Alice Walker: Outlaw, Renegade, Rebel, Pagan

Editor's Note: Renowned author, poet and activist Alice Walker was the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, which she was awarded in 1983 for "The Color Purple."

Last month, one thousand people gathered at a church in Oakland, Calif., to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Media Alliance. Onstage at the event, Amy Goodman of syndicated radio show Democracy Now! interviewed Alice Walker. What follows is an edited transcript of Goodman's interview.

Amy Goodman: I was just saying to Alice that I think one of the last times that I saw her was right before the invasion. It was International Women's Day, March 8, 2003.

She was standing in front of the White House with Maxine Hong Kingston, Terry Tempest Williams, and a number of other women. It wasn't a large group, about 15 or so women, and they stood there, arms locked, and the police told them to move, and they said no. And they all got arrested.

We were trying to get their message out on community radio. I was interviewing them on cell phone. The police didn't appreciate that. So, really, the last time that I saw her was in the prison cell with her. But, Alice, you said that day, as we were in the paddy wagon or in the police wagon, that it was the happiest day of your life. Why?

Alice Walker: Well, you were there. I have so much admiration for this woman, so much love for Amy. ... So I was very happy that she had appeared to talk to us about why we were there. Nobody else was asking.

And so, there we were, arrested in this patrol thing, and actually I did feel incredibly happy, because what happens when you want to express your outrage, your sorrow, your grief -- grief is basically where we are now, just bone-chilling grief -- when you're able to gather your own forces and deal with your own fears the night before, and you arrive, you show up, and you put yourself there, and you know that you're just a little person -- you know, you're just a little person -- and there's this huge machine that's going relentlessly pretty much all over the world, and then you gather with all of the other people who are just as small as you are, but you're together, and you actually do what you have set out to do, which is to express total disgust, disagreement, disappointment about the war in Iraq.

About the possibility of it starting up again, all of these children, many of them under the age of 15, about to be terrorized, brutalized and killed -- so many of them -- so, to be able to make any kind of gesture that means that the people who are about to be harmed will know that we are saying we don't agree — just the ability to do that made me so joyful.

I was completely happy. And I think that we could learn to live in that place of full self-expression against disaster and self-possession and happiness.

AG: You have had a continued relationship with the police officer who put handcuffs on you.

AW: Yes, because he really didn't want to do it. And I could see that they really did not want to arrest us. And he, this African-American man, truly did not want to arrest me. And I totally understand that. Would you want to arrest me? No. No, no. You would not. So even as they were handcuffing me, they were sort of apologizing … I thought that you put the handcuffs [with] your hands in front, but they put them behind you ...

Then later, after we were released ... They take your shoes, I was there trying to put my shoes back on, and he came over, and he got down on his knees, and he said, "Let me help you." And I said, "Sure."

And I put my foot out, and he helped me with my shoes, and we started talking about his children. Well, first of all, he told me about his wife. He said, "You know, when I told my wife that I had arrested you, she was not thrilled." And so, then I asked him about his family, and he told me about his children, and I told him I write children's books. And so he said, "Oh, you do? Because, you know, there's nothing to read. The children are all watching television." I said, "That's true." So it ended up with me sending books to them and feeling that this is a very good way to be with the police.

... I realized fairly recently -- I went to Houston to the Astrodome to take books and other things to the [Katrina evacuees], and the police, a lot of them also African-Americans ... It was very clear that they, like the people who had lost their homes, really wanted some books. But, as one of them said to me, "I really would like a book, but I'm not the people. I'm the police." And I said to him, and then some of the people said that, too, they said, "You know, these people are the police, they're not the people."

However, I said to the people and to the police that the police are the people, and we have to remember that the police are the people ... And so, there they were, these big guys who probably had not had anybody offer them a book to read in years, if ever. They had gone into the army and into the police force because they did not have an education. That's part of why they're police ...

