, a question of power in the black community as it is in all other human cultures we know. But in The Color Purple, Walker protests incest, a taboo subject in the black community. Just as she approached in 1970 the taboo subject of family violence in Grange Copeland, in 1976 the myth of black motherhood and the idea that revolutionary violence should at least be questioned in Meridian, in 1983 Walker again approached a taboo subject among black ideologues. Her exposing of incest in The Color Purple has precipitated more discussion within her community on sexism than ever before, as Walker insists that black people adhere to the value of life for black women. By critiquing her community she affirms our right to take responsibility for ourselves, by speaking to her community as her audience, she demonstrates how central black people are to her vision.

As if breaking the silence about incest in black families were not enough, the intrepid Walker gives Color Purple a distinctly womanist thrust by having Celie triumph over brutality, wife-beating, incest—through her sisters—through Shug who becomes her lover and friend, through Nellie her blood sister who writes letters to her from Africa, and whose letters she finally can answer, and through Sophie, her sister-in-law who resists her husband as well as white peoples' attempts to beat her down. Again Walker explores another taboo subject, for physical as well as spiritual love between women is the core of the novel. By presenting this love as natural and freeing, Walker protests homophobia in the black community. Sisterhood among women is Color Purple's theme and form as Walker proclaims bonding among black women as a necessary ingredient if we are to be free.

Walker, however does not ignore racism among women. Through Sophie's experience with the Mayor's wife which results in this black woman being jailed and taken away from her children, Walker questions whether sisterhood across racial lines is possible until white women descend from the unnatural pedestal they stand on and eliminate racism in themselves. But Walker also insists that sexism, though affected by racism is not derived from it. Nellie's sections in Africa has as one of their focus, the sexism African women are afflicted with as Walker exposes another taboo subject amongst black ideologues. Nellie's sections also emphasize the impact of colonialism and imperialism on African peoples as Walker protests in one bold stroke the doctrine of white supremacy and capitalist expansion.

But Color Purple goes beyond the protest of sexism, racism, and homophobia. Perhaps the novel's most significant contribution to Walker's expanding political vision is the pivotal role the erotic plays in Celie's movement toward freedom. The title of the novel itself is a celebration of the beauty, the pleasure of living and how that celebration is at the core of spiritual and political growth. It is through Celie's awareness of her right to the passion, creativity, satisfaction possible in life that she empowers herself. Once she experiences the erotic, the sharing of joy, she fights for her right to participate in it. Celie's story beautifully exemplifies Audre Lorde's words in her essay 'The Uses of the Erotic, the Erotic as Power':

In touch with the erotic I become less willing to accept powerlessness or those other supplied states of being which are not native to one such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial.

Like Lorde, Celie comes to demand from all of her life—her relationships, her work, whatever she is engaged in—that deep satisfaction. In guiding her to that knowledge Shug, her friend and lover, helps Celie to initiate change in all these aspects of her life. And in changing herself, Celie helps to change her entire community. Political change in The Color Purple occurs because of life-affirmation. From my point of view then one of the most important political statements of Color Purple is its emphasis on the right to happiness for even the most oppressed of us all, for poor black women, and that our happiness can be imagined, pursued, achieved through the growing strength of the community of black women:

We are the Ones We have been Waiting for.

From her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland to her most recent, The Color Purple, Walker shows how lasting political change is impossible without personal transformation. But she also emphasizes in her work that personal change is inevitably linked to a community of changers. The individual cannot effect lasting change for the self without some corresponding societal change. And for Walker, personal change is most indelibly achieved through the process of working for change with others.

In Grange Copeland, change begins to occur for the Copeland family when Grange, like so many others, goes North, the traditional escape for Southern blacks since slavery. When he discovers, as did so many others, the ineffectiveness of this solution he begins to work for change in his granddaughter's life in the South. But though his personal transformation has meaning, he is killed by the system he opposes. In ending the novel with Civil Rights workers, a growing community of changers, Walker suggests that other Granges are beginning to come together in their need and desire to change their society. Walker's second novel Meridian explores that historical development for the novel is as much about the principles of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements as it is about her characters. Meridian, her major protagonist, both affirms and challenges the underlying concepts of these movements of the 60s. As a black woman, as a black mother, she struggles to be free within herself even as she encounters sexism, elitism, violence within the Movement. The themes of The Color Purple build on Meridian's pilgrimage to freedom, for Walker's most recent novel explores basic tenets of the women's movement of the 1970s. Thus she protests violence against women and racist violence among women, while celebrating the bonding that women must develop in their struggles to achieve selfhood. Too, she expands feminist thought by placing the erotic, the right to satisfaction in women's lives at the center of the novel. Black women loving each together and working together are the community of changers in The Color Purple, through which individual black women and men come to demand and experience more of life.

Walker therefore scrutinizes historical movements that have had significant effects on the lives of black women. In celebrating these movements she both celebrates and critiques them. Walker's peculiar sound as a political writer has much to do with her contrariness, her willingness at all turns to challenge the fashionable beliefs of the day, to examine them in the light of black women's herstory, of her own experiences, and of dearly won principles that she has previously challenged and absorbed. It is significant that 'the survival whole' of black people which Walker focused on in Grange Copeland is extended to the value of life she illuminated in Meridian and is further developed into the relationship between freedom and happiness in Color Purple, particularly for her women characters. While Margaret Copeland and men are destroyed in The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Meridian 'expands her mind with action.' But in pursuit of spiritual health, Meridian goes through a period of 'madness,' paralysis of the body, then self-abnegation. Celie completes the cycle of Walker's women. Like Mem Copeland she is physically abused; like Meridian she goes through a painful period of healing. Celie however comes to full bloom in her entire self, physically and spiritually.

Survival whole—the value of all life—the right to happiness—these are increments in an ever-expanding philosophy of Walker's fiction. And for her, these goals can only be imagined as possible, pursued, and believed in, if we take responsibility for ourselves, and undergo the process of struggle historically, personally and collectively necessary to make ourselves physically, passionately, spiritually healthy. Only then can we achieve a sense of the oneness of creation, as symbolized by the color purple. Further, for Walker, black women must do this for themselves and each other, if the unnatural hierarchies of sexism, racism, and economic exploitation are to be eliminated: 'We are the ones we have been waiting for.'

Susan Willis (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6260

SOURCE: "Alice Walker's Women," in Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1987, pp. 110-28.

[In the following essay, Willis discusses the women of Walker's fiction, in particular Meridian, and their relationship to their history and community. She asserts that revolution can only succeed when an individual commits herself to the community.]

      Be nobody's darling
      Be an outcast.
      Take the contradictions
      Of your life
 
      And wrap around
      You like a shawl,
      To parry stones
      To keep you warm.
 
      What the black Southern writer
      inherits as a natural right is
      a sense of community.

The strength of Alice Walker's writing derives from the author's inexorable recognition of her place in history; the sensitivity of her work, from her profound sense of community; its beauty, from her commitment to the future. Many readers associate Alice Walker with her most recent novel, The Color Purple, for which she won a Pulitzer Prize. But the best place to begin to define the whole of her writing is with the semiautobiographical novel, Meridian. In that novel I suggest we first consider a very minor character: "Wile Chile." For "Wile Chile" is not gratuitous, not an aberrant whim on the part of the author, but an epigrammatic representation of all the women Walker brings to life. I think this is how Walker intended it, precisely because she begins telling about Meridian by describing her confrontation with "Wile Chile," a thirteen-year-old ghetto urchin, who from the age of about five or six, when she was first spotted, has fed and clothed herself out of garbage cans. More slippery than a "greased pig" and as wary as any stray, the Wild Child is virtually uncatchable. When it becomes obvious that the Wild Child is pregnant, Meridian takes it upon herself to bring her into the fold. Baiting her with glass beads and cigarettes, she eventually catches "Wile Chile," leads her back to the campus, bathes and feeds her, then sets about finding a home for her. However, Meridian's role as mother comes to an abrupt end when "Wile Chile" escapes and bolts into the street where she is struck by a speeding car.

If we consider the story of "Wile Chile" against the events that shape Meridian's development from childhood (the daughter of schoolteachers), through college, into the Civil Rights movement and finally to embark on her own more radical commitment to revolutionary praxis, the two pages devoted to the Wild Child seem at most a colorful digression. Her only language comprised of obscenities and farts, "Wile Chile" is Meridian's social antithesis. Nevertheless, the story of "Wile Chile" is central to our understanding of Meridian and the woman whose name is the title of this book, for it includes certain basic features, present in different forms in all the anecdotal incidents that make up the novel and through which Meridian herself must struggle in the process of her self-affirmation.

When Meridian drags the stomach-heavy "Wile Chile" back to her room, she puts herself in the role of mother and enacts a mode of mothering that smacks of liberal bourgeois sentimentality. On the other hand, "Wile Chile"'s own impending motherhood represents absolute abandonment to biological contingency. These are only two of the many versions of womanhood that the problem of mothering will provoke in the book. Although Meridian and "Wile Chile" do not share a common social ground, they come together on one point, and that is the possibility of being made pregnant. For "Wile Chile" and Meridian both, conception articulates oppression, to which "Wile Chile" succumbs and against which Meridian struggles to discover whether it is possible for a black woman to emerge as a self and at the same time fulfill the burdens of motherhood.

The story of "Wile Chile" also raises the question of Meridian's relationship to the academic institution and the black community that surrounds the university. Her outrageous behavior causes Meridian (and the reader) to reflect on the function of the university as a social institution whose primary role is to assimilate bright young black women, who might otherwise be dangerously marginal, to a dominant white culture. "Wile Chile"'s unpermissible language draws attention to the tremendous pressures also placed on Meridian to become a "lady" patterned after white European cultural norms. This is not a cosmetic transformation, but one that separates the individual from her class and community and forever inscribes her within the bourgeois world. That the university serves bourgeois class interests is dramatized when Saxon College students and members of the local black community attempt to hold "Wile Chile"'s funeral on the campus. Barred from entering the university, the funeral procession is isolated and defined as "other" in the same way that the local neighborhood, which ought to be the university's community of concern, is instead its ghetto.

In Meridian, childbearing is consistently linked to images of murder and suicide. In this, the figure of the Wild Child is as much a paradigm for the book's main characters, Meridian and Lynne, as it is for another minor anecdotal figure, Fast Mary. As the students at Saxon College tell it, Fast Mary secretly gave birth in a tower room, chopped her newborn babe to bits, and washed it down the toilet. When her attempt to conceal the birth fails, her parents lock her up in a room without windows where Fast Mary subsequently hangs herself. In posing the contradictory social constraints that demand simultaneously that a woman be both a virgin and sexually active, the parable of Fast Mary prefigures the emotional tension Meridian herself will experience as a mother, expressing it in fantasies of murder and suicide. The tales of "Wile Chile" and Fast Mary also pose the problem of the individual's relationship to the group. Fast Mary's inability to call on her sister students and her final definitive isolation at the hands of her parents raise questions Meridian will also confront: is there a community of support? And is communication possible between such a community and the individual who is seen as a social iconoclast?

The problem of communication, and specifically the question of language, is at the heart of another of Meridian's anecdotal characters: Louvinie, a slave woman from West Africa whose parents excelled in a particular form of storytelling, one designed to ensnare anyone guilty of having committed a crime. Louvinie's duties as a slave are to cook and mind the master's children. The latter includes her own superb mastery of the art of storytelling, which for Louvinie, as for all oppressed peoples, functions to keep traditional culture alive and to provide a context for radical social practice. The radical potential of language is abundantly clear when the master's weakhearted young son dies of heart failure in the middle of one of Louvinie's gruesome tales.

At the level of overt content, the story of Louvinie focuses on the function of language; in its structure, it reproduces the features associated in the book with motherhood. Louvinie, who does not have children of her own, nevertheless functions as a mother to the master's offspring. She, like "Wile Chile," Fast Mary, even Meridian and Lynne, kills the child defined structurally as her own. In more narrow terms, Louvinie provides a model closer to the way Meridian will resolve her life. Her actual childlessness suggests in asexual terms Meridian's choice not to be fertile and bear children. Moreover, when Louvinie murders the child in her charge it is clearly a politically contestatory act, which is not the case for either "Wile Chile" or Fast Mary—but is true for Meridian when she chooses to abort her child.

Louvinie's punishment rejoins the problem of language, as the master cuts out her tongue. Louvinie's response is to bury her tongue under a small magnolia tree, which, generations later, grows to be the largest magnolia in the country and stands at the center of Saxon College. As a natural metaphor, the tree is in opposition to the two social institutions—the plantation and the university—and suggests an alternative to their definition of black history and language. Just as the university excludes women like "Wile Chile," so too does it seek to silence black folk culture typified by Louvinie's stories. The magnolia casts the university in stark relief, exposes its version of history as a lie, its use of language as collaborative with the forces of domination.

The magnolia also provides a figural bridge linking the struggle of black women from slavery to the present. In the past, it offered a hiding place for escaped slaves and in the present its enormous trunk and branches provide a platform for classes. Named The Sojourner, the magnolia conjures up the presence of another leader of black women, who, like Louvinie, used language in the struggle for liberation. In this way, Walker builds a network of women, some mythic like Louvinie, some real like Sojourner Truth, as the context for Meridian's affirmation and radicalization.

As the stories of "Wile Chile" and Fast Mary demonstrate, anecdotes are the basic narrative units in Walker's fiction. They reveal how Walker has managed to keep the storytelling tradition among black people alive in the era of the written narrative. The anecdotes are pedagogical. They allow the reader to experience the same structural features, recast with each telling, in a different historical and social setting. Each telling demands that the college students (and the reader) examine and define their relationship to the group in a more profound way than in the explicitly political gatherings where each is asked to state what she will do for the revolution. In this way, Walker defines story writing in the radical tradition that storytelling has had among black people.

It is not surprising that language is crucial to Meridian's process of becoming. From slavery to the present, black women have spoken out against their oppression, and when possible, written their version of history. However, their narratives have fared less well in the hands of publishers and the reading public than those written by black men. Only very recently and with the growing interest in writers like Morrison, Marshall, and Walker have black women enjoyed better access to recognized channels of communication outside those of home and church. As testament to the very long struggle for recognition waged by black women and the deep oppression out of which their struggle began, the literature is full of characters like Hurston's Janie Woods, whose husband sees and uses her like a "mule" and will not allow her to speak, to Walker's most recent female character, Celie, in The Color Purple, also denied a voice, who out of desperation for meaningful dialogue writes letters to God. For black women writers, the problem of finding a viable literary language—outside of the male canon defined predominantly by Richard Wright—has generated a variety of literary strategies. Morrison's solution was to develop a highly metaphorical language, whereas for Walker the solution has been the anecdotal narrative, which because of its relationship to storytelling and the family more closely approximates a woman's linguistic practice than does Morrison's very stylized discourse.

The fact is no black woman has ever been without language, not even the tongueless Louvinie, who uses the magical preparation and planting of her tongue to speak louder and longer than words. The question of language is not meaningful except in relation to the community. Louvinie's example affirms that the community of struggle will always exist and that the actions of a single black woman join the network of all. In contrast, "Wile Chile" represents a negation of the individual's need for community. With language reduced to farts and swears, hers is a one-way communication whose every enunciation denies integration with the group and proclaims her absolute marginality. Contrary to the Wild Child's self-destructive marginality, Meridian must define a form of oneness with herself that will allow her to speak and work with the community and at the same time will prevent becoming submerged by it. Meridian's quest for a language and a praxis is analogous to Walker's work as a writer, which demands both distance from and integration with the people.

When, in the book's first chapter, Meridian is asked if she could kill for the revolution, she finds herself unable to make the required revolutionary affirmation and defines instead what will be her more difficult form of revolutionary praxis: "I'll go back to the people." People means the South, the small towns, the communities for whom the Civil Rights movement passed by too quickly to transform embedded racist and sexist practices. In this, she is the antithesis of "Wile Chile," who never was a part of any community and hence can never return to one.

Meridian's decision is her way of defining the single most common feature in fiction by black women writers: that of return to the community. From Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, to the recent novels by Toni Morrison, the trajectory of departure and return is the common means for describing a woman's development and structuring the novel. In every instance, return raises the fundamental question of whether a community of support exists and what will be the individual's relationship to it.

For Morrison's Sula, return articulates the tragic plight of an extremely sensitive and perceptive black woman, in many ways ahead of her time, who goes to college, sees the world and a fair number of men, only to find herself dispossessed of place. Although the community of her girlhood has undergone economic progress, neither the town's new golf course nor its convalescent hospital testify to deep social transformation. Sula returns home to find her girlhood friend deeply stigmatized by male sexual domination. Traumatized by his abandonment, she has become a sterile shell living out a life whose only excuse is her moral and economic enslavement to her children. There is no community of possibility for Sula, who dies alone with her dreams and aspirations—a halcyon symbol of a future womanhood that can never be the basis for a community in this society.

Walker's rendering of return involves elements present in both Hurston's tale of Janie Woods and Morrison's account of Sula, but set in an entirely different context: the Civil Rights movement, which historically was not a factor for Hurston and geographically does not significantly enter into Morrison's tales, which are usually set in the Midwest. Only in Walker, a writer of the Southern black experience, do we come to understand how psychically important the Civil Rights movement was—not that it solved anything, but it definitely marks the moment after which nothing can ever be the same. Meridian's mission is to help discover the shape of the future.

Return is the developmental imperative in all Walker's novels, where the journey over geographic space is a metaphor for personal growth and, in a larger sense, historical transformation. In her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Walker's conception of geographic space embodies a dialectical understanding of history. When Grange Copeland abandons wife and child to seek self and fortune in New York City, he leaves behind a rural community historically representative of the plantation system for the North and the industrial mode. The third moment of the dialectic is marked by Grange's return to the South, not as a penniless sharecropper, but with money in his pocket to buy his own land. The farm Grange brings into being suggests Walker's vision of a very different basis for black community, one that has experienced and transcended two forms of enslavement: first to the plantation, then to wage labor. In Walker's vision of the future, property ownership will not be for the purpose of accumulation as it is under capitalism, but will provide for the satisfaction of basic human material and spiritual needs.

The epic of Grange Copeland is doubly transformational in that the character who will bear his experience into the future (both of the distant past that Grange passes along in the form of folktales and of the more recent past that Grange has directly known) is not a male heir, as more traditional literature might have it, but his granddaughter, whose coming-of-age is marked by sit-ins, voter registration, and the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. His own life marred by his struggle against bigotry, his own acts of violence, and the terrible racism and sexism of which he has been both a victim and an agent, Grange cannot be the embodiment of the future. Rather, some great moment of rupture from the past is needed, and this Walker achieves in the transition from the male to the female principle. The novel ends on a note of affirmation—but not without uncertainty over the shape of the future. Ruth, Grange's granddaughter, is an adolescent and her future as well as the post-Civil Rights black community in the South cannot yet be told, but is, like the sixteen-year-old Ruth, on the threshold of its becoming.

In geographic strokes less broad, Walker's most recent novel, The Color Purple, also articulates personal and historical transition. In it, Celie is married as an adolescent to a man who makes her cook and keep house, tend the fields and look after his unruly children from a previous marriage, and who pretty much conceives of her as a "mule." Celie's abuse is deepened by the fact that before marriage she had already been repeatedly raped by the man she calls "father" and made to bear his children only to have them taken from her soon after birth. If there is to be any transformation in this book, its starting point is the absolute rock bottom of a woman's economic and sexual enslavement in a male-dominated and racist society.

The possibility of Celie's transformation is brought about by her journey away from the rural backwater and to the big city, Memphis, where she comes to support herself—not by means of wage labor (it is clear that Walker sees no hope for liberation in the transition to the industrial mode)—by means of learning a trade that is both artistic and necessary. She designs and sews custom pants.

If Celie's transformation is to be thorough, it must be not just economic, but sexual as well. Celie's ability to question what would otherwise be her "lot in life" and to break with her passive acceptance of her husband's domination is made possible by her friendship and eventual lesbian relationship with a black blues singer, Shug Avery. Unlike the monstrous inequality between husband and wife, theirs is a reciprocal relationship—Celie giving of herself to heal the sick and exhausted Shug (even though Celie's husband has for years been enamored of the singer), and Shug giving of herself, patiently and lovingly teaching Celie to know the joys of her own body and to follow the intuition of her mind. Neither the economics of pants-making nor the sexuality of lesbianism represents modes of enslavement as do the economics of industrial capitalism and the sexuality of male-dominated heterosexual relationships. At book's end Celie is neither seen as a pantsmaker in the way one might see an autoworker as a particular species of human, nor as a lesbian lover the way one sees a wife and mother.

Out of Walker's three novels, The Color Purple defines return in the most auspicious terms and offers not a prescription for but a suggestion of what a nonsexist, nonracist community might be. No longer a voiceless chattel to her man, Celie is able to converse with her husband. Having undergone liberation in both economic and sexual terms, she is for the first time perceived not as a domestic slave or the means toward male sexual gratification but as a whole woman: witty, resourceful, caring, wise, sensitive, and sensual. And her home—the site of an open and extended family where family and friends merge—suggests the basis for a wholly new community. The Fourth of July picnic that concludes the book and reunites Celie with her sister and children redefines the traditional family group in the context of a radically transformed household.

Of all of Walker's novels, Meridian offers the clearest view of the process of radicalization. For Meridian, the autobiographical embodiment of Walker herself, coming of age in the sixties does not offer a free ticket, but provides an atmosphere of confrontation and the questioning of contradiction with which the individual must grapple. Early in the book it becomes clear that one of the most profound ideologies to be confronted and transcended is the acceptance of mystical explanations for political realities. Meridian's childhood is steeped in Indian lore, the walls of her room papered with photographs of the great Indian leaders from Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse to the romanticized Hiawatha. Moreover, her father's farm includes an ancient Indian burial mound, its crest shaped like a serpent, where, in the coil of its tail, Meridian achieves a state of "ecstasy." Absorbed in a dizzying spin, she feels herself lifted out of her body while all around her—family and countryside—are caught up in the spinning whirlpool of her consciousness. It is not odd that Walker focuses on mystical experience. After all, this is a book about the sixties whose counterculture opened the door to more than one form of mysticism. It is also not strange that Meridian's mystical experience derives from Native American culture, given the long cohistorical relationship between blacks and Indians in the southeastern United States (their radical union goes back to the time of cimarrons and Seminoles).

However, ecstasy is not the answer. Although Meridian will learn from the mystical experience, it will not be sufficient to her life's work to rely on the practice of retreat into the ecstatic trance. What, then, of the historic link between Indians and blacks? If, in the course of the book, Meridian learns to transcend ecstasy, is this a denial of her (and her people's) relationship to the Indian people?

Definitely not. The book's epigraph gives another way of defining Meridian's relationship to Native Americans, which the great lesson taught by her radicalization will bring into reality. Taken from Black Elk Speaks, this is the epigraph:

I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now … I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people's dream died there. It was a beautiful dream … the nation's hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.

Black Elk's words remember the massacre of Wounded Knee, which for Indian people was the brutal cancellation of their way of life. The dream Black Elk refers to is the vision he, as a holy man, had of his people and their world: "The leaves on the trees, the grasses on the hills and in the valleys, the waters in the creeks and in the rivers and the lakes, the four-legged and the two-legged and the wings of the air—all danced together to the music of the stallion's song."

