Feb. 4, 2023

Alice Walker (Listener Request)

Alice Walker (Listener Request)

A prolific writer, essayist, and poet, Alice Walker's career spans over five decades. 

Her most famous work to date, The Color Purple, won her both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award and made her one of the most famous authors of her time. Despite her fame and influence, Walker has come under fire for her controversial statements. 

This week, I am diving into a listener request and covering the work and life of Alice Walker. How did she get into writing? And what comments put her in a new critical light? 

Tune in to find out.


“Alice Walker.” National Museum of African American History and Culture. (LINK)

“American Masters: Alice Walker- Beauty in Truth.” PBS. (LINK)

“An Evening with Alice Walker - Writer’s Symposium by the Sea 2020.” University of California Television. Access via YouTube. (LINK)

Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Alice Walker." Encyclopedia Britannica, September 7, 2022. (LINK)

Clifford Thompson, Olivia J Smith, Mari Rich (Editors). World Authors, 1995-2000. (New York: H.W. Wilson, 2003). Access via Internet Archive. (LINK)

Cummings, Kathleen. Alice Walker. (Ohio: Great Neck Publishing, 2005). 

Grady, Constance. “The Alice Walker anti-Semintism controversy, explained.” Vox. Dec 20, 2018. (LINK)

White, Evelyn C.. Alice Walker: A Life. (United Kingdom: Norton, 2004.)


Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee. 



Hey everyone, welcome back. 


I vividly remember the first time I spotted the novel The Color Purple. I was sitting in a high school classroom; a sophomore taking sexual education. Because of the subject matter, I was in an upperclassmen classroom - most of the individuals who sat here were juniors or seniors. I remember being bored from watching the odd demonstrations of the awkward volunteer brought in to teach us about the proper use of condoms. Without much else to occupy my time, I opened the small book with a pretty purple cover and read the first words. 


You better not never tell anyone but God. It’d kill your mammy. 


With that simple, yet powerful sentence, I was hooked. I asked my teacher if I could borrow the book and to my great surprise, they said yes. 


Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is a core memory for me. It is the first time in my adolescence I remember finding a book on my terms. I had read and loved several children’s books, sure. But The Color Purple marked a significant transformation in my reading habits and remains one of the most important books I’ve ever read. 


To say I was a little excited to receive a request to cover Alice Walker, the author behind the beautiful and harrowing characters found in The Color Purple, would be the understatement of the year. Long-time listener Val asked that I cover the poet, essayist, and author and so today, that is just what I am doing. 


So, just who is Alice Walker? What prompted her to begin writing? And why has she fallen out of favor recently?


Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this. 


Alice Malsenior Tallulah-Kate Walker was the last of eight children, born on February 9th, 1944 in Eatonton, Georgia. Born to sharecropper parents in the Jim Crow south, Walker was a bright and outgoing child, perhaps a little unaware of her place in the racial hierarchy of the period. Born before any semblance of maternity leave and part of a large family, Walker’s mother had to return to work almost immediately, often taking the young infant with her and placing her under a tree while she worked the land.  


Her parents were very supportive of their children’s education. Her father, Willie Lee Walker, helped build the school young Alice attended. In 1948, Walker convinced several fellow farmers to chip in what little money they had to purchase old barracks. These barracks were then transported and refurbished into what became known as the East Putnam Consolidated school. 


Working as sharecroppers, the Walkers never had much extra cash and faced constant pressure from the farm owners to put their children out in the fields to help till the soil. Being true believers in the power of education, Walker’s mother, Mrs. Minnie Tallulah Grant, stood firm and even enrolled young Alice into the first grade a year ahead of schedule just to avoid the constant demand for her daughter to be in the fields. 


Walker was a curious, confident, and outgoing young girl. Extremely bright, Alice brought home high marks from her teachers. However, in an accident at the young age of eight, Walker, playing Cowboys and Indians with her older brothers, was shot in the eye with a BB gun. Her brothers were so worried they’d be whipped for hurting their baby sister that they begged her to tell a story about accidentally being whacked in the eye. Walker initially agreed, but the pain became too severe, and eventually, her family managed to get her medical care. Again, given the time, her treatment was less than the top of the line and after a quick visit, the doctor determined Walker was permanently blind in her right eye and there was nothing else to be done. The eye had become infected and had significant scar tissue, making Alice very self-conscious. 


