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Walker, Alice 1944–

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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

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[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 my cheeks, the smell of love strong about my waiting thighs!…" If we compare the imagery of snow which covers up the natural passions to the habit the nun wears which covers up her body, we can see that the contrast between the snow and habit on one hand and the mountains and the nun's body on the other further develops this tension. Walker concludes this part of the short story in an almost blasphemous manner. She adopts an ironical tone toward the stereotypical way in which we think of Christ. The nun, thinking about the price she pays for rejecting the sensuous African rituals, tries to move Christianity in the direction of African tribal religion…. (pp. 194-95)

Part four is dominated by the life and vitality of the African people….

Walker contrasts the African images of sexuality—through describing the ritual lovers dance—with the a sexual nature of Christianity. Perhaps this suggests that European civilization is somewhat artificial. There are sins on both the Christian side, which sins against the flesh in preference of a transcendental existence, and on the African side, which sins against the eternal, spiritual world in preference of a continued reenactment of the creation. The lack of sexuality indicates that the European values are a superstructure which covers the African nun, like the snow covers the mountains, until spring, which represents a psychological revival.

Part five reveals the nun's psychological plight. Walker revives the metaphor of spring as the vitality of African culture as opposed to the harshness of European culture (symbolized as winter snow). Perhaps this imagery also suggests the fixed nature of African culture—its durable quality in contrast to the temporary or superficial nature of European culture (the snow melts every spring). It seems that the nun isn't really talking about Christianity as a belief, but as a way of attaining certain things which she couldn't get through African pagan worship. (p. 195)

The nun sees Christianity as a sort of material salvation for her people. She knows that it is spiritually decadent, yet the African people must function in a Christian world. Hence, Christianity becomes a way of teaching her people a conscious lie to further their own ends—survival.

The last section of the short story reveals the nun's paradoxical stance toward what she is doing…. In short, she must walk the tight rope between the two worlds without becoming a part of either, for to become a part of the European world is to die a spiritual death, and to become a part of the African world condemns her to a material death.

If we allegorize the story, we can say that the plight of the African nun is that of the Black intellectual or middle-class …, who find themselves caught between two worlds which are at once complementary and contradictory. The conclusion the nun comes to is that one must be aware of the situation in which one places himself or herself by assuming an alien perspective which contradicts that of his or her native culture. "Civilization" can become something that Blacks can utilize in their struggle for independence, but to do so, they need leaders (much like Dubois' talented tenth) who can teach the masses to put the intricacies of civilization to constructive use. In this way, Black people will be able to see their involvement with American civilization as simply a way of surviving. The adoption of American values by Black Americans on one hand, and of American literary conventions by Black artists on the other, can be seen by analogy as the snow which covers the mountains and as the African nun's habit. This process would move the problem from a psychological predicament to a conscious manipulation of American civilization, and could, therefore, make progress toward lessening the agony Black Americans feel in having to deal with a double-consciousness. (pp. 195-96)

Chester J. Fontenot, "Alice Walker: 'The Diary of an African Nun' and Dubois' Double Consciousness," in Journal of Afro-American Issues, Vol. 5, No. 2, Spring, 1977, pp. 192-96.

Peter Erickson

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One of the major concerns of Alice Walker's art is the exploration of intra-family relationships…. The family dynamic in Alice Walker's work is a key part of the formative influence of "what has gone before." In Walker's first novel, the family configuration is defined by the child's special relationship to her grandfather and by the tension between father and grandfather. The use of the family as an imaginative structure—as a way of organizing experience—then undergoes an important change: the prominence of the grandfather as against the father in the first novel gives way in the second to an emphasis on a daughter's guilt-laden relation to her mother. (p. 71)

The Third Life of Grange Copeland …, a novel which concerns three generations of a rural Southern black family, begins by demonstrating with a vivid matter-of-factness the family's entrapment in a vicious cycle of poverty. Permanently indebted to the white owner of the cotton fields in which he works, Grange Copeland seeks release in drinking, in violence against his wife, and in being "devoid of any emotion."… Particularly convincing is the picture of Grange's submission as seen from the point of view of his son Brownfield, who has begun to work in the fields at the age of six…. (pp. 71-2)

To compensate for his emotionally absent parents, Brownfield dwells in the fantasy created by his "favorite daydream."… (p. 72)

Much of the interest lies in seeing how the novel makes the leap from the pattern of destructive family relationships to the positive image of family at the end…. (p. 73)