This is a vision of a community of man and nature, which Black Elk, as a holy man, must bring into being—not individually, but through the collective practice of the group. As he sees it, the nation is a "hoop" and "Everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round." These are images of a community's wholeness, which Meridian takes as her political paradigm—not the particulars of Indian culture; not the beads that hippies grafted on their white middle-class identities, not the swoons of ecstasy—but the Indian view of community, in which the holy man or seer is not marginal, but integral to the group. So when Meridian says she will "go back to the people" and when she leads them in demonstration against racist practices, she enacts Black Elk's formula for praxis. As an intellectual and a political activist, she understands that the individual's inspiration for social change can only be realized through the group's collective activity.

By far the greatest test of Meridian's radicalization is to overcome the social and sexual categories ascribed to all women, and black women in particular. Because she does not choose the lesbian alternative as Celie does in The Color Purple, Meridian's struggle is within and against heterosexual relationships. As Walker describes it, the two most fundamental categories of womanhood defined under male-dominated heterosexuality are bitches and wives. The first category is composed of white women; the second is made up of black women and is essentially the same as saying "mothers." The bitch in the book is Lynne, who in many ways is Meridian's antithetical parallel. A white woman, from the North, Jewish, a student and fellow Civil Rights worker, Lynne is the third factor in a triangular love relationship that includes Meridian and Truman, also a Civil Rights worker and the man both Lynne and Meridian love. The tension produced by love and jealousy is the ground on which Walker examines social categories and defines the process through which Meridian eventually liberates herself from male sexual domination.

Meridian begins her adult life a high-school dropout and teenage mother married to a restaurant busboy. Motherhood for Meridian is fraught with contradictory impulses. Caressing her child's body, she imagines that her fingers have scratched his flesh to the bone. At other times, she thinks of drowning her baby; when not fantasizing her child's murder, she dreams of suicide. Murder and suicide are the emotional articulation of social realities. This is the experience of futility—the mother's purposelessness as an individual, whose only function is to add yet another little body to the massive black underclass, and the child's bankrupt future, another faceless menial laborer.

In contrast to the futility is the one moment—equally profound for its singularity—when Meridian beholds her child with loving wonderment and sees him as a spontaneous, unasked-for gift, absolutely unique and whole. In response to the possibility for her child's selfhood and in recognition of her own desperate need to redefine her life's course, Meridian chooses to give her child away when, as if by miracle, her high IQ makes her a college candidate. In relinquishing her child, Meridian recognizes her relationship to the history of black motherhood, which, under slavery, defined the black woman's struggle to keep her children as a radical act, making the mother liable for a beating or worse; as well as to the time of freedom, which, in giving black women the right to keep their children, provided the fetters of enslavement to poverty and sexism. Meridian's mother is very much a part of this tradition. Although morally outraged at her daughter's decision to "abandon" her child, the mother exemplifies the plight of black mothers, "buried alive, walled away from her own life, brick by brick" with the birth of each successive child.

In giving her child away, Meridian makes it clear that mothering, as it has been defined by heterosexual relationships in racist society, is the single most insurmountable obstacle to a black woman's self-affirmation. Only by refusing ever to be a mother in the particular can she carve out a new social function, which includes a form of mothering, but in the larger sense of an individual's caring for her community. We get a sense of what this might involve when Meridian first appears in the novel leading a band of children in demonstration. But for the most part, Meridian's practice is less an indication of future possibilities and more a critique of the way heterosexual relationships have individualized a woman's relationship to her children, making them her property. This is the mother-child relationship that Meridian violently denies for herself when, becoming pregnant for a second time, she chooses to abort her lover's baby. Her decision is also a dramatic refutation of Truman's overtly male-chauvinist invitation to "have [his] beautiful black babies" for the revolution. For Meridian, the subsequent decision to have her tubes tied represents another step in the direction toward a new form of womanhood where heterosexuality will not be the means toward oppression but a mode within which sexual partners will one day set each other free. But for the time being, her espousal of a selfless, nunlike celibacy suggests that the day is a long way off.

For Lynne, however, heterosexuality, complicated by the pressures on the biracial couple in a racist society, leads not to liberation and the affirmation of a new social mode, but rather the rock-bottom debasement of self. Notwithstanding her marriage to Truman, Lynne will always be the white bitch, and notwithstanding their child's African name, Camara, the mulatto does not represent a hope for a nonracist future. This is because American society—before, during, and after Civil Rights—remains racist and sexist. Camara's brutal murder graphically puts an end to any liberal thoughts about a new, hybridized society of the future. The death of this child—and all the book's children, either by abortion or murder—dramatizes Walker's radical intuition that the future as something positive and new cannot be produced out of genetic or personal terms, but demands, as Black Elk saw it, the selfless involvement of the individual with the community. When Truman criticizes Meridian for never having loved him, she responds, "I set you free." Meridian has chosen to relinquish personal and sexual relationships, which in this society cannot help but be the means and form of a woman's oppression, as a way of advancing her own struggle—and that of her loved ones—toward their liberation.

For the most part, Walker's writing is not figural, but there is in Meridian one very important metaphor, whose function is to synthesize the many levels of Meridian's struggle. This is the significance of Meridian's sickness, which goes by no medical name but is characterized by dizziness, temporary blindness, swooning faints, loss of hair, paralysis, and general bodily weakness. The illness strikes Meridian immediately after she first sees the Wild Child. Because many of the symptoms coincide with her childhood experiences of mystical ecstasy, the illness is a link between her early confrontation with cultural ideology and her later struggle as an adult against social and sexual oppression, typified by the plight of the Wild Child. The illness allows the reader to perceive at the level of experience the absolute energy-draining work of political praxis, as with each demonstration Meridian must struggle to regain her vanquished strength, patiently forcing her paralyzed limbs to work again. Meridian's trademark, a visored cap to cover her baldness, articulates the contradictory notions attached to a black woman's hair—her crowning glory and sign of sexuality—for which the head rag was both a proclamation and refutation. With each confrontation with white male authority—be it under the abortionist's knife or facing down an army tank—Meridian's swoon and faint proclaim not surrender but absolute commitment to the struggle. Coming back to consciousness, Meridian awakens to find the struggle—an ongoing process—renewed on a higher, more exacting level.

At the novel's conclusion, Walker gives us to understand that Meridian has mastered not the whole struggle but herself in that struggle. Rid of the sickness, her woolly head restored, she discards her cap and packs her bag to set out once again on the road to confrontation. Although one individual's coming to grips with self can be a lesson for others, it cannot be their solution. The novel closes on Truman, dizzily crawling into Meridian's sleeping bag, pulling her cap upon his head, and accepting for himself the long process of her struggle. The transition from Meridian to Truman lifts the book out of its sexual polarization and suggests that everyone regardless of socially ascribed sex roles, must work to deessentialize sex. Now it will be Truman who works for the community and in its care to bring the collective dream into being.

Although not by his choosing, Truman, at book's end, is no longer capable of being perceived either as a lover or a father. The course of Meridian's struggle to liberate herself from sexually prescribed categories has been the means for Truman's unwitting relinquishment of positions from which men have traditionally exerted domination. The transcendence of sexual domination undermines other forms of domination including racism, but this does not mean that race itself has been neutralized. Rather, blackness is affirmed. Meridian's new crop of woolly hair testifies directly to her renewal as a black woman. Nor has transcendence brought about Meridian's separation from the community, whose coherent presence has always been the novel's core. In contrast to the strength of the black presence, white people enter Meridian incidentally and are always perceived as individuals, bereft of any relationship with their own community. Almost freakish in their singularity and behavior, white people in general closely approximate their symbolic representation in the form of a mummified white woman, a sideshow attraction, whose husband carts her from town to town earning money off her exhibition.

Walker's affirmation of blackness uses racially specific traits not to define a form of black racism but to delineate the look of a class. Black is the color of the underclass. And all Walker's women are peasants, from Celie in The Color Purple, to Ruth's mother and grandmother in The Third Life of Grange Copeland and Meridian's female forebears. Bound to the land and their husbands (or fathers), worn by toil in the fields and the demands of childbearing, these women are the underclass of the underclass. This is why literacy and education are so crucial to the way Walker depicts the process of liberation. Her radical understanding of education lies at the heart of literacy campaigns from revolutionary Angola to Grenada and Nicaragua. Clearly, the ability to raise questions, to objectify contradictions, is only possible when Celie begins writing her letters. Similarly, for Meridian, education (notwithstanding its inspiration in liberalism) and the academic institution (notwithstanding its foundation in elitism) offer the means for confronting social and sexual contradictions that she, as a black teenage mother, would not have been able to articulate—either for herself or anyone else.

Walker elaborated on the importance of class and the role of women in class politics in a workshop on black women writers held at Yale University (spring 1982). She stressed the significance of rediscovering Agnes Smedley, particularly Smedley's description of Chinese women during the years of the Revolution. Both Smedley and Walker would agree that the radical transformation of society can only be achieved when the bottom-most rung attains liberation; in fact, the wellspring of revolution is the rebellion of the peasant class. This is the great historical lesson of revolution in the twentieth century from China to Cuba and Central America. And it lies at the heart of all Smedley's "sketches" of women revolutionaries, who, when their class background and education more closely approximate Meridian's, must, like Walker's character, turn to the people and be one with their struggle. The individual who becomes separate from the peasantry is truly lost, like Walker's Lynne, who never outgrew her liberal background and the tendency to see black people as works of art; and Smedley's the "Living Dead," women reclaimed by the aristocracy and abandoned to opium dreams or so traumatized by the White Terror that they wander about dazed.

There is a great deal of similarity between the real-life Smedley and the fictional Meridian—and her autobiographical inspiration, Walker herself. Smedley, born in the South (Missouri), was also a peasant woman. Her childhood grounded in poverty, she, although white, knew a form of enslavement when, at the age of eleven, she was hired out as a domestic. Education and, later, leftist politics were her way up and out of poverty, just as writing was her way back to the people. Always an advocate of feminism, both in journalism and in fiction, Smedley, like Walker, depicts the contradictions of womanhood as they relate to abortion, birth control, and mothering. Finally, although Smedley's chosen community was revolutionary China, her relationship to that community as a foreigner and an intellectual bears striking similarity to Meridian's relationship to her community.

Perhaps the best way to characterize all three—Smedley, Meridian, and Walker—is with the title of one of Walker's collections of poems: Revolutionary Petunias. It captures the spirit of revolutionary women both in beauty and in struggle. Certainly, there was a great deal of flamboyance in Agnes Smedley as she donned a Red Army uniform and marched into Xi'an. Rather than a simplistic identification with the Communist forces, her act was intended to draw the attention of the world press (which it did) and to articulate a joyous celebration of struggle (which it still does) in the linguistics of gesture and playacting often used by women in lieu of those modes of communication, like speech and writing, that have been traditionally defined by male discourse. This is a form of revolutionary praxis very like the moment when Meridian, at the head of a pack of kids, faces down the town militia and a World War II tank. Not to be confused with flower children and the politics of counterculture, "Revolutionary Petunias" are those women, who, with grace, strength, and imagination, have put their lives on the line.

J. Charles Washington (essay date Spring 1988)

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SOURCE: "Positive Black Male Images in Alice Walker's Fiction," in Obsidian II, Vol. 3, No. 1, Spring, 1988, pp. 23-48.

[In the following essay, Washington asserts that Walker does present some positive black male images in her work, and that her criticism of black men and women is in the spirit of helping them to grow and improve.]

Now that the controversy over Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prizewinning novel The Color Purple has subsided, it might be worthwhile to re-examine her fiction, specifically, the short stories, in an attempt to resolve the issue of her purported attack on Black males. In particular, her critics charged her with presenting a grossly negative image of Black men, who were portrayed as mean, cruel, or violent, entirely without redeeming qualities. In a review of the film of the novel, the Washington Post of February 5, 1986, stated: "But what is being heatedly discussed is the characterization of Black males as cruel, unaffectionate, domineering slap-happy oafs." Gloria Steinem, a major source of these discussions, writes in the June 1982, issue of Ms. magazine, that "a disproportionate number of her (Walker's) hurtful, negative reviews have been by Black men."

This "disproportionate number" is significant, but only because, according to Trudier Harris, "black women critics have … been reluctant to offer … criticisms of it." The reason for this reluctance, Harris explains, is that "To complain about the novel is to commit treason against Black women writers, yet there is much in it that deserves complaint." With a tone that reveals the high degree of distress and frustration she feels, Harris complains not only about the negative, unrealistic and stereotypical portraits of Black men and women the novel presents, but also about its overall thematic development:

The novel gives validity to all the white racist's notions of pathology in Black communities. For these spectator readers, Black fathers and father-figures are viewed as being immoral, sexually unrestrained. Black males and females form units without the benefit of marriage, or they easily dissolve marriages in order to form less structured, more promiscuous relationships. Black men beat their wives—or attempt to—and neglect, ignore, or abuse their children. When they cannot control their wives through beatings, they violently dispatch them.

Thus Harris's article suggests that the objections to Walker's portraits of Black men are not limited to Black men.

Though this charge came about primarily as a result of the novel, negative male characters appeared in Walker's work long before its publication. Her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, published in 1970, some 13 years before Purple, is a good example, yet many of those who cried the loudest seem to have taken no notice of this work. Perhaps the best-known voice in the chorus of Walker critics belongs to novelist David Bradley (author of The Chaneysville Incident). Interestingly, he does not object to the male images in Purple, but in a long article written for the June 8, 1984, issue of the New York Times Magazine, he expresses dismay at "some of the things" he finds in Walker's collection of essays In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, which lends further support to the criticism and controversy the novel aroused and, because of his reputation as a novelist and critic, gives his article a quasi official stamp of approval:

But there is much that dismays me. Some of these things can be written off as polemical excess…. But other excesses are more troubling because they form, it seems, a pattern indicating Alice Walker has a high level of enmity toward Black men [emphasis added].

As part of his support for this contention, Bradley cites Walker's "dismissal and disdain" of individual Black male writers such as Richard Wright and Jean Toomer.

An examination of Walker's works reveals what many of her critics have failed to see: that they also contain positive Black male images. Bradley, in the New York Times Magazine piece, comments on the positive types of Black male characters he has observed:

Black men in Alice Walker's fiction … seem capable of goodness only when they become old like Grange Copeland, or paralyzed and feminized, like Truman Held. If they are not thus rendered symbolically impotent, they are figures of malevolence, like Ruth's murderous father, Brownfield….

However, depending on how one looks at them, that is, the moral/social standard one uses, there are other positive male characters in Walker's fiction who do not fall into these categories. In contrast to the negative label connoting characters who are inherently evil, positive as used here means that there is within them the potential for growth, development and change. This is not to say, however, that they are without human flaws. Such characters are found in several of the short stories in Walker's first collection In Love and Trouble. Her presentation of both negative and positive Black male images, then, would seem to indicate that she is not carrying a feminist banner (or "womanist," her term for a Black feminist) with which she intentionally flagellates Black men.

Having established that Walker hates Black men, and apparently well versed in Freudian psychology, it seems natural that Bradley would locate the cause of Walker's enmity within her family, that is, in her hatred for her father. Similar to his handling of Walker's alleged dismissal of Toomer, however, Bradley chooses particular words of Walker to prove his point, when the truth is otherwise. Building his case against her, he cites her disparaging remarks about Toomer the man, which moreover had to do with racism not sexism, while de-emphasizing her favorable remarks about his work. In fact, what Walker does in Mothers' Gardens is castigate Toomer for his racial ambivalence, while praising his work highly, concluding with: "I love it (Cane) passionately; could not possibly exist without it."

Similarly, Bradley presents only half the truth regarding Walker's feelings about her father, ignoring the significance of the change in them that occurred later in her life. For though in her youth she did harbor strong resentment against her father, blaming him for her family's poverty, as an adult she came to realize that "he was a poor man exploited by the rural middleclass rich, like millions of peasants the world over."

The charge against Walker cannot be supported, for it is based on far too simplistic a view of an artist. Though her work is woman-centered, its wider focus is on the struggle of Black people—men and women—to re-claim their own lives. As she writes in Mothers' Gardens, "I am preoccupied with the spiritual survival, the survival whole of my people. But beyond that, I am committed to exploring the insanities, the loyalties, and the triumphs of Black women." Her exclusive concentration on what used to be called the weaker sex who, if no longer as weak as they once were, are still the most oppressed in society does not mean that she is anti-male, but that she has less time and energy to devote to exploring more fully the problems of men or the common causes of the oppression of both.

This commitment to Black women—itself an act of love—no less than her treatment of Black men, is a likely basis of the negative criticism Walker has received. For much of it is an expression of homophobia triggered by any notion of women loving women, in the eyes of some readers, male and female, its "logical" conclusion is lesbianism equated with a virulent hatred of men. Many of these individuals became convinced of the correctness of their reasoning when in Purple Walker not only presents a lesbian relationship but also shows it to be extremely fulfilling.

What these readers fail—or refuse—to realize, however, is that for all of the suffering and violence Celie experiences from Black men, she does not grow to hate them; in fact, her eventual rejection of them is no more permanent than her brief flirtation with lesbianism. Both are simply steps in the process of learning to love herself and finding her own identity, which is the author's main concern. Of equal significance to her is the means of strategy by which this growth takes place—that is, women loving and reaching out to support each other. The strategy is not fail-safe. Some errors are expected, but if they occur, the author implies, the moral risk is worth the human gain.

It is clear that Walker's commitment to women has nothing to do with sex at alt. And the same can be said of the homophobia that fuels the controversy. On the contrary, both have everything to do with power—women's gain and men's loss of it. For their own empowerment and control of their own destiny, women must commit themselves to each other and to creating their own identity. The failure "to define ourselves," Audre Lorde writes in Sister Outsider, is that "we will be defined by others—for their use and to our detriment." Homophobia, the handmaiden of sexism, becomes a useful tool in men's efforts to define and control women. Additionally, Lorde writes, "the red herring of lesbian baiting is being used … to obscure the true face of facism/sexism."

Far from being a purely emotional reaction, homophobia reveals itself to have a political dimension, seen in the efficacious role it plays in maintaining power or the status quo. Frequently it is used by some men who attempt to rule Black women by fear, who threaten them with emotional rejection: "'Their poetry wasn't too bad but I couldn't take all those lezzies.'" Ishmael Reed, the novelist who has rightfully often decried the degeneration of Black males in American society, is not above this kind of emotional blackmail if, faced with competition from a Black female, it contributes to his own personal gain. Complaining that he had sold only eight thousand copies of his last book, Reed is reported to have said, "if he had been a black lesbian poet [emphasis added] he would have sold many more."

This complex nexus of cause and effect, of power struggles and political ploys underlying the often turbulent relations between Black men and women lies at the heart of Walker's works. Out of it emerges the negative criticism she has received. It is inevitable that she would arouse hostility, for in her struggle to help Black men and women overcome the oppression that binds them, she refuses to be intimidated or ruled by anything other than her own conscience.

We should pause here to note exactly what "oppression" means in Walker's works. Her target is not racism itself, but the Black men and women whom it affects, not society, but the lives of her characters. Recounting human tragedies because the characters themselves are largely responsible for their own fate, though their fate may have its being in racism, Walker's fiction explores a much more personal kind of oppression: that which the individual inflicts on himself or on another individual. The good to be derived from this central focus Walker explains in Mothers' Gardens in her analysis of what she feels is a major failing of Black writing:

It seems to me that black writing has suffered because even black critics have assumed that a book that deals with relationships between members of a black family—or between a man and a woman—is less important than one that has white people as primary antagonists. The consequence of this is that many of our books by 'major' writers … tell us little about the culture, history, or future, imagination, fantasies, and so on, of black people, and a lot about isolated (often improbable) or limited encounters with a nonspecific white world.

Unlike the books of these "major" writers, Walker's works tell us a great deal about the lives of Black people, and it is ironic that her reward has often been controversy and harsh criticism. Her persistence in the face of it springs from her commitment to truth and honesty. Like most Black artists concerned about freeing Black people from their past mistakes, she too believes that "the truth shall set you free." In Black Women Writers, Barbara Christian writes that "there is a sense in which the 'forbidden' in the society is consistently approached by Walker as a possible route to truth." In contrast to many Black writers who are reluctant to criticize Black males because they fear it will exacerbate an already precarious situation between Black men and women, the "forbidden" Walker exposes is the role Black men, both the positive and negative types, have played in the oppression of Black women.

Examples of the purely negative type of Black male abound in Walker's work, among them the men in The Color Purple; however, as mentioned, one of the most glaring examples is the younger Grange Copeland, hero of The Third Life, of whom Barbara Christian writes in Black Women Writers: "Grange Copeland hates himself because he is powerless, as opposed to powerful, the definition of maleness for him. His reaction is to prove his power by inflicting violence on the women around him." The cyclical nature of this phenomenon is seen in the life of Grange's son Brownfield, perhaps the most monstrous character in all of Walker's fiction, who brutalizes his children and his wife and then murders her.

The role played by the positive type of Black male found in In Love and Trouble is no less destructive on the lives of Black women, for it often means only a change in the kind of violence inflicted; that is, emotional violence predominates over the physical kind. But there is a major difference in the men who cause the oppression, and it is this distinction which allows us to label them positive rather than negative and which supplies the hope that change is possible. While the men in Purple and Third Life shock us with their unspeakable cruelty and violence not only because they are fully aware of their immoral behavior but also because they often revel in and enjoy inflicting pain, the men in In Love and Trouble are never monsters of this type. On the contrary, they are at all times human beings who reveal a variety of human strengths and weaknesses.

The positive classification also depends on the perspective from which one views them. For instance, Ruel, the antagonist/-husband in "Really, Doesn't Crime Pay," who fails to recognize his wife's ambition to write or her need for her own identity because he only sees her as a housewife is, in my view, not a negative character. A product of the social mores of his time stemming from the morally sanctioned patriarchal tradition which fostered them, he is as much a victim as his wife of a seemingly permanent mind-set in society which neither of them created and which will bind them until they realize that they must set themselves free. Similarly, while it may be considered immoral by some, a man who marries for money, in this case at the invitation of the female, as Jerome Washington does in "Her Sweet Jerome," is no more negative than a woman who does the same. To label him such would require applying to him the same pernicious double standard of which women have always been victim.

A second significant cause of the oppression of the Black women in these stories, as it relates to their interaction with Black men, is their mistaken definition of themselves as women. Their own blindness about them selves and about what they can and must do for themselves is given strong emphasis, which is another important sign that Walker is searching for the truth, and that her interest is in finding causes, not assessing blame. The female protagonist of "Really, Doesn't Crime Pay," for example, is spiritually and emotionally imprisoned by her husband's limited definition of her humanity and sits waiting deliverance from her life of useless dissipation, completely unaware that what she desires most lies within her own power—that, in other words, she must be the agent of her own deliverance. Such behavior on the women's part does not correlate with positive male characters. It does mean, however, that the men's behavior is no worse than that of the women, their alleged victims. They are in fact equally responsible for their problems and for the suffering they inflict on each other.

A particularly effective example of a Black woman whose attempt to free herself goes awry because, ironically, she tries to reverse roles and play the one her husband had played is that of Margaret Copeland, wife of Grange. After years of suffering his adultery and brutality, she resorts to a similar kind of immorality as she begins sleeping around with a number of men, among them Shipley, the white man for whom her husband works and by whom she has a baby. Her eventual suicide, then, is the result of both her victimization by her husband and significantly, of her own guilt feelings about her immoral behavior and illegitimate half-white child.

Similarly, many of the women in In Love and Trouble share culpability in their own downfall, and this fact plays an important part in softening the negative image of their Black men. For though it is not always the case, and a man or woman must bear responsibility for his/her immoral behavior no matter what the circumstances, the men's role in the oppression of these women is often aided by the women's contribution to or willful participation in—sometimes, even, a masochistic invitation of—their own victimization.