This injury caused Walker to retreat within herself and become a keen observer of individuals and their behavior. The family moved shortly after Alice’s eye incident, meaning that not only was she the new kid in a new school, but she was also the new girl who just looked different. The triple whammy of being the new kid, being away from her friends, and the physical scarring of her eye caused Walker’s grades to fall. Her parents, worried about her academic missteps, sent her back to Eatonton to live with her grandparents and attend her old school in the hope she would improve. 


While the familiar surroundings helped young Alice, she also felt a tremendous sense of abandonment. This stayed with her for several years and she would not share her level of hurt with her siblings until adulthood. Shy as a result of her injury and self-perceived ugliness, Walker focused on her books and began to formulate poems in her mind. The injury was so self-defeating that Walker considered ending her own life. An older brother who lived in Boston felt so guilty about Walker’s eye that he invited her to visit so she could see a specialist under the guise of asking her to babysit. 


Unlike her initial visit, the ophthalmologist who examined her determined that while the eye was, in fact, permanently blind, he could remove the scar tissue on the cornea to decrease the nasty appearance. Walker was so jazzed about her newly healed eye that she immediately went to a Johnny Mathis concert after her recovery, much to the mild annoyance of the brother who arranged her procedure in the first place. 


Given her blindness, Walker received a disability-based scholarship to attend Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. She was immediately swept up in activist causes and in 1962 ahead of her attending the Youth World Peace Festival in Helsinki, Walker was invited to the home of Martin Luther King, Jr. She was also on hand in Washington, D.C. for the March on Washington where the slain Civil Rights Leader gave his famous I Have A Dream Speech. 


While at Spelman Walker worked and bonded with two historians, including the famed Howard Zinn. When he was fired from the University, Walker accepted another scholarship and moved further north to attend Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, New York. While at Sarah Lawrence, Walker mentored under two prominent writers: Murial Ruykeyser and Jane Cooper. Both women proved to be highly influential to Walker’s budding writing career and even helped her publish her first book of poetry. 


Walker became pregnant in her senior year of college, throwing her into another tailspin of depression. She eventually decided to terminate the pregnancy but struggled with depressive thoughts for several months. Ahead of graduation in 1964, Walker made a therapeutic journey to Africa. Hoping to find another home, Walker chronicled her journey, as well as the heartache and depressive episodes as a result of her pregnancy in her first book of poetry titled Once. 


After graduating from Sarah Lawrence in 1965, Walker worked briefly with the New York Department of Welfare before joining the civil rights movement and moving down south to canvas voters in Liberty County, Georgia. During her work, Walker met and fell in love with a young Jewish civil rights attorney, Melvyn Rosenman Leventhal. The two were married on March 17, 1967, in New York in a civil ceremony. When the newly married couple journeyed to Mississippi they became the first legally married interracial couple to reside within the state’s borders. 


While in Mississippi, Leventhal pursued lawsuits with the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, fighting against racist policies in housing, education, and public accommodations while Walker served as a Black History Consultant for the Friends of the Children of Mississippi and served as a writer in residence at both Jackson State College and Tougaloo College. The couple welcomed a daughter, Rebecca, in 1969. Just a year later, Walker published her first novel. Titled The Third Life of Grange Copeland, the story centers around a black family caught in a cycle of violence. 


In 1972, Walker accepted an appointment to teach at the prestigious women’s college, Wellesley, and the University of Massachusetts, prompting her to move north. While at Wellesley, Walker developed a course dedicated to women's literature, one of the first in the nation’s history. Personally, Walker was dealing with the ending of her marriage, filing for divorce in 1976. The pain may have inspired Walker’s creative side as she published her second novel, Meridian, the same year. The book won Walker the Guggenheim Fellowship, awarded to those who quote, “have demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts,” end quote. 


