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Alice Walker, Womanist
Alice Walker is an African-American woman and an important writer of our time. I haven’t read even half of her work, but what I have read has left a great impression upon me. At times controversial, Alice Walker writes honestly about many important issues, such as racism, black culture, civil rights, and gender and sexuality.
Life Changing Experience
Alice Walker grew up in the midst of poor, black people in Eatonton, Georgia. From an early age, she viewed and experienced the oppression of black women in her community. In her essay, “Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self,” she describes an accident she had when she was eight that left her blind in one eye. She and her two brothers occupied themselves by playing cowboys and Indians.
Because I am a girl, I do not get a gun. Instantly I am relegated to the position of Indian. Now there appears a great distance between us. They shoot at everything with their new guns. I try to keep up with my bows and arrows. One day while I am standing on top of our makeshift “garage”… I feel an incredible blow in my right eye. I look down just in time to see my brother lower his gun (Walker 323).
I believe that Alice Walker experienced the domination of males that day, which becomes a major theme in her writing. She was maimed by a male, her brother. She grew up wondering if this incident changed her, and she questioned whether or not her brother shot her on purpose. She was also taught the lesson that men were superior to women when she wasn’t allowed to have a gun like her brothers.
What is your favorite Alice Walker book?
Education was very important in the Walker family. Alice Walker attended Spelman College and Sarah Lawrence College. It was at Sarah Lawrence College that Walker began to write. In her senior year, after spending the summer in Africa, she found out that she was pregnant. Torn between disappointing so many people by dropping out and choosing single-motherhood and disappointing still others by having an abortion, Alice Walker contemplated suicide. In an interview with John O’Brien in 1973, Walker explains how this experience began her writing career.
I have always been a solitary person, and since I was eight years old (and the recipient of a disfiguring scar, since corrected, somewhat), I have daydreamed – not of fairy tales – but of falling on swords, of putting guns to my heart or head, and of slashing my wrists with a razor. For a long time I thought I was very ugly and disfigured. This made me shy and timid, and I often reached for insults and slights that were not intended. I discovered the cruelty (legendary) of children, and of relatives, and could not recognize it as the curiosity that it was.
I believe, though, that it was from this period – from my solitary, lonely position, the position of an outcast – that I began to really see people and things, to really notice relationships and to learn to be patient enough to care about how they turned out. I no longer felt like the little girl I was. I felt old, and because I felt I was unpleasant to look at, filled with shame, I retreated into solitude, and read stories and began to write poems (O’Brien 327).
Since her college days, Alice Walker has written poetry, short stories, essays, novels, biographies, and even a documentary. In much of her work, she explores women through the characters she creates. She writes about women who are exploited, mutilated in body and spirit, confined in life, and even driven to madness. She states,
I’m always trying to give voice to specific people in the hope that if I do that, then that specific kind of person will be better understood, really brought into the common fund of people that we have knowledge of and therefore we share with, and are in community with (Wilson 320).
I am committed to exploring the oppressions, the insanities, the loyalties, and the triumphs of black women…for me black women are the most fascinating creatures in the world (Wilson 331).
The Color Purple
Two themes that occur throughout Walker’s work show her view of the oppression of women. Her work shows a belief that women are held to a double standard; they are expected to sexually satisfy men and still be virgins until they are married. Her work also displays a belief that in a heterosexual relationship men sexually dominate women. Both of these themes occur in her novel, The Color Purple. Alice Walker won a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for this novel in 1983. The novel was also made into a major motion picture by Steven Spielberg.
In The Color Purple, Celie is oppressed by two men in her life. First, the man she calls father rapes her. She has two children by him, which he takes away and sells to a minister in town. She was expected to sexually satisfy him. However, since she was soiled (no longer a virgin) she wasn’t prime material for a proper marriage. For that matter, she wasn’t prime material for anything. Her father married her off to Mister. Mister, as Celie submissively calls him, wanted to marry Celie’s sister, but Celie’s sister was still clean. She was going to be educated. Mister already had children, so Celie was the perfect candidate to be his new wife.
Once in Mister’s house, Celie was completely dominated by him, sexually, creatively, intellectually, etc. She was definitely sexually dominated, referring to sex with him as Mister ‘doing his business.’
Mister basically treated Celie like a slave. She did all the housework and raised his children. He didn’t allow her to learn how to read, but she learned in secret anyway. He kept the letters that her sister sent from Africa, her only source of joy, from her for many years. He beat her and verbally abused her as well.
Throughout her life, Celie is brought down by men, but she is liberated by a woman. Shug Avery is Celie’s route to freedom as a woman. In Walker’s view, women are sexually enslaved by men in this male dominated society. Celie escapes this enslavement through loving Shug. Shug shows Celie how to enjoy her body. Shug and Celie have a lesbian relationship. This is just one of the ways that Walker uses in her work to sexually liberate women.
In the end, Celie has left Mister, who she now calls Albert. She has her own business, making pants, and she is reunited with her sister and her children.
No longer chattel to her man, Celie is able to converse with her husband. Having undergone liberation in both economic and sexual terms, she is for the first time perceived – not as a domestic slave or the means toward male sexual gratification – but as a whole woman: witty, resourceful, caring, wise, sensitive and sensual (Willis 89).
The Color Purple
In Meridian, another novel by Alice Walker, the main character of the same name chooses a different route toward sexual liberation. Meridian gives her first child away. When she finds herself pregnant again, she has an abortion. After her abortion, she has her tubes tied. This action allows her to gain some ground toward sexual equality with men. Since she can no longer get pregnant, sex is not a place for a man to overcome her by getting her pregnant. In other words, her actions represent a step toward heterosexual relationships no longer being a place where men can dominate women sexually, but rather a place where men and women can set each other free. Meridian believes that sexual equality between men and women is a long way off, so she chooses a celibate life (Willis 91-92).
Through her work, Alice Walker is a voice for oppressed women. She speaks out against the oppression, mutilation, and abuse that women suffer. She also highlights the achievements and contributions of women in our society. I believe that she has helped the womanist, or feminist, movement to step forward in the American experience.
O’Brien, John. “Alice Walker: An Interview” Alice Walker Critical Perspectives Past and Present. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and K.A. Appiah, editors. New York: Amistad Press, 1993.
Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. New York: Washington Square Press, 1982.
“Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self.” The Blair Reader. p321-328. Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell, editors. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1992.
Willis, Susan. “Walker’s Women.” Alice Walker. Harold Bloom, editor. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989.
Wilson, Sharon. “A Conversation with Alice Walker.” Alice Walker Critical Perspectives Past and Present. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and K.A. Appiah, editors. New York: Amistad Press, 1993.