Alice Walker Has ‘No Regrets’
Alice Walker is one of the most renowned — and complex — public figures of her generation.
Born to sharecroppers in rural Georgia and raised in homes without electricity or indoor plumbing, Walker became an activist and a prolific writer, with 41 books across genres. Her 1982 book, “The Color Purple” — an epistolary novel addressed largely to God, which focused on the experience of poor Black women in the American South — was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. She was the first Black woman to win the prize for fiction.
In recent years, she has taken positions, including in The Times, that many have found to be antisemitic and deeply troubling. Her stances have cast a shadow over her legacy, leaving readers to grapple with how to approach Walker, and her work, today.
Carla Kaplan, a professor of American literature at Northeastern University who has written about Walker’s work, said she is one of many influential progressive figures who have made profoundly contentious statements.
“The question becomes, what do we do with one another when these moments happen,” Kaplan said. “One answer is that we cancel one another. Another is that we hold one another to account.”
Into this fraught conversation comes a new book by Walker, “Gathering Blossoms Under Fire,” released last week by Simon & Schuster, a collection of her diaries spanning 1965 to 2000. The book covers the period when Walker, 78, became a towering figure in the American cultural landscape, and precedes the accusations of antisemitism in recent years.
For decades, she chronicled her life — mostly in lined, spiral notebooks, their covers an assortment of bright primary colors — noting her thoughts on relationships, fame, family, freedom and politics. The book that collects these journal entries was edited by Valerie Boyd, a writing professor at the University of Georgia and the author of an acclaimed biography of the writer Zora Neale Hurston, whose work Walker championed. Boyd died earlier this year.
Beyond the personal insights, heartbreaks and triumphs they cover, Walker’s journals track a life that has intersected with some of the most significant issues of 20th-century America. She was active in the civil rights movement and had an illegal abortion in the 1960s. She and her now ex-husband, Melvyn Leventhal, who is white and Jewish, moved to Mississippi the same summer the Supreme Court outlawed state bans on interracial marriage. Their daughter, Rebecca, was born there. Walker had romantic relationships with men and women and wrote candidly about the evolution of her sexual identity.
At her home in Mendocino County, Calif., last month, Walker sat with her dog, Ede, a Yorkie mix, in her lap, a lush wooded valley stretching out behind her, for a nearly four-hour interview in which she discussed her journals, her life, her views and the accusations against her.
The wide-ranging conversation, along with her now-public diary entries, provides a window onto Walker as an artist, an activist, a contentious public figure and a Black woman reflecting on her life. And together they offer readers a chance to walk with her as she works through the “disappointment, anger, sorrow, regret” of decades, and to consider the whole of her.
“It’s much more difficult to hold one another to account than to cancel each other,” Kaplan said, “but it opens up the possibility of more allies down the road, and keeps our attention where our attention needs to be.”
The quoted text is excerpted from her journals.
Walker and Leventhal met in Jackson, Miss., where they were both working for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, then moved to New York, where Leventhal was finishing law school. Leventhal said he wanted to go back to the South after graduation to continue his work. She agreed, on one condition: They had to be married.
“There was a long tradition of white men having Black mistresses in the South,” Walker said in the introduction to “Gathering Blossoms.” “That was not going to be my path. So I proposed to Mel, and he happily obliged. Apart from our love, it was important politically for us to be legally married.”
They were married in March 1967 in New York City, three months before the United States Supreme Court outlawed state bans on interracial marriage.
Their life in Mississippi could be isolating and menacing. Leventhal kept a loaded gun at home and another in his Oldsmobile Toronado, according to “Alice Walker: A Life,” a biography by Evelyn C. White. The couple tried to shop at larger supermarkets, and didn’t go to movies on Saturday nights, when the theater was more likely to be bustling with white teenagers. Leventhal recalled threatening messages being tossed on their porch, like “the eyes of the Klan are on you.”
Walker said she and Leventhal also had happy times in Mississippi — they were young, in love with each other and with their baby daughter, adoring “of her every teardrop.”
“We were extraordinarily happy as a family,” she said. “But grief will grind you down.”
Eventually, Walker had had enough. In 1974, she and her family moved to Brooklyn.
While she was a student at Sarah Lawrence College, Walker became pregnant. It was 1965 and abortion was illegal in the United States. Young, poor and unmarried, she resolved that she would get one anyway.
“It was me or it,” she said in White’s biography. “One or the other of us was not going to survive.”
She managed to pull together enough money from friends and classmates to pay a doctor $2,000 for an illicit procedure — the equivalent of about $18,000 today.
The rights and the power of women are themes throughout Walker’s writing. She was a contributing editor at Ms. magazine for a few years in the 1970s, and she is credited with creating the term “womanist,” which she defined at the beginning of her essay collection “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” published in 1983:
“A black feminist or feminist of color. From the black folk expression of mothers to female children, ‘You acting womanish,’ i.e., like a woman. Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior.”