The variety of problems and character types found in these stories is perhaps the most convincing evidence of Walker's preoccupation with presenting the full range of Black humanity—"the survival whole" of her people—as seen in the individual lives of her characters. To reiterate, what we are seeing, then, is not a common theme of oppression, but a multiplicity of themes based on the individuals' responses to it. Like her female characters, the Black male characters are shown to be individual human beings. Regarding them as such, one will find among them several positive Black male images or characters, which is the thesis of this essay. Because most of the stories have female protagonists and male antagonists, in such a case the selection of stories has to be based on those in which the male antagonists are sufficiently developed to give a substantial view of their characters. From this group, two have been selected for examination: "Really, Doesn't Crime Pay" and "To Hell with Dying."

Even though this essay concentrates on the Black male, to understand and appreciate the total picture or truth that Walker offers requires an equally close scrutiny of the female characters, as well as the plot and language of the stories. For, as indicated, it is the interaction between the male and female, reflected in the interrelatedness of literary elements, that allows us to see the not always blameless victimization of the Black female as well as the not always villainous actions of the Black male, but the common humanity of both.

"Really, Doesn't Crime Pay" takes place within the pages of Myrna's writing notebook. "Myrna" is never used within the story itself. To identify her, the name appears in parentheses only as an undertitle.

On the surface, the notebook entries tell about Myrna's desire to be a writer and her dissatisfaction with her life as a housewife. Spending her days in idleness and useless dissipation—she does not have to work—she falls prey to a young Black charlatan or amateur writer, Mordecai Rich, who seduces and then abandons her, leading to an emotional breakdown. One day while sitting in the doctor's office, she discovers that he has published under his own name one of her stories that she had given him. Later that night while in bed, she attempts to murder her husband Ruel, who had ridiculed her desire to be a writer, insisting instead that she have a child and become a housewife.

On a deeper level, the story is a tragedy about a young Black woman who has talent but who lacks the understanding, courage and know-how to break the restrictions placed on her and to create the meaningful identity she craves and needs. Her insecurity about her talent and her own self-worth resulting in extreme self-hatred, leads to her victimization by Mordecai and to her attempted murder of her husband, whom she blames for her plight and to whom she transfers her frustration and hatred.

Myrna's entries in her notebook are significant in revealing her character and exposing the tragic nature of her situation. Walker skillfully establishes the interrelatedness of the literary elements of theme, character and plot. Allowing us to see inside Myrna's head and heart, we observe more than twenty years of rage and anger bottled up there, which is more than enough to drive anyone mad. Since the entries in her notebook are both the plot as well as samples of her writing, what they also allow us to see is not only the quality of her writing and the sensitivity and talent required to produce it, but also the tragic waste of them and her life due to her failure to act or to attempt to solve the dilemma she faced.

The house where she spends her days of idleness is like a prison to her. There she fritters away the hours with her jars and bottles of cosmetics, symbolizing her spiritual decay, indulging herself; "her hands—in Herbessence nailsoak, polish, lotions and creams." Although she still writes, and has done so for some twenty years, her doubt about her talent and her unwilling acceptance of the role society has created for her are seen in her words, "I am not a serious writer…." Her feelings about herself begin to change after she meets Mordecai Rich, whose flattery helps banish her insecurity. After showing him some of her work, she says, "Mordecai Rich praised me for my intelligence, my sensitivity, the depth of the work he had seen." What Walker shows us here is the self-doubt which causes Myrna to act contrary to her own moral instincts and which is the basis of her vulnerability; for she understands quite clearly what or whom she is up against. Recognizing Mordecai Rich for what he is, she says, "I think Mordecai Rich has about as much heart as a dirt-eating toad." It is this vulnerability, specifically, her need for praise and recognition, that cause her to succumb to him; after he reads a story of hers, this thought runs through her mind:

If he says one good thing about what I've written, I promised myself, I will go to bed with him. (How else could I repay him? All I owned in any supply were my jars of cold cream!)

So devoid of self-esteem that she feels the jars of cold cream are all she possesses of value, since she cannot give them to him, she resorts to sex as an expression of her gratitude. For if all else fails, sex is always considered a valuable commodity. Myrna kept her word by giving herself to Mordecai, and the effect was immediate, albeit, regrettably, ephemeral:

He took me in his arms, right there in the grape arbor…. After that, a miracle happened. Under Mordecai's fingers my body opened like a flower and carefully bloomed….

Walker never lets the reader forget that Myrna is conscious or fully aware of her acts. In fact, it is this awareness on her part that makes her appear less sympathetic, and the man with whom she commits adultery less villainous, in the readers' eyes. The above passage, for instance, concludes with Myrna's thought, "And it was strange as well as wonderful. For I don't think love had anything to do with this at all." What increases the antipathy toward her even more, however, is her use of her week-long sexual encounter with Mordecai, unknown to her husband, of course, as a way of striking back at him for his failure to recognize her need: "I gloat over this knowledge. Now Ruel will find out that I am not a womb without a brain that can be bought with Japanese bathtubs and shopping sprees."

Putting all her hope for a change in her life in Mordecai, she declares, "The moment of my deliverance is at hand." He abandons her, however, and soon thereafter she begins to reveal signs of an emotional breakdown. As her condition worsens, Ruel tells her she acts as if her mind is asleep, to which she makes the mental notes: "Nothing will wake it but a letter from Mordecai telling me to pack my bags and fly to New York." Clearly, this indicates the confusion in her mind about what change is needed to bring about the happiness she craves. This change is not an external one, although new scenes, sights and surroundings would no doubt help alleviate her mental depression. What she actually requires is a fundamental modification in the way she thinks about herself. Thus, it is not Ruel alone who needs to know that she is not "a womb without a mind," but she too must realize that she has the capability of being both "womb" and "brain"—both a housewife and artist; in separating the two or failing to see the alternative available to her, she commits the same kind of error that Ruel makes. Complementing this confusion in her mind is another serious mistake on her part: her lack of self-involvement in changing her condition. And so she sits waiting for deliverance, expecting Mordecai to do for her what only she can do for herself.

That Walker sees the solution to Myrna's problems as one of her own making is found in Mothers' Garden, in the author's analysis of the escape route by which Black women have traditionally sought and succeeded in securing their spiritual survival. This route, based on an intuitive sense which enabled them to know how to get what they needed, was their flexibility combined with an enormous capacity for work: this enabled them to be both worker and creator, both wife and artist. Using her mother, who bore and raised eight children, as an example, Walker first explains that many of the stories she writes are her mother's stories; then she adds:

But the telling of these stories … was not the only way my mother showed herself as an artist…. My mother adorned with flowers whatever shabby house we were forced to live in. And not just your typical straggly country stand of zinnias, either. She planted ambitious gardens … with over fifty different varieties of plants that bloom(ed) profusely from early March until late November.

The conclusion of this anecdote illustrates the enormous will and energy required to maintain the garden:

Before she left home for the fields, she watered her flowers, chopped up the grass, and laid out new beds. When she returned from the fields she might divide clumps of beds, dig a cold pit, uproot and replant roses, or prune branches from her taller bushes or trees—until night came and it was too dark to see.

With this as the norm, one can see how far from it Myrna is. Not compelled to work to support herself, her life of ease, which would have given her ample time for self-development, cannot be compared to the lives of drudgery of the generation of Black women to which Walker's mother belongs. Myrna's easy life is of little consequence, however, for in addition to her fragile emotional nature and her blindness about the deeper cause of her problem, she lacks the pragmatism which would have enabled her to find a solution to her problem. Without it, acting instead in response to her feelings of self-hatred, she continues to destroy the life she has by contemplating suicide and by commiting cruelty against her husband. Interestingly, no critic, male or female, has commented on the cruelty and violence this female character inflicts on her husband, actions which make her no less negative than some of the males in Walker's works. After release from the hospital, where she has recovered from her breakdown, she resumes her life of uselessness and idleness. She also continues to deceive her husband, who still hopes for the birth of a child, by religiously taking birth control pills. Illustrating her enjoyment of the pain she inflicts on him, it is, she says, "the only spot of humor in my entire day when I am gulping that little yellow tablet…." Her spiritual death, then, is seen not only in these acts of cruelty, but also in her refusal to give birth to life. As for her sterility and failure to come to grips with her life, she says:

I go to the new shopping mall twice a day now [emphasis added]; once in the morning and once in the afternoon, or at night. I buy hats I would not dream of wearing, or even owning.

In her analysis of this story, Barbara Christian, writing in The Black Scholar, concludes that what I regard as Myrna's cruelty to her husband is part of her way of "securing her freedom," based on what appears to be a well thought-out strategy of "contrariness." Myrna happened upon this strategy, Christian continues, through her "discovery of the magnificance of the manipulation of words…." In such a case, one wonders why Myrna did not begin to recognize or gain more faith in her own writing ability after the publication of her story that Mordecai had plagiarized. Other parts of this strategy of "yessing them to death" are her lies about trying to conceive a child while her husband exhausts himself every night trying to impregnate her, as well as her acceptance of his advice to go on frequent shopping sprees. I strongly disagree with this interpretation, for the evidence drawn from the story itself leads to the conclusion that Myrna's condition renders her incapable of rational thought, and that, instead, her reaction is a purely emotional one typifying the destructiveness of the individual who suffers from an identity problem.

Christian also says that Myrna's strategy "secures some small victory, but it is a victory achieved from the position of weakness." What must be emphasized here, however, is not the "victory" but the "weakness," specifically, her weakness of character; for her actions produce no change in her life, certainly not the crucial one she hopes for. This same weakness casts suspicion on her declaration that one day she will leave her husband. It is highly unlikely that she ever will because she has learned nothing from her experiences. At the end of the story, the clearest sign of her total capitulation is her complete abandonment of her writing.

Ruel, Myrna's husband, is cast in the traditional mold. A solid, lower middle-class type, he is a 40-year-old Korean war veteran who works in a store and raises a hundred acres of peanuts. Steady, immovable and unchanging like the earth he cultivates, he clings to life in the same small southern town in which he was born and reared. In fact, he has traveled beyond its confines only once when he went off to war. Though he claims the experience broadened him, especially his two months of European leave, it did not change him or affect his thinking in any fundamental way. Because his character had already been shaped by the values of a Southern tradition hundreds of years old, the brief, passing moment in Europe did not—indeed, could not—penetrate the deeper core of his being. Referring to these values as "the web of conventions that is the South," Barbara Christian states that "they have much to do with the conduct of relationships—man and woman, young and old, black and white…." The reflection of this, as well as the unchanging nature of these values, is seen in Ruel's ideas of what married life entails, that is, the fixed roles that marriage partners must play, which are the same ones he learned in childhood, passed down to him from his father. It must be noted, however, that these values are not limited to the South, for they are the foundation of the patriarchal tradition known and practiced throughout the world.

Men of this type do not permit their wives to work, as he does not, even though in his case, it may mean that he has to work two jobs to supply his wife with the things he thinks she needs or wants. Not just a reflection of the male ego, this social pattern is in keeping with the men's expectation that the freedom and time it gives their women will enable them to more easily perform their "duty" as wives and mothers. Seeing this duty as the only appropriate one for a female, Ruel naturally thinks that his wife's writing is "a lot of foolish vulgar stuff' and that she is "peculiar" for wanting to do it. This "unnatural" desire of hers is a threat to him, for its exposure to the public will cause him embarrassment. Conversely, the traditional role he urges on her will confirm his normalcy and masculinity. And so, whenever she mentions the subject of writing, "he brings up having a baby or going shopping…."

When Mordecai Rich appears, Ruel is slightly jealous but does not feel threatened. How could he be disturbed by such "a skinny black tramp," when he, Ruel, is all an ideal husband should be, which is how he sees himself. However, it is his preoccupation with himself, with his own needs and self-image, that blinds him to the needs of his wife. Failing to see his own shortcomings, he readily dismisses the signs of her distress because he cannot see that she has a problem. Failing to do so, he would never believe that he might possibly be implicated in its cause. For this reason too, he only begins to notice her and to feel that something is wrong with his life after Mordecai abandons her and the signs of her oncoming nervous breakdown are too obvious to be ignored.

What we see in this couple, then, is an identically matched pair of individuals with an interesting kind of incompatibility that renders them incapable of helping each other. Both, therefore, share the blame for the deterioration or destruction of their relationship. In both individuals, the root of the problem is not immorality, but fundamental character flaws. In Ruel's case, it is his selfishness or egocentrism based on his belief that what is good or right for him is also good enough for his wife. It must be re-emphasized, however, that his behaviour, which is typical of many men everywhere and therefore universal, has its basis in the mores of the patriarchal tradition, a tradition which regrettably makes little allowance for the spiritual needs of women.

Because he is a plain, common, everyday type who is unaware of any other tradition or set of values and therefore blameless, Ruel is not a negative character. In contrast to his wife, even his faults are virtues. For though he is preoccupied with his own image and his own life, it is devoted to and expressive of his love for her. Therefore, he is never cruel, brutal or violent. Rather, his life is characterized by hard work, as he struggles to provide her with a decent home to live in and other material possessions she needs or wants. Mindful of his role and image as provider, he feels ashamed of the wooden house he purchased for his wife, with its toilet in the yard. Constantly trying to improve their life, he dreams of a better home for her, telling her, "One day we'll have a new house of brick, with a Japanese bath." Finally, it is ironic that what Myrna considers his greatest fault, his insistence that she have a child, is in fact the greatest expression of his love for her, since he believes, as most men and women do, that a child will cure her illness and provide her with the self-fulfillment she needs.

It is not only his moral fiber and love that establishes Ruel as a positive male image, but also his innocence. All of these qualities produce the sympathy we feel for him. Such a solid, respectable person could not be the monster his wife makes him out to be. Such a decent person does not deserve to be the cuckhold she makes of him or the victim of the cruel tricks she plays on him. Even after Myrna's attempt to murder him, it is clear that he never understands her, or the real source of their problem. Rather, Ruel blames Mordecai, "cursing [him] for messing up his life." After Myrna's recovery, Ruel makes repeated attempts to impregnate her, never once suspecting that she is deliberately thwarting conception of the child he desperately wants. When she fails to become pregnant, he sends her to a gynecologist. When this step also fails to produce the desired result, he finally learns one irrelevant fact: irrelevant because it will not change him either: As Myrna says, "He knows now that I intend to say yes until he is completely exhausted."

Lacking knowledge of himself and therefore incapable of changing, Ruel faces a hopeless situation. But what he represents is an important part of what Walker wishes to show us. Even such basically good men as Ruel are often unwitting contributors to the destruction of relationships between Black men and women.

As David Bradley notes in his New York Times Magazine article, Walker's stories with older men protagonists (in their sixties onward) contain overwhelmingly positive Black male images. This change results from a major shift in theme. Sexual or marital relations between Black men and women, with all the attendant stress and pain they entail, are not the central focus. Rather, the author's interest is in presenting the experiences of the old as a legacy for the young, as she explains in Mothers' Gardens: "Next to them (Black women), I place old people—male and female—who persist in their beauty in spite of everything. How do they do this, knowing what they do? Having lived what they lived. It is a mystery, and so it lures me into their lives."

Because many of Walker's stories are based on her own experiences (or, vicariously, on those of her mother), those about older men are a necessary part of the evidence that shows she does not hate Black men. How could she, after having learned in her youth the kindness and love these men are capable of giving? If she views younger men with less charity than she extends the older ones, it is because she sees the Black male's development as having a predictable, unchanging pattern. That is, their aggressiveness and penchant for violence begins in the adult years, reaches its peak in the middle years and recedes in the later years. In Bradley's New York Times Magazines article, she comments on this phenomenon by saying, "One theory is that men don't start to mature until they're 40"; and then she amplifies her point by explaining:

I knew both my grandfathers, and they were just doting, indulgent, sweet old men. I just loved them both and they were crazy about me. However, as young men, middle-aged men, they were … brutal. One grandfather knocked my grandmother out of a window. He beat one of his children so severely that the child had epilepsy. Just a horrible, horrible man. But when I knew him, he was a sensitive, considerate man.

The point, then, is that because Walker understands Black men and knows what they are capable of, she can criticize younger men without hating them and praise older men for the positive image, which is their legacy.

The one story of this kind in In Love and Trouble is "To Hell with Dying," the first story Walker ever wrote, her first published one, and her "most autobiographical." "It is autobiographical though, in fact, none of it happened. The love happened." It is easy to understand why it was so successful, for it is a beautiful story, suffused throughout with love and rendered in poetic language. Described by Walker as a story "about an old man saved from death countless times by the love of his neighbor's children," it is as much, if not more, about what the old man's love does for the neighbor's female child, who narrates the story. And since it is about love, it is much more about life than death, as the title indicates.

At the beginning of the story the main character, Mr. Sweet Little, is about 70; the unnamed female child narrator is about 4; at the end, he is 90, and she is 24. In the span of twenty years, the living out of a lifetime love affair occurs as he moves from old age to death, and she from early childhood to adulthood.

As the story begins, when she is still a young child, the relationship between them has the aura of a sexual relationship between a man and a woman. Walker creates this sexual feeling, which shimmers just beneath the surface of the story, apart from but parallel to the poetic language. It remains only a feeling, however, because the love between the old man and young girl is pure and wholesome.

The plot itself is simple. Mr. Sweet, a diabetic and alcoholic, periodically falls ill, sinking so low that everyone believes he is dying. Each time, however, he is revived or saved by the ministrations of the narrator, who, taken to his home by her parents, climbs on his bed and kisses and hugs him. This ritual, which her older brothers and sisters had performed before her, was always initiated by her father's call, "To hell with dying, man; these children want Mr. Sweet." These revivals occurred when Mr. Sweet was in his 70s. In his 80s, he lived a peaceful life and was no longer threatened by death. The narrator had grown up and was away from home studying at the university. When he was 90, she was summoned home because Mr. Sweet was again near death. As she had so often done in childhood, she tried to save him, but this time he did die, leaving her with the gift of his spirit and with the realization that he had been her first love.

In any relationship, sexual or otherwise, what is important is the giving, co-equally and unreservedly. However, if Mr. Sweet gives more than the narrator, which seems to be the case, that is entirely appropriate; for far more important than the needs of the old man, whose life is nearly over, are those of the young girl, whose life is just beginning. What he gives her, among other things, and what she needs at this stage of her life, is a sense of her own self-worth, of her own self-esteem. He makes her feel that she is physically attractive and, significantly, has the power to control her own destiny.

Because Mr. Sweet's frightening bouts with death always occurred when he was in bed and usually at night or early morning, it was necessary for the girl to exercise her healing powers there. This structuring of the situation, which conjures up the thought of the restorative powers of sex, contributes to the feeling of a sexual relationship between them. The physical contact between them also strengthens this feeling: "'To hell with dying …' was my cue to throw myself upon the bed and kiss Mr. Sweet all around the whiskers and under the eyes and around the collar of his nightshirt were he smelled so strongly of all sorts of things…." This particular healing event, which the narrator recalls as the first time she actually remembered participating in one of Mr. Sweet's "revivals," occurred when she was seven, an age at which she would have been conscious of sex and sexual differences. A final detail of this ritual is its privacy and intimacy: "My parents would leave the room to just the three of us [her brother was with her, although she invariably did the reviving]; Mr. Sweet … would be propped up in bed … with me sitting and lying on his shoulder and along his chest." Her sexual awakening and love are further seen in her wish that she had been old enough to be the woman Mr. Sweet had really loved but lost when he was forced to marry his wife, Miss Mary.

There is a strong connection between the sexual mood, the plot and the general theme of solutions to problems in relationships between Black men and women. This relationship between the little girl and the old man, which bears such a strong resemblance to and contains all the usual ingredients of normal man/woman relationships except for sex, acts as a model for those in which sex is the primary—in many cases, the only—factor. The conclusion to be drawn or the lesson it teaches is nothing new but bears repeating. If men and women would base their relationship on love above all else, these relationships might be much more successful. The sexual ingredient could only increase this likelihood by cementing the bond between them because it would be an addition to, not a substitute for, the love they already have for each other.

The gift of love the girl gave the old man, reflected in the numerous times she retrieved him from the brink of death, was matched in kind by gifts he gave her. First, his response to her, which may not have been as miraculous as it seems, gave her a tremendous sense of power. Usually occurring during or after his bouts of drinking, these frequent brushes with death may have been attributable to the alcohol, in combination with his diabetes, or to the self-pity induced by it. They may also have been a plea for attention or love, especially after his wife died. That they were not entirely spontaneous, that their cause was more emotional than physical, is seen because they were often preceded by certain recognizable signs, such as his crying while playing his guitar. On one occasion, as he was leaving the narrator's house after having displayed the tell-tale signs, her mother noted that "we'd better sleep light that night for probably we'd have to go over to Mr. Sweet before daylight. And we did."

Whatever the cause, the attacks appeared to be real, so real, in fact, that the doctor was usually called. Other than as part of what makes the story intriguing, however, the reality or cause of them is not important. What is significant is the mystery of death, paralleling Walker's comment that the events of the story are not real, only the love. More specifically, she shows us a way of conquering death or giving it a human dimension by treating it as a normal part of life. To get the point across, she gives us a child's perspective of death as an ordinary event, even fun, which has an ordinary cure, love. In contrast is the usual adult perspective of death as something horrible, and based on their supposed superior knowledge of causes and cures, they presume to exert control over it but cannot. In the end they are as confounded and perplexed as ever by its mystery.

The certainty of death's arrival, even though the threat of it had occurred no less than ten times, and of the narrator's ability to thwart it, set her and her family apart from the rest of the community: "All the neighbors knew to come to our house if something was wrong with Mr. Sweet…." This responsibility placed great stress on the young girl, for, as she says, "these deaths upset me fearfully, and the thought of how much depended on me … made me nervous." It should be noted, however, that the fear she expresses is more of failure than of death itself. But she did not fail, and the success she always had, as well as the feeling of power and accomplishment it gave her, served to increase her feeling of self-esteem; at the same time, the "fun" and love she associated with the revivals helped remove her fear of death.

It did not occur to us that we were doing anything special; we had not learned that death was final when it did come. We thought nothing of triumphing over it so many times, and in fact became a trifle contemptuous of people who let themselves be carried away. It did not occur to us that if our own father had been dying we could not have stopped it, that Mr. Sweet was the only person over whom we had power.

In addition, Mr. Sweet also helped increase the girl's sense of self-esteem by making her feel that she was physically attractive. While this is important generally, it was particularly so to a young girl, whose fate was decided by the beauty of face and body, as well as by her own attitude toward it. The blemish she possessed, a low hairline, which may have led her to have negative feelings about herself, was removed by the power of Mr. Sweet's touch, quite by accident, it seems: "Looking into my eyes he would … run a scratchy old finger all around my hairline, which was rather low, down nearly to my eyebrows, and made some people say I looked like a baby monkey." Through the power of his voice, as well as his overall attitude toward and treatment of her, he did even more to make her feel physically attractive: "Mr. Sweet used to call me princess, and I believed it [emphasis added]. He made me feel pretty at five and six, and simply outrageously devastating at the blazing age of eight and a half."

