|A collaborative project between Spelman College and Emory University, the Alice Walker Literary Society’s institutional home is the James Weldon Johnson Institute. |
The Alice Walker Literary Society was established in 1997 to initiate, sponsor and encourage critical dialogue, scholarly publications, conferences, programs and research projects devoted to the study of the life and works of Alice Walker.
Officers of the Society
Rudolph P. Byrd, Co-Chair
Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Co-Chair
Nagueyalti Warren, Membership Coordinator
Valerie Boyd, Secretary
|About Alice Walker
Poet, short story writer, novelist, essayist, anthologist, teacher, editor, publisher, feminist and activist, Alice Malsenior Walker was born on February 9, 1944 under the sign of Aquarius in Ward Chapel, a neighboring community of Eatonton, Georgia. In 1994, Walker changed her middle name to Tallulah-Kate, in honor of her mother and paternal grandmother. As a self-described “daughter of the rural peasantry,” Walker grew up in a loving household near the end of the Great Depression. While poor, the family was rich in love and perspective. From her parents and siblings Walker learned to value the beauty in nature and in this family her artistic aspirations, which included painting and music along with writing, were nurtured. Walker was particularly close to her mother whose love of beauty, fearlessness and legendary skill at gardening are celebrated in her landmark essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.”
The most shaping experience of Walker’s childhood and adolescence occurred in 1952 when she was eight years old. Playing cowboys and Indians with her older brothers Curtis and Bobby, Curtis shot accidentally Walker in the eye with a BB gun. To avoid punishment, the brothers concocted a fiction and pressured their sister to accept it. The physical result was that Walker lost the sight in her right eye. Psychologically, she grew more introspective as a result of the blindness and the scar that disfigured her. Walker also felt sadness, alienation, and betrayal for “an accident became,” as she recalled, “’my accident’---thereby absolving my brothers of any blame.” The scar tissue covering the right eye was subsequently removed through the aid of her brother William when Walker was fourteen. She describes the impact of this transforming event in the essay “Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self.” In her biography of Walker, Evelyn White provides us with the writer’s most current observations on a event that in many ways prepared the ground for her becoming a writer: “The unhappy truth is that I was left feeling a great deal of pain and loss and forced to think I had somehow brought it on myself. It was very like a rape. It was the first time I abandoned myself, by lying, and is at the root of my fear of abandonment. It is also the root of my need to tell the truth, always, because I experienced, very early, the pain of telling a lie.”
Walker attended primary school at East Putnam Consolidated, a school established under the leadership of her father, Willie Lee Walker. She subsequently attended Eatonton’s Butler-Baker High School from which she graduated in 1961 as valedictorian of her class. After graduating from Butler-Baker High School, Walker enrolled at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1961.
While at Spelman, Walker became involved in the civil rights movement. She also developed important friendships with two teachers, the historians Howard Zinn and Staughton Lynd. With the assistance of Lynd, Walker transferred to Sarah Lawrence College in 1964. At Sarah Lawrence, Walker’s commitment to become a writer was nurtured by her teachers, in particular the social philosopher Helen Lynd (mother of Staughton Lynd) and the poets Jane Cooper and Muriel Rukeyser.
After graduating from Sarah Lawrence in 1966, Walker accepted a position at the Welfare Office in New York City. A year later and with a $2,000 travel grant from the philanthropist Charles Merrill, she moved to Greenwood, Mississippi, and worked for the Legal Defense Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Under the supervision of Marian Wright Edleman, Walker took depositions from blacks who had been evicted from their homes for attempting to register to vote. While at the Legal Defense Fund, Walker met Mel Leventhal, a Jewish civil rights lawyer from New York City and a graduate of New York University’s Law School. Walker and Leventhal married in 1967. Two years later on November 17, 1969 their first and only child, Rebecca Grant, was born. Walker and Leventhal divorced in 1976.
Walker’s first published work of fiction is “To Hell With Dying,” which was published in 1967. It appeared in The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers edited by Langston Hughes. In 1988 this story, which chronicles the ups and downs of Mr. Sweet and the two children who work to keep him alive, was published as a children’s book with illustrations by Catherine Deeter. Other works of children’s literature include Langston Hughes: American Poet (1974), Finding the Green Stone (1991), and Why War is Never A Good Idea (2007).