AG: I was reading Evelyn White's biography of you, called "Alice Walker: A Life," and she goes back to 1967, and you had just come to New York, and you were submitting an essay to American Scholar. It was 1967, so you were about 23 years old. And it was entitled "The Civil Rights Movement: What Good Was It?" You won first prize. It was published. "The Civil Rights Movement: What Good Was It?"

Can you talk about the Civil Rights Movement to the antiwar movement? The antiwar movement, what good is it?

AW: Well, as I was saying about the Civil Rights movement is that sometimes you can't see tangible results. You cannot see the changes that you're dreaming about, because they're internal. And a lot of it has to do with the ability to express yourself, your own individual dream and your own individual road in life. And so, we may never stop war.

We may never stop war, and it isn't likely that we will, actually. But what we're doing as we try to stop war externally, what we're trying to do is stop it in ourselves. That's where war has to end. And until we can control our own violence, our own anger, our own hostility, our own meanness, our own greed, it's going to be so, so, so hard to do anything out there.

So I think of any movement for peace and justice as something that is about stabilizing our inner spirit so that we can go on and bring into the world a vision that is much more humane than the one that we have dominant today.

AG: Speaking about movements, Rosa Parks died recently. It was the 50th anniversary, on December 1st, of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The corporate media, in describing Rosa Parks, talked about her as a tired seamstress who sat down on that bus, and when the white bus driver said, "Get up," she simply refused. She was tired. She was no troublemaker.

But Rosa Parks, of course, was a troublemaker. Can you talk about the importance of movements and what it means to be an activist, why it doesn't diminish what you do, but actually adds to Rosa's ... reputation and her legacy.

AW: I was thinking about Rosa Parks, because I was in Africa when she died, and I missed everything.

AG: Where?

AW: I was in Senegal, in a little village South of Dakar. I was visiting this great African writer, Ayi Kwei Armah, who wrote a famous and wonderful book called 2,000 Seasons, which I recommend to everyone. He's a great, great writer, but when I got back and I realized that she had died, I didn't actually feel like doing anything. I waved. I waved to her.

What I remembered about her was the last time that I had seen her ... with Rosa Parks one day in Mississippi, we happened to be at the same event. I think she was being honored for, you know, everything that she had given us, and we were at the same table, and I think that I may have offered to escort her to the restroom, and I was in there with her. And she -- while she was getting herself together to go back out into the reception, she suddenly took down her hair, and Rosa Parks had hair that came all the way down to her -- you know, the lower back, and she quickly ran her fingers through it.

I was just stunned. I had no idea. She then twisted it up again, and she put it the way you've seen her, you know, always with the little bun, very neat, and I said to her, "My goodness, what's all this, Miss Rosa?" And she looked at me, and she said, "Well, you know, I'm part Choctaw, and my hair was something that my husband dearly, dearly loved about me. He loved my hair." And she said, "And so, when he died, I put it up, and I never wear it down in public." Now there's a Rosa.

So, you know, writers are just -- we live by stealth, and so I immediately had this completely different image of this woman: the little, quiet seamstress sitting on the bus, even the activist who was so demure and so correct. And I thought, this woman, hallelujah, was with a man who loved her and loved her with her hair hanging down, and she loved him so much that when he died, she took that hair that he loved, and she put it up on her head, and she never let anyone else see it. Isn't that amazing?

So to answer your question, for me to be active in the cause of the people and of the earth, is to be alive. There is no compartmentalization. It's all one thing. It's not like I just exist to go into a little room and write. People have that image of writers, that that's how we live, but it's not really accurate, not the kind of writing that I do. I know that what I write has a purpose, even if it's just for me, if I'm just trying to lead myself out of a kind of darkness.

So it broadens everything, being active in the world. You see the world. It's like, you know, I'm learning to paint now, and what I realize, learning to paint, is that I'm learning to see. And activism is like that. When you are active, and you must know this so well, that the more you are active, the more you see, the more you go to see. You know, you are curious. One thing leads to another thing, and it gets deeper and deeper, too. And there's no end to it.

AG: How do you write?

AW: What do you mean?

AG: Well, Isabel Allende said that she starts each new book on the same day of the year. I can't remember the date. Maybe it was January 9, something like that ... What about you? What is your process?