What made Mr. Sweet so likeable to the narrator as a child was his difference from other adults she knew: "Toward all of us children he was very kind, and had the grace to be shy with us, which is unusual in grownups." This difference affected her because Mr. Sweet's behavior gave her a more positive image of adults, specifically, males, than the ones she had usually known. The children also liked him because he was capable of becoming one of them, treating them as if they were equals. An expert guitar player who loved to sing, sometimes, when he was "feeling good," he would dance around the yard and play with them. As much as for what he did, they liked him for the way he looked: "He was a tall thinnish man with kinky hair going dead white. He was a dark brown, his eyes were very squinty sort of bluish…." Not only did Mr. Sweet's actions help increase the children's tolerance for adults, but the fact that he, their ideal playmate, was an old man also helped remove the barrier between youth and old age: "We never felt anything of Mr. Sweet's age when we played with him. We loved his wrinkles and would draw some on our brows to be like him." As a boy, the narrator's brother was most affected by the positive image of Mr. Sweet: "What he would do while I talked to Mr. Sweet was pretend to play the guitar, in fact pretend that he was a young version of Mr. Sweet…."

Uncertainty exists about the effect Mr. Sweet's drinking had on his bouts with death and about its effect on his life in general. There is no doubt, however, that the children considered it a plus: "His ability to be drunk and sober at the same time made him an ideal playmate…." The fact that her mother "never held his drunkenness against him" also seems to suggest that she did not consider him immoral for doing it. Moreover, while it may have been a reflection of some flaw in his character, it was not an overwhelmingly controlling force in his life. Though he did often give in to it, he always remained its master: "Although Mr. Sweet would sometimes lose complete or nearly complete control of his head and neck so that he would loll in his chair, his mind remained strangely acute and his speech not too affected."

A stronger, more ominous force operated on his life, but it did not destroy him completely either: "Mr. Sweet had been ambitious as a boy, wanted to be a doctor or lawyer or sailor, only to find that black men fare better if they did not. Since he could not become one of these things he turned to fishing as his only earnest career…." What this suggests about his character is that he is a man who remained spiritually alive in spite of the racism he faced, over which he had no control. The spiritual aliveness, symbolized by his love of and ability to create music—"playing the guitar [was] his only claim to doing anything extraordinarily well"—enabled him to recognize and take advantage of other alternatives. From these, he made his own choice, which meant that, as with his drinking, he controlled his life. Moreover, he had learned early the uselessness of blaming fate for his problems and accepted responsibility for his own actions, for in most cases fate had nothing to do with them. He, not fate, had impregnated Miss Mary and therefore had had to marry her, even though he had been in love with another woman. He was not sure that Joe Lee, her "baby," was his own child, but he accepted the consequences of his actions, as she defended them, and did what he had to do by marrying her.

Finally, his tendency to remain in control of his own life is seen in his relationship to death. He was able to defeat death so often, which is perhaps the most important of his gifts to the narrator, because he was not ready to die. Her mother invariably shed tears whenever Mr. Sweet lay dying, the narrator states, "although she knew the death was not necessarily the last one unless Mr. Sweet really wanted it to be" [emphasis added].

All of these gifts of love from him to her were matched by her continuing love for him, which endured throughout her adult life and extended even beyond his death. A sign of this love was the attention she showered on him whenever she could, even though he was now in no danger of dying:

When Mr. Sweet was in his eighties I was studying in the university many miles from home. I saw him whenever I went home, but he was never on the verge of dying…. By this time he not only had a moustache but a long flowing snowwhite beard, which I loved and combed and braided for hours. He was very peaceful, fragile, gentle….

On his ninetieth birthday, Mr. Sweet decided that he was ready to die, but not before he gave the narrator, who rushed home to see him, his final gifts of love. Perhaps the most valuable of these is the beauty of his dying. Shorn of ugliness and fear because of the kind of man he was and by the closeness to him of those who loved and cared for him, it occurs "in a shack overgrown with yellow roses" making the "air heavy and sweet and very peaceful." Having successfully performed the revival ritual so many times in the past, though now a grown woman and aware her effort must surely fail, the narrator, transported back to those earlier times, is tempted to try it again. But, and here is noted another valuable lesson this dying brings, it will be a vain attempt. This lesson is brought home to her by the realization of the passage of time and hence the inevitability of death, reflected in the faces of her own parents, "who also looked old and frail." Her father is a willing participant, intoning the familiar line he had uttered so many times before. She, too, does her part, as Mr. Sweet does his, tracing her hairline with his finger. But it did not work this time, because Mr. Sweet had made up his mind that he was ready to die: "I closed my eyes when his finger halted above my ear, his hand stayed cupped around my cheek. When I opened my eyes, sure that I had reached him in time, his were closed."

After his death his final gift to her was his spirit, symbolized by his guitar. "He had asked them months before to give it to me; he had known that even if I came next time he would not be able to respond in the old way." Ironically unaware of his importance to her, the narrator states that Mr. Sweet gave her his guitar because "he did not want to feel that my trip home had been for nothing." On the contrary, the significance of his life and death, which she now fully realizes, is summed up in the final paragraph of the story:

The old guitar! I plucked the strings, hummed "Sweet Georgia Brown." The magic of Mr. Sweet lingered still in the cool steel box [emphasis added]. Through the window I could catch the fragrant delicate scent of tender yellow roses. The man on the … bed … had been my first love.

The moral emphasis found in Alicé Walker's works reveals her adherence to two different but similar traditions of art, the classical Greek and the ancient African, both of which form the basis of the Afro-American or Black Aesthetic. The Greeks had confidence in the immense power of art "as a molding or formative agent in developing human feelings and motivations"; and according to Leopold Senghor, "all African art has at least three characteristics: that is, art is functional, collective and committing or committed." Thus, Walker's works demonstrate her love for her people, both men and women, for, reflecting the ideals of both of these traditions, these works are predicated on the belief that man is inherently good and that, therefore, if flaws in his character exist, through the use of art that educates they can be removed and the personality restored to health. Rather than being a sign of enmity toward Black men, then, her criticism of them and of Black women is the strongest reflection of this love. She gives praise where praise is due; however, her strong moral sense, courage and commitment to truth and honesty will not allow her to shrink from criticizing where criticism is due, in order that future improvement can be made. This look toward the future, seen in her desire to bring harmony between men and women by improving human character, echoes the most distinctive ideal of the classical tradition—"to complete human potentiality in the light of the highest standard of excellence or nobility."

Alice Hall Petry (essay date Winter 1989)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7852

SOURCE: "Alice Walker: The Achievement of the Short Fiction," in Modern Language Studies, Vol. XIX, No. 1, Winter, 1989, pp. 12-27.

[In the following essay, Hall Petry discusses the differences between the short stories of Walker's In Love and Trouble and her stories in You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down, asserting that the stories in the first collection are much stronger than those in the second.]

There's nothing quite like a Pulitzer Prize to draw attention to a little known writer. And for Alice Walker, one of the few black writers of the mid-'60s to remain steadily productive for the two ensuing decades, the enormous success of 1982's The Color Purple has generated critical interest in a literary career that has been, even if not widely noted, at the very least worthy of note. As a poet (Once, 1968; Revolutionary Petunias, 1973) and a novelist (The Third Life of Grange Copeland, 1970; Meridian, 1976), Walker has always had a small but enthusiastic following, while her many essays, published in black- and feminist-oriented magazines (e.g., Essence, Ms.), have likewise kept her name current, albeit in rather limited circles. The Pulitzer Prize has changed this situation, qualitatively and perhaps permanently. Walker's name is now a household word, and a reconsideration of her literary canon, that all but inevitable Pulitzer perk, is well underway. An integral part of this phenomenon would be the reappraisal of her short fiction. Walker's two collections of short stories—1973's In Love & Trouble and 1981's You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down—are now available as attractive paperbacks and selling briskly, we are told. But a serious critical examination of her short stories—whether of particular tales, the individual volumes, or the entire canon—has yet to occur. Hence this essay. As a general over-view, it seeks to evaluate Walker's achievement as a short story writer while probing a fundamental question raised by so many reviewers of the two volumes: why is You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down so consistently less satisfying than the earlier In Love & Trouble? How has Alice Walker managed to undermine so completely that latest-and-best formula so dear to book reviewers? The answer, as we shall see, is partly a matter of conception and partly one of technique; and it suggests further that Walker's unevenness thus far as a writer of short fiction—her capacity to produce stories that are sometimes extraordinarily good, at other times startlingly weak—places her at a career watershed. At this critical juncture, Alice Walker could so refine her art as to become one of the finest writers of American short fiction in this century.

She could just as easily not.

One key to understanding the disparate natures of In Love & Trouble and You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down is their epigraphs. In Love & Trouble offers two. The first epigraph, a page-long extract from The Concubine by Elechi Amadi, depicts a girl, Ahurole, who is prone to fits of sobbing and "alarmingly irrational fits of argument": "From all this her parents easily guessed that she was being unduly influenced by agwu, her personal spirit." It is not until the end of the extract that Amadi mentions casually that "Ahurole was engaged to Ekwueme when she was eight days old." In light of what follows in the collection, it is a most suitable epigraph: the women in this early volume truly are "in love and trouble" due in large measure to the roles, relationships, and self-images imposed upon them by a society which knows little and cares less about them as individuals. A marriage arranged in infancy perfectly embodies this situation; and the shock engendered by Amadi's final sentence is only heightened as one reads In Love & Trouble and comes to realize that the concubinage depicted in his novel, far from being a bizarre, pagan, foreign phenomenon, is practiced in only slightly modified form in contemporary—especiallyblack—America. In the opening story of In Love & Trouble, "Roselily," the overworked title character marries the unnamed Black Muslim from Chicago in part to give her three illegitimate children a better chance in life, and in part to obtain for herself some measure of social and economic security; but it is not really a relationship she chooses to enter freely, as is conveyed by her barely listening to her wedding ceremony—a service which triggers images not of romance but of bondage. Even ten-year-old Myop, the sole character of the vignette "The Flowers," has her childhood—and, ultimately, her attitudes towards her self and her world—shattered by the blunt social reality of lynching: as much as she would love to spend her life all alone collecting flowers, from the moment she accidentally gets her heel caught in the skull of a decapitated lynching victim it is clear that, for their own survival, black females like Myop must be part of a group that includes males. Hence the plethora of bad marriages (whether legal unions or informal liaisons) in Walker's fiction; hence also the mental anguish suffered by most of her women characters, who engage in such unladylike acts as attacking their husbands with chain saws ("Really, Doesn't Crime Pay?," IL & T) or setting fire to themselves ("Her Sweet Jerome," IL&T). Must be that pesky agwu again—a diagnosis which is symptomatic of society's refusal to face the fact that women become homicidal/suicidal, or hire rootworkers to avenge social snubs ("The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff," IL&T), or lock themselves up in convents ("The Diary of an African Nun," IL&T) not because of agwus, or because they are mentally or emotionally deficient, but because they are responding to the stress of situations not of their own making. Certainly marriage offers these women nothing, and neither does religion, be it Christianity, the Black Muslim faith, or voodoo. That these traditional twin sources of comfort and stability cause nothing but "trouble" for Walker's characters might lead one to expect a decidedly depressing volume of short stories; but in fact In Love & Trouble is very upbeat. Walker manages to counterbalance the oppressive subject matter of virtually all these 13 stories by maintaining the undercurrent of hope first introduced in the volume's second epigraph, a passage from Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet: "… we must hold to what is difficult; everything in Nature grows and defends itself in its own way and is characteristically and spontaneously itself, seeks at all costs to be so and against all opposition." For Walker as for Rilke, opposition is not necessarily insurmountable: struggles and crises can lead to growth, to the nurturing of the self; and indeed most of the women of In Love & Trouble, sensing this, do try desperately to face their situations and deal with them—even if to do so may make them seem insane, or ignorant, or anti-social.

The sole epigraph of You Can't Keep lacks the relevance and subtlety of those of In Love & Trouble: "It is harder to kill something that is spiritually alive than it is to bring the dead back to life." Fine words from Herr Hesse, but unfortunately they don't have much to do with the fourteen stories in the collection. Few characters in You Can't Keep would qualify as "spiritually alive" according to most informed standards. We are shown a lot of self-absorbed artistes (the jazz-poet of "The Lover," the authoress of "Fame," the sculpture student of "A Sudden Trip Home in the Spring"), plus rather too many equally self-absorbed would-be radicals ("Advancing Luna—and Ida B. Wells," "Source," "Laurel"), plus a series of women—usually referred to generically as "she"—who engage in seemingly interminable monologues on pornography, abortion, sadomasochism, and rape ("Coming Apart," "Porn," "A Letter of the Times, or Should This Sado-Masochism Be Saved?"). These women are dull. And, unlike the situation in In Love & Trouble, the blame can't really be placed on males, those perennial targets of Alice Walker's acid wit. No, the problem with the women of You Can't Keep is that they are successful. Unlike the ladies of In Love & Trouble, who seem always to be struggling, to be growing, those of You Can't Keep have all advanced to a higher plane, personally and socially: as Barbara Christian observes, there truly is a clear progression between the two volumes, from an emphasis on "trouble" to an emphasis on self-assertiveness. The women of You Can't Keep embody the product, not the process: where a mother in In Love & Trouble ("Everyday Use") can only fantasize about appearing on The Tonight Show, a woman of You Can't Keep ("Nineteen Fifty-Five") actually does it! Gracie Mae Still meets Johnny! Similarly, a dying old lady in In Love & Trouble ("The Welcome Table") is literally thrown out of a segregated white church, but in You Can't Keep ("Source") two black women get to sit in an integrated Anchorage bar! With real Eskimos! Trudier Harris is quite correct that, compared to those of In Love & Trouble, the women of You Can't Keep seem superficial, static: "Free to make choices, they find themselves free to do nothing or to drift"—and they do, with Walker apparently not realizing that in fiction (as in life) the journey, not the arrival, is what interests. Men and marriage, those two bugaboos of In Love & Trouble responsible for thwarting women's careers ("Really, Doesn't Crime Pay?"), mutilating hapless schoolgirls ("The Child Who Favored Daughter"), and advocating anti-white violence ("Her Sweet Jerome"), at least brought out the strength and imagination of the women they victimized, and the women's struggles engross the reader. In contrast, the men of You Can't Keep have declined, both as people and as fictional characters, in an inverse relationship to the women's success. Most of the volume's male characters barely materialize; the few who do appear are milquetoast, from the pudgy, racist lawyer/rapist/lover Bubba of "How Did I Get Away with Killing One of the Biggest Lawyers in the State? It Was Easy"; to Ellis, the Jewish gigolo from Brooklyn who inexplicably dazzles the supposedly cool jazz-poet heroine of "The Lover"; to Laurel, he of the giant pink ears who (again inexplicably) dazzles the black radical journalist in "Laurel." And many of the male characters in You Can't Keep meet sorry ends—not unlike the women of In Love & Trouble: Bubba is shot to death by his schoolgirl victim; the shopworn Ellis gets dumped; poor Laurel winds up in a coma, only to emerge brain-damaged. Curiously, we don't miss them; instead, we miss the kinds of conflicts and personal/social revelations which fully-realized, reasonably healthy male characters can impart to fiction.

For men, either directly or through the children they father, are a vital part of love; and it is love, as the soap operatic title of In Love & Trouble suggests, which is most operative in that early volume. It assumes various forms. It may be the love between a parent and child, surely the most consistently positive type of love in Walker's fiction. It is her love for her dying baby which impels Rannie Toomer to chase a urinating mare in a rainstorm so as to collect "Strong Horse Tea," a folk medicine. It is her love for her daughter Dee that enables Mama to call her "Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo" in acknowledgment of her new Afro identity, but her equally strong love for her other child, the passive Maggie, which enables her to resist Dee/Wangero's demand for old quilts (Maggie's wedding present) to decorate her apartment ("Everyday Use"). Then again, the love of In Love & Trouble may be between a woman and God ("The Welcome Table"); and it may even have an erotic dimension, as with the sexually-repressed black nun of "The Diary of an African Nun" who yearns for her "pale lover," Christ. And granted, the love of In Love & Trouble is often distorted, even perverse: a father lops off his daughter's breasts in part because he confuses her with his dead sister, whom he both loved and loathed ("The Child Who Favored Daughter"); a young black girl and her middle-aged French teacher, the guilt-ridden survivor of the holocaust, fantasize about each other but never interact ("We Drink the Wine in France"); a dumpy hairdresser stabs and bums her husband's Black Power pamphlets as if they were his mistress: "Trash!' she cried over and over … 'I kill you! I kill you!'" ("Her Sweet Jerome"). But in one form or another, love is the single most palpable force in In Love & Trouble. This is not the case in You Can't Keep, and the volume suffers accordingly.

What happened to love in the later collection? Consider the case of "Laurel." What does that supposedly "together" black radical narrator see in wimpy Laurel? Easy answer: his "frazzled but beautifully fitting jeans": "It occurred to me that I could not look at Laurel without wanting to make love with him." As the black radical and her mousy lover engage in "acrobatics of a sexual sort" on Atlanta's public benches, it is clear that "love" is not an issue in this story: these characters have simply fallen in lust. And as a result, the reader finds it impossible to be concerned about the ostensible theme of the story: the ways in which segregation thwarts human relationships. Who cares that segregation "was keeping us from strolling off to a clean, cheap hotel" when all they wanted was a roll in the sack? Likewise, the husband and wife of "Coming Apart," who speak almost ad nauseum on the subjects of pornography and sadomasochism, seem to feel nothing for each other: they are simply spokespersons for particular attitudes regarding contemporary sexual mores, and ample justification for Mootry-Ikerionwu's observation that characterization is definitely not Alice Walker's strong suit. Without love, without warmth, this ostensible Everywife and Everyhusband connect literally only when they are copulating; and as a result Walker's statements regarding the sexual exploitation of women, far from being enriched by the personal touch of seeing how it affects one typical marriage, collapses into a dry lecture punctuated by clumsy plugs for consciousness-raising essays by Audre Lorde, Luisah Teish, and Tracy A. Gardner. Similarly, its title notwithstanding, "The Lover" has nothing to do with love. The story's liberated heroine, having left her husband and child for a summer at an artists' colony in New England, decides—just like that—to have an affair with the lupine Ellis: "when she had first seen him she had thought … 'my lover,' and had liked, deep down inside, the illicit sound of it. She had never had a lover; he would be her first. Afterwards, she would be truly a woman of her time." Apparently this story was meant to be a study of how one woman—educated, intelligent, creative—uses her newly-liberated sensuality to explore her sense of womanhood, her marriage, her career as a jazz poet. But the one-night-stand quality of her relationship with Ellis, not to mention the inappropriateness of him as a "lover"—he likes to become sexually involved each summer "with talkative women who wrote for Esquire and the New York Times" because they "made it possible for him to be included in the proper tennis sets and swimming parties at the Colony"—makes the story's heroine seem like a fool. And that points to a major problem with You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down: whereas the stories of In Love & Trouble move the reader to tears, to shock, to thought, those of the latter volume too often move him to guffaws. Too bad they weren't meant to be humorous.

One would think that a writer of Alice Walker's stature and experience would be aware that, since time began, the reduction of love to fornication has been the basis of jokes, from the ridiculous to the sublime. And whether they come across as comic caricatures (vide Laurel and Ellis), examples of bathroom humor, or zany parodies, the characters, subject matter, and writing style of most of the stories in You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down leave the reader with a she's-gotta-be-kidding attitude that effectively undercuts its very serious intentions. Consider the subject matter. In stories like "Porn," "A Letter of the Times," and "Coming Apart," Walker attacks pornography, sado-masochism, and violence against women by discussing them: it's a technique that many writers have used, but it can backfire by (1) appealing to the prurient interests of some readers, (2) imparting excitement to the forbidden topic, or (3) discussing the controversial subject matter so much that it becomes noncontroversial, unshocking; and without the "edge" of controversy, these serious topics often seem to be treated satirically—even when that is not the case. This is what happens in many stories in You Can't Keep, and the problem is compounded by the weak characters. The story "Coming Apart" is a good example: the husband dashes home from his bourgeois desk job to sit in the john and masturbate while drooling over the "Jivemates" in Jiveboy magazine. None of this shocks: we see so many references to genitalia and elimination in You Can't Keep that they seem as mundane as mailing a letter. Worse, the husband himself (called "he" to emphasize his role as Typical Male) comes across as a rather dense, naughty adolescent boy. He is so clearly suffering from a terminal case of the Peter Pan syndrome that it's impossible to believe that he'd respond with "That girl's onto something" when his equally-vapid wife (called "she") reads him yet another anti-pornography essay from her library of black feminist sociological tracts. Walker's-gotta-be-kidding, but she isn't. Likewise, the story "Fame" has a streak of crudity that leaves the reader wondering how to respond. For the most part, "Fame" consists of the ruminations of one Andrea Clement White (Walker always uses all three names), a wildly successful and universally admired writer who returns to her old college to receive her one-hundred-and-eleventh major award. She doesn't much like her former (Caucasian) colleagues or the banquet they are giving her, as her thoughts on the imminent award speech testifies:

"This little lady has done …" Would he have said "This little man …"? But of course not. No man wanted to be called little. He thought it referred to his penis. But to say "little lady" made men think of virgins. Tight, tiny pussies, and moments of rape. (Walker's ellipses)

As Andrea Clement White degenerates from Famous Author to a character type from farce—the salty-tongued granny, the sweet old lady with the dirty mind—everything Walker was trying to say about identity, success, black pride has dissipated. We keep waiting for Walker to wink, to say that "Fame" is a satire; but it isn't.

The reader's uncertainty about how to respond to You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down is not dispelled by the writing style of many of the stories. Funny thing about lust: when you confuse it with love and try to write about it passionately, the result sounds curiously like parody. The following passage from "Porn" reads like a Harlequin romance:

She was aflame with desire for him.

On those evenings when all the children [from the respective previous marriages] were with their other parents, he would arrive at the apartment at seven. They would walk hand in hand to a Chinese restaurant a mile away. They would laugh and drink and eat and touch hands and knees over and under the table. They would come home. Smoke a joint. He would put music on. She would run water in the tub with lots of bubbles. In the bath they would lick and suck each other, in blissful delight. They would admire the rich candle glow on their wet, delectably earth-toned skins. Sniff the incense—the odor of sandal and redwood. He would carry her in to bed.

    Music. Emotion. Sensation. Presence.
    Satisfaction like rivers
    flowing and silver.

Except for the use of controlled substances and the licking and sucking, this is pure Barbara Cartland. Likewise, the narrator's passion for Laurel (in the story of the same name) makes one blush—over the writing: "I thought of his musical speech and his scent of apples and May wine with varying degrees of regret and tenderness"; their "week of passion" had been "magical, memorable, but far too brief."

One might be inclined to excuse these examples on the grounds that love (or lust, or whatever) tends naturally towards purple prose. Unfortunately, however, similar excesses undermine You Can't Keep even when the characters' hormones are in check. Here is Andrea Clement White once again, musing on her professional achievements while awaiting the award at her banquet:

If she was famous, she wondered fretfully …, why didn't she feel famous? She had made money … Lots of money. Thousands upon thousands of dollars. She had seen her work accepted around the world, welcomed even, which was more than she'd ever dreamed possible for it. And yet—there remained an emptiness, no, an ache, which told her she had not achieved what she had set out to achieve.

