Thursday, February 9, 2017

Black History Month Birthday: "What the mind doesn't understand, it worships or fears."


Alice Malsenior Walker (1944-   )
Author, poet, activist

Putnam County, Georgia could hardly have produced two more dissimilar writers than Joel Chandler Harris and Alice Walker. While both grew up poor, Harris got his start in writing with a plantation owner’s help, Walker’s parents had no time for that life. After an owner told Mrs Walker, a sharecropper’s wife, that blacks had no need for education, she retorted, while he might had black children he could talk that way to, he’d better never do it in front of hers again.

In a 2013 interview, Walker recalled her childhood:

And I started by writing in the dirt with a twig. So it’s been a very long journey. I started writing poetry because it’s cheaper. You know, if you have limited money and limited—I mean, in a way, you can be so poor that people can’t even imagine how poor you can be. But pencils cost money, and paper also, so I could write poetry and afford to do that. When I was, oh, nine or 10, I started doing that. And then I started writing stories. And I have no real sense of trying to prefer one over the other. It’s just that it seems to me that the times will call for what is needed. And these times right now really are calling for poetry. And that’s because poetry, by its truthfulness and by its connection to soul, can lead us much more directly and clearly and cleanly than almost any other expression in art.

While Walker’s father labored for minimal profit, her mother took a 60+ hour a week job as a maid to help put Alice through college; her hourly wage was about four cents. Alice got a scholarship to Spelman College, then transferred to Sarah Lawrence, from which she graduated in 1965.

After meeting Dr Martin Luther King, Jr at Spellman, Walker took part in the 1963 March on Washington. In 1967 she married a white Jew in New York, where that was legal, and moved to Mississippi, to work registering voters and see if the state would prosecute them under its anti-miscegenation laws. It didn’t; they divorced in 1976.

After holding writer in residence positions at two Mississippi Colleges and published several collections of poetry, Walker moved to the newly-launched Ms Magazine in 1970. Among her most famous work there is the essay, “Looking for Zora,” in which she chronicled her efforts to track for the grave- and legacy- of the African-American novelist Zora Neale Hurston. Finding and erecting a stone over Hurston’s unmarked grave in a Florida segregated cemetery, Walker almost single-handedly revived Hurston’s reputation and caused the republication of her books.

In a 1981 essay, Walker took on the shade of Joel Chandler Harris, claiming he had stolen her people’s legacy with his Uncle Remus stories. Her criticism was so stinging that, 35 years later, you can still read a rebuttal on the Harris memorial’s website.

Walker branched out into novels, winning the Pulitzer Prise and the National Book Award for The Color Purple in 1983. The story got the full Steven Spielberg treatment in a 1985 film that won eleven Academy Award nominations and, as was- and remains- the ways of Hollywood- won none of them, tying the record for strikeouts by one film.

A Guggenheim Fellowship and an O. Henry  Award followed. She has produced 36 books to date, and keeps a full schedule as an activist. In 2013, she conducted the same-sex marriage of one of the producers of the 2005 Broadway musical of The Color Purple. Her main focus, for years, has been the cause of Palestinians in Israel and Gaza, which has led to furious denunciations of her as anti-Semitic and an enemy of Israel. The Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz likened Walker’s refusal to allow translation of The Color Purple into Hebrew as being like the white supremacist David Duke banning the sale of his books to blacks and Jews. Her books have been translated into 24 other languages, and have sold over fifteen million copies. At 73, she remains a singular and provocative voice in American letters.

#HenryBemisBooks #LiteraryBirthdays #Alice Walker #TheColorPurple

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