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Alice Walker’s years of wrestling with racism, feminism and sexuality

By Helen Elliott

June 2, 2022 — 4.00pm

/iGathering Blossoms Under Fire/i edited by Valerie Boyd

Gathering Blossoms Under Fire edited by Valerie Boyd

DIARIES
Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker
edited by Valerie Boyd.
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, $34.99

Something shifted when Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple won the American Book Award in 1983. Her acceptance speech catches it: “I accept this award for my novel, in the name of the folk, like my parents, who have never written or read a novel; the folk of this country, robbed of education, health and happiness, and forced to labour for the benefit of the oppressor classes, and the folk all over the world…” She goes on to say “we must use all our anger and all our love…”

Anger. Love. Hold on to those words. On the evidence of these journals, they encapsulate her life. From the beginning, she has a rage not just to live but a need to be seen doing it. Living was a political act. That takes courage. And art.

In 2007, Walker placed more than 65 notebooks and journals in the Rare Book Library at Emory University, Atlanta. Walker, an assiduous/obsessive diarist, put an embargo on everything until 2040. By then, she’ll be 96. These 537 pages have been selected to reveal “an intimate record of her development as an artist, human rights activist and intellectual.” She has also released some passages that reveal her, in the words of her fastidious editor Valerie Boyd, as “woman, writer, an African American, a wife, a daughter, a mother, a lover, a sister, a friend, a citizen of the world”. The title Gathering Blossoms Under Fire is from one of her poems.

Walker’s personal life and her writing life cannot be separated. There are drafts of poems, speeches, commentaries on people she meets, friends and enemies. Envy and jealousy are big hitters in her circles. And then there is her family. She could outdo Dickens for a demanding family. But, like him, she keeps on giving because, like him, she feels responsible for them. And for the world. Change and reform drive Walker.

Author Alice Walker

Author Alice Walker

Walker wanted beauty, but she also wants to move her reader elsewhere. The early, necessarily high-minded diarising of a driven young woman are the entries that will eventually become the controversial The Color Purple. This, and the Spielberg film adaptation, established Walker as one of the most high-profile women in America. Black women had written novels before but none had won prizes, none had such cinematic interpretation. The journals chart the genesis of this complicated novel, starting with Walker’s own family history.

Her parents were sharecroppers in Georgia, they lived in various “horrible shacks”, and the family stories of neglect and abuse as well as love and fortitude were more complicated than most. Or perhaps for black families they were not. Walker’s was always bounding ahead and she had been published before, but with The Color Purple, her accurate ear for language, an original imagination and a political/feminist consciousness collided and cohered. She had found her voice and it had a unique intimacy.

The first entry is from June 1965, when Walker, 21 and a student at the prestigious, mainly white Sarah Lawrence College in New York, is thinking about becoming involved in the civil rights campaign in the South. Four years later, she is deeply involved. Her credentials are impeccable. She also keeps an eye of how she is thinking and what she could be writing, observes that Tom Wolfe’s dialogue is “wooden” (hooray!) and how to discipline herself with “patience and precision” so that she can turn a blank page into something worth reading.

And something striking: there is scarcely a line in these journals which does not reveal Walker’s ceaseless endeavour to become herself. How remarkable, and touching, she and many of her friends were as they worked towards a better world decades before the useful, illuminating concept of “intersectionality” was identified. In an undated entry of 1980, she writes: “What do we want? My God, what do black women writers want? We want freedom. Freedom to be ourselves. To write the unwritable. To say the unsayable. To think the unthinkable. To dare to engage the world in a conversation it has not had before.”

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Walker suffered nasty backlash from the male black community after The Color Purple was published. She writes of one review: “Reed says I have labelled black men rapists. Could this be the sum of his profit from reading The Color Purple? Astonishing!”

It is also astonishing that some early reviews about this book are snide about Walker’s careful detailing of her finances, buying houses and properties. Think about it: class, gender, race and a disabled eye all conspired to keep Walker in her place, and she’s outwitted every one. Having money has been critical. Coming from emptiness, she understands that “insecurity” is death to creativity, and her calculations will be greeted with cries of recognition from many artists. Her wealth enabled her to establish beauty in houses and gardens, the beauty, as Gerhart Richter says, that is the “opposite of destruction, damage and disintegration”.

In Walker’s case, beauty is a bulwark.

So are these journals. She needs a bulwark because, lately, she’s been saying some very crazy things. The journals show her at her peak and at her best.

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