The style of narration is deceptively simple. Each element is in itself simple, but the steady accumulation of detail creates a complicated effect of density and generational depth. The novel's forward movement is swift, inexorable, and yet—paradoxically—casual and imperceptible. The numerous shifts of situation through the course of the novel give it an epic-like sweep which makes it seem hard to maintain one's bearings and to keep track of developments as an entire sequence. One crucial event, however, clearly defines the shape of the novel by dividing it in two. This key turning point occurs when Brownfield murders his wife Mem and his father Grange takes away his daughter Ruth…. Prior to this decisive midpoint of the novel, we witness a series of false escapes from despair. Tantalizing hopes are raised to be regularly and cruelly punctured. (pp. 73-4)

Though it is reserved for the second half of the novel, the relationship between Grange and Ruth constitutes the emotional heart of The Third Life of Grange Copeland. This relationship, the most fully developed in the book, is lovingly and often humorously described. Grange's association of Ruth with "innocence" and "miracle" …, the sanctity of family bonds rescued from the threat of degradation, and the air of improbability are reminiscent of Shakespeare's late romance, with the grandfather-daughter tie substituted for father-daughter pairing. In Walker's novel, the relationship between grandfather and daughter is strongly redemptive. Ruth saves Grange; Grange, in turn, saves her. Ruth is the source of Grange's "third life."… Grange nurtures Ruth and, in the end, defends her independence at the cost of his life. The sense of redemption is qualified by the price which has to be paid for it. The novel's conclusion is compelling because it lies somewhere between a happy ending and a melodramatic catastrophe. We cannot help feeling joyful about the fact that Ruth's future is assured, but this emotion is mixed with the realization that her future is based on a sacrifice of whose complexity she is not fully aware.

Beyond suspense about the outcome in terms of plot, there is the drama of Grange's moral predicament. His problem is to coordinate and reconcile his past with his present devotion to Ruth. (p. 76)

Ruth's experience of Grange and of Brownfield is restricted to a relatively simple dichotomy of good and evil. The reader's wider perspective includes some sympathy for Brownfield and the knowledge of Grange's guilt in, for example, exploiting Josie for Ruth's salvation.

The issue of justice in the novel turns on one's evaluation of the distinction between Grange and Brownfield. Brownfield's effort to regain his daughter makes a forceful claim on our sympathy: "'But you was no daddy to me!' he said to Grange, 'and I ain't going to let you keep my child to make up for it!'"… The difference between the two men as it emerges in their confrontation over Ruth is that, unlike Brownfield, Grange has been capable of change due to his acceptance of responsibility…. Brownfield is partly defeated by circumstance: he is not allowed a second chance; there is no granddaughter available to act as a catalyst to help him change. Grange's murder of Brownfield at the conclusion of the novel is not, then, a simple expression of justice. It is rather a tragic resolution of an insoluble conflict between Grange and Brownfield. (pp. 78-9)

"A Sudden Trip Home in the Spring" … provides a striking clarification of the familial themes of The Third Life of Grange Copeland. The reader who approaches the short story by way of the novel recognizes a substantial overlapping. (p. 79)

[The] short story is told exclusively from the daughter's perspective. This centering on the daughter sharpens the conflict in her respective attitudes towards the grandfather and the father. Unlike Ruth in The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Sarah Davis must face in a more sustained way her problematic relationship to her father. Because Sarah is returning to the home she has already left and because she is an artist, the project of recovering her family as a key to her identity is more explicitly formulated….

The crucial image for identity in the story is the face…. As the story unfolds, the generalization about black men is transformed: the image of defeat is attached specifically to Sarah's father, while her grandfather and her brother provide models of victory. (p. 80)

The physical contact with her grandfather and brother, and the perception of their faces are seen as the precondition for the development of Sarah's art. These family faces provide a necessary context and a direction; through them, Sarah sees her way to continuing the search for her own face, her own identity. At the beginning of the story, there is a disparity between Sarah's face and her identity…. Upon her return to school at the end, her face is given back to her…. (p. 81)

The burden of "A Sudden Trip Home in the Spring" is that one must go back to one's family in order to go forward, that the family background must be experienced as a resource rather than a liability. Yet the powerful impact of the story does not come only from Sarah's resolve at the end. Equally engaging is the way this affirmation is complicated by the pressure of unresolved issues concerning the father. To say—without a bitterness which confounds love—"I am my father's daughter" as one of the answers to the question "Who am I?" has not been entirely possible for Sarah. (p. 82)

[Her] inability to establish direct contact with her father remains a limitation. The loss is not simply that her father is dead, but that their failed relationship leaves a psychological void, a gap in her identity. (p. 83)

The exploration of the relationship between Meridian and her mother [in Meridian] is an instance of Alice Walker's ruminative style. A meandering, yet disciplined meditation is effected by continually dropping the subject and later returning to it for a fresh look; intricacy and intensity are built up by this circling back to take up another facet of the mother-daughter relationship, to press the analysis further. Walker establishes a frame of reference in the present from which she can delve into the past. Meridian's mother is introduced in a flashback within a flashback as "that past" which cannot be ignored….

