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Alice Walker Through the Years

A decade-dent birthday tribute to an American author, poet and activist.
By Rebecca Lynn Aulph

In Eatonton, Georgia, on February 9, 1944, two sharecroppers living under the laws of the Jim Crow South welcomed the birth of their eighth and youngest child, Alice Malsenior Walker. A believer in the power of education, Alice’s mother, Minnie Lou Tallulah Grant,  enrolled her in school at age 4.

Somewhere between age 7 and 8, Alice Walker began writing poetry privately because she had a lot on her mind. In 1952, one of Alice’s brothers accidentally shot her in the right eye with a BB gun. The incident left her permanently blind in that eye, especially after a week’s delay in medical attention because her family did not own a car. Eventually, a layer of scar tissue formed over her eye, making her self-conscious and a target for bullies. She turned to writing for solace and credits this traumatic injury, which damaged her sight, with helping her to see more clearly and care about other people, things and relationships.

Voted most popular girl in high school, Walker became queen and valedictorian of her senior class. In 1961, she attended Spelman College in Atlanta on a full scholarship and, during her time there, she became interested in the Civil Rights Movement. Later, she transferred to Sarah Lawrence College near New York City. After her graduation in 1965, she maintained her political activism and returned to the South, where she supported voter registration, campaigns for rights and children’s programs. On March 17, 1967, Walker married Jewish civil rights leader, Melvyn Rosenman Leventhal, and the two were met with harassment when they became the first married interracial couple in Mississippi. Walker gave birth to their daughter, Rebecca, in 1969. Rebecca, however, felt more like a political symbol than a daughter and eventually became estranged from her mother.

In 1970, Walker’s first novel, “The Third Life of Grange Copeland,” was published. While Walker wrote her first book of poetry as a senior at Sarah Lawrence, she waited until the 1970s to resume her writing career, when she joined Ms. Magazine as an editor. With the help of a fellow Hurston scholar, Walker discovered the unmarked grave of Zora Neal Hurston in 1973, and the experience inspired her 1975 article published in Ms. magazine titled, “In Search of Zora Neal Hurston.” A year later, in 1976, the same year she and her husband amicably divorced, Walker’s second novel, “Meridian,” was published.

Walker published her best-known work, “The Color Purple,” in 1982. The novel received the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 1983 National Book Award for Fiction. Walker has written other novels, but characters from “The Color Purple” and their descendants still show their faces in some of her later novels. Three years after its publication, in 1985, “The Color Purple” became an acclaimed movie adaption, the same year that Walker received an O’Henry award for her short story, “Kindred Spirits,” which Esquire published during August of 1895.

The California Institute of the Arts granted Walker an honorary degree in 1995, and the American Humanist Organization named her “Humanist of the Year” in 1997, but the 1990s were a challenging time for Walker. During this decade, she contracted Lyme disease and opened up about her homosexuality. Still, she kept writing. Starting with the novel “Possessing the Secret of Joy(1992) and following with a book and documentary both titled “Warrior Marks(1993), Walker brought attention to the issue of female genital mutilation. In the late ’90s, she turned to her own life for inspiration by publishing a collection of essays titled “Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer’s Activism(1998). She also released a novel, “By the Light of My Father’s Smile(1999) that deals with individuals’ sexuality and public perception.

A year after her 2006 induction into the California Hall of Fame in The California Museum of History, Women, and the Arts, Walker received a Domestic Human Rights Award from Global Exchange and gave her papers – 122 boxes of archive material including drafts of novels such as “The Color Purple” – to Emory University’s Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Library. Still a political activist, Walker wrote “An Open Letter to Barack Obama” in 2008 that was published online by The Root, and a year later, in response to the Gaza War, she traveled to Gaza with a group of female activists from the anti-war group Code Pink.

Our current decade is still young, but in three years a lot has already happened for Walker. She published two nonfiction books, “Overcoming Speechlessness” in 2010 and “The Chicken Chronicles: A Memoir” in 2011. Also in 2011, shooting began on “Beauty in Truth,” a documentary film about her life.

Alice Walker photo from Georgia Center for the Book.

Find out more about Alice Walker and sites dedicated to her, such as her hometown of Eatonton’s Alice Walker Driving Tour, in the Deep South Literary Trail App

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  • Hunter / February 11, 2013

    Good one, Rebecca! (A very fine first sentence, too, if I do say so my darn self: “In Eatonton, Georgia, on February 9, 1944, two sharecroppers living under the laws of the Jim Crow South welcomed the birth of their eighth and youngest child, Alice Malsenior Walker.”

    I hope your NaNoWriMo went well! 🙂