The theme is stale; worse, the writing itself is trite, clichéd; and frankly one wonders how anyone with so unoriginal a mind could be receiving her one hundred and eleventh major award. The same triteness mars "A Sudden Trip Home in the Spring," in which Sarah Davis, a black scholarship student at northern Cresselton College, is "immersed in Camusian philosophy, versed in many languages" and the close personal friend of the small-eyed, milky-legged, dirty-necked blonde daughter of "one of the richest men in the world." Sarah is BWOC at Cresselton: "She was popular"; "Her friends beamed love and envy upon her"; her white tennis partners think that she walks "'Like a gazelle.'" There is a momentary suggestion that Sarah takes her situation and her classmates with a grain of salt ("She was interesting, 'beautiful,' only because they had no idea what made her, charming only because they had no idea from where she came"), but this theme and tone are quickly abandoned as the tale lapses into a curiously un-black reworking of the you-can't-go-home-again concept. If irony is what Walker has in mind, it certainly doesn't come through; and the over-all impression one gets from "A Sudden Trip" is that, like her 1973 biography of Langston Hughes, this is an earnest story intended for adolescent readers who appreciate simplistic themes, characters, and writing styles.

The mature reader's uncertainty over how to respond to "A Sudden Trip" takes on a new wrinkle when one considers that Sarah Davis's prototype was another black scholarship student from rural Georgia attending an exclusive northern college: Alice Walker. The least effective, most seemingly comic heroines in Walker's short fiction were inspired by Walker herself. These predominate in You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down.

Walker has never denied that there are some autobiographical dimensions to her stories. When "Advancing Luna—and Ida B. Wells" was first published in Ms. magazine, Walker included a disclaimer that "Luna and Freddie Pye are composite characters, and their names are made up. This is a fictionalized account suggested by a number of real events"; and John O'Brien's 1973 interview with Walker offers further details. Similarly, Walker in a 1981 interview with Kristin Brewer discusses the autobiographical basis of her earliest story, 1967's "To Hell with Dying" (IL&T). Anyone familiar with Walker's personal life will see the significance of the references to Sarah Lawrence, the doorless first apartment in New York, and the job at the Welfare Department in "Advancing Luna" (YCK); or the stay at a New England artists' colony in "The Lover" (YCK); or the marriage to a New York Jew, the baby girl, the novel, and the house in the segregated South in "Laurel" (YCK). There is nothing inherently wrong with using oneself as the prototype for a story's character; the problem is that the writer tends, of course, to present his fictionalized self in the most flattering—even fantastic—light possible; and too readily that self assumes a larger role in the story than may be warranted by the exigencies of plot and characterization. Consider "Advancing Luna," in which the speaker—who is "difficult to distinguish from Walker herself"—takes over the story like kudzu. We really don't need to hear all about her ex-boyfriends, her getting "high on wine and grass" with a Gene Autry lookalike who paints teeth on fruit, or her adventures in glamorous Africa ("I was taken on rides down the Nile as a matter of course"). Her palpable self-absorption and self-congratulation draw the story's focus away from its titular heroine, poor Luna—the selfless victim of interracial rape who ostensibly is an adoring friend and confidante of the narrator. The reader's immediate response (after confusion) is that the story is really quite funny—and with that response, all of Walker's serious commentary on rape, miscegenation, and segregation have dissipated. We see the same inadvertently comic, Walker-inspired heroine in "Laurel" and "The Lover." In the latter, the jazz poet "had reached the point of being generally pleased with herself," and no wonder. What with her "carefully selected tall sandals and her naturally tall hair, which stood in an elegant black afro with exactly seven strands of silver hair," and her "creamy brown" things and "curvaceous and strong legs," she is able to stop meals the way other women stop traffic: "If she came late to the dining room and stood in the doorway a moment longer than necessary—looking about for a place to sit after she had her tray—for that moment the noise from the cutlery already in use was still." (Really, who could blame Ellis for wanting her so?) If only there were an element of self-mockery in "The Lover"; if only Walker were being ironic in "A Sudden Trip"; if only she were lampooning the shopworn notion of the successful but unsatisfied celebrity in "Fame"; if only she were parodying romantic writing styles (and thereby puncturing those "love affairs" undertaken purely to prove one's "sexual liberation") in stories like "Porn," "Laurel," and "The Lover." But there is absolutely nothing in Alice Walker's interviews, nothing in her many personal essays, nothing in her friends' and colleagues' reviews of her books, nothing anywhere to suggest that she is being anything but dead serious in You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down.

What is especially unfortunate about the unintentional humor of You Can't Keep is that Walker is quite capable of handling her material very effectively; in several stories, for example, she excels at narrative technique. Consider "How Did I Get Away with Killing One of the Biggest Lawyers in the State? It Was Easy" (YCK). At first glance, the narrative voice seems untenable: how is it that a poor little black girl from Poultry Street writes such perfect English? (Placed entirely in quotation marks, the story is "written" by her.) We learn the answer at the end of the story: having murdered Bubba, the white lawyer who became her lover after raping her, the narrator/confessor stole all the money from his office safe and used it to finance her college education. Hence her flawless English, and the irony of her "confession": there is no repentance here, and no reader can blame her. The point of view also is consistent and effective. The same cannot be said of the long and rambling "Source," which unfortunately occupies the second most prominent position in You Can't Keep—the very end. It has no identifiable point of view, and suffers accordingly. "Source" would have been far more effective had Walker utilized what has been identified as her "ruminativestyle": "a meandering yet disciplined meditation." It is seen in those stories (first-person or otherwise) which essentially record one character's impressions or thoughts, such as "Fame" (YCK), "Roselily" (IL&T), and "The Diary of an African Nun" (IL&T). The sometimes staccato, sometimes discursive third-person narration of "Roselily"—"She feels old. Yoked."—is reminiscent of E.A. Robinson's account of another dubious love affair, "Eros Turannos" ("She fears him, and will always ask / What fated her to choose him"). Likewise, the barely-restrained first-person narration of "The Diary of an African Nun" is very evocative of Li Po's "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter," and it comes as no surprise that Walker attributes her fondness for short literary forms to the Oriental poetry she has loved since college. Also effective is the shifting point of view: the black father's and black daughter's disparate attitudes towards her affair with a married white man is conveyed by the alternating perspectives of "The Child Who Favored Daughter" (IL&T). This rhythmic technique is usually identified as cinematic, but it also owes much to the blues, as Walker herself is well aware.

This blues quality in the narrative points to the bases of several of her best stories: the oral tradition. Whereas stories based on Walker's own experiences tend, as noted, to be overwritten and hence inadvertently comic, her most memorable tales are often inspired by incidents which were told to her—be they actual accounts (e.g., "The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff" [IL&T] depicts her mother's rebuff by a white woman while trying to obtain government food during the Depression) or black folk tales (e.g., "Strong Horse Tea"). A particularly striking example is "The Welcome Table" (IL&T): having been ejected bodily from an all-white church, an old black lady meets Christ on a local road, walks and talks with him, and then is found frozen to death, with eyewitnesses left wondering why she had been walking down that cold road all alone, talking to herself. It could be right out of Stith Thompson. The importance of the oral tradition in Walker's stories is further evident in direct addresses to the reader ("you know how sick [my husband] makes me now when he grins'" ["Really, Doesn't Crime Pay?," IL&T]) and parenthetical asides ("I scrooched down as small as I could at the corner of Tante Rosie's table, smiling at her so she wouldn't feel embarrassed or afraid" ["The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff," IL&T]). The oral quality of Walker's stories is as old as folk tales, ballads, and slave narratives, and as new as Joan Didion, who shares with Walker a flair for using insane or criminal female narrators: compare Maria in Play It as It Lays with the would-be chain saw murderess in "Really, Doesn't Crime Pay?" (IL&T) or the coolly-detached killer of "How Did I Get Away with Killing …" (YCK). Curiously, when the teller of the tale is an emotionally-stable omniscient narrator, the oral tale techniques tends to backfire. For example, the narrator's remark at the opening of "Elethia" (YCK)—"A certain perverse experience shaped Elethia's life, and made it possible for it to be true that she carried with her at all times a small apothecary jar of ashes"—sounds regrettably like a voice-over by John-Boy Walton.

Clearly the oral tradition is a mixed blessing for Walker's fiction; but it is a particular liability when, as in so many folk tales and ballads, there is a paucity of exposition. Consider "Entertaining God" (IL&T), in which a little boy worships a gorilla he has stolen from the Bronx Zoo. The story would make no sense to a reader unfamiliar with Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood, and where a lack of preliminary information tends to draw the reader into O'Connor's novel, it alienates him in "Entertaining God": the story comes across as a disjointed, fragmentary, aborted novella. Another Wise Blood-inspired story, "Elethia" (in which a character with a habit of lurking about museums steals a mummy which proves to be a stuffed black man), does not fare much better. Similarly, as Chester J. Fontenot points out, "The Diary of an African Nun" (IL&T), although "only six pages in length,… contains material for a novella." Expanded to that length, "The Diary" could take an honorable place alongside another first-person account by a disenchanted nun, The Nun's Story—assuming, of course, that Walker did not turn it into a series of socioeconomic lectures disguised as chatty personal letters as she did with African missionary Nettie's letters in The Color Purple. Lack of exposition can be extreme in Walker's short stories. Consider this extract from "Porn" (YCK): "They met. Liked each other. Wrote five or six letters over the next seven years. Married other people. Had children. Lived in different cities. Divorced. Met again to discover they now shared a city and lived barely three miles apart." How is the reader to respond to this? Is Walker making a statement about the predictability, the lamentable sameness of the lives lived in the ostensibly individuality-minded 1970s? Or is she just disinclined to write out the details? The more one reads You Can't Keep, the more one tends (albeit reluctantly) towards the latter.

Walker's disinclination for exposition, and the concomitant impression that many of her stories are outlines or fragments of longer works, is particularly evident in a technique which mars even her strongest efforts; a marked preference for "telling" over "showing." This often takes the form of summaries littered with adjectives. In "Advancing Luna" (YCK), for example, the narrator waxes nostalgic over her life with Luna in New York: "our relationship, always marked by mutual respect, evolved into a warm and comfortable friendship which provided a stability and comfort we both needed at that time." But since, as noted earlier, the narrator comes across as vapid and self-absorbed, and since the only impressions she provides of Luna are rife with contempt for this greasy-haired, Clearasil-daubed, poor-little-rich-white-girl from Cleveland, the narrator's paean to their mutual warmth and friendship sounds ridiculous. No wonder critic Katha Pollitt stated outright that she "never believed for a minute" that the narrator and Luna were close friends. Even more unfortunate is Walker's habit of telling the reader what the story is about, of making sure that he doesn't overlook a single theme. For example, in "The Abortion" (YCK), the heroine Imani, who is just getting over a traumatic abortion, attends the memorial service of a local girl, Holly Monroe, who had been shot to death while returning home from her high school graduation. Lest we miss the point, Walker spells it out for us: "every black girl of a certain vulnerable age was Holly Monroe. And an even deeper truth was that Holly Monroe was herself [i.e., Imani]. Herself shot down, aborted on the eve of becoming herself." Similarly transparent, here is one of the last remarks in the story "Source" (YCK). It is spoken by Irene, the former teacher in a federally-funded adult education program, to her ex-hippie friend, Anastasia/Tranquility: "'I was looking toward "government" for help; you were looking to Source [a California guru]. In both cases, it was the wrong direction—any direction that is away from ourselves is the wrong direction.'" The irony of their parallel situations is quite clear without having Irene articulate her epiphany in an Anchorage bar. Even at the level of charactonyms, Walker "tells" things to her reader. We've already noted the over-used "he"/"she" device for underscoring sex roles, but even personal names are pressed into service. For example, any reasonably perceptive reader of the vignette "The Flowers" (IL&T) will quickly understand the story's theme: that one first experiences reality in all its harshness while far from home, physically and/or experientially; one's immediate surroundings are comparatively "innocent." The reader would pick up on the innocence of nearsightedness even if the main character, ten-year-old Myop, hadn't been named after myopia. Likewise, "The Child Who Favored Daughter" is actually marred by having the father kill his daughter because he confuses her with his dead sister named "Daughter." The hints of incest, the unclear cross-generational identities, and the murky Freudian undercurrents are sufficiently obvious without the daughter/Daughter element: it begins to smack of Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" routine after just a few pages. Alice Walker's preference for telling over showing suggests a mistrust of her readers, or her texts, or both.

One might reasonably ask how a professional writer with twenty years' experience could seem so unsure about her materials and/or her audience, could have such uneven judgment regarding fictional technique, could seem so strained or defensive in her short stories. Part of the answer may be that she is a cross-generic writer. Leslie Stephen felt that newspaper writing was lethal for a fiction writer, and perhaps the same may be said for journalistic writing—especially when the magazine's target readership is a special interest group. Whatever the case, as a short story writer Alice Walker seems to alternate between (1) presenting editorials as fiction, (2) experimenting with the short story as a recognized literary form, and (3) rather self-consciously writing "conventional" short stories. At best, the results are mixed.

The magazine editorials which masquerade as short stories are among Walker's least successful efforts. The classic example of this is "Coming Apart" (YCK). It began as the introduction to a chapter on violence against third world women in Take Back the Night; then, with the title of "A Fable," it ended up in Ms. magazine, for which Walker happened to be a contributing editor; and now, unrevised, it is being marketed as a short story in You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down. The volume contains several stories which occupy this No Man's Land between journalism and fiction: "Advancing Luna," "Porn," "A Letter of the Times"—and, somewhat less transparently, "Elethia," "Petunias," and "Source"—all exist so that Walker (or a mouthpiece character) can make some statement about pornography, racism, politics, sado-masochism, the Search for Self, whatever. Perhaps these "stories" have some impact when read in isolation, months apart, in a magazine such as Ms.; but when packaged as a collection of short stories they are predictable and pedantic. The omniscient narrators and mouthpiece characters rarely get off their soap-boxes; too often they resort to lecturing other characters or the reader. Consider this appraisal of the husband in "Coming Apart": "What he has refused to see … is that where white women are depicted in pornography as 'objects,' black women are depicted as animals. Where white women are depicted at least as human beings, black women are depicted as shit." The insistence upon the points Walker is trying to make would be appropriate for editorials or magazine essays, but it doesn't wash in a short story.

Those stories in which Walker attempts to experiment with what is commonly held to be "the short story" are a bit stronger, although they often have that fragmentary, unpolished quality alluded to earlier. Frequently the experimental pieces are very short: "Petunias" (YCK) is a one-page diary entry by a woman blown up by her Vietnam veteran son; it is entirely in italics, as are "The Flowers" (IL&T) and "Elethia" (YCK). As Mel Watkins notes in the New York Times Book Review, Alice Walker's shorter pieces tend to be "thin as fiction," and he is probably correct to classify them as that short story offshoot, "prose poems." Longer pieces also can be experimental. For example, "Roselily" (IL&T) utilizes a point/counterpoint format, alternating fragments of the wedding ceremony with the thoughts of the bride: the phrase "to join this man and this woman" triggers "She thinks of ropes, chains, handcuffs, his religion." The irony is as heavy-handed as the imagery, but the device does work in this story. Experimentation with structure just as often fails, however. "Entertaining God" (IL&T) offers three discrete cinematic scenes—one of the boy and the gorilla, another (evidently a flashback) of his father, and a third of his mother, a librarian turned radical poet; but the scenes never really connect. Perhaps it was meant to be what Walker has termed (in reference to Meridian) a "crazy quilt story," but if so the quilting pieces never do form a pattern. The same quality of uncertainty and incompletion is evident in "Advancing Luna," which offers four—count 'em, four—separate endings with such pretentious titles as "Afterwords, Afterwards, Second Thoughts," "Discarded Notes," and "Imaginary Knowledge." Apparently meant to be thought-provoking, instead they suggest that Walker is indecisive about why she even wrote the story—or, what is worse, is resorting to experimentation as an end in itself.

In light of all this, one might expect Walker's more "conventional" stories to be uniformly stronger than the essay/story hybrids or the experimental efforts, but such is not always the case. All too often, conventionality brings out the banal, the sentimental, and the contrived in Alice Walker. Not surprisingly, two of her earliest stories—"To Hell with Dying" (IL&T) and "A Sudden Trip Home in the Spring" (YCK)—are very conventional in terms of structure, characterization, and action. In each, a young woman returns to her rural Southern home from college up North at the death of an elderly loved one. Old Mr. Sweet in "To Hell with Dying" is a sort of dipsomaniac Uncle Remus, wrinkled and white-haired, with the obligatory whiskers, a nightshirt redolent of liniment, and a fondness for singing "Sweet Georgia Brown" to the narrator, who helps to "revive" him during his periodic fake deathbed scenes. In short, he is very much the sentimentalized "old darky" character that Walker challenged so vigorously in "Elethia," that O'Connoresque tale of the grinning, stuffed Uncle Albert in the white man's restaurant window. Sarah Davis, the heroine of the equally sentimental "A Sudden Trip," summarizes what she learned by attending her estranged father's funeral: "'sometimes you can want something a whole lot, only to find out later that it wasn't what you needed at all.'" Is it any wonder that black writer Ishmael Reed has called Walker "'the colored Norman Rockwell'"?

Her sentimental streak has been noted by many of her commentators (Jerry H. Bryant admits to a lump in his throat), and Walker herself acknowledges she is "nostalgic for the solidarity and sharing a modest existence can sometimes bring." Perhaps it does have a place in some of the stories from early in her career. But it seems frankly incongruous in the work of a woman who prides herself on being a hard-hitting realist, and it poses particular problems in her handling of the stories' endings. The potentially incisive "Fame" is all but ruined when the tough-as-nails Andrea Clement White melts at hearing a little black girl sing a slave song. Likewise, "The Lover" (YCK) ends with the jazz poet heroine in a reverie: she "lay in bed next day dreaming of all the faraway countries, daring adventures, passionate lovers still to be found." Perhaps in part to avoid these final lapses into sentimentality, Walker sometimes doesn't "end" her stories: she leaves them "open." It can be a very effective technique in stories such as "Strong Horse Tea" (IL&T) or "The Child Who Favored Daughter" (IL&T), where the pain is underscored by the lack—indeed, the impossibility—of resolution in the character's situations. Probably Walker's strongest non-sentimental endings belong to three of the most conventional stories: "The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff" (IL&T), "Nineteen Fifty-Five" (YCK), and "Source" (YCK). In "The Revenge," Mrs. Sarah Marie Sadler Holley, fearing that a black rootworker will be able to use them in spells against her, stores her feces "in barrels and plastic bags in the upstairs closets" rather than trust "the earthen secrecy of the water mains." Her psychotic behavior turns her husband against her, and she lets herself die in a chilling dénouement that would do Miss Emily Grangerford proud. Walker has used the psychology of guilt and fear in lieu of the Jesus-fixed-her-but-good attitude held by Hannah's prototype, Walker's mother, and the refusal to sentimentalize enhances the story. Likewise, "Nineteen Fifty-Five," a strong story with which to open You Can't Keep but atypical of the volume, is a sort of docudrama tracing the career of Elvis Presley (Traynor) through the eyes of blues great Big Mama Thornton (Gracie Mae Still). Still never does understand this sleepy-eyed white man or his alien world, and her reaction to seeing his funeral on television—"One day this is going to be a pitiful country, I thought"—is the perfect conclusion to the story. No sentiment, no commentary. Finally, "Source" offers a surprisingly non-sentimental ending to an insistently nostalgia-soaked story. Whether they are grooving in a Marin County commune with Peace, Calm, and Bliss (didn't nostalgia for the '60s end with Easy Rider?) or getting it together in the '70s in an Anchorage bar (sort of "The Big Chill Goes Alaskan"), the story of Irene and Anastasia/Tranquility has little for anyone. But the ending of the story—that is, after the now-reconciled heroines have hugged "knee against knee, thigh against thigh, breast against breast, neck nestled against neck"—is quite provocative: a group of tourists, peering through the mists, believe they are seeing Mt. McKinley: "They were not. It was yet another, nearer, mountain's very large feet, its massive ankles wreathed in clouds, that they took such pleasure in." Suggestive without being saccharine, and ironic without that "tinge of cynicism" which undercuts so many of Walker's endings, it is an ideal fade-out conclusion to a collection that, with varying degrees of success, seeks to pose questions, to raise issues, to offer no pat answers.

The strengths and weaknesses of In Love & Trouble and You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down offer little clue as to the direction Alice Walker will take as a writer of short fiction in years to come. Surely she will continue to write short stones: Walker personally believes that women are best suited to fiction of limited scope—David Bradley points out that this is "the kind of sexist comment a male critic would be pilloried for making"—and she feels further that, as her career progresses, her writing has been "always moving toward more and more clarity and directness." The often fragmentary and rambling tales of You Can't Keep published eight years after the moving and tightly constructed In Love & Trouble, would suggest that this is not the case. At this point in her career as a short story writer, one wishes that Walker would acknowledge the validity of Katha Pollitt's appraisal of You Can't Keep: "Only the most coolly abstract and rigorously intellectual writer" can achieve what Walker attempts in this recent volume, but unfortunately that is not what she is like: "As a storyteller she is impassioned, sprawling, emotional, lushly evocative, steeped in place, in memory, in the compelling power of narrative itself. A lavishly gifted writer, in other words—but not of this sort of book." What Alice Walker needs is to take a step backward: to return to the folk tale formats, the painful exploration of interpersonal relationships, the naturally graceful style that made her earlier collection of short stories, the durable In Love & Trouble, so very fine. Touch base, lady.

Robert James Butler (essay date Summer 1993)

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SOURCE: "Alice Walker's Vision of the South in The Third Life of Grange Copeland," in African American Review, Vol. 27, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 192-204.

[In the following essay, Butler discusses Walker's complicated portrayal of the South in The Third Life of Grange Copeland, in which she uses each life to show a different aspect of the South.]

Two-heading was dying out, he lamented. "Folks what can look at things in more than one way is done got rare."

In "The Black Writer and the Southern Experience," Alice Walker defines her response to the South in a richly ambivalent way. Although she stresses that she does not intend to "romanticize Southern black country life" and is quick to point out that she "hated" the South, "generally," when growing up in rural Georgia, she nevertheless emphasizes that Southern black writers have "enormous richness and beauty to draw from." This "double vision" of the South is at the center of most of her fiction and is given extremely complex treatment in her best work. While Walker can remember with considerable resentment the larger white world composed of "evil greedy men" who paid her sharecropper father three hundred dollars for twelve months of labor while working him "to death," she can also call vividly to mind the "sense of community" which gave blacks a way of coping with and sometimes transcending the hardships of such a racist society. Although she emphatically states that she is not "nostalgic … for lost poverty," she can also lyrically recall the beauties of the Southern land, "loving the earth so much that one longs to taste it and sometimes does." Even the Southern black religious traditions, which she consciously rejected as a college student because she saw them with one part of her mind as "a white man's palliative," she values in another way because her people "had made [religion] into something at once simple and noble," an "antidote against bitterness."

Walker's ambivalence, therefore, is a rich and complex mode of vision, a way of seeing her Southern background which prevents her from either naïvely romanticizing the South or reducing it to an oversimplified vision of despair and resentment. Ambivalence, or what Grange Copeland might call "two-heading," allows Walker to tell the full truth about her experience in the South. Avoiding the "blindness" created by her awareness of the injustices done to blacks in the South, she is able to draw "a great deal of positive material" from her outwardly "'underprivileged'" background. Indeed, she stresses that her status as a black Southern writer endows her with special advantages:

No one could wish for a more advantageous heritage than that bequeathed to the black writer in the South: a compassion for the earth, a trust in humanity beyond our knowledge of evil, and an abiding sense of justice. We inherit a great responsibility as well, for we must give voice to centuries not only of silent bitterness and hate but also of neighborly kindness and sustaining love.