Meridian's troubled feelings about her mother revolve around the conflict between the need to love her mother … and the need to be different from her. Meridian is unable to break away easily from her mother because "an almost primeval guilt" prevents her from criticizing her mother…. (p. 91)

In Meridian's rediscovery of the church, there is perhaps an implicit reconciliation with her mother. In seeing the church (which had originally divided mother and daughter) as a positive force, Meridian accepts a legacy—however transformed—of her mother. Through her experience of the church, Meridian envisions herself as an artist…. (p. 93)

Peter Erickson, "'Cast Out Alone / To Heal / And Re-Create / Ourselves': Family-Based Identity in the Work of Alice Walker," in CLA Journal (copyright, 1979 by the College Language Association), Vol. XXIII, No. 1, September, 1979, pp. 71-94.

Michael Dirda

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Walker's poems [in Good Night Willie Lee, I'll See You in the Morning]—dealing with her parents (Willie Lee is her father), friends and lovers, black history—use clean, clear language and syntax. Sometimes they address the reader directly; often they carry morals and are written as allegories, somewhat reminiscent of Stephen Crane's little symbolic story-poems: "Never offer your heart / to someone who eats hearts / who finds heartmeat / delicious / but not rare / who sucks the juices / drop by drop / and bloody-chinned / grins / like a God."

Michael Dirda, "In Praise of Poetry," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), December 9, 1979, p. 11.∗

Mary Helen Washington

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From whatever vantage point one investigates the work of Alice Walker—poet, novelist, short story writer, critic, essayist, and apologist for black women—it is clear that the special identifying mark of her writing is her concern for the lives of black women. (p. 133)

[There] are more than twenty-five characters from the slave woman to a revolutionary woman of the sixties [about whom she has written]. Within each of these roles Walker has examined the external realities facing these women as well as the internal world of each woman.

We might begin to understand Alice Walker, the apologist and spokeswoman for black women, by understanding the motivation for Walker's preoccupation with her subject. Obviously there is simply a personal identification…. Moreover her sense of personal identification with black women includes a sense of sharing in their peculiar oppression. (p. 134)

Walker understands that what W.E.B. Du Bois called double consciousness … creates its own particular kind of disfigurement in the lives of black women, and that, far more than the external facts and figures of oppression, the true terror is within; the mutilation of the spirit and the body. Though Walker does not neglect to deal with the external realities of poverty, exploitation, and discrimination, her stories, novels, and poems most often focus on the intimate reaches of the inner lives of her characters; the landscape of her stories is the spiritual realm where the soul yearns for what it does not have. (p. 135)

The true empathy Alice Walker has for the oppressed woman comes through in all her writings…. Raising an ax, crying out in childbirth or abortion, surrendering to a man who is oblivious to her real name—these are the kinds of images which most often appear in Ms. Walker's own writing…. (pp. 136-37)

What particularly distinguishes Alice Walker in her role as apologist and chronicler for black women is her evolutionary treatment of black women; that is, she sees the experiences of black women as a series of movements from women totally victimized by society and by the men in their lives to the growing developing women whose consciousness allows them to have control over their lives. (p. 137)

Walker's personal construct of the black woman's history [is] the woman suspended, artist thwarted and hindered in her desires to create, living through two centuries when her main role was to be a cheap source of cheap labor in the American society….