The fiction, in particular the novels, that followed “To Hell With Dying” have established Walker as a major figure in what scholars term the renaissance in African American women’s writings of the 1970s as well as a canonical figure in American letters. In 1970 Walker published The Third Life of Grange Copeland, her first novel. This debut novel chronicles the life of the Copelands, a family of sharecroppers. It is followed by Meridian (1976), Walker’s meditation on the modern civil rights movement as well as her tribute to Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923) and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). In 1982 Walker published The Color Purple, an epistolary novel that explores the trials and triumphs of Celie, the novel’s protagonist. For this achievement, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (the first African American woman to do so) and the American Book Award. Walker published The Temple of My Familiar in 1989, a novel that explores, among many things, black women’s spirituality through the ages. Possessing the Secret of Joy appeared in 1992. In this novel that explores female genital mutilation, Walker’s heroine is Tashi, a character first introduced in The Color Purple. Walker’s commitment to reveal the horrors of female genital mutilation led to the 1993 documentary Warrior Marks, a collaboration with the British-Indian filmmaker Pratibha Parmar. Walker treats the important themes of father/daughter relationships, sexuality, and spirituality in By the Light of My Father’s Smile, published in 1998. In Now is the Time to Open Your Heart (2004), her most recent novel, Walker offers a rich and illuminating exploration of love, spirituality and the search for wholeness in the modern age.
In 1968, Walker published Once, her first book and her first book of poems. This collection of poems is followed by Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems (1973), Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning (1979), Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful (1984), Her Blue Body Everything We Know (1991), Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth (2003), and A Poem Traveled Down My Arm (2003). As a poet, Walker treats a range of themes---freedom and individual expression, suicide, spirituality, love, ecology, civil rights---in free verse that recalls, for its economy and lyricism, such poets as Langston Hughes, Theodore Roethke, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Zen Buddhist poetry.
Walker is an accomplished writer of short fiction. She is the author of four collections of short stories: In Love and Trouble (1973), You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down (1981) and The Way Forward Is with a Broken Heart (2000). The defining characteristics of Walker’s short fiction are economy, a commitment to examine rather than turn away from the troubling and violent aspects of human experience, and, above all, beautiful language and compelling story-telling. In 1994 Walker gathered all of her short fiction into a single volume entitled Alice Walker: The Complete Stories.
In 1967 Walker won first prize and $300.00 in a national essay contest sponsored by the American Scholar with “The Civil Rights Movement: What Good Was It?,” her first major work of nonfiction published in a mainstream scholarly journal. Of the writing in this genre, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (1983) is the most celebrated. In this debut collection of essays, Walker introduces her definition of womanism, redefines the literary tradition among African American women writers, and offers incisive commentary on such writers and national leaders as Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mrs. Corretta Scott King. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (1983) is followed by five volumes of non-fiction prose. In Living By the Word (1988), a collection of essays, Walker revisits the writing of The Color Purple, and addresses such concerns as the potentialities of certain forms of masculinity, our relation to the earth, and the meaning and value of folklore. In The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult (1996), Walker reexamines the controversies and condemnations generated by The Color Purple, the novel and the film. Anything We Love Can Be Saved (1997), a collection of essays and letters, is a record of Walker’s activism wherein she pays tribute to such figures as Fidel Castro, Salman Rushdie, Audre Lorde, and many others. Sent by Earth: a Message from the Grandmother Spirit (2001) is a meditation upon the state of the nation and the world following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Through prose and poetry and by summoning such voices as Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk and peace advocate, Walker provides us with a searing condemnation of war in general and the Iraq war in particular. Walker’s most recent collection of essays is We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For (2006). In this collection of essays and lectures she pays tribute, once again, to such figures as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Fidel Castro, and also challenges us to find, in this dissolving world, a practice that will sustain and direct us.
As an anthologist, Walker has honored a writer who has served as an important model in her own artistic development: Zora Neale Hurston. Walker discovered Hurston while writing “Strong Horse Tea,” a story that appeared in In Love and Trouble. While doing research for this story, Walker came across Hurston’s name in a footnote in an article on folk medicine. Further research on Hurston led to the publication of I Love Myself When I Am Laughing…and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader (1979). Containing writings by and about Hurston, including Walker’s “Looking for Zora,” this tribute to a model and fellow artist served as the catalyst for the republication of the Florida writer’s corpus. The anthology also stimulated new scholarly interest in Hurston that resulted in her canonization as an American writer whose work, particularly the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), is now widely regarded as a permanent part of our national literature.