Walker's sense of herself as both a black and a Southern writer, then, enables her to participate in a literary tradition containing a richness of vision which she finds missing in the mainstream of American literature. In "Saving the Life That Is Your Own: The Importance of Models in the Artist's Life," she expresses a distaste for the overall pessimism of modern American literature. She claims that "the gloom of defeat is thick" in twentieth-century American literature because "American writers tended to end their books and their characters' lives as if there were no better existence for which to struggle." But because Southern black experience is rooted in both "struggle" and "some kind of larger freedom" resulting from such struggle, the black writer is able to overcome the despair which enervates so much modern literature. African American writers, therefore, participate in a literary tradition which is distinctive for both its lucid criticism of modern life and its special ability to recover human value and thus make important affirmations which give black American literature a unique vitality and resonance.

The single work which best expresses Walker's powerful ambivalence toward Southern life is her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, a book notable for its vitality and its resonance. Walker's complex vision of the South can be seen in her development of the novel's three main characters—Brownfield, Ruth, and Grange Copeland. While Brownfield is a terrifying example of how the South can physically enslave and spiritually cripple black people, Ruth's story offers considerable hope because she is able to leave the South, rejecting the racist world which destroys Brownfield and, in so doing, move toward a larger, freer world which offers her fresh possibilities. Grange Copeland's narrative points out some of the positive features of Southern black life. He returns to Georgia after an unsuccessful journey north to find the things he needs for his identity—a sense of place and a feeling of family and community, what Michael Cooke has called "intimacy." Although the narratives, taken in isolation, do not express the author's whole vision of Southern life, together they offer a series of interrelated perspectives which capture Walker's richly ambivalent vision of the South. While Grange's story in isolation might suggest a glib romanticizing of the black South and while the stories of Ruth and Brown field might suggest an equally simplistic debunking of black Southern life, all three narratives constitute what Walker has called "the richness of the black writer's experience in the South."

Brownfield's narrative concentrates all that is negative about Southern culture: He is cruelly victimized by the extreme racism and poverty of the Georgia backwoods world in which he is born and raised. As his name clearly suggests, his is a case of blighted growth; he is a person who has been physically and emotionally withered by the nearly pathological environment which surrounds him. By the end of the novel, he is portrayed as "a human being … completely destroyed" by the worst features of rural Southern life—ignorance, poverty, racism, and violence. Appropriately, one of the earliest images of him in the novel describes him as undernourished and diseased, his head covered with tatter sores, his legs afflicted with tomato sores, and his armpits filled with boils running with pus. As his narrative develops, these images of disease coalesce into a frightening metaphor which dramatizes how Brown field is infected and eventually destroyed by a racist world which systematically deprives him of human nourishment.

This is particularly true of the way in which the system of Southern sharecropping destroys his family by enslaving them to the land which would otherwise nourish them. Because Brownfield's father Grange cannot make an adequate living for his family, his ego is gradually eroded, until he comes to see himself as a "stone," a "robot," and a "cipher." He therefore fails as a husband and a father, driving his wife to suicide and withdrawing emotionally from his son. The net effect on Brownfield is to engrave deep emotional scars into his character which ultimately stunt his growth. After being abandoned by Grange and losing his mother shortly afterwards, Brownfield is frozen into a condition of Southern servitude. His efforts to establish a new life fail to materialize because his loss of family and the destruction of self-esteem caused by a racist environment trap him in a kind of moral vacuum:

He was expected to raise himself up on air, which was all that was left after his work for others. Others who were always within their rights to pay practically nothing for his labor. He was never able to do more than exist on air; he was never able to build on it, and was never able to have any land of his own; and was never able to set his woman up in style, which more than anything else was what he wanted to do.

Literally cheated out of land and morally dispossessed of a human foundation for his life, Brownfield is ironically condemned to repeat his father's failures. As he realizes not long after being abandoned by Grange, "… his own life was becoming a repetition of his father's." His efforts to go north result in "weeks of indecisive wandering," eventually bringing him to a small Georgia town where he forms a debilitating relationship with Josie, one of his father's discarded lovers. When he does discover a fruitful relationship with Mem, their marriage is ruined by the same factors which destroyed his parents' marriage. The "warm, life-giving circle" of their life together is gradually dissolved by "the shadow of eternal bondage" which eroded his father's self-esteem. Bound like his father by "the chain that held him to the land," Brownfield too becomes neurotically jealous of his wife and degrades her to the point where he can recover part of his ego by feeling superior to her. Like his father, who pushed his wife into suicide because he could not bear loving her and could not adequately support her, Brownfield murders Mem because a social environment that strips him of manhood cancels out his love for her. Forced by an oppressively racist society to "plow a furrow his father had laid," Brownfield is indeed a "brown field," a crop that has failed to mature and bear fruit because his life has been deprived of necessary nutrients.

Like his five-year-old daughter, who is slowly poisoned by the arsenic she uses to dust the cotton crop in order to protect it from boll weevils, he is gradually victimized by a uniquely Southern system of segregation and sharecropping which infects his life. He eventually becomes exactly what his social environment wants him to be—an extension of its most pathological impulses. Indeed, Brownfield not only comes to accept the South but develops a perverse love of the world which dehumanizes him. Thus, he blankly accepts the impoverished roles extended to him by his Southern environment and makes no attempt either to rebel against these roles or to seek a better world:

He had no faith that any other place would be better. He fitted himself into the slot in which he found himself; for fun he poured oil into the streams to kill the fish and tickled his own vanity by drowning cats.

A normal boy early in the novel, Brownfield becomes the book's most degraded character, for in accepting his "place" in Southern society, he degenerates into a killer of families and a poisoner of innocent life.

If Brownfield's narrative dramatizes Walker's most severe criticisms of the South, the story of his daughter Ruth qualifies this pessimistic vision by providing an alternative to the meaninglessness of Brownfield's life. Even though Ruth spends her formative years in the same environment which poisoned her father, she is able to protect herself with a number of antidotes because she develops a consciousness of Southern life which makes her aware of both its strengths and dangers. She is thus able to empower herself with some of the strengths of black folk culture in the Deep South and is also able to imagine her life in terms which transcend the South, ultimately leaving it for a larger world which offers her new possibilities. Whereas Brownfield's life travels a deterministic circle of futility (all his efforts to gain physical and emotional distance from the racist South fail), Ruth's story is existential in outlook. It involves a process of awakening and liberation. Like the slave narratives, which Walker has described as a part of a literary tradition where "escape for the body and freedom for the soul went together," Ruth's story is a flight from twentieth-century forms of Southern bondage. Her consciousness distills all that is good in her Southern black traditions and allows her to imagine a broader world beyond the South. As a result, she is able to create "a way out of no way." Like the Biblical Ruth, she finds herself an alien in a strange land, but, unlike Ruth, she can find her way to a kind of promised land, a new space offering fresh possibilities.

A crucial part of her liberation is contained in the fact that she does not grow up in the kind of spiritual and emotional vacuum which blighted Brownfield's life. Although she has had to face the physical poverty and racism which characterize her father's existence, she gains the benefit of the family life he was deprived of, and this puts her in contact with nourishing cultural and personal values. In contrast to Brownfield, who spins in futile circles because he "was expected to raise himself up on air," Ruth is raised by a mother whom she comes to regard as "a saint," someone who makes heroic efforts to meet her human needs. Although Mem literally gives up her life opposing Brownfield's acceptance of his "place" in Southern society, she succeeds in moving the family to a town where Ruth, for a time at least, has the benefit of a real house and formal schooling. More importantly, Mem provides Ruth with a powerful role model, for she is a woman who maintains her human dignity in a dehumanizing environment. Like the women whom Walker describes in In Search of Our Mother's Gardens who provided her with role models, Mem is an "exquisite butterfly trapped in an evil honey." By "inheriting" her mother's "vibrant, creative spirit," Ruth comes to transcend the limitations which white society seeks to impose on black women.

After Mem is murdered—literally by Brownfield and symbolically by the Southern society he comes to love and represent—Ruth is taken in by Grange, who becomes her surrogate father. From the moment of her birth, Grange sees Ruth as unique and beautiful, someone who almost magically appears in the midst of an environment which is harsh and ugly. Marveling at Ruth as a newborn child, he exclaims, "'Out of all kinds of shit comes something soft, clean, and sweet smellin','" From this point on, Grange dedicates himself to protecting Ruth from the foulness of the Southern environment into which she was born, and he commits himself to nurturing that which is "sweet" and "clean" in her. He provides her with a "snug house" in which to live and also gives her for the first time in her life an adequate supply of nourishing food.

More importantly, he nourishes her mind and soul. He forbids her to work in the cotton fields which have helped to destroy Brownfield's life, telling her, "'You not some kind of field hand!'" and he arranges for her to attend school. But in an important way he also becomes her teacher, instructing her in "the realities of life," drawing material from his own wide experience and his extensive knowledge of black folklore. His retelling of folktales from the black South provides her with a vivid sense of a mythic hero—the trickster "who could talk himself out of any situation." She thus learns from an early age a lesson which her father never acquired—that words and intelligence, not raw violence, have the power to transform experience by creating understanding and control over life. When listening to Grange sing blues music, she likewise feels "kin to something very old, a musical tradition arising out of the black South which transforms suffering into a kind of human triumph rooted in what Ralph Ellison has called a "near tragic, near comic lyricism."

By connecting Ruth to the life-giving tradition of the black folk art of the South, Grange provides her with the time-tested values which will help her to survive and even triumph over the racist world which destroys so many other people in the novel. His recounting episodes from black history reinforces in her mind the crucial idea that black people established a strong and viable culture in the South, despite the efforts of the dominant society to destroy that culture. His accounts of his personal past, especially from his boyhood, also bring to life in Ruth's consciousness "all sorts of encounters with dead folks and spirits and occasionally the Holy Ghost." In other words, his stories give her vital access to an imaginatively rich, emotionally potent world—precisely the kind of world which the psychologically underdeveloped Brownfield never becomes aware of As Ruth grows older, Grange also teaches her about the world beyond the South. He steals books from the white library which open her mind and stimulate her imagination—books about mythology, geography, Africa, and romantic rebellion. He also reads her episodes from the Bible, especially the story of Exodus, again empowering her with the compelling myth of an oppressed people who triumph over circumstance through the strength of their will and spirit.

Although he twice offers her his farm, which would root her deeply to the South he has come to accept as his home, Grange loves Ruth enough to prepare her for the most dramatic action of her life, her flight from the South. Late in the novel, when Ruth asks him about her future, he tells her, "'We got this farm. We can stay here till kingdom come.'" But by this point in her life she feels stifled by the segregated South and tells him, "'I'm not going to be a hermit. I want to get away from here someday.'" The same fences which provide Grange with a sense of security Ruth perceives as encroachments.

The final third of the novel, therefore, deals with Ruth's increasing dissatisfaction with the rural South and her desire to move toward a larger, broader world which her protean identity needs. This struggle finally takes the form of her gaining independence from Brownfield and everything he represents about the South. A man who "had enslaved his own family," as well as himself, he is intent on taking Ruth back after he has been released from prison. When he encounters Ruth late in the novel as she walks to school, he shouts at her, "'You belongs to me, just like my chickens or my hogs.'" "'You need shooting,'" she defiantly replies. Rejecting the crippling roles imposed on her mother and grandmother by Southern society, she observes that "'I'm not yours.'"

As the novel draws to its close, Ruth, with Grange's help, achieves her independence from her father and Southern life in general. It becomes increasingly clear to Grange that the only way to protect Ruth from Brownfield is to encourage her to leave the South, for the full weight of Southern law is in favor of returning her to Brownfield, whom Judge Harry regards as her "'real daddy.'" Grange, therefore, centers his life on helping "to prepare Ruth for some great and herculean task"—her emancipation from Southern slavery and her pursuit of a new life. He buys her an automobile on her sixteenth birthday and begins saving money which she will use for college. He ultimately sacrifices his own life to save her from Brownfield, for he is killed by the police after shooting Brownfield when the court takes Ruth away from him.

The novel ends on a painful note of ambivalence. Southern injustice erupts in violence which takes Grange's life, yet his death frees Ruth for a new life of expanded possibilities. By the conclusion of the book, Ruth is poised for flight into a fast-changing world which will transform her. Observing the nightly television news, she becomes fascinated by "pictures of students marching" as they work toward a more open and fluid society. Even the Georgia backwater in which she has been raised shows dramatic evidence of real change—voter registration campaigns, interracial marriage, and the beginnings of integration.

But the novel strongly implies that Ruth will not stay long in the South because her own protean self requires more space and possibility than the South at this point in its history can provide. Eager to "'rise up'" in life, she dreams of going north. As she tells Grange, "'I want to get away from here someday…. I think maybe I'll go North, like you did….'" Later she thinks vaguely of journeying to Africa. The exact physical direction of her life is not made clear, nor could it be. Like many African American heroic figures such as Frederick Douglass and the persona of Richard Wright's Black Boy, she has a lucid notion of the Southern places she must leave but keeps an indeterminate vision of the open space to which she will move. Like the Jews in Exodus, whose story Grange has told her "for perhaps the hundredth time," she must leave an all-too-real Egypt in order to quest for a mythic "Promised Land."

The third major narrative in the novel incorporates the visions of the South implicit in the other two narratives and offers one more critically important perspective on the South. Whereas Grange Copeland's "first" life powerfully reinforces the bleakly pessimistic view of the South implicit in Brownfield's narrative, and his "second" life is very similar in certain ways to Ruth's story, because it is a flight from the slavery of the segregated South, Grange's "third" life contains an important element missing in the other two narratives—his remarkable return to the South, which regenerates him as a human being. It is this return, like Celie's return to Georgia at the end of The Color Purple, which underscores Walker's most affirmative vision of the South. In returning to Baker County, Grange achieves "his total triumph over life's failures," creating a new place for himself by transforming the racist society which has withered Brownfield into a genuine "home" which nurtures Ruth and also causes him to be "a reborn man." Like the hero described in Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces, Grange attains truly heroic status by a three-part journey involving the leaving of a settled, known world; the experiencing of tests in an unknown world; and the returning home with a new mode of consciousness which transforms his life and the lives of others.

Walker, who knew the most brutal features of the rural South firsthand, is careful not to romanticize the South to which Grange returns. She emphasizes that Grange goes back to Georgia not because of a sudden nostalgia for magnolias and wisteria but simply because the circumstances of his life have made him a Southerner, for better or for worse: "… though he hated it as much as any place else, where he was born would always be home for him. Georgia would be home for him, and every other place foreign." Crucial to Grange's creation of a new home for himself in the South is his securing of land. Using the money he obtained in various devious ways in the North and the money he gets from Josie's sale of the Dew Drop Inn, he builds a farm which constitutes "a sanctuary" from the white world which has victimized him economically and poisoned him with hatred. As his name suggests, he is able to "cope" with his "land" so that he can build a "grange" or farm which will nourish himself and others. This "refuge" not only provides him with food from his garden and a livelihood from his sale of crops but, more importantly, gives him the independence and freedom he needs to assume meaningful roles which his earlier life lacked: "… he had come back to Baker County, because it was home, and to Josie, because she was the only person in the world who loved him…."

Accepting the love from Josie which he had earlier rejected because he found it "possessive," he marries her shortly after returning from the North, thus embracing the role of husband. In this way he transforms her Dew Drop Inn from the whorehouse which was a grotesque parody of a human community into a real place of love between a man and a woman. Not long after this he begins to assume the role of father when he assists Mem in the delivery of Ruth on Christmas Day, a time when Brownfield is too drunk to be of much use to his family. After Brownfield murders Mem, Grange fully undertakes the role of father, providing Ruth with the love and care which he was unable to extend to Brownfield in his "first" life. In all these ways Grange is able to create a small but vital black community separated from the larger white world intent on destroying the black family.

Grange's journey north failed him because it poisoned him with the same kind of hatred which damaged his previous life in the South. His Northern experiences are revealed in the terrifying epiphany when he gloats over stealing a white woman's money while watching her drown in Central Park Lake. The whole experience becomes a grotesque inversion of a religious conversion, very much like Bigger Thomas's killing of Mary Dalton in Native Son. Like Bigger, who feels a grisly sort of "new life" when he savors the death of Mary Dalton, Grange feels "alive and liberated for the first time in his life" as he contemplates the image of withdrawing his hand from the drowning woman. He thus commits in a different form the same sin which brought his "first" life in the South to such a disturbing close. Just as Grange is partly responsible for the deaths of his wife and stepchild, whom he abandons when he is no longer able to cope with the societally induced hatred which poisons all of his human relationships, so too does he abandon the pregnant white woman when societally induced hatred causes her to call him a "nigger." Withdrawing his hand from her also echoes an earlier gesture of withdrawing his hand from his son shortly before he abandons him. Just as his hand "nearly touche[s]" the woman's in Central Park, his hand has earlier "stopped just before it reached [Brownfield's] cheek." In both cases his withdrawal of human sympathy from people is a clear index of how Grange has been emotionally damaged by the racist society in which he lives.

The South and North, therefore, are portrayed in Grange's first two lives as dehumanized and dehumanizing environments. But whereas the South has turned him into a "stone" and a "robot," the North converts him into the kind of invisible man classically described in African American literature by Du Bois and Ellison:

He was, perhaps, no longer regarded merely as a "thing"; what was even more cruel to him was that to the people he met and passed daily he was not even in existence! The South had made him miserable, with nerve endings raw from continual surveillance from contemptuous eyes, but they knew he was there. Their very disdain proved it. The North put him into solitary confinement where he had to manufacture his own hostile stares in order to see himself…. Each day he had to say his name to himself over and over again to shut out the silence.

Although both environments pose severe threats to his humanity, Grange finally chooses the South over the North because he is humanly visible to Southerners, whereas Northern society is completely blind to him. Although Southern whites regard blacks with "contemptuous eyes" which distort their vision, they at least focus upon blacks as human beings; the white Northerners Grange meets would reduce blacks to complete anonymity. Thus, Grange experiences a condition of "solitary confinement" in the North but in the South is given the opportunity to feel the "sense of community" which Walker has extolled in her essays as a particularly important feature of Southern black life.

It is Grange's achievement of a "home" in Georgia which provides him with a genuine human conversion. He returns to Baker County with disturbing vestiges of his first two lives, fits of depression which lead him to contemplate suicide and express an "impersonal cruelty" which frightens Ruth. But his recovery of the meaningful roles of husband, father, and farmer lead to his regeneration, providing him with a "third" life. Josie's love, though flawed, is deeply experienced for a while, and Ruth is able, with "the magic of her hugs and kisses," to bring him out of his bouts of suicidal depression. As the novel develops, he admits to Ruth that she has "'thaw[ed]'" the "'numbness'" in him. Whereas early in the book Grange seems "devoid of any emotion … except that of bewilderment" and whereas in the middle of the book he is blinded by a nearly demonic hatred of whites, he finally becomes a fully developed, even heroic, person because of his recovery of a "home" in the black South.

Walker, however, consciously avoids idealizing Grange's Southern home. As the novel's ending makes clear, it is a small oasis of human love surrounded by the same kind of Southern racism which has blighted the lives of scores of black people in the novel. Southern courts continue to mete out injustice, and Southern violence continues to take the lives of innocent people, most notably Fred Hill, who is murdered when his son attempts to integrate a previously all white school. And as Ruth's narrative demonstrates, even Grange's home has its restrictive features. Although such a pastoral "refuge" satisfies Grange with a sense of place and continuity with the past, Walker clearly endorses Ruth's desire to leave it for the open space which her young spirit desires. Grange's story may contradict Thomas Wolfe's notion that you can't go home again, but Ruth's story emphasizes the fact that staying home or returning home for good can stifle certain kinds of people. Although Grange's Southern home provides Ruth with an essential foundation for human growth, ultimately she must leave that home if she is to continue to grow.

As Alice Walker has observed in In Search of Our Mother's Gardens, her sense of reality is inherently dialectical:

"I believe that the truth of any subject comes out when all sides of the story are put together, and all their different meanings make one new one. Each writer writes the missing parts of the other writer's story. And the whole story is what I'm after."

The Third Life of Grange Copeland succeeds as a novel because it consciously avoids an oversimplified vision which expresses only one "side" of Southern life. Artfully mixing its three main narratives in order to include the "missing parts" absent from any single narrative, the novel suggests a "whole truth" about the South which is complex and many-sided. The book thus remains true to its author's deepest prompting and her most profound sense of her Southern black heritage.

Judy Mann (review date 16 January 1994)

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SOURCE: "Victims of Tradition," in Washington Post Book World, January 16, 1994, p. 4.

[In the following review, Mann praises Walker's and Pratibha Parmar's attempt to illuminate the prevalence of female genital mutilation in Africa, but faults the book for a slow start.]

The World Health Organization estimates that some 80 million women living today have undergone an ancient and excruciatingly painful ritual known as genital mutilation. It is widely practiced in Egypt, the Sudan and the Horn of Africa—by rigidly patriarchal cultures. Pretexts marshalled to defend the practice range from religion and hygiene to cultural traditions. But the true reason this humiliating, dangerous practice continues is to ensure that women will remain virgins until marriage, and to maintain control over women by destroying their ability to enjoy sex. Mutilated women are turned into sexual vessels for men, many of whom believe the procedure enhances their own enjoyment.

The age at which girls are mutilated—from infancy to post-puberty—and the degree of mutilation varies widely between tribal cultures. Symbolic circumcision involves a ritual nicking of the clitoris to draw blood. Pharaonic circumcision, the most extreme form, involves the scraping away of the clitoris and the inner labia. Then, in a procedure known as infibulation, the outer labia are stitched together with sutures of catgut and with acacia thorns, leaving a hole the size of a pencil for the passage of urine and menses. After the outer labia are sewn up, the girl's legs are bound together from the hips to the ankles and she is forced to lie still on her back for several weeks until the labia grow together, forming a permanent closure over the vagina. At her marriage ceremony she is cut open again with a knife or sharp stone by her husband or mother-in-law.

When the United States first joined the hunger relief effort in Somalia—where 90 percent of the women have undergone Pharaonic circumcision—I wrote a column suggesting that we use American relief efforts to carrot-and-stick a campaign to wipe out female genital mutilation in that country.

The morning my column appeared, I received a phone call from a Somali woman working for a health organization in Washington. She said that women in her country were working to eradicate the practice and they needed help from women in the international community. I learned that my caller was a physician.

I also learned that she had undergone Pharaonic circumcision as a child.

This was the end of my illusions about female genital mutilation. It wasn't a ritual tribal practice in the abstract. It had been done to someone real: a voice on the telephone. I understood at that moment that the mutilation of women involved me.

In countries where circumcision is performed, it is taboo to talk about it. In the West, we are too horrified or ignorant to talk about it. Those of us who do know about it often think of it as something done only to primitive women living in mud-huts. Our silence is a psychological device for marginalizing the horror and separating ourselves from it—and it contributes to the shameful international indifference that allows it to continue.

Alice Walker and Pratibha Parmar aren't having any part of this global denial. Walker, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1983 for her novel The Color Purple first wrote about female circumcision and its impact on a girl, in her novel Possessing the Secret of Joy. She has collaborated with Parmar, a London-based feminist filmmaker, on a documentary to confront world public opinion—to compel civilized countries to acknowledge that female genital mutilation is nothing less than ritual torture of girls—and to enlist international support to eradicate it. Their book, Warrior Marks, is the story of how they made the documentary, and the people and circumstances they encountered in Senegal, The Gambia and Burkina Faso.

