Alice Walker

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Walker, Alice 1944–

Walker is a black American poet, novelist, short story writer, and essayist whose work has consistently reflected concern for the plight of the black American family. Her fiction is noted for its powerful narrative and sensitive portraits of black life in America. (See also CLC, Vols. 5, 6, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 37-40, rev. ed.)

Chester J. Fontenot

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The double-consciousness of which W.E.B. Dubois writes,] "this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity," produces two warring factions: To be an American and a Black person. The struggle between these two unreconciled strivings threatens to plunge the Black American, in particular the Black artist, into a sort of half-way house, where the artist is neither accepted as a part of the American literary tradition, nor as a Black artist worthy of critical attention. (p. 192)

[Alice Walker's] "The Diary of An African Nun" is a supreme statement of the dilemma. Though this short story is only six pages in length, it contains material for a novella. It is divided into six parts and is set in an African mission school in Uganda, where an African woman has rejected her traditional tribal religion for Christianity. Walker begins Part I by introducing things which are not only foreign to African culture, but which also suggest tension between the "true" spirituality of African culture and the materialistic underpinnings of European culture. (p. 193)

Just as the Europeans question her commitment to the Catholic Church, so does the Black nun feel uneasy about her rejection of African traditional religion and values. She repeats her vows to the Catholic Church, but cannot help remembering the colonization of her people by Europeans. She says that, "I was born in this township, a village 'civilized' by American missionaries."… Walker's usage of quotations around the word "civilized" emphasizes the irony in her using the term. The things which one would call civilized are all materialistic. The first part of the story ends as the nun gazes at the Rewenzori mountains; she tells us that they "show themselves only once a year under the blazing heat of spring."… It is at this time that the snow, which is a false covering, melts and reveals the true nature of the mountains. The nun, like the mountains, is within a sort of superstructure which inhibits natural growth.

Part two seems to suggest the ultimate irony of an oppressed group—that is, the oppressed sees himself or herself through the eyes of the oppressor and seeks to assimilate into the society the oppressor has set up. Once the oppressed achieves this goal, he or she realizes two things: 1) The alien society does not want him or her to be a part of it, and it will never provide the means by which the oppressed can function as a full member of that society; and 2) the oppressed realizes that he or she really doesn't want to become a part of the dominant society…. The oppressed is halfway between the world of the oppressed and that of the oppressor, yet belongs to neither. But the important thing to consider is that to reach a vantage point from where the oppressed can become conscious of his or her predicament requires that the oppressed distance himself or herself from the socio-cultural milieu which confronts him or her. The African nun reaches this ironic stance when she recalls the way she became a nun. (pp. 193-94)

Part three [develops her position towards her new-found faith and culture]…. Walker's language suggests a tension between Christianity and African pagan worship. This tension leads her to question her position in the mission school and finally toward her belief in Christ. (p. 194)

Moreover, she contrasts the down-to-earth sensuality of African tribal religion with the aloofness of Christianity. The nun longs to be "within the black circle around the red, glowing fire, to feel the breath of love hot against...

(The entire section is 4,420 words.)