by Kelly Navies
In assessing the life and work of Alice Walker, one must begin with her birth in Eatonton, Georgia in 1944. It was here that she was born to sharecroppers Minnie Lou Grant and Willie Lee Walker. Growing up in this environment provided Walker with the inspiration for much of her later work. Her mother, despite the hardships of raising eight children in rural Georgia, was known for her magnificent gardens, gardens which Alice brought to life in her classic essay, In Search of our Mothers' Gardens: The Legacy of Southern Black Women, originally published in 1974. With profound insight Walker celebrated the artistic significance of gardening and connected this with the deep spiritual foundation of Southern Black women. This theme was not new to Walker, for one year earlier she had published, Everyday Use, a short story which utilized the quilt as a metaphor for Black Women's' enduring creative legacy. The pervasive influence of Everyday Use on American Literature is the subject of a book of literary criticism titled simply, Everyday Use, edited by Barbara Christian (1994).
In 1961, Alice Walker left Eatonton to attend Spelman College. Her experience there left an indelible imprint on both her life and work. This is reflected most notably in the novel, Meridian (1976), which explores issues of alienation and gender conflict within the Civil Rights movement. Meridian was actually the second in a series designed to introduce three types of Black women characters that Walker felt were missing from much of the literature of the US. In the first category were those sometimes driven to madness by lives of physical abuse and exploitation, such as Margaret and Mem Copeland of Walker's first novel The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970). The second were those women alienated from their culture as the result of psychic violence, such as the protagonist of Meridian. And the third type of black woman are those, who manage to transcend their suffering and thus become integral sources of healing for other oppressed communities. This last character is exemplified by Celie and Shug in The Color Purple.
The Color Purple (1982), describes and celebrates the loving and sexual relationship between two women, through which they are able to find wholeness in the midst of an environment permeated with sexual exploitation and physical abuse. The novel, which reached to the core of dysfunctional relationships that often exist within the black community, received responses that ranged from utter joy and gratitude to absolute anger and resentment. Supporters praised the novel for its powerful writing, spiritual vision, and astute analysis of the sexual politics of African-American life. Detractors criticized its depiction of black men, portrayal of African culture, and glorification of lesbianism. The controversy was further fueled by the making of the film version, which unfortunately did not capture the complex characterization evident in the novel. The Color Purple received the Pulitzer, the National Book Award and the American Book Award, but this did not allay the pain the controversy caused Walker.
Responding to this traumatic affair, Walker published The Same River Twice (1996). In the preface she writes, "Art is the mirror...in which we can see our true collective face. We must honor its sacred function. We must let art help us." Despite the often painful repercussions, she has continued to address controversies, as in her latest novel, Possessing the Secret of Joy, in which she portrays the horror of genital mutilation as practiced in some parts of Africa. For Walker, this is more than just literary exercise: she continues to work towards the eradication of genital mutilation. She has made several trips to Africa and collaborated on a documentary and book-both entitled Warrior Marks.
It should be no surprise that Walker feels so strongly about genital mutilation. This act of repression is the antithesis of Walker's principles. These principles are clearly expressed in her definition of "Womanist," found in In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, and in her belief in an uninhibited paganist spirituality, found throughout her works but most evident in The Temple of My Familiar (1989).
In a recent interview published in Shambala Sun, Walker states that when she started practicing Transcendental Meditation she realized that she was going back to a place she had lived as a child, in her spirit, an open, loving place where she had felt at peace. And so, Alice Walker, who has published so extensively, and received numerous awards, seems to have come a long way from her rural roots. Yet her spirit has remained beneath the trees of her youth.
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