They are deeply affecting when they write about the emotional toll in working with this practice. They understand that the price for girls goes beyond the loss of clitoral sexual pleasure. They lose their trust in their mothers who dare not defy the weight of tradition and so hand their unsuspecting daughters over to the circumcisers. Mutilation is almost always done by women, often in the most unsanitary conditions imaginable. The child is not anesthetized nor does she have access to antibiotics to fight the deadly infections that frequently result.

The documentary crew was allowed to film a "coming out ceremony," in which a group of Gambian girls who had been circumcised two weeks before returned from the bush to their village. "They looked totally stunned, bewildered, in shock and total despair," writes Parmar. "For a few minutes I just stared, and suddenly their expressions hit me with such force that I felt tears begin to roll down my cheeks … [But] I had to direct the crew and couldn't give in to this pain, not now.

"It was so sad to see the light gone from their beautiful eyes, to see their drawn faces. In the last two weeks, they had been catapulted into adulthood with great violence."

Warrior Marks is not an easy book to read, partly because the topic is so tough to handle. But it is also slow to get off the ground. The beginning is padded with laundry-list correspondence and journal entries that have to do primarily with the tedious logistical problems of doing a documentary—and tedious problems make for tedious reading. Walker writes one section, "Alice's Journey," and Parmar writes another, "Pratibha's Journey." Since they have witnessed many of the same events, there is much repetition and the reader is left wondering if she's lost her place. People who appear to be important to the writers' lives are mentioned in journal entries but not fully identified, producing irritating mysteries. The writers make the alarming assertion that circumcisions are being performed within immigrant communities in the U.S.—but they do not document the facts. The book does not get rolling until about a third of the way through, when the filmmakers arrive in Africa and begin interviewing women who are resisting the practice.

These are voices of hope, and one of the most important contributions Warrior Marks can make is to introduce women in the West to the courageous feminists in Africa who are mounting educational and health campaigns to drive this practice back into the Stone Age. Theirs is a war that can be won—and this should inspire Western women to pressure their governments to support eradication campaigns. Ten years ago, few people dared to talk about female genital mutilation. It is still ignored by the men who control the international aid machine. Both the United Nations Children's Fund and the U.S. Agency for International Development released reports on the children in developing countries shortly before Christmas and neither mentioned female genital mutilation and the resulting death rates of female children or women in childbirth.

Despite the efforts of Walker, Parmar and others, female genital mutilation remains a taboo subject. There has been more international attention devoted to the severing of John Wayne Bobbitt's penis than to the genital mutilation of tens of millions of women. Warrior Marks is a piercing howl into that silence, and it's a howl we need to hear.

Victoria A. Brownworth (review date September-October 1994)

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SOURCE: A review of Warrior Marks, in Lambda Book Report, Vol. 4, No. 6, September-October, 1994, p. 37.

[In the following review, Brown worth praises Warrior Marks by Walker and Pratibha Parmar for exploring the reasons that female genital mutilation and other forms of mutilation are allowed to continue.]

In 1989, while living part of the time in London, I reported on a series of cases of young girls who had been kidnapped and sexually mutilated in and around the city. But unlike other sex crimes I had reported on, these attacks were not at the hands of strangers. Each of these young girls had been mutilated at the request of her family.

I had been aware of the practice of so-called female circumcision since college when it had been a primary focus of the first International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women. But before the girls in London, I had never seen the face of genital mutilation close-up. And until I spoke with a Somali woman gynecologist at a London clinic, I never truly understood what was being done to these young girls in London and how their lives were forever altered.

Reading Warrior Marks created the same sense of horror and rage I felt in that London clinic. Alice Walker and Pratibha Parmar, a Pulitzer Prize-winning African-AmerIndian writer and internationally known Indian lesbian filmmaker, embarked on a joint project to document female genital mutilation in Africa.

Warrior Marks is a record of that process and the making of Parmar's film. Letters, diary entries, poems, interviews and photographs from both women all combine to provide an indelible image of the mutilation of millions of the world's women and girls. Girls as young as a month old to women as old as thirty are taken away, often into the bush, where they have their clitorises and inner and outer labia cut or ripped away. The ritual is done manually, with no anesthetic. Because there are arteries that flow in and near the clitoris, sometimes girls bleed to death.

In some areas, what remains of the genitalia is stitched together or pinned together with thorns in a process called infibulation. Small holes are left for urine and menstrual flows, but infections are commonplace. Before or on a young woman's wedding night, she is slit open again to allow penetration by her husband. When I was in London, where both female circumcision and infibulation have been illegal since 1985, doctors would not perform this process; it was done (again without benefit of anesthesia) by aunts or mothers with a razor blade or knife.

Walker and Parmar present very different commentary, both mesmerizing. Walker ties the practice to the range of mutilations women across the globe suffer at the hands of patriarchal influence. Parmar's responses are less poetic, less intellectualized than Walker's—she is simply raw with the images. Both women, in very different ways, discuss how fragile they are made by their experience. Both of them (and most of the women on their crew) end up getting injured and/or sick; Parmar has nightmares, Walker, insomnia. Walker talks about nearly going off her head from the horror, Parmar calls her lover in London and cries to her.

The images are cataclysmic, oppressive, dramatic, insufferable. Walker's feminism pours out on the page like a kind of healing salve for these tortured girls. Parmar, whose films have spoken eloquently of the oppressions of Indian women, and lesbians and gay men, worries that she won't be able to get the images she needs to tell the story properly.

Warrior Marks is as chilling as it is visionary. Walker and Parmar lead us like brave guides into the enamel house. But they show us not only the terrible horrors: AIDS spread when the same knife is used on 20 or 30 girls at a time; women sexually maimed for life, often dying in childbirth or even from infections caused by menstruation; women who escape the mutilation banished from their families. They also show us the valiant women (and some men) struggling to eradicate the ritual through education and political movements, the faces of the youngest girls who may possibly escape, the words of mothers who insist they will not allow their daughters to be mutilated.

Female genital mutilation has been allowed to continue under the rubric of "culture." But as Walker so simply and astutely notes, "there is a difference between torture and culture." Lesbian and gay men have been tormented under the same guise of heterosexual "culture." Warrior Marks provides valuable insight for the queer community, as Walker and Parmar each explore the reasons this mutilation and others are allowed to thrive. Female genital mutilation is the most primal form of sexual oppression. Warrior Marks is a book every queer must read.

Tobe Levin (review date Fall 1994)

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SOURCE: A review of Warrior Marks, in NWSA Journal, Vol. 6, No. 3, Fall, 1994, pp. 511-14.

[In the following review, Levin admits the importance of stopping the practice of female genital mutilation, but asserts that Warrior Marks, by Walker and Pratibha Parmar shows a lack of understanding of cultural differences.]

Media attention to the issue of female genital mutilation is essential if this practice is to be stopped. An activist in Germany since 1977, I believe in the power of exposure and so I say, Thank you, Alice, and Thank you, Pratibha, for releasing your book and film, Warrior Marks. Premiering in Washington, DC, in November 1993, the film concerns 100 million of the world's females. In an April interview with Ghanaian activist Efua Dorkenoo, I learned it affects "6,000 each day, 2 million each year." The crisis needs airing, Efua told me.

Yet "I know how painful exposure is," Alice Walker says in the video's opening vignette. "It is something I've had to face every day of my life, beginning with my first look in the mirror each morning!" Thus, "in a deliberate effort to stand with the mutilated women, not beyond them," Walker offers as a leitmotif the analogy to her visual maiming, what she came to identify, once having become a "consciously feminist adult," as "a patriarchal wound." As a girl, she hadn't received the gift Santa Claus brought her brothers: guns. The one who customarily bullied her aimed at Alice standing on the roof of the garage, his copper pellet blinding her.

Alice narrates "Like the Pupil of an Eye: Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women" while we watch an excised girls' coming-out ceremony in Dar Salamay, The Gambia. Barren women's club members dance in front of the children, ranging from 4 to 11 years of age, the expressions on their faces freighted with symbolic import. Although we cannot reach behind those eyes, the sadness speaks, discomfort shows. To Pratibha, who was there, "they looked totally stunned, bewildered, in shock and total despair," although she admits in print that "their feelings were unimaginable to [her]." I would share such caution, but no doubt the drawn blankness of the suffering girls contrasts—and conflicts—with the jubilation all around them.

The youngsters, excised two weeks before, also walk with difficulty. The book's longest section called "Journeys" gives the women's movement symbolic status. The narrative of P.K., borrowed from Awa Thiam's Black Sisters, Speak Out: Feminism and Oppression in Black Africa (originally La Parole aux Nègresses), includes this motif and is the video's heart. "I did not know what excision was," P.K. tells us, "but on several occasions I had seen recently excised girls walking … like little bent old ladies [trying to balance] rulers between their ankles…. I can tell you it was not a pretty sight." This we see, as Parmar's camera focuses on the shuffle characteristic of the genitally mutilated. "The expression on the faces of the excised girls … aroused my fears," P.K. continues. The viewers' angst stirs as well, our empathy and outrage reaching out to the twelve-year-old "in the throes of endless agony, torn apart both physically and psychologically." The dancer Richelle represents her suffering, simultaneously expressing the joy of the body intact and the horror of the organ cut. "It was the rule that girls my age did not weep in this situation," P.K. adds. "[But] I broke the rule … with tears and screams of pain."

How can mothers ignore this pain and, using Alice Walker's term, "collaborate" with patriarchy? As Linda Weil-Curiel, the French lawyer for Malian Aminata Diop (the first girl to apply for political asylum on the basis of specific gender risk—of mutilation), tells Alice Walker in the book "Parents are always excused for what they do to their children. So when I read [Possessing the Secret of Joy], I was fearful…. Each time I turned the page, I was wondering: When will the excuse for the parents come? And I am very, very happy to tell you I never found that excuse, and I thank you for it."

Do I want to make "excuses" for these mothers, these behaviors? I hope not, yet we campaigners need to understand them and their fears. Like right-wing women in the West, traditional females link their survival to male power, and this can be, under the circumstances, a comprehensible strategy. Concerned with the Sudan, where 82% of women are infibulated, Ellen Gruenbaum argues that women who perpetuate practices painful and dangerous to their daughters and inhibit their own sexual gratification "must be understood in the context of their social and economic vulnerability in a strongly patriarchal society…. Effective change can only come in the context of a women's movement oriented toward the basic social problems affecting women, particularly their economic dependency, educational disadvantages, and obstacles to employment." Walker, in an interview sequence not in the video, acknowledges this financial base: "[in] a culture in which men will not marry you unless you have been mutilated and there is no other work you can do and you are … considered a prostitute if you are not mutilated, you face a very big problem. Women mutilate their daughters because they really are looking down the road to a time when the daughter will … marry and at least have a roof … and food." Poverty, to many African activists, is the prime issue, and, consequently, transforming individual awareness cannot free the masses of women from genital mutilation.

Nonetheless, Warrior Marks argues strongly that mutilation is child abuse and must be opposed like other customarily exercised but admittedly harmful practices—for instance slavery and battering. The epigraph reads: "'What is the fundamental question one must ask of the world?… Why is the child crying?'" Excerpted from Possessing the Secret of Joy, this answer ties Walker's empathy to her identifying with the suffering young person she once was. "It could have been me … passing through this slave house three hundred years ago, mutilated and infibulated," she recounts in the final interview on Gorée Island at the House of Slaves. "It's remarkable," she goes on, "that the [children's] suffering … is the thing … least considered. Children cry in pain and terror … yet their elders … just assume they will forget." She concludes on tape, "Do we have a responsibility to stop the torture of children we say we love, or not?… or are we like the midwife who said that when she's cutting the child and the child screams she doesn't hear it? Are we expected to be deaf?"

No, we aren't, and there is a most powerful argument for international solidarity. Efua Dorkenoo, the head of London-based FORWARD International, notes that a play she wrote along with mutilated refugee women could not be performed. Her coauthors told her, "Efua, if we put this … on, we will be killed." Many of us outsiders are not so threatened. At the very least we will be perceived as meddling, our gravest risk to be labeled arrogant or insulting. Admittedly, words which avoid degrading the victims are hard to find. Renaming them "warriors" and "survivors" doesn't really do the trick. Even the term "mutilation" has been criticized, and neutral words have eluded the most skillful pens. Witness Walker's use of "brainwashed" and "indoctrinated"; two initiates were "programmed to say nothing they felt." I perceive in these comments not only outrage but a specifically American blindness to aspects of cultural difference I attribute in part to monolinguality and the devaluation of intimate experience in foreign cultures. The fact that neither Walker nor Parmar resided for a considerable period in the societies they portray proves a handicap. For instance, in their original proposal, they expect to film people "talking … about their sexual and psychological experiences of genital mutilation"; they are surprised when Aminata Diop tells them her language has no words to discuss the topic. They seem genuinely taken aback on encountering a culture of silence.

I also find slightly irritating the inevitable lacunae in the work of people new to the field. Although I applaud the urgency and speed with which author and film maker took an idea and transformed it into media, it is simply not true of the international movement, as Pratibha notes, that "except for the writings and voices of a handful of white feminists over the last decade or so, there has been a deafening silence." As far back as 1986, Dr. Lilian Passmore Sanderson, under the auspices of the Anti-Slavery Society for the Protection of Human Rights, published Female Genital Mutilation; Excision and Infibulation, a bibliography containing seventy densely filled pages.

Nonetheless, I urge you to see the video and read the book. Show the film to your classes…. Join the chorus of African women shown demonstrating in the film. "We condemn FGM!" they shout. When asked why, they explain: that evening, February 1, 1992, a councillor in Brent had raised a motion to legalize "female circumcision," arguing that British women too might benefit from it. "We feel very strongly about this," Bisi Adeleya-Fayemi tells the camera, "it is child abuse and degrades women." And nurse-midwife Comfort I. Ottah adds, "I helped a little girl who came to me and asked why? Why hadn't the government protected her from her parents? This is not culture. This is torture."

Claire Messud (review date 11 November 1994)

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SOURCE: "Ancient Spirits," in TLS, No. 4780, November 11, 1994, p. 19.

[In the following review, Messud states that while many of Walker's earlier short stories are skillful, her later stories are more like memoirs or essays which uphold a political agenda rather than art.]

None of the pieces in The Complete Stories of Alice Walker is new: the book is a combined reprinting of her two earlier collections, You Can't Keep A Good Woman Down and In Love and Trouble. It seems perhaps premature, given Walker's relative youth, to have deemed these two books the sum total of her short fiction output, and cynical readers might here spy a marketing strategy designed to dupe fans into buying duplicate copies of the stories unawares. The collection does, however, afford the opportunity to read again the work Walker produced before The Color Purple brought her immense success and she began to focus more particularly on the novel form. The short story is at once elastic and rigid, and Walker reveals her ability to stretch it to its limits, as well as her occasional failure to gauge where it will break. The stories here are a varied lot, reflecting the times in which they were written and the particular cultural heritage out of which Walker writes. Whether successful or not, they are all personal works of art, written with self-awareness and integrity.

This can be a mixed blessing. The stories are at their strongest when they are least overtly self-conscious. "The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff", for example, bears the weight of Walker's family history (a story her mother told her) and of her ethnicity (the traditional power of voodoo in Southern black culture), but it carries these things lightly. The story, almost fabular, is engaging and memorable, telling of the curse put on a white woman by the black woman she had wronged many years before. Walker has written that, when working on the story, "I had that wonderful feeling writers get sometimes, not very often, of being with a great many people, ancient spirits, all very happy to see me consulting and acknowledging them." It is a feeling subtly but powerfully conveyed in the fabric of the story; and it is also present in a number of other pieces, among them "Strong Horse Tea" (also about a witch-doctor), "To Hell With Dying" and "Elethia".

All but one of these are from Walker's first collection, which was, overall, very fine. The remaining one, "Elethia", though it is a marvellous tale, is a patchy piece of prose. It opens, "A certain perverse experience shaped Elethia's life, and made it possible for it to be true that she carried with her at all times a small apothecary jar of ashes." This sentence is dreadful in its failure, in the carelessness that has allowed the bunching of meaningless words ("made it possible for it to be true") at its core. In a short story, such a lapse is nearly irredeemable, and yet, only a few pages later, Walker's prose crackles with life: "They used to beat him severe trying to make him forget the past and grin and act like a nigger. Whenever you saw somebody acting like a nigger, Albert said, you could be sure he seriously disremembered his past."

The stories that made up the second collection rarely offer such strong writing. Manifestations of a more relentless self-consciousness, they are frequently signs of Walker's political involvement at the expense of her art. While individual stories like "Fame", about an elderly black woman writer fed up with receiving awards, allows moments of levity or irony, many are closer to memoirs or essays—like the uniquely awful "Coming Apart", a pedantic introduction to a collection of essays on pornography which Walker subsequently called a short story. They strive bluntly to work out issues rather than to tell tales. In bulk, the tone of these later stories is often both self-righteous and confused, as Walker thinks through her observations on black identity, abortion, sex, feminism, the politics of black on white rape … often without drawing any notable conclusions. By doing her thinking out loud, she allows the reader neither the space to think for herself nor the luxury of literary enjoyment. Nor is the carelessness of "Elethia"'s opening sentence singular; the wholly ominous beginning of a lengthy, wandering, weak story entitled "Source" reads, "It was during the year of her first depressing brush with government antipoverty programs that San Francisco began to haunt Irene". Neither enticing nor grammatical, it wears its preachiness like a red flag, and would be enough to deter even Walker's most ardent supporters.

Addressing the Black Students Association at her alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College, in 1971, Walker said:

The truest and most enduring impulse I have is simply to write…. My major advice to young artists would be that they shut themselves up somewhere away from all debates about who they are and what color they are and just turn out paintings and poems and stories and novels."

But she went on "of course the kind of artist we are required to be cannot do this. Our people are waiting. But there must be an awareness of … what is practical and what is designed ultimately to paralyse our talents. For example, it is unfair to the people we expect to reach to give them a beautiful poem if they are unable to read it."

Although uttered at the time when Walker was writing some of her best stories, this extraordinary statement may explain what went wrong later. It seems to condone the production of second-rate art out of political motivation. It is not clear why it would not be possible, desirable or fair to create the most beautiful poems, then teach people to read them, rather than to patronize one's audience with unsubtle and unsophisticated work.

Apparently as a result of this misguided conviction, Alice Walker's later stories do not bear out the promise of her earlier ones. Perhaps her concentration over the past decade on the novel rather than the short story has been a wise decision. But it would be a pity to think that she would not again produce short narratives like "The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff".

Alyson R. Buckman (essay date Summer 1995)

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SOURCE: "The Body as a Site of Colonization: Alice Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy," in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 18, No. 2, Summer, 1995, pp. 89-94.

[In the following essay, Buckman analyzes how the body can become a site of colonization, and the different methods of resistance as shown in Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy.]

Imperialism is an economic, political, institutional, and cultural phenomenon that has been practiced by power elites in relation to the masses of the United States, especially in relation to Native Americans, blacks, women, and immigrant groups such as Asians. Although the term is generally used to describe the control of one nation over the political, cultural, or economic life of another, it may be extended to include internal, as well as external, colonialism. The colonial relationship is one of domination and subordination among groups and is constructed primarily on notions of difference; it is established and maintained in order to serve the interests of the dominant group, fortifying its position and eroding choice for non-elites through force, authority, influence, and dominance. Elites include those in positions of influence and power, i.e., those who have access to resources that enable them to dominate in the creation of policy and culture: religious, political, and economic leaders; educators; artists; publishers; and professional associations, such as the American Medical Association.

The colonial relationship is not only physical, but psychic and cultural as well. Ideology occupies a dialectical relation to legislation, economics, and culture: it arises from and contributes to a system of exclusionary power relations. Those colonized have less access to resources as they are subordinated economically and politically; what resources they do have are tenuous as their bodies, which have become commodities, are dispensable in a surplus labor force. Imaging is one tool used to justify this exclusion and subordination, constructing those colonized as deserving of their lower status.

For instance, Charles Murray's "Model Minority" thesis is used to image blacks as lazy and socially parasitic in comparison to model Asians; if they wanted to live up to their Lockean social contract and take individual responsibility for their welfare, they could. The only reason blacks form a disproportionate number of the unemployed is that they are just too lazy to go out and get a job; instead, they live off of whites. Such propaganda as this reinforces stereotypes conducive to retaining elites in power. Violence is often a result of such imaging; these stereotypes and ideologies often promote physical as well as psychic violence, such as low self-esteem and despair, within and against non-elites. Incidents such as those of Bernhard Goetz, Rodney King, Vincent Chin, Bensonhurst, and the Los Angeles riots are an (il)logical result.

The image-making process is thus a vital part of how domination is (de)constructed. bell hooks and other authors agree that control over the image-making process is a vital part of systems of domination; while hooks specifically discusses racial domination, this is true for gender, sexual, and economic domination as well. Hegemonic discourse must therefore be disrupted and transformed as part of the process of decolonization; those who are dominated must be able to see themselves "oppositionally, to imagine, describe, and invent ourselves in ways that are liberatory." For example, in order to fight against their economic status as the lowest paid workers in America and their status as the primary victims of sterilization abuse and abortion, black women must take control of the image-making process as part of revolutionary activity.

One example of this taking control is Alice Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy; this text functions as an example of revolutionary action against the oppression of those colonized by the imperialist gaze. The female body and the African body are exposed as sites of colonization by power elites; the ritual of female genital mutilation and the AIDS epidemic are both imaged as means to oppression. However, in Walker's text these bodies also become sites of resistance to domination by power elites. In addition, the power relations in this text are not simplistically demarcated in a binary of colonized versus colonizer/good versus evil. Walker posits a complex system of power relations in which those oppressed themselves become oppressors through hegemonic systems.

The female body is revealed as a site of male and national colonization through the ritual clitoridectomy and infibulation that the protagonist, Tashi/Evelyn Johnson, undergoes. Walker bases the experience of her fictional character upon fact. Genital mutilation impacts upon approximately 100 million women worldwide; this is a procedure generally covered by the comparatively innocuous term "female circumcision." This mutilation ranges from knicking the clitoris to infibulation (the excising of all external genitalia and the sewing shut of the vulva—except for a tiny opening barely large enough to allow the passage of very small quantities of blood and urine). The girls and young women who undergo this procedure sometimes die, and medical complications, such as infections and problematic labors, frequently result.

The procedure is based on a variety of reasons dependent on the culture; aesthetic, social, hygienic, and moral values in varying combinations form the basis of this practice. In Olinkan culture (the fictional setting of Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy) as in other cultures, the practice is based on a desire to limit women's sexuality and increase male pleasure. Without the clitoridectomy and infibulation, the woman is imaged as dirty, masculine, and whorish; the general belief is that the genitalia of the "uncircumcised" woman will continue to grow and become masculine, enabling her to satisfy herself. She is generally unable to marry, thus affecting her economic status as well.

For those faced with conflict between traditional and colonial influence, the ritual of genital mutilation gains added significance as a means of resisting tribal colonization. Tashi is a native African woman who is sensitive to the threat posed her people by outside colonizers. When her village is destroyed by a rubber manufacturer from England, Tashi engages in the revolutionary activity of embracing traditional tribal rituals; it is her way of resisting tribal erasure. And, indeed, this activity is sanctioned by a revolutionary figure known only as "Our Leader" (it is against colonial law to mention the man's name out loud), who bears considerable likeness to the Kenyan leader Jomo Kenyatta. Kenyatta, too, encouraged Africans to return to tribal rituals, such as female genital mutilation, as part of anti-colonial activity. The body is the only means of resistance left, as everything else has been stripped away by the foreign colonizers. Tashi narrates,

I had taken off my gingham Mother Hubbard [that the missionaries had given the women of the tribe to wear]. My breasts were bare. What was left of my dress now rode negligently about my loins…. We had been stripped of everything but our black skins. Here and there a defiant cheek bore the mark of our withered tribe. These marks gave me courage. I wanted such a mark for myself.