AW: I start each book when it's ready and never before. And what I do is I try to find -- if it's forming, you know, and if I'm attentive to my dreams, I know that it's coming, and I know that it's time to take a year or two. In the early days the big challenge was finding the financing to do that, because for many years I was a single mother. I was lecturing and making a living that way, or teaching, and so I had to think hard and plan, and some of my early journals are just pages of additions of how much this costs and how much that costs, and how much is left at the end of the month, and whether I can afford this and that. So that was the challenge, to find the time, because what I understand completely is that you -- in order to invite any kind of guest, including creativity, you have to make room for it. ...

I learned partly through meditation, which I have done for many years, that you can really clear yourself of so much that's extraneous to your purpose in life, so that there is room for what is important to your spirit, something that has to be given space and something that has to be given voice.

AG: How did you start "The Color Purple"?

AW: I got a divorce. I got a divorce, because I really knew that I could not stay in my marriage and write about these wild women. And also, I left New York. And I -- and it started really just because one of the characters, while I was walking through Manhattan, said through my consciousness, "You know, it's not going to work here. We are just not the kind of people who would come forth in Manhattan."

So, they basically carried me through all this incredible anguish of divorce, because I, unlike many people who divorce out of hatred or anything, I actually loved my husband very much. He's a very, very good person, but I needed to write this book, and he claimed that the hills in San Francisco made him nauseous.

So I came here, and I ended up in Boonville [Calif.], because I needed to be in the country, and so I had enough money to work on it for maybe a year, because I got a Guggenheim grant, $13,000, and I just headed for the hills. We rented a little cottage in an apple orchard, and I didn't know how long it would take, but it took just about a year.

AG: Did you ever envision then the kind of impact it would have on the world? Did you think about the people you were writing it for?

AW: Oh, I thought about the people I was writing it for. The people I was writing it for are the people who are in the book. That's who I was writing it for. It never crossed my mind to really be that concerned about the people who would be reading it now, and that's still true. I mean, I'm happy that people relate to it and love it. I think it's worthy of love. But my contract was always really with the people in it and whether I could make them live in the way that they deserve to live, and it was a very high, very high experience to be able to do that, and when I wrote the last page, I burst into tears just from gratitude and love of them and of being ...

I don't know how many of you know the work of Jean Toomer. He's just a wonderful writer. But he talks about how in every generation, there is one person -- or, as he puts it, there is one plum left on the tree, and all of the other plums are gone with the wind and so forth. There is this one plum, and that plum with one seed, that's all you need, really, to start it all over again, and that's another reason for us to be more hopeful about life.

So I really had that feeling of being this one plum with this one seed, because from what I could see, there wasn't anybody else who had the same kind of love for these particular people that I had, or the capacity to be faithful to the vision of them that I held. So I felt very blessed and very chosen, in a way, like my ancestors were really present with me the entire time I was writing. They never went away. They were just really there, and I have felt their caring, and I still feel it. And it means that I never feel alone. It's impossible.

AG: For someone who hasn't read the book, for a young person who is wondering why they should bother picking up "The Color Purple," what would you say it's about?

AW: Well, I was just in Molokai last week. I just got back a few days ago, and Molokai is the island that is least known among the islands, and it's because it used to be a leper colony, and there are actually lepers who still live there. And I was looking through a book about Molokai and about Kalaupapa, which is where the lepers are, and there was a photograph of this man who had leprosy, and it had eaten away his nose and most of his mouth and his ears and a lot of his face, and he just had this incredibly beautiful beaming face. What was left of his face was just completely aglow. And what he said he had learned from living in this place of lepers all of his life was that the most horrible things can happen to people, and they can still be happy.

So I feel that when you read "The Color Purple," no matter what is happening in your life, or how difficult the whole huge miasma of sorrow that seems to be growing, there's a way that you can see through the life of Celie, that if you can continue and if you can stay connected to nature and also to your highest sense of behavior toward yourself and toward other people, if you can really keep that struggle going -- you may not always win it.