As Walker honed her craft as a writer, she also held a number of appointments and initiated particular projects that reaffirmed her commitment to writing while also enhancing her national standing as one of the leading writers of her generation. In 1968 Walker was named Writer-in-Residence at Mississippi’s Jackson State College, and two years later she accepted the appointment of Writer-in-Residence at Tougaloo College. In 1972, Walker accepted a lectureship at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and Wellesley College where she taught the first course on Black women writers. Walker returned to New York City in 1974 in order to accept an appointment as editor at Ms., thus beginning a long and vital friendship with Gloria Steinem, the magazine’s founder. Wishing to support unpublished as well as emerging writers, in 1984 Walker established Wild Trees Press, under whose auspices she has published such writers as J. California Cooper.
The year 2007 marks the 25th anniversary of the publication of The Color Purple. The award-winning novel that served as the inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film, has been adapted also for the stage. Premiering at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater in September 2004, The Color Purple opened at New York City’s Broadway Theatre in December 2005. In the introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of The Color Purple, Walker remarks upon the ways in which the Tony-Award winning musical based upon her classic novel has transformed Broadway: “[The Color Purple] has transformed the formerly ‘Great White Way’ into a place where people of all colors, orientations and identities gather to experience the show and to celebrate ‘God’ as Life and Love, Creativity and Joy.”
Walker’s writings have been translated into more than two dozen languages. A best-selling author, her books have sold more than ten million copies. Along with the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award, Walker’s awards and fellowships include a Guggenheim Fellowship and a residency at Yaddo. Recently, she was inducted into the California Hall of Fame.
- The Officers of the Alice Walker Literary Society
|December 18, 2007
Alice Walker Places Archive at Emory
The Alice Walker Literary Society is delighted to announce that Alice Walker is placing her archive at Emory University in Atlanta.
The breadth and depth of Walker’s archive make it remarkable, says Rudolph Byrd, co-chair of the Society. “The archive contains journals that she has been keeping since she was 14 or 15 years old,” Byrd notes. “There also are drafts of many of her early works of fiction, as well as the back and forth between Alice and the editors for each book.
“Her papers give you a sense of the process for creating fiction, and for creating poetry,” Byrd adds. “Everything that she's ever written, she has a record of—it's very exciting.”
Below is the full text of Alice Walker’s statement explaining why she chose to place her archive at Emory.Statement by Alice Walker
“I chose Emory to receive my archive because I myself feel at ease and comfortable at Emory. That being so I can imagine in years to come that my papers and memorabilia, my journals and letters, will find themselves always in the company of people who care about many of the things I do: culture, community, spirituality, scholarship and the blessings of ancestors who want each of us to find joy and happiness in this life, by doing the very best we can to be worthy of it.
“When I began considering where to place my archive Emory was not on my list. However, having visited several libraries at different universities I realized the importance to me of a lively, diverse, committed-to-human-growth atmosphere, that, when I visited Emory, I found. I also realized my deep love of my native South, and of Georgia in particular. I knew that though I might never live in Georgia again, my first seventeen years growing up Georgian made a powerful imprint on my spirit and that it was the beauty of the rural community into which I was born that accounts for much of my passion, optimism and faith in the goodness of others. Emory struck me, on visiting it, to have light, a compassionate and thoughtful light, that made even the buildings seem softer and more inviting than those I encountered in other places.“I also found friends, a necessity for the Aquarian born! Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Rudolph Byrd, Randall Burkett, a magic trio who introduced me to the fabulous exhibits the Woodruff Library has mounted of events and people of the past whose work is essential to our National and International understanding. I was delighted to learn of the recent addition of the Dalai Lama to the Emory faculty. In a statement he made he said the presence of Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta had drawn him South. Both of these great teachers are a blessing to us all, and confirmation, if any more were needed, that Emory, as a place that has embraced one of the most enlightened leaders of the planet, and invited his wisdom into Emory’s student and faculty life, is a place where my archive can rest with joy in the company it keeps.”
- Alice Walker, December 2007
|Read the full Emory press release|
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