Most of Walker's women characters belong to the first part of the cycle—the suspended woman…. [These] are women who are cruelly exploited, spirits and bodies mutilated, relegated to the most narrow and confining lives, sometimes driven to madness. (p. 139)

In "The Child Who Favored Daughter," the father presides over the destruction of three women in his family: his own wife, whom he drives to suicide after beating and crippling her; his sister, named Daughter, whose suicide is the result of the punishment her family exacts after she has an affair with a white man; and his own daughter, whom he mutilates because she will not renounce her white lover. To understand the violence of this man toward these three women in his family, author Walker makes us know that it is the result of an immense chaos within—the components of which are his impotent rage against the white world which abuses him, his vulnerable love for his child and his sister, both of whom chose white lovers. He is so threatened by that inner chaos that the very act of violence is a form of control, a way of imposing order on his own world. By killing his daughter, he has at once shut out the image of Daughter which haunts him, he has murdered his own incest, and he has eliminated the last woman who has the power to hurt him. (pp. 141-42)

Walker [has] explored the tragedies in the lives of Black women—the tragedy of poverty, abuse from men who are themselves abused, the physical deterioration—but there is greater depth in Walker's exploration because not only does she comprehend the past lives of these women but she has also questioned their fates and dared to see through to a time when black women would no longer live in suspension, when there would be a place for them to move into.

In the second cycle of Walker's personal construct of the history of black women are the women who belong to the decades of the forties and fifties, those decades when black people (then "Negroes") wanted most to be part of the mainstream of American life even though assimilation required total denial of one's ethnicity. (pp. 142-43)

The women in this cycle are also victims, not of physical violence, but of a kind of psychic violence that alienates them from their roots, cutting them off from real contact.

The woman named Molly from Walker's poem "For My Sister Molly Who in the Fifties" is the eldest sister in a poor rural family in Eatonton; she is, in fact, Alice Walker's sister and Walker is the child narrator of the poem mourning the loss of her talented and devoted "Molly." When Molly first comes home on vacation from college, she is very close to her brothers and sisters, teaching them what she has learned, reading to them about faraway places like Africa. The young narrator is enraptured by Molly, spellbound by the bright colorful sister who changes her drab life into beauty…. But being a child, the narrator does not realize or suspect the growing signs of Molly's remoteness. Molly goes off to the university, travels abroad, becoming distant and cold and frowning upon the lives of the simple folks she comes from…. From her superior position [Molly] can only see the negatives—the silent, fearful, barefoot, tongue-tied, ignorant brothers and sisters. She finds the past, her backward family, unbearable, and though she may have sensed their groping after life, she finally leaves the family for good. (pp. 143-45)

The women of the second cycle are destroyed spiritually rather than physically, and yet there is still some movement forward, some hope that did not exist for the earlier generation of American black women. The women in this cycle are more aware of their condition and they have greater potential for shaping their lives, although they are still thwarted because they feel themselves coming to life before the necessary changes have been made in the political environment—before there is space for them to move into. The sense of "twoness" that Du Bois spoke of in The Souls of Black Folk is perhaps most evident in the lives of these women; they are the most aware of and burdened by the "double consciousness" that makes one measure one's soul by the tape of the other world. (p. 145)

The women of the third cycle are, for the most part, women of the late sixties, although there are some older women in Walker's fiction who exhibit the qualities of the developing, emergent model. Greatly influenced by the political events of the sixties and the changes resulting from the freedom movement, they are women coming just to the edge of a new awareness and making the first tentative steps into an uncharted region. And although they are more fully conscious of their political and psychological oppression and more capable of creating new options for themselves, they must undergo a harsh initiation before they are ready to occupy and claim any new territory. (p. 146)

Besides political activism, a fundamental activity the women in the third cycle engage in is the search for meaning in their roots and traditions. As they struggle to reclaim their past and to re-examine their relationship to the black community, there is a consequent reconciliation between themselves and black men.

In Sarah Davis, the main character of Walker's short story, "A Sudden Trip Home in the Spring," we have another witness to the end of the old cycles of confusion and despair. Her search begins when she returns home to the South from a northern white college to bury her father. She is an artist, but because of her alienation from her father, whom she blames for her mother's death, she is unable to paint the faces of black men, seeing in them only defeat…. Through a series of events surrounding her father's funeral, Sarah rediscovers the courage and grace of her grandfather and reestablishes the vital link between her and her brother. Her resolve at the end of the story to do a sculpture of her grandfather … signifies the return to her roots and her own personal sense of liberation. This story, more than any other, indicates the contrast between the women of the second cycle who were determined to escape their roots in order to make it in a white world and the emergent women of the third cycle who demonstrate a sense of freedom by the drive to re-establish those vital links to their past. (pp. 147-48)

Mary Helen Washington, "An Essay on Alice Walker," in Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature, Roseann P. Bell, Bettye J. Parker, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, eds. (copyright © 1979 by Roseann P. Bell, Bettye J. Parker and Beverly Guy-Sheftall), Anchor Press, 1979, pp. 133-49.

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