You remember how Celie said to Harpo at some point that he should beat Sofia, that he should beat his wife, well, that was a low point, but she was still struggling to be someone who would outgrow that kind of thinking. And so, what you learn is that life can be really hard. People can abuse you, people can take advantage of you in terrible ways, but there is something in the human spirit that's actually equal to that and can overcome that, and that is the teaching of "The Color Purple."

AG: You write in "The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult," "What I have kept, which the film avoided entirely, is Shug's completely unapologetic self-acceptance as outlaw, renegade, rebel and pagan." Do you see yourself that way?

AW: Oh, absolutely. Yes. Why wouldn't I be? I know I'm very soft-spoken, but I have endeavored to live my life by my terms, and that means that I am a renegade, an outlaw, a pagan. What was the other thing?

AG: A rebel.

AW: A rebel, oh yes. Oh yes, and there is no reason not to rebel. I learned that really early. There is no reason whatsoever. You know, I don't look at television hardly at all, although I'm saving it for my old age. But when I do see it, and I see how relentlessly we are being programmed, and I see how defenseless our young are, I realize all over again that rebellion, any way you can manage it, is very healthy, because unless you want to be a clone of somebody that you don't even like, you have to really wake up. I mean, we all do. We have to wake up. We have to refuse to be a clone.

AG: [Will you speak about] making "The Color Purple" into a movie?

AW: It was a great risk, but I grew up in Eatonton, Georgia, actually not even in the town, way out in the luckily beautiful countryside. But our entertainment was on Saturday night to, you know, bathe and get dressed and go to see a film. Now, these were all, in retrospect, really pretty awful films. They were all shooting and killing each other, you know.

But that was all that we had really in the way of entertainment that wasn't the church and our own entertainments. So that's what I grew up with. And my mother who worked so hard and never left the house or left the fields, she would sometimes be able to go, but after eight children, it was sometimes difficult to even move, but she enjoyed these movies.

And so, the risk that I took was in a way to offer to my mother and people like my mother something that they could identify with, something that they could, you know, have some real connection to. I mean, my mother never met Tom Mix and Lash LaRue. These were all these characters that were shooting and killing.

So I thought about, you know, the segregated theater. When I was growing up, we had to be up there in the balcony, and the white people were down here [on the floor] and, of course, the seats were better down here. So I wanted to change that to the degree that I could do so. And so that's part of the reason I wanted to make a film.

And I think -- you know, I had never heard of Steven Spielberg when he appeared. I think that, for many people, that's amazing, given how famous he was, but I had no idea who he was. And that's the other thing, when you are working on your work -- and I think it's really important that I talk to you about this a little bit as an elder -- when you are working on your work, you really don't have to be concerned about what other people are doing.

You know, there's an expression: Everything that rises must converge. At some point, if your work is as true as you can make it, it has its own luminosity, and it inevitably brings to you and your work all the people that you need. So enter Steven Spielberg to make the film, which turned out to be a very good thing. People thought it was a terrible choice, but what I looked for in him and in other people is the willingness to listen and the willingness to grow, to learn, and he had all of that.

AG: The questions that were raised, here you had written it, deeply out of your own experience, then having a white producer produce it and going on to Broadway, well, that's just repeated over and over. What were your thoughts of having your experience, your writing, your art, channeled through them?

AW: Well, I have fallen in love with the imagination. And if you fall in love with the imagination, you understand that it is a free spirit. It will go anywhere, do anything. So your job is to find trustworthy companions and co-creators. That's really it. And if you find them -- and I don't know how you -- I can only go by how I feel about people.

And so with the play, this young man, Scott Sanders, who is the primary producer, went to great lengths to woo me, because I was not interested in doing a musical, partly because of the suffering that had occurred after making the film. There was so much incredible controversy after the film, and a lot of it excruciatingly hurtful. And even though I had ways to buffer myself and even though by nature I can continue to function and do things that I need to do, it was still very painful. So I didn't really want to go back to that.

