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Alice Walker’s Literary Beginnings Drawing Much From Her US, Southern Roots

Alice Walker’s Literary Beginnings Drawing Much From Her US, Southern Roots

Alice Malsenior Walker was born on February 9, 1944, in the Deep South, in Eatonton, Georgia as the eighth and last child of Willie Lee and Minnie Lou Tallulah Grant Walker, who were sharecroppers.

As sharecroppers’ child, Alice Walker knew poverty and racism only too well. For according to her testimony, racism was familiar to her from birth:

When I was born in 1944 my parents lived on a middle Georgia plantation that was owned by a white distant relative, Miss M… M… (During my childhood it was necessary to address all white girls as “Miss” when they reached the age of twelve.) She would never admit to this relationship, of course, except to mock it. Told by my parents that several of their children would not eat chicken skin she responded that of course they would not. No M. would… During the Depression, desperate to feed his hardworking family, my father asked for a raise from ten dollars a month to twelve. Miss May responded that she would not pay that amount to a white man and she certainly wouldn’t pay it to a (black). That before she’d pay (him)… that much money she’d milk the dairy cows herself

Her mother who worked as a domestic and made everything Alice and her seven siblings used, was known for the incredible gardens she grew which Alice Walker later commemorated in her classic essay “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens The Legacy of Southern Black Women.” For through her, Walker became aware of the ways in which southern black women had always been artists, even when that word was not applied to them.

This small rural town of Eatonton, Georgia, both of Walker’s parents being storytellers, and Walker especially being influenced by her mother, whom she described in Our Mothers’ Gardens as “a walking history of our community” had all the ingredients to catapult her into her beginnings as a writer. She has sustained an abiding admiration for the struggles of black women throughout history to maintain an essential spirituality and creativity in their lives, and their achievements becoming sources of inspiration to others.

In Our Mother’s Gardens, Walker wrote: “We must fearlessly pull out of ourselves and look at and identify with our lives the living creativity some of our great-grandmothers were not allowed to know. I stress ‘some’ of them because it is well known that the majority of our great-grandmothers knew, even without ‘knowing’ it, the reality of their spirituality, even if they didn’t recognize it beyond what happened in the singing at church – and they never had any intention of giving it up.”

In this way just from her mother’s artistry, Walker learned that African American women’s experiences and art are based on spirituality especially as related to nature.

The precocious spirit that distinguished Walker’s personality during her early years vanished at the age of eight, when one of her older brother accidentally scarred and blinded her right eye with a BB gun whilst they were playing cowboys and Indians.

Teased by her classmates and misunderstood by her family, Walker became a shy, reclusive youth. Much of her pain however dwindled after a doctor removed the scar tissue six years later.

Even though this infirmity was partially corrected, it left a profound effect on her. Even when she eventually became high school prom queen and class valedictorian, she continued to feel like an outsider. She retreated into solitude which led her into nurturing a passion for reading and writing poetry in solitude. From this period – from her solitary, lonely position of an outcast – she 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.. She thus started recording her observations and feelings in a notebook.

Her experience of being different may in some sense be responsible for her tendency to pursue “forbidden” subjects in her writing.

Walker has commented that as a southern black growing up in a poor rural community, she possessed the benefit of a “double vision.” “Not only is the [black southern writer] in a position to see his own world, and its close community … but he is capable of knowing, with remarkably silent accuracy, the people who make up the larger world that surrounds and suppresses his own.”

Her achievement of being valedictorian of her class, coupled with a state “rehabilitation scholarship” made it possible for her to go to Spelman, a prominent college for black women in Atlanta, Georgia.

During the two years at Spelman she became active in the civil rights movement joining in the rallies, the sit-ins, and freedom marches of the civil rights movement which as she said ‘broke the pattern of black servitude in this country.’ These experiences became the subject of many of her short stories, essays and her second novel Meridian.

She then transferred to Sarah Lawrence College in the Bronx in New York, where she continued her studies as well as her involvement in civil rights. She even traveled to Africa.

In 1962 Jr. in recognition of her attendance at the Youth World Peace Festival in Finland.she was invited to the home of Martin Luther King Jr

Alice Walker volunteered in the voter registration drives of the 1960s in Georgia during which exercise she registered black voters in Liberty County, Georgia. She was also engaged in campaigns for welfare rights and children’s programmes in Mississippi. She later worked as a case worker for the New York City Department of Welfare. Her experience here inspired her story ‘Advancing Luna.”

While at Sarah Lawrence college Walker became pregnant at a time when abortion was illegal. Deciding to commit suicide because of the shame it would bring to their family and the powerlessness she felt, she reconciled herself to having the baby and putting her anxieties, fears and protests into writing. She thereby soon published her first book Once containing poems based on her experiences during the civil rights movement and her travels to Africa as an exchange student during her junior year written while she was a senior at Sarah Lawrence. Walker wrote many of the poems in the span of a week in the winter of 1965, as she wrestled with suicide. It was accepted for publication the same year she graduated.

