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Alice Walker: Obama May Never Realize How Profound His Election Was for Black Southerners

In a wide-ranging interview, Walker discusses Tibet and Palestine, womanism versus feminism, the election and presidency of Obama, and the "spiritual survival" of our society.

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After a little over a year in office, fierce and often unfounded attacks, and the painstaking process that eventually led to a victory for health care reform, perhaps now is a good time for President Obama to revisit the words of the open letter Alice Walker published the day after he was elected. Along with respectfully telling the soon-to-be president that he will never know the profoundness of his being elected president for “black people of the Southern United States,” Walker offers him some advice: make sure to make time for rest and play with family because, “From your happy, relaxed state, you can model real success, which is only what so many people in the world really want,” and to “remember that you did not create the disaster that the world is experiencing” and not to take on other people’s enemies, offering the Dalai Lama’s model for coexisting. It is, perhaps, a look into the evolution of an American icon known nearly as well for her fierce opposition to all forms of oppression as for her award-winning writing.

Walker, the lauded poet, essayist, and Pulitzer Prize winner for The Color Purple, has led a life that rivals the creative intensity of any of her literary creations. From her birth in 1944 in Putnam County, Georgia, the youngest of eight siblings and the child of parents who made their living as sharecroppers, to her involvement with the civil rights, Black Arts, and feminist movements in the decades that followed, Walker has established herself as one of the most important and inspirational public intellectuals in America. She not only gave voice to the complex experience of African American women in what scholars term the renaissance in African American women’s writing of the nineteen seventies, but also made that voice heard in public conversations over issues as diverse as gender equality, racial and economic justice, and war and peace.

The conversation that follows, with Emory University Professor and Walker scholar Rudolph P. Byrd, offers us a window into Walker’s journey and all she’s seen along the way. From Martin Luther King to Barack Obama, from her civil rights work in the Jim Crow South to her recent wanderings and activism in Palestine, Burma, and India, from The Color Purple to her most recent book of verse, Hard Times Require Furious Dancing: A Year of Poems , it explores the vision underlying Walker’s body of work and the biographical events behind them. The interview is taken from Walker’s forthcoming book edited by Byrd entitled, The World Has Changed: Conversations with Alice Walker, a fascinating series with Walker and a diverse set of interlocutors (the late Howard Zinn and Pema Chodron among them).

While much has changed since Walker left Putnam County long ago, one thing has remained the same: her vision of the role of the artist in America and, therefore, her vision of herself. “What are your preoccupations at this stage in your life as a writer?” Byrd asks. To which Walker responds: “What could it be but to be of assistance to the world in its dire hour of need?”

Rudolph P. Byrd: For The World Has Changed: Conversations with Alice Walker , you have written a poem that marks the publication of your first collection of conversations and interviews. Tell us about the genesis of the poem and the questions you believe are central to it.

Alice Walker: With the election of a black man to the presidency of the United States, the world has changed. Such an event was unthinkable for many people until it actually occurred. For some, there is an unwillingness to believe this historic turn in North America’s affairs is real. They need a poem that reminds them that disbelieving in a new reality can mean missing it altogether; this would be a waste and a tragedy for those who could benefit from shifting their understanding of what America is or can become. I was asked by a newspaper, I don’t recall which or whether it was printed, to write a poem for the inauguration; my mind was very much on those who, from disbelief, could not rejoice. I was able to read the poem on Democracy Now! on the day of the inauguration. I co-hosted the program that day with its anchor, the most honorable Amy Goodman.