The American novelist Alice Walker is one of the most celebrated in modern history. Her most famous work, The Color Purple, won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and it remains one of the bestselling books in the United States. She was born in Georgia, in 1994, at a time when Jim Crow Laws made the world a dangerous place to grow up black.
However, the young Alice Walker was deeply fortunate to have parents who risked their lives to support her ambitions. When Jim Crow Laws told Minnie Lou Grant and Willie Lee Walker that their children should be out sharecropping the fields as well, they resisted, at the risk of great trouble. As a foremost advocate of black rights, Walker has continued what her parents started and now fights for equal rights for women and minorities.
Despite being repeatedly told that ‘black people have no need for education,’ Minnie Grant enrolled her daughter in the first grade. Unbeknownst to her parents, she started to write stories at around the age of eight, taking inspiration from the winding tales her grandfather would tell. This new hobby was initially kept very secret.
Learning How to Connect the Dots
In 1952, Walker was involved in an accident with a BB gun which left her blind in one eye. As the family did not own a car, her parents had no way to get their child to the emergency room for treatment and there was never a chance for the eye to be saved. Later, a visible layer of scar tissue formed over the eye and she became cripplingly self-conscious. She was often bullied or laughed at, so Walker took comfort in reading and writing.
At age 14, the scar tissue was removed and Walker later become queen of her senior class, valedictorian, and ‘most popular girl.’ However, she did not forget the way in which she had been treated and, for the first time, began to question social norms of beauty, gender, skin colour, and social class.
After taking a sabbatical to work with the civil rights movement, Walker published her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, in 1970. Her second novel, Meridian, was published in 1976. The book told the tale of civil rights campaigners in the south and was inspired by many of the people she had met. The year 1982 would see life change forever, because she published The Color Purple to critical acclaim.
Becoming a Household Name in America
The novel was a massive commercial success and would be turned into a blockbuster film just five years later. Yet, as her professional status grew, Walker struggled to stay in control at home. During the sixties, she had met and married a celebrated Jewish civil rights attorney, Melvyn Leventhal. The couple relocated to the heart of deeply segregated Mississippi, where they stayed even in spite of daily threats and insults from the Ku Klux Klan.
In 1976, Walker and Leventhal divorced and the writer became increasingly estranged from her daughter. In later years, the child, Rebecca, confessed to feeling like ‘a political object’ and revealed that her mother would often leave her to a diet of fast food whilst closed off in her writing studio. The two are now completely estranged and Walker has removed her daughter from her will.
Over the years, Walker has consistently explored themes of sexuality, gender, race, feminism, and tradition. In the anthology of short stories, Everyday Use, she discusses the issues confronting young black people who relocate and then lose knowledge and respect for their parent culture and traditions. She continues to be an admired figure within liberal political circles for her courage to side with often deeply unpopular opinions.
In 2007, Walker offered her entire collection of literary papers (122 boxes of material) to the Emory University Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library. It includes a litany of remarkable pieces – everything from a scrapbook of poems penned at 15 years of age, to early drafts of The Color Purple, letters to family members, and heaps of fan mail.