Influenced by Japanese haiku and the philosophy of French author Albert Camus, Once also contains meditations on love and suicide. Walker speaks openly in her writing about the mental and physical anguish she experienced in contemplating to have an abortion or commit suicide. The poems grew not only from the sorrowful period in which she contemplated death but also from her triumphant decision to reclaim her life. They recount the despair and isolation of her situation, in addition to her experiences in the Civil Rights Movement and of a trip she had made to Africa. Though not widely reviewed, Once marked Walker’s debut as a distinctive and talented writer. Carolyn M. Rodgers in Negro Digest noted Walker’s “precise wordings, the subtle, unexpected twists … [and] shifting of emotions.” Already in Once, Walker displayed what would become a feature of both her future poetry and fiction, an “unwavering honesty in evoking the forbidden, either in political stances or in love.” (Christian)

After she received her bachelor of arts degree from Sarah Lawrence College in 1965, she lived for a short time in New York. Then from the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s, she lived in Tougaloo, Mississippi.

Two years after receiving this degree from Sarah Lawrence, Walker married Melvyn Rosenman Leventhal, a white civil rights attorney. They lived in Jackson, Mississippi, where Walker worked as the black history consultant for a Head Start program at a time when interracial marriage was illegal in Mississipppi working together to desegregate the schools there.

She also served as the writer-in-residence for Jackson State College which later becamew Jackson State University and Tougaloo College.

With the help of a 1967 McDowell fellowship, Walker completed her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, the same year that her daughter, Rebecca Grant, was born , in 1969 and got it published in 1970.

The novel depicts cycles of male violence in three generations of an impoverished southern black family (the Copelands), and displays Walker’s interest in social conditions that affect family relationships, in addition to her recurring theme of the suffering of black women at the hands of men. A father (Grange) abandons his abused wife and young son (Brownfield) for a more prosperous life in the North, and returns years later to find his son similarly abusing his own family. The men in the novel are “thwarted by the society in their drive for control of their lives – the American definition of manhood – [and] vent their frustrations by inflicting violence on their wives.”

Critics praised the realism of the novel. As did Peter Erickson who noted that Walker demonstrated “with a vivid matter-of-factness the family’s entrapment in a vicious cycle of poverty.”

Walker was also often criticised for her portrayal of black men as violent to which she responds in an interview with Claudia Tate in “Black Women Writers at Work: “I know many Brownfields, and it’s a shame that I know so many. I will not ignore people like Brownfield. I want you to know I know they exist. I want to tell you about them, and there is no way you are going to avoid them.”

Through such works published in the 1970’s Walker had a decisive effect on the literary world. Her focus on southern African-American women’s voices helped to galvanize an explosion of African-American women’s creative and critical expressions. Here she explored familial cruelty, especially as triggered by societal forces such as racism, unemployment, and sexism. She challenged the 1960’s African-American cultural nationalists’ idealization of “black manhood” and seldom acknowledging the oppression of women.

Walker on returning to the South after college worked as a voter register in Georgia and an instructor in black history in Mississippi inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s message, as she recounted in Our Mothers’ Gardens, that being a southern black meant “I … had claim to the land of my birth.”

When her marriage to Leventhal ended in 1977, Walker moved to northern California, where she lives and writes today.

Walker continued to write poetry and fiction, and to further explore the South she came from. She described in Our Mothers’ Gardens of being particularly influenced by the Russian writers, who spoke to her of a “soul … directly rooted in the soil that nourished it.” She was also influenced by black writer Zora Neale Hurston, who wrote lively folk accounts of the thriving small, southern black community she grew up in. In Our Mothers’ Gardens she stated how she particularly admired the “racial health” of Hurston’s work: “A sense of black people as complete, complex, undiminished human beings, a sense that is lacking in so much black writing and literature.”

Walker’s appreciation for her matrilineal literary history is evidenced by the numerous reviews and articles she has published to acquaint new generations of readers with writers like Zora Neale Hurston. The anthology she edited, I Love Myself When I Am Laughing … and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader (1979), was particularly instrumental in bringing Hurston’s work back into print. In poems in Good Night Willie Lee( 1979), she described her search for Hurston, which led her to placing a headstone on her unmarked grave. This was undoubtedly an important symbolic moment in the reconstruction of a black female tradition as well as her most important contribution to literary history – her rescue of her southern maternal ancestor.

Walker’s literary influences extends to Harlem Renaissance writer Jean Toomer, black Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks, South African novelist Bessie Head, and white Georgia writer Flannery O’Connor Her creative vision is rooted in the economic hardship, racial terror, and folk wisdom of African American life and culture, particularly in the rural South. Her writing explores multidimensional kinships among women and embraces the redemptive power of social and political revolution.