In 1974, Walker became the editor of Ms magazine, a feminist periodical founded by Gloria Steinem. During her time as editor, she published the account of her discovery of author, anthropologist, and prior episode subject Zora Neale Hurston’s unmarked grave. In her account, she described her discovery of what she believed to be Hurston’s pauper grave and decided to pay for a marker to celebrate the late artist. 


But the creative bug bit again and soon enough, Walker immersed herself in the writing process, beginning a story that would prove career-defining. Starting in New York, Walker found her creative juices were clogged. Thus, she picked up stakes and moved across the country to Northern California, renting a little cottage in Boonville. Sharing the small space with a friend, Walker spent a year writing the novel that would break her career wide open. Published in 1982, The Color Purple tells the story of a young woman, Celie, who overcomes incest, rape, and domestic violence. The story is vividly told as a series of letters to God and is simply one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read. Newsweek called it quote, “an American novel of permanent importance,” end quote and I can understand why. Walker vividly explores taboo subjects and writes from a female lens. The book’s popularity was significant, spending twenty-five weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list and winning Walker the Pulitzer Prize in 1983, making her the first black woman to win the prize for a piece of fiction. 


If you do not know the book, chances are you may be familiar with the movie as Walker’s story was adapted into Steve Spielberg’s critically acclaimed film of the same name. Starring a young Oprah Winfrey and an unknown Whoopi Goldberg in the title role, the movie was so popular it earned 11 oscar nominations, yet failed to take home the gold.


On January 18, 1986, Walker’s hometown welcomed her back for a special screening of the film. Organized in part by her sister Annie Ruth Walker Hood, hundreds of people trekked out to the small town, where a banner welcoming Walker home hung near the theater. The experience for Walker was a bit surreal, she later said quote: “when I was a child, on the same street where that banner was hung, black people had to step off the sidewalk to allow white people to go by,” end quote. Still considered popular and powerful some thirty years after its original publication, The Color Purple was developed into a musical by Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones. 


Walker has published several other books and collections of poetry since The Color Purple including Possessing the Secret of Joy which took on the controversial topic of female genital mutilation. In a 2020 interview when asked how she had the courage to take on such taboo subjects in her writing, Walker’s response was quote, “I’m free,” end quote. 


Despite describing herself as a feminist and human rights activist, Walker has come under significant criticism in the last decade for what critics call her anti-semitic beliefs. In 2013 her book The Cushion in the Road was criticized by the Anti-Defamation League for expressing quote, “fervently anti-Jewish ideas,” end quote. 


Walker has been a long-time voiceful critic of Israel, touting the country as one that is performing genocide and calling it a quote “apartheid country.” Walker is so against Israel that she prohibited a proposed Hebrew translation of her most famous book, The Color Purple. 


In 2018, Walker ignited even more controversy when she endorsed David Icke in an article for the New York Times Book Review. Icke, who is a former European football player, is described as a conspiracy theorist and, after reading some of his beliefs, I can understand why. For example, Icke is on record as saying he believes the world is controlled by a secret organization called the Illuminati. He’s also questioned where the Holocaust happened, but also said he thinks it was funded by Jewish people - a thought process I am not entirely sure I understand. Lastly, he has this odd theory about lizard people that also ties to Jewish individuals. Walker’s continued support of David Icke has caused several festivals and organizations to rescind their offers of having her speak. 


Despite the controversies that surround her, Walker remains one of the most iconic writers of her generation. Her books have sold over fifteen million copies and have been translated into over twenty languages. She continues to reside in Northern California and manages a website with her poetry and activist work. 


Thanks to Val for requesting I cover this talented and complicated woman. I always love the things I discover whenever I research listener requests. If you would like me to cover a topic, please let me know. You can find me on the socials or via my website at www dot civics and coffee dot com. 


Thanks, peeps, I’ll see you next week.


Thanks for tuning and I hope you enjoyed this episode of Civics & Coffee. If you want to hear more small snippets from american history, be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening and I look forward to our next cup of coffee together.