However, although Tashi willingly requested to be "bathed" by the tsunga M'Lissa ("bathed" is a euphemism for the ritual; tsunga is a word Walker coined to describe the woman who performs the ritual), she did not realize what, precisely, was involved. This is partly due to the fact that discussing the ritual is taboo; it is enshrouded in a silence that helps to keep the practice intact. She did not realize either the physical or psychic damage that would result from the ritual.

Once a woman who took pleasure in her body, Tashi is embarrassed by the shuffling walk and odor that are characteristic results of the procedure (her menstrual period takes ten days and some of the blood is unable to get out due to the smallness of the vaginal opening); in addition, neither she nor Adam, her husband, could ever again experience the sexual pleasure they had before the operation. The operation ensures that the woman will have no pleasure through vaginal intercourse, and Adam, a non-tribal American male, does not enjoy either the blood or the pain that results for Tashi from forcing the vaginal opening wider. A part of Tashi's self hides away after the ritual ceremony; she is no longer the woman she once was.

Two other examples of genital mutilation are given to the reader to underscore the prevalence and pain of this practice: that of Dura, Tashi's older sister, and that of M'Lissa, the tsunga. Dura's experience is key as it forms part of Tashi's post-ritual madness. A hemophiliac, Dura died as a result of the ritual performed at M'Lissa's hands. After this traumatic occurrence, Tashi experiences a sort of amnesia related to her ensuing madness; when she overcomes this amnesia, a vital part of her cure is effected. This part of the cure entails naming her and her sister's oppression; Dura's death is named a murder which, in addition to the traumatic effects of the ritual upon Tashi, must be revenged. And the person upon whom vengeance must be visited is the one who performed the ceremony and the one praised as a national treasure: M'Lissa.

M'Lissa is also a victim of genital mutilation. She drags her left leg behind her, as the tendons were severed during the operation. M'Lissa's mother (the tsunga at the time) had attempted to simply knick M'Lissa's clitoris; the male witch doctor, however, was vigilant and, perceiving a violation of the ceremony, performed a thorough clitoridectomy and infibulation himself. As M'Lissa bucked under the razor-sharp stone, he also cut the tendons in her left leg.

Although M'Lissa is a victim, the reader is not persuaded to empathize with her plight. Although her body is marked and experienced as a site of male domination, she becomes the next tsunga and thus becomes complicitous with the patriarchy. She learns to stop feeling and becomes callous in the performance of her "duty." As this ritual is her livelihood, she decides to ensure her own autonomy at the expense of other women, women whom she sees as fools. She believes the women themselves to be the agents of their own domination; in her eyes, if women are stupid enough to obey this tradition, then they deserve everything they get as a result. Tashi puts this sort of belief as follows, describing its consequences: "'If you He to yourself about your own pain, you will be killed by those who will claim you enjoyed it.'"

In looking at the female body as a site of colonization in this text, then, a few points are clear. First, those who are colonized may also act as colonizers. This is true of both the tribal leaders who encourage genital mutilation and the tsunga M'Lissa. As the leaders are subordinated to English colonial authority, so, too, do they subordinate women to their own authority, limited as it may be. As Audre Lorde writes, genital mutilation "is not a cultural affair as the late Jomo Kenyatta insisted. It is a crime against black women." Nationalism does not excuse oppression.

Second, Walker avoids easy binary oppositions of male/female, colonizer/colonized, white/black, European/African, and good/evil. This second point is further developed through the use of Adam and his sister, Olivia. While Adam and Olivia are both black Americans and, thus, victims of oppression themselves, they are also agents of colonization. As part of a missionary family (their mother, father, and aunt acted as missionaries to the Olinkans until the village was destroyed), they are seen as outsiders and, more importantly, as cultural TNT by the Olinkans. The mores (concerning religion, clothing, education, sexuality, beauty, et cetera) that Adam and Olivia's family had brought to the tribe are seen as the means to colonization that they are. Tashi phrases this discourse in the following way in a conversation with Olivia before she leaves for the ritual:

They are right, I said to her from my great height astride the donkey, who say you and your family are the white people's wedge…. All I care about now is the struggle for our people, I said. You are a foreigner. Any day you like, you and your family can ship yourselves back home…. Who are you and your people never to accept us as we are? Never to imitate any of our ways? It is always we who have to change…. You are black, but you are not like us. We look at you and your people with pity, I said. You barely have your own black skin, and it is fading…. You don't even know what you've lost! And the nerve of you, to bring us a God someone else chose for you!

In this quote we can see the complexities of both intranational and international colonization for both America and Africa. Here we have two African-Americans who have accepted a religion, foreign to their ancestry, that was once used as a justification for slavery; in turn, they are asking Africans to replace their beliefs with this same religion. We have a woman who comes from and represents a patriarchal background, in religious as well as other American ideologies, begging another woman not to submit to a patriarchal tradition. And we have a woman who, in asserting and celebrating her tribal identity, is victimized by that tribal belief system.

Walker also complicates the male/female binary. For example, the character of Adam provides further complexities. As a colonizer, Adam acts as religious, male, and American figures of domination. The moment at which Tashi spiritually left their relationship, she tells us, is when Adam, a progressive minister, refused to give a sermon on female suffering as evidenced in Tashi's mutilation; he had lectured on the suffering of Christ, and Tashi believed he should lecture on the suffering of women like herself as well.

I grew agitated each time he touched on the suffering of Jesus…. I am a great lover of Jesus, and always have been. Still, I began to see how the constant focus on the suffering of Jesus alone excludes the suffering of others from one's view…. Was woman herself not the tree of life? And was she not crucified? Not in some age no one even remembers, but right now, daily, in many lands on earth?… One sermon, I begged him. One discussion with your followers about what was done to me…. He said the congregation would be embarrassed to discuss something so private and that, in any case, he would be ashamed to do so.

Adam has the power to help revolutionize understanding of structures of domination, yet he refuses this possibility and becomes complicitous in maintaining a disempowering silence.

However, he, too, is hurt by the system of oppression. Although men are not victims of sexism in the way that women are, there are ways in which they are adversely affected by it; many men experience the pain of their mothers, sisters, and daughters as they encounter sexism, often experiencing the ramifications of colonization with them. Specifically, Adam acts as an anchor to Tashi's psychically unbalanced life. He is the caretaker, for instance, when Tashi unconsciously slashes rings around her ankles. He remains with her throughout her voluntary commitments to a mental hospital and her episodic rages. He is also unable to have intercourse with his wife and thus experiences some of the same rupture in sexuality as Tashi does. Thus, the way in which her body has been colonized as a site of subordination has affected his own existence as well.

Another male, Benny, is also hurt by the colonization of Tashi's female body. Benny is the son of Tashi and Adam, and his trip through the birth canal was impeded by Tashi's infibulation; the vaginal opening was not large enough and part of Benny's brain was crushed during labor. As a result, Benny was born retarded. Although he functions fairly well, he cannot remember things and constantly has to take notes on conversations and instructions. Benny is also affected by Tashi's emotional disturbances, constantly rebuffed by the emotional wall surrounding his mother. Although he tries to snuggle up to her, both symbolically and literally, she pushes him away. Benny, although an American male, is clearly not aligned with the colonizer.

To complicate things even further, the male body becomes a site of colonization as the text proceeds; this occurs through the representation of the African AIDS epidemic. While women and children form the background to the AIDS ward, Hartford, a young African male, is foregrounded as an AIDS victim. It is Hartford who reveals to the audience one version of how the AIDS epidemic began. Hartford was recruited to work for a medical laboratory in Africa, first as a hunter of green monkeys and then as a decapitator of those same monkeys. Through his narrative (and Walker's notes, which follow the main text), Germans, Dutch, Americans, Australians, and New Zealanders are all implicated in the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic, as the white technicians use these monkeys in an attempt to find a cure for polio. However, some of the vaccine was contaminated and disseminated within the African population, which was used as a test subject.

This version of the AIDS epidemic corresponds, at least in part, to information that Tom Curtis, a journalist, has uncovered about the origins of the disease. Between 1957 and 1960, Curtis has discovered, at least 325,000, and perhaps more than a half million, people received an oral polio vaccine in equatorial Africa—which was then the Belgian Congo, Burundi, and Rwanda; this section of Africa is now the epicenter of the epidemic. The polio virus was nourished on monkey kidneys, some of which were infected with monkey viruses. While researchers knew about some of these viruses, others were unknown to them; as a result, they could not be screened out of the vaccines. However, the oral vaccine was apparently used prematurely in the Congo, as Dr. Hilary Koprowski competed with Dr. Albert Sabin to be the first to produce the favored polio vaccine. The successful polio immunization of the caretakers of 150 chimpanzees (who were test subjects for the vaccine) became the basis for mass trials in Africa.

In both Curtis and Hartford's narratives, the African body becomes a site of domination; Africans form a disposable supply of test subjects for Western doctors and technicians. In other myths of the origins of AIDS that Walker touches on, the intellectuals among the AIDS victims reach the conclusion that "it must have been an experiment, like the one conducted on black men in Alabama, who were injected with the virus that causes syphilis, then studied as they sickened and died. The kind of experiment that would not have been hazarded on European or white American subjects." This narrative, in conjunction with Hartford's testimony, clearly depicts the African body as a site of colonization.

The AIDS and genital mutilation narratives clearly posit the body, specifically male and female African bodies, as a site of both international and intranational colonization. Both Western and male ideologies posit the Other (African, female) as a commodity whose definition should be fixed by the power elite; after all, the Other is inferior to the dominant self and can be readily displaced within the system of power. This power differential is incorporated through colonial law, tribal traditions and leadership, economics, and cultural products such as image production. However, this system, which produces psychic and physical violence, can be disrupted through the image-making process and the rejection of silence; both are integral parts of revolutionary activity, and both are used in Walker's text.

In discussing a ritual that is traditionally taboo and in verbalizing a creation myth for AIDS that is vehemently denied by dominant groups, Walker deconstructs the silence that helps to empower these groups and disempower the Other. In addition, Walker constructs empowering images of the colonized, enabling the Other to transcend objedification and become subject. Part of this quest for transcendence is constituted by history.

Although Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks turns his back on the past in favor of the present and future, it seems to me that the three are necessarily related as history (and, by implication, memory) can act as a witness against oppression; I am, of course, not referring to histories written by the power elite. If the colonized refuse to forget the past, then they also refuse to be complicitous in their oppression, as it will not be forgotten. As bell hooks writes, "Memory sustains a spirit of resistance. Too many red and black people live in a state of forgetfulness, embracing a colonized mind so that they can better assimilate into the white world." While history may be painful, the Other can, in remembering, deconstruct the history of the colonizer and its falsifying representation of the colonized. Memory can then act as a catalyst against oppression.

Tashi's ability to gain control over her memory and accuse those responsible for her psychic and physical trauma and for Dura's death is the key to her recovery from madness and her growth in agency. Whereas previously her madness was self-defeating, once she gains control over her memory and is able to identify those who have oppressed her and other women, she is able to once again experience agency. Militancy is chosen over madness. Tashi returns to Africa and murders M'Lissa, enacting revenge for scores of women. Her act is not only against M'Lissa, however; M'Lissa has become a "national monument" and, in her act against M'Lissa, Tashi acts against the patriarchy that would subdue womanhood.

That this is not an individual act of aggression with limited consequences is evidenced by the demonstrations of African and Muslim women (also victims of genital mutilation) once Tashi is placed on trial. Professional women visit the president to ask for an appeal of Tashi's death sentence while other women stand vigil outside the jail in solidarity with Tashi, even as they are faced with men physically and verbally abusing them. While M'Lissa was a monument to the patriarchy, Tashi becomes a heroine to oppressed and subjugated women worldwide. These women testify to her status at her execution as well, enacting a pageant of solidarity. The last thing that Tashi sees, which explicates the meaning of her actions, is a banner reading "RESISTANCE IS THE SECRET OF JOY!" (original emphasis).

Not only does Walker image the body as victim, as a site of colonization, but she shows how the status of victim and Other can be transcended to that of agent and subject. Relations of oppression are also complexly imaged. In unmasking systems of domination, many authors are accused of not taking the next logical step and proposing a new solution; this is not the case with Walker. Her text acts as a revolutionary manifesto for dismantling systems of domination. As such, her text is that of a radical. To simply strive for social and economic equality with white men or to simply combat racism is not enough, although liberal and conservative ideology might propose these as solutions for sexism, racism, and classism. Instead, the complete system must be overturned. And the first step is overcoming the silence that empowers dominant groups; this is part of an overall resistance that might very well be the key to the secret of joy.

Francine Prose (review date 2 January 1996)

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SOURCE: "Celebrity and Other Complaints," in Washington Post Book World, January 2, 1996, p. 5.

[In the following review, Prose criticizes the boasting and complaining tone of Walker's The Same River Twice, a book comprised of essays, interviews, fan letters, and other writings.]

Whenever someone in our family lamented what might have seemed to others an enviable excess (too much work, too much travel, too many social obligations) my late father-in-law, who in old age was hard of hearing, used to shout at the top of his lungs, "Are you boasting or complaining?" Almost every page of The Same River Twice may make the most polite and patient readers long to ask Alice Walker that aggressively sensible question—and at pretty much the same volume.

The Same River Twice is a deeply peculiar compendium of diary entries, fan letters, accolades, reviews, admiring essays and interviews, a film synopsis and a screenplay. Most of these documents relate to the transformation of Walker's novel, The Color Purple, into the film directed by Steven Spielberg—a film that shares the book's title but not (according to its author) its subtexts and subtleties. Not only was the process of filming the novel fraught with complication, but so was Walker's personal life during that same period, a decade ago. Her mother was critically ill, she herself was suffering from Lyme disease, and her "partner of many struggling but overall happy years" has just informed her that her distraction and sexual inattention had driven him to have an affair with a former lover.

Certainly there have been many writers who have (or could have, if they'd been alive) complained about the tasteless hash that Hollywood made of their fiction. Tolstoy, Faulkner, Dickens, Fitzgerald, Flaubert—the brightest stars in our literary firmament—should by all rights rise from the grave, en masse, to decry unfortunate casting choices and faux happy endings. Our sympathies go out to these writers, as they do to anyone enduring the ordinary human disasters of illness and heartbreak, the suffering Alice Walker describes in these pages.

But Walker seems to have so lost touch with the lives and sensibilities of ordinary humans that she apparently cannot hear how her complaints (so often indistinguishable from boasts) might sound to the less fortunate, who have been less generously favored by greatness. It's clear that Walker has legions of worshipful fans; one section of the book comprises their adoring letters: "I am a lover, not only of The Color Purple, but just about everything you have written. The depth of sensitivity and struggle that you bring to your characters amazes me still. Your essays … touch me beyond belief. I understand you more as a person, a human being, with every reading."

Such devotion may not ask its object to temper brilliance with modesty, to leaven profundity with humility. But the unconverted may find their good moods beginning to sour early in the book, when Walker confides in her diary (and in us): "'Fame' exhausts me … I am still tired from being 'recognized' by the Pulitzer Prize. I am sent countless manuscripts to read, books to endorse, there are invitations and award offerings that I couldn't begin to accept."

Many, I'm sure, will be charmed by the New-Age daffiness that is partly at fault for Walker's Lyme disease—she was bitten by ticks while lying "on the earth in worship" as is her "habit as a born-again pagan." A similar faith persuades her to face the premiere of the Spielberg film armed with a magic wand: "It is over a foot long with a handle made of black walnut and with almost a two-inch crystal on the end … I think my magic wand helped, and afterward Gloria [Steinem] and Mort [Zuckerman] came up and we hugged."

But won't some readers be taken aback by Walker's sense of her own importance, her mission—a conviction that at moments seems to border on the egomaniacal? It's one thing to have mixed feelings about the film version of one's novel. It's quite another to congratulate one's self on the fact that "because I followed love and joyous curiosity through the twists and turns of the labyrinth … I did find all the women in The Color Purple, who together are the sacred feminine that, because of the accessibility of the film, can be beamed across a world desperate for its return." A song written for the film is "a signal of affirmation that women could hum to each other coast to coast … an immeasurable gift to the bonding of women." She seems to feel that her work—had it been more widely read—could have reduced the violence in contemporary society. Even her refusal to let the film be shown in South Africa (still then under the rule of apartheid) strikes an almost comically wrong note: "Can you imagine how much I want to share The Color Purple with my brothers and sisters of South Africa?… What joy it would be to imagine Winnie and Nelson sitting in front of their VCR, laughing, crying, smiling, sighing, or even being appalled."

Perhaps the problem is that Alice Walker has been too ready to believe the passionate fan letters of the sort that appear in the book, letters from readers so touchingly eager to understand her "as a person." And one can only hope that these fans will be deeply moved by the section documenting Walker's struggle to recover the "3 percent share of the gross" promised by her contract and her reluctant willingness to "settle for three million." I know that I kept hearing my father-in-law's voice, his honest, working-class scorn for those guilty of the cardinal sin he called "crying all the way to the bank."

Further Reading

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Criticism

Allan, Tuzyline Jita. "Womanism Revisited: Women and the (Ab)Use of Power in The Color Purple." In Feminist Nightmares: Women at Odds, edited by Susan Ostrov Weisser and Jennifer Fleischner, pp. 88-105, New York: New York University Press, 1994.

Discusses the negative aspects of female power in Walker's The Color Purple.

Baker, Jr., Houston A. and Charlotte Pierce-Baker. "Patches: Quilts and Community in Alice Walker's 'Everyday Use.'" Southern Review 21, No. 3 (July 1985): 706-20.

Compares the art of quilting in Walker's "Everyday Use" to overcoming chaos by skillfully stitching life's fragments.

Carter, Nancy Corson. "Claiming the Bittersweet Matrix: Alice Walker, Sandra Cisneros, and Adrienne Rich." Critique XXXV, No. 4 (Summer 1994): 195-204.

Discusses the journey of the artist as portrayed in Walker's In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, Sandra Cisneros's The House of Mango Street, and Adrienne Rich's Your Native Land, Your Life: Poems.

Dieke, Ikenna. "Toward a Monistic Idealism: The Thematics of Alice Walker's The Temple of My Familiar." African American Review 26, No. 3 (Fall 1992): 507-14.

Discusses interdependency and the universal chain of being in Walker's The Temple of My Familiar.

Digby, Joan. "From Walker to Spielberg: Transformations of The Color Purple." In Novel Images: Literature in Performance, edited by Peter Reynolds, pp. 157-74, London: Routledge, 1993.

Compares and contrasts Walker's novel The Color Purple to the film based on the novel directed by Steven Spielberg.

Estes, David C. "Alice Walker's 'Strong Horse Tea': Folk Cures for the Dispossessed." Southern Folklore 50, No. 3 (1993): 213-29.

Analyzes the place of folk medicine in the African-American tradition, especially as it relates to women, in Walker's "Strong Horse Tea."

Harris, Norman. "Meridian: Answers in the Black Church." In his Connecting Times: The Sixties in Afro-American Fiction, pp. 98-119, Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1988.

Discusses three themes found in Walker's Meridian, including "(1) a form of parental and institutional socialization that does not connect the individual to his or her history, (2) problems within relationships between black men and women, and (3) the ascendancy of the black power movement (nationalism) and the diminution of the civil rights movement (integration)."

Hernton, Calvin C. "Who's Afraid of Alice Walker?" In his The Sexual Mountain and Black Women Writers, pp. 1-36, New York: Anchor Press, 1987.

Asserts that Walker's The Color Purple is basically a slave narrative, and discusses the fear generated by the novel because of its treatment of black men.

Hite, Molly. "Romance, Marginality, Matrilineage: The Color Purple." In her The Other Side of the Story: Structures and Strategies of Contemporary Feminist Narrative, pp. 103-26, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989.

Compares Walker's The Color Purple to Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and discusses how the two novels relate to literary tradition.

Hollister, Michael. "Tradition in Alice Walker's 'To Hell with Dying.'" Studies in Short Fiction 26, No. 1 (Winter 1989): 90-4.

Offers a review of Walker's "To Hell with Dying" saying that the story "derives emotional power from universalist values, archetypal imagery, and recurrent rhythms."

Jamison-Hall, Angelene. "She's Just Too Womanish for Them: Alice Walker and The Color Purple." In Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints, edited by Nicholas J. Karolides, Lee Burress, and John M. Kean, pp. 191-200, Metachun, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1993.

Asserts that people are uncomfortable with Walker's The Color Purple because in it she is "womanish," resisting convention and insisting on exploring new levels.

Karrer, Wolfgang. "Nostalgia, Amnesia, and Grandmothers: The Uses of Memory in Albert Murray, Sabine Ulibarri, Paula Gunn Allen, and Alice Walker." In Memory, Narrative, and Identity: New Essays in Ethnic American Literatures, edited by Amritjit Singh, Joseph T. Skerrett, Jr., and Robert E. Hogan, pp. 128-44, Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1994.

Discusses the use of recall and amnesia in several works, including Walker's The Temple of My Familiar.

McKay, Nellie Y. "Alice Walker's 'Advancing Luna—and Ida B. Wells': A Struggle Toward Sisterhood." In Rape and Representation, edited by Lynn A. Higgins and Brenda R. Silver, pp. 248-60, New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Discusses the issues of rape, power, and the relationships between black and white women as seen in Walker's "Advancing Luna—and Ida B. Wells."

Marvin, Thomas F. "'Preachin' the Blues': Bessie Smith's Secular Religion and Alice Walker's The Color Purple." African American Review 28, No. 3 (Fall 1994): 411-21.

Discusses the role of Shug Avery as a catalyst to Celie's metamorphosis from a passive victim to a confident woman in Walker's The Color Purple.

Mason, Jr., Theodore O. "Alice Walker's The Third Life of Grange Copeland: The Dynamics of Enclosure." Callaloo 12, No. 2 (Spring 1989): 297-309.

Discusses the use of both physical and fictive enclosure in Walker's work, especially The Third Life of Grange Copeland.

Nadel, Alan. "Reading the Body: Alice Walker's Meridian and the Archeology of Self." Modern Fiction Studies 34, No. 1 (Spring 1988): 55-68.

States that Walker's "Meridian is a lesson in the power of language, the power to retain as well as to distort, to affect as well as to deny."

Selzer, Linda. "Race and Domesticity in The Color Purple." African American Review 29, No. 1 (Spring 1995): 67-82.

Analyzes the relationship between public and private discourse in Walker's The Color Purple.

Wall, Wendy. "Lettered Bodies and Corporeal Texts in The Color Purple." Studies in American Fiction 16, No. 1 (Spring 1988): 83-97.

Asserts that the letters in Walker's The Color Purple act as a second body and give Celie a voice against the power structure.

Waters-Dawson, Emma. "From Victim to Victor: Walker's Women in The Color Purple." In The Aching Hearth: Family Violence in Life and Literature, edited by Sara Munson Deats, Ph.D. and Lagretta Tallent Lenker, M.S., pp. 255-68, New York: Insight Books, 1991.

Discusses how the black women of Walker's The Color Purple overcome victimization through self-love and a reliance on the tradition of their maternal ancestors.

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