This Day In Literary History
On February 9th, 1944, the famous African American writer and activist Alice Walker was born in Eatonton, Georgia. She was the youngest of eight children.
Her father, Willie Lee Walker, whom she described as "wonderful at math, but a terrible farmer," was a sharecropper and dairy farmer. He only made $300 a year, so Alice's mother Minnie Lou earned extra money by working as a maid.
The Walker family, like most black Americans living in the South at the time, suffered under the racist Jim Crow Laws, which segregated black people and denied them their civil rights. This planted the seeds of Alice's future careers as both a writer and an activist.
She was an intellectually gifted child and entered the first grade at the age of four. She began writing short stories at the age of eight, influenced by her grandfather, who practiced the old tradition of oral storytelling.
The year she began writing, Alice was injured when one of her brothers accidentally shot her in the eye with a BB gun. Since the family had no car, it would be a week before she could see a doctor. By then, she had become permanently blind in her injured eye.
A disfiguring scar tissue formed on it, making the formerly outgoing Alice self-conscious and painfully shy. Stared at and taunted, she turned to reading and writing poetry for solace.
The scar tissue would be removed when she was 14. When Alice graduated high school as valedictorian, she had also been voted the most popular girl and queen of her senior class.
In the early 1960s, while she was a student at Spelman College in Atlanta, Alice Walker met civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. He inspired her to become a civil rights activist herself.
She joined in King's famous 1963 March on Washington and volunteered to register voters in Georgia and Mississippi. She also worked on campaigns for welfare rights and children's programs.
In 1965, Walker met Mel Leventhal, a Jewish civil rights lawyer. They were married two years later. When they relocated to Jackson, Mississippi, they became the first legally married interracial couple in the state.
As a result, they faced a steady stream of harassment from their neighbors and fellow townspeople, including death threats from the Ku Klux Klan.
By 1969, they had a daughter, Rebecca, to whom Alice would become estranged. Rebecca would later publish a memoir, Black White and Jewish, chronicling her childhood as the daughter of mixed-race parents. Alice and her husband divorced amicably in 1976.
Alice Walker's first book was published while she was in college. It was a poetry collection. She later published two novels and a short story collection, but it would be her third novel that made Alice Walker's name as a writer - and made it famous.
The Color Purple (1982) is an epistolary novel that tells the story of Celie, a poor, uneducated black woman in 1930s Georgia. Celie struggles with not only Jim Crow racism, but sexism and abuse as well. At the age of fourteen, she is raped and impregnated twice by a man she calls Pa.
Later, Celie's children disappear, and she assumes that Pa killed them - until she meets a little girl she thinks might be her daughter. Celie is forced into an arranged marriage to Mr. Johnson, a man who originally wanted to marry her younger sister, Nettie.
Celie refers to her husband only as "Mister" and it isn't until much later in the novel that his first name is revealed to be Albert. He has a mistress, Shug, who joins him in mistreating Celie.
As the novel progresses, Celie evolves from a timid victim to a determined, empowered woman. The Color Purple won Alice Walker the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award.
That same year, the novel was adapted as a highly acclaimed feature film directed by Steven Spielberg. Comedienne Whoopi Goldberg delivered a memorable performance in the starring role as Celie.
Co-starring as Sofia was a then virtually unknown actress named Oprah Winfrey, who would later become a talk show hostess and the most powerful and influential black woman in popular culture. Winfrey would later produce a Broadway musical adaptation of A Color Purple in 2005.
Although this 1983 feature film adaptation was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, it failed to win any. This angered film critics, especially Roger Ebert, who considered it the best film of the year. Why then was it snubbed?
Some complained about the negative depiction of black male characters as abusive, uncaring, and unfaithful, while others complained that the screenplay watered down or eliminated the novel's positive depiction of a lesbian relationship.
Still others complained about Steven Spielberg being chosen to direct. Though the Academy denies it, film historians believe that these controversies were responsible for the movie not winning any Oscars.
Alice Walker would continue to write memorable novels, including The Temple of My Familiar (1989) and Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992).
In 2003, Walker returned to activism, participating in a protest march against the war in Iraq. The march of over 5,000 activists began in Malcolm X park in Washington, DC, and ended at the White House, where Walker and 24 others were arrested for crossing a police line.
In March of 2009, Alice Walker, along with 60 other members of Code Pink - a women's activist group - traveled to Gaza in response to the controversial Israeli offensive that resulted in the extermination of over 1,400 Palestinian civilians.
It also resulted in the complete or nearly complete destruction of over 4,000 homes, leaving tens of thousands of people homeless. Over 400,000 Gazans were left without running water.
The purpose of Code Pink's trip was to deliver aid, meet with NGOs and residents, and persuade Egypt and Israel to open their borders into Gaza. Alice later planned to participate in the Gaza Freedom March.
In December of 2009, she was among 50 signers of a letter protesting "City to City," the Toronto Film Festival's spotlight on Israeli filmmakers. The letter condemned Israel for the actions of its murderous apartheid regime.
Alice Walker's latest book, a nonfiction work called The Cushion in the Road: Meditation and Wandering As the Whole World Awakens To Being In Harm’s Way, was published in 2013.
Quote Of The Day
"The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any." - Alice Walker
Today's video features Alice Walker being interviewed before a live audience at Peaceworks 2011. Enjoy!