In 1993, in what seems a different life, I was going through a very difficult time of great upheaval and deep sorrow. During this time, like today, reading was one of the few things that kept me sane. I’ve had a tendency my entire life to find an author I like and read many, or all, of their books. And so, it was with Alice Walker, in this era of darkness. I started with The Color Purple in 1983—the year my son turned one-year-old—and then worked my way backward and forward through most of her early writings. And this is how I ended up in March of 1993 with a paperback copy of Living by the Word (1988) in my hand during a one-week period, which I would describe as one of the darkest weeks of my life. Like a talisman, I kept this book by my side through every waking hour; I filled it with notes and pictures and well-wishes from friends and family. The book, bent and yellowed and filled with the mementos of that week, is still in my library. It has been with me through myriad addresses and moves and loves, and Walker’s words have accompanied me through life.
The first essay in the book, titled “Journal,” tells the story of a two-headed woman who appears to Walker in a dream. In the dream, one head was giving advice, and the other head seemed to be dozing. She was a wise woman, for after all, “Two heads are better than one.” She was “[s]tout, graying, caramel-colored, with blue-gray eyes, wearing a blue flowered dress.” It is this last paragraph I’ve carried in my heart and head and feet all of these years and through joy, sadness, and many, many adventures:
“This two-headed woman was amazing. I asked whether the world would survive, and she said, No; and her expression seemed to say, The way it is going there’s no need for it to. When I asked her what I/we could/should do, she took up her walking stick and walked expressively and purposefully across the room. Dipping a bit from side to side.
She said: Live by the Word and keep walking.”
When I’m asked about my path in life, I’ve often cited this one sentence, dreamed by Alice Walker and written into life through a two-headed wise woman:
“Live by the Word (your word, your heart, your humanity, your humility, your best self, your fear, your higher power) and keep walking.”
Years later, in an interview with Yes! Magazine, Alice Walker responded, “You have to go to the places that scare you so that you can see: What do you really believe? Who are you really? Are you prepared to take this all the way to wherever the truth leads you and accept that you have to figure out different ways of confronting reality?”
Walker’s stories seem to be realized from her own questioning in juxtaposition with her dreams and her ancestors, as seen unflinchingly through the lens of modern, Black culture. When you learn the story of her life, shared below, it becomes understood how her experiences shaped the themes in her writings.
Alice was blinded in one eye at the age of eight and it literally changed the way she saw the world. A sharecropper’s daughter, she was then allowed to have a typewriter and spend time writing instead of in the fields, doing chores. Walker was an early learner and began school at the age of four. Once she graduated from high school, she attended both Spelman College and Sarah Lawrence College. While at Spelman, she met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and she credits him with inspiring her to become involved in the civil rights and voting rights movements. In 1963, she attended the legendary March on Washington.
After graduating from Sarah Lawrence in 1965, Walker moved to Mississippi to assist with voter registration. She began teaching and working with the Head Start program, and publishing short works and also met fellow civil rights activist Melvyn Leventhal, a white Jewish man. They married in 1967 and were the first legally married interracial couple to live in the state of Mississippi. The couple had one daughter, Rebecca, before divorcing in 1976.
Once she began writing in earnest, she published a number of works in fairly quick succession, beginning with Once, a book of poetry in 1968, followed by The Third Life of Granger Copeland in 1970. By 1973, she had published a second book of poetry, Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems, and her first book of short stories, In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women, which describes violence and abuse against women in the African American community. She later wrote Meridian (1976), a book about a young woman coming of age during the civil rights movement. Gloria Steinem said that this novel, “is often cited as the best novel of the civil rights movement.” Walker once wrote, “We will be ourselves and free, or die in the attempt. Harriet Tubman was not our great-grandmother for nothing.”
In the 1980s, she moved to California and it was there that she wrote The Color Purple, which won a Pulitzer Prize and was adapted into a beautiful movie by Steven Spielberg, “introducing” an amazing Whoopi Goldberg. The work later became a beloved Broadway musical—which I was lucky enough to see in 2007. Walker continued to write and teach, and also became an important voice in the feminist movement which, at the time, was largely led by white women. She created a feminist theory that was specific to the Black experience, which she called “womanism”.
The term “womanist,” first used in her book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (1983), referred specifically to a Black feminist or a feminist of color. It addressed the intersection of race, class, and gender oppression as she saw it – her intention being that it gives Black women “a word of our own,” and a way of addressing the specific issues unique to women of color.
Alice Walker has never stopped writing and remains prolific in the areas of fiction, poetry, and short stories. Her hope is that all women will continue to produce work, in whatever media they use, for as long as they can. As she once said, “And so our mothers and grandmothers have, more often than not anonymously, handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see – or like a sealed letter they could not plainly read.”
“And so our mothers and grandmothers have, more often than not anonymously, handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see – or like a sealed letter they could not plainly read.”
I’m forever grateful to Alice Walker for Living by the Word, and so many other stories that made me feel like my voice mattered—in a time I wasn’t sure I even had a voice. One of Walker’s most famous quotes comes from The Temple of My Familiar (1989):
“Keep in mind always the present you are constructing. It should be the future you want.”
P.S.: Thank you to Sara Martin for putting together the story of Alice Walker’s path—and for always reading, listening, and giving careful feedback. I’m grateful for her sharp eye and wickedly funny tongue.
And a virtual hug to Vita Jones, who gifted me the small swatch of Seminole strip quilting in magenta, yellow, and cyan (a nod to design school), along with one postcard portrait of Alice Walker, and one postcard portrait of Zora Neale Hurston. I cherish one and all.
P.S.S: Many years ago, I bought The Color Purple as a Book-on-Tape (remember cassette tapes) for my grandmother—who was an avid reader and started listening to books when her eyes began to fail. I recently felt the urge to hear the book through my grandmother’s “eyes.” The book is beautifully read by Alice Walker and I can highly recommend it as a pandemic salve.
Share books that are a salve to your soul in the comments below.
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