... That anybody reading "The Color Purple" or seeing the film, actually, that they could read it and see the film and still think that I hated ... my father, my grandfather, my brothers, my uncles, just because they were black men; and, you know, this would mean that I hated Langston Hughes or Jean Toomer or Richard Wright or Ralph Ellison or -- it felt so incredibly mean. It felt very mean, it felt very small, and it was very painful.

AG: And so how did you get through it?

AW: Well, I came down with Lyme disease in the middle of all of this, and I experienced it actually as a spiritual transformation, even though I didn't know that was going to be the result. It was very frightening. But I came out the other end of the bashing that I had received, the physical debilitation from Lyme disease, the breakup of my relationship with a partner at the time. I came out of all of that with a renewed sense that life itself, no matter what people are slinging at you, no matter what is happening, life itself is incredibly precious and wonderful, and that we are so lucky that we wake up in the morning, that we hear a bird, that we ...

You know, just if you think about little things, they seem little, but they are so magical, you know, like eating a peach. I came through that period understanding that I am an expression of the divine, just like a peach is, just like a fish is. I have a right to be this way. And being this way, "The Color Purple" is the kind of work that comes to me. I can't apologize for that, nor can I change it, nor do I want to.

So there was this marvelous feeling, you know, that I had already been through a kind of crucifixion by critics. ... And not to compare myself with Jesus, but I really got it, that there is a point at which a certain kind of crucifixion leads to a certain kind of freedom, because you cannot be contained by other people's opinions of you. You will always, I think, after you go through this kind of thing, feel somewhat removed, as I do. You know, I basically stopped reading reviews. And it's fine. I have realized I don't need them. I really feel that if more people could pay less attention to other people's opinions of them, they would be so much happier.

AG: Alice, I wanted to ask you about the Sisterhood. Who was this group of women writers in the 1970s that you gathered with?

AW: Well, the Sisterhood was the brainchild of myself and June Jordan, because we looked around one day -- we were friends -- and we felt that it was very important that black women writers know each other, that we understood that we were never in competition for anything, that we did not believe in ranking. We would not let the establishment put one of us ahead of the other. And so, some of us were Vertamae Grosvenor, Ntozake Shangee, Toni Morrison, June Jordan, myself, and I think Audrey Ballard, who was at Essence, and several other women that I don't tonight remember.

The very first meeting was at June's apartment because it was the larger of -- I had moved out of my marriage house into basically two small rooms. And so June had this beautiful apartment with lots of space, and the women gathered there, and I remember at the very first gathering --I had bought this huge red pot that became the gumbo pot -- I made my first gumbo and took it to this gathering of women, all so different and all so spicy and flavorful like gumbo.

And we have this photo. There is a wonderful photograph that someone took of us gathered around a large photograph of Bessie Smith, because Bessie Smith best expressed our feeling of being women who were free and women who intended to stay that way.

AG: You talked about criticism earlier and how you decided never to read reviews. Can you talk about it in terms of Toni Morrison's early work and the response of the critics?

AW: Well, I thought that her writing was beautiful. I had read "The Bluest Eye" and, in fact, was passing it out to people. And I was very upset that it didn't get much of a long life. I think -- I don't know if it went out of print, but it certainly was sort of below the surface.

And then I read "Sula," which I just fell in love with. And I remember that there was a review of it in the New York Times by ... someone who basically said that in order for Toni Morrison ever to be anything in the literary world, she had to get out of writing about black women, and she had to broaden her horizons and that way, she would maybe connect. And I was just completely annoyed. And I wrote a letter to the Times, reminding [the writer] that we will never have to be other than who we are in order to be successful.

AG: Here is the letter. Alice, here is the letter.

AW: Oh, OK; it says: "Dear sir: I am amazed on many levels by Sarah Blackburn's review of Sula. Is Miss Morrison to "transcend herself?" And why should she, and for what? The time has gone forever when black people felt limited by themselves. We realize that we are, as ourselves, unlimited and our experiences valid. It is for the rest of the world to recognize this, if they choose."

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