Sunday, February 9, 2014

Happy Birthday, Alice Walker!

I didn't realize when I watched Beauty in Truth, the American Masters documentary on Alice Walker that aired February 7, had aired then because Ms. Walker's birthday was coming up. Today, February 9, is her birthday. Born in 1944, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author turned 70 today.

The PBS documentary is a loving portrait of the writer, educator, and activist. If you missed it, I recommend you find out when it will air again. I was unaware of all that she'd sacrificed to speak during the Civil Rights Movement, and there are other details of her personal life the documentary reveals that illuminate my understanding of her fiction.

As a result of the film, Ms. Walker's life and literary career have been examined in a number media outlets in the last week. While reading about her, I came across some of Ishmael Reed's criticism of her and her work again. Also, a clip of Mr. Reed railing against Walker and The Color Purple is included in the documentary. In that clip he notl only shows disapproval of Walker's prize-winning novel, but also of lesbians. One his objections to The Color Purple was its inclusion of a lesbian relationship between Celie and Shug. I don't know whether he's changed his mind about lesbians since then, but his attitude toward Ms. Walker remains the same

I remember all the backlash against the book during the 1980s, and the people who objected reminded me of those who command, "Don't air our dirty laundry in public." Today such objections get listed under "respectability politics." There's a long-standing belief among some black Americans that we'd be treated better and make more gains in society if we appear to be saintly in all behavior. Others argue that good behavior doesn't matter in terms of changing the minds of some people about black people: if racists believe people of African descent are inferior, then living above reproach probably won't change their minds. For me, there's a grain of truth in both positions.

I understand that as a people we, African-Americans, see more than our share of negative imagery of our kind in film, online, and on television, so one of the better arguments against books like The Color Purple or Sapphire's Push, to name another, is that they only add to the burden of negative imagery. I also understand why some black men are highly sensitive to negative portrayals of black men (a very specific complaint ).

Many white people don't know any black people well and those they do know represent a narrow segment of the black community. Consequently, whites often project the negative behaviors and attitudes of typical black fictional characters onto all black people, except that one smart black fellow they know. They see the one smart, honest black person they know as the exception to the obvious rule supported by negative tropes and pictures.

The great number of negative images and their repetitions should not be dismissed as "just pictures" because images have power. Pervasive and persistent scary or demeaning images and stereotypes have a rippling harmful effects. For instance, if hiring managers believe all black men are drug dealers and rapists, then they're less likely to hire black men.

However, one of the responsibilities of good literature is to tell the truth, to represent real experiences in the real world.  Ms. Walker writes powerful stories that do that and that also give voice to women, especially marginalized women of color who have too often been silenced. She says she's done it because it's too easy to simply blame white people for every ailment. Some ailments, some bad behavior is the result of being born human and misguided, and we can work to change what we have the power to change. I'm of the same mind as Ms. Walker. It's true we face injustice and racism, but we still need to examine our own dysfunction if we want to recover and heal.

Furthermore, writers write what they know, and Walker said in Beauty in Truth that for The Color Purple she drew on stories about some of the men in her family and their friends (her grandfathers' and great-grandfathers' generation).  So, there's a Mister and a Harpo somewhere. Can we fault writers for sharing their own experiences through their own authentic voices?

Opening this post, I said that when Beauty in Truth aired, I didn't know today was Ms. Walker's birthday. While I didn't know that, I did know about Mr. Reed's and others' hostility toward Ms. Walker and other female writers who are feminists. I have not commented on his issue much because Mr. Reed is also a literary light and award winner. He's entitled to believe what he wants to believe; he can only relate to the world through his own experiences and knowledge. Nonetheless, I won't give him a pass to misrepresent what other luminaries have said in order to lure people to his way of thinking.

I was disappointed to find that he'd misrepresented the words of Nobel laureate Toni Morrison in one of his columns regarding Ms. Walker. Therefore, a few days ago I took the time to set the record straight on that. You can read more about my finding at this link: "Now, hold up, brother: Toni Morrison did not blast Alice Walker."

All that said . . . Happy Birthday, Alice Walker!

1 comment:

Carolyn Moon said...

Thank you for this post. Alice Walker had a considerable influence on my worldview and women's issues, especially in the late 60's and 70's. Most her books line my home library.

Her bravery and her ability to understand how we were idealizing some of the characteristics of the human rights struggle and the treatment of women,yet,addressing associated uncomfortable truths put her in my pantheon of female truth tellers/warriors for subsequent years.

I was surprised at how she addressed those personal aspects of her life with grace and truth as well, although, I must say the mother~daughter drama made me heartsick.

I shall add this to my CD collection and pass it on to my descendants. They should know this woman and her many works!