Many assumed that by coining the term, Walker was trying to cleave Black women from the broader feminist movement, she recalled, but that was not her aim. “It is so important that people have a root in their own culture,” she said.
“It has nothing to do with not wanting to be a feminist,” she continued. “But it is crucial for Black women to hold on to this very special tradition that we have, exemplified by Harriet Tubman, where you free yourself and you go back and you free other people.”
In her journals, Walker writes extensively about her romantic partners, including her longtime companion Robert Allen and the singer Tracy Chapman, whom she dated in the 1990s. Ahead of her time in many ways, Walker was involved with men and women, but was dissatisfied with the labels available to her.
After her marriage, one feature that cut across her relationships was a firm commitment to her autonomy. She even maintained a separate physical space from her partners, providing them with “a lover’s room,” she said.
“It was a beautiful room for whoever was my partner at the time,” she said. “But I never wanted to have that feeling that I could not write what I needed to write in the middle of the night.”
In retrospect, some of the earlier journal entries struck her as guarded, she said, which she thinks is because she was married at the time. Walker later “married” her cat, Surprise, and her dog Marley in a ceremony overseen by a priestess, she said. The cat was thoroughly bored.
“I tell you this to tell you that this is my life,” she said. “I’ll marry whoever I want. And I will live the way that I want to the total extent that is possible, because that is freedom.”
This was an entry she wrote after winning the Pulitzer Prize.
Throughout the years, Walker has been an unusual blend of a very public and a very private person. She has a limited appetite for public appearances and has lived far from the New York literary scene for decades. Her home, which is off a windy gravel road on the side of a mountain, sits on 40 lush acres dotted with cedar and beech trees — like the 40 acres and a mule, “as promised but never delivered,” she said.
But she is often an autobiographical writer, even in her fiction; the main character in “The Color Purple,” Celie, is based on her grandmother. Now, by publishing her journals, she has invited the world into some of her most private moments.
“I want the journals to be used so that people can see this working through of disappointment, anger, sorrow, regret,” she said. “So in that sense, it’s a medicine book.”
Perhaps nearly as much as Walker’s life has been defined by her writing, it has been defined by her activism and her public stances on hot-button issues, where she has taken positions that have often made her a target for critics.
“I really have done all that I could do in this body,” she said. “I really flung myself against the machine.”
She has been an outspoken critic of Israel, joining a flotilla to challenge Israel’s blockade of Gaza in 2011. She broke the U.S. embargo to travel to Cuba and meet with Fidel Castro. She also wrote a book and executive produced a documentary called “Warrior Marks,” about genital cutting, also known as female genital mutilation, in countries including Senegal and Gambia, which led to criticism by some who saw her as imposing values on cultures not her own.
Among the most vociferous backlash Walker has received was in response to “The Color Purple,” which some Black people said portrayed Black men in particular, but Black women as well, in a very negative light.
But recent accusations that Walker is antisemitic have been the most significant.
She has praised David Icke, who has written that Holocaust denial should be taught in schools and that the Talmud is a racist document. He is also known for a conspiracy theory that a group of child-sacrificing lizard people, many of whom are Jewish, are running the world.
One of Walker’s poems, “To Study The Talmud,” has also attracted widespread condemnation. In it, she describes her reaction when a Jewish friend (in the interview, she said it was her ex-husband) accused her “of appearing to be antisemitic.” The poem says that one should look to the Talmud in an effort to understand the state of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, which she describes as “demonic.”
“Are Goyim (us) meant to be slaves of Jews,” she writes, “and not only / That, but to enjoy it?”
Jewish organizations, among others, have called Walker’s public support of Icke and her own poem dangerous and harmful. Privately, some in Walker’s life have said her embrace of Icke is mystifying. Several academics contacted for this article were reluctant to discuss the topic. In an interview, Leventhal, Walker’s ex-husband, said there was no evidence during their marriage that she harbored any antisemitic sentiments.
Walker, when asked, said that her criticism is not of Jewish people but of Israel, as well as of the ancient texts and practices of all religions, including Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. The poem about studying the Talmud also points to the need to “study our programming” from other religions as well.
“Do we really want to continue as humans with these old doctrines of separation?” she said. “The Bible is no more exempt than any of these horrid, really treacherous tomes that people are forced to endure, especially women.”
There are good things to be found in religion, however, she said.
“All the savagery, you have to get through all of that to get to these little gems of compassion and kindness,” she said. “Over here somewhere, hidden in all that, it’s all about generosity and love and equanimity and kindness and peace.”
Thadious Davis, a professor the University of Pennsylvania and a scholar of Walker’s work, said that the public criticism has not left Walker unscathed. While the recent controversy has taken place in “the white world,” she said, and has been more visible in the mainstream media, the outcry over “The Color Purple” was equally large.
“It was enough to send her into a depression, and ultimately therapy,” she said. That period “really led her to go deeper inside herself and search for other means of validation, for meaning.”
Elizabeth A. Harris writes about books and publishing for The Times. @Liz_A_Harris
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