Alice Walker made history as the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as well as the National Book Award in 1983 for her novel "The Color Purple." An internationally celebrated author, poet and activist, Walker's books include seven novels, four collections of short stories, four children's books, and volumes of essays and poetry.
Here, she talks about her career and about the documentary "Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth," which premieres on PBS' American Masters series on Friday, Feb. 7th at 8 p.m. CT.
Kam Williams: Hi Alice. I'm so honored to have this opportunity to interview you.
Alice Walker: Oh, I'm so glad to be talking with you, too, Kam. ...
KW: I'll be mixing in my questions with some from readers. Harriet Pakula-Teweles asks: "How do you feel about having the biopic coming out about you?"
AW: Well, it's very interesting because I almost never do anything for Black History Month, because I feel it's just another way to separate us. It's amusing to me that it would be coming out as a Black History presentation on PBS. But on the level of the film, I like it. And I love the producer (Shaheen Haq) and the filmmaker (Pratibha Parmar). I think they were incredibly devoted. They did it on a hope and a prayer, and at one point had to rely on crowd-sourcing because of the huge expenses.
KW: I learned so much about you from the film. For instance, I was surprised to hear that Howard Zinn had been a professor of yours in college.
AW: He was already teaching at Spelman when I arrived as a freshperson. Then, I took his class the following year, because I had gone to the Soviet Union and wanted to learn more about Russia, and I think he was the only person in all of Atlanta who knew anything about Russian literature, which I loved. He was teaching Russian literature, the language, and some of the politics. We became really good friend when I took his class, but then he was fired.
KW: For doing more than just teaching.
AW: He helped us desegregate Atlanta. That was moving because he took a lot of abuse for that. He and Staughton Lynd, a fellow professor who was also from the North, stood with us. They were certainly behind us. In fact, they often stood in front of us. This had a huge impact on me. But one of the reasons I was very careful about speaking about the relationship I had with him and Staughton was because, in a racist society, if you acknowledge a deep love for and a deep debt owed to white teachers, they tend to discredit your own parents and your own community.
And I was very unhappy about that because I come from somewhere and from specific black people in the South, including my parents, who built our first school, and rebuilt it after it was burned to the ground. And they used to bake pies and cakes to raise money to keep it going. So, I learned to struggle from a very early way in a way that was truly indigenous to the South. You have to keep at it! [Chuckles]
KW: The film also left me with an appreciation of your deep connection to nature. I have that, too. I go for a walk in the woods every day. It's very spiritual to me.
AW: The forest is the first cathedral. I felt that from the time I was a child. I credit my mother with that. I used to think it came from her Native-American side. Whichever it was, she instinctively connected with nature, and taught me that. Church just could not hold my spirit. It was a beautiful, little church, too. As sweet as could be. It was at a bend in the road, with a big, oak tree sheltering it. Still, I wandered right out the window, mentally and emotionally, got into the trees, and never left.
KW: Kate Newell says: "How did you feel about the screen adaptation of 'The Color Purple?'"
AW: I was worried about the film at first, because I'd never had a movie made of any of my work on a big scale like that. There had only been a couple of small, student efforts before that. "The Color Purple" was so overwhelming that I actually brought a magic wand to New York City for the premiere, and pointed it at the screen in the hope that movie didn't embarrass all of us.
Lo and behold, it turned out to be a beautiful picture. The audience was so into it, gracious and emotional, laughing when they should be laughing, crying when they should be crying. I got to feel it as a living work of art, as something useful. My interest in creating anything is that it be useful. People can love the beauty of it, but they should also use it to grow, to deepen.
KW: What was it like dealing with the blowback for the next several years coming from critics who said "The Color Purple" was anti-black men?
AW: It actually lasted for a decade. How could you imagine that people could be mad at you for so long? I felt a great deal of weariness. But because it wasn't the first time that I had been heavily criticized, I learned that you just keep going and turn to other things, which I did.
I went on to write "The Temple of My Familiar," which may be my favorite of my novels, because it was a miraculous gift that I had no idea how I got it. I had a dream one night that I went down into a non-existent sub-basement of my little house in Brooklyn. There was a trap door and I went down further and found these indigenous South American people speaking Spanish and making all these incredible things. I didn't speak a word of Spanish but I sensed that I was being guided to a new focus. And to make a long story short, I ended up going to Mexico, I learned one word, "leche," which means milk, and I started writing this novel. So, the blowback, in a way, faced me in a new direction, which was very interesting. ...
KW: Dinesh Sharma says, "In my new book, 'The Global Obama,' Professor Ali Mazrui refers to the President as a 'great man of history.' Professor Henry Louis Gates of Harvard agrees. You have written several essays about Barack Obama. How do you feel about his presidency thus far?"
AW: I'm very disappointed in Obama. I was very much in support of him in the beginning, but I cannot support war. I cannot support droning. I cannot support capitulating to the banks. I cannot support his caving in to Netanyahu (Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu). There's a long list of this administration's initiatives that I find unsupportable.
"I think many black people support him because they're so happy to have a handsome black man in the White House. But it doesn't make me happy if that handsome black man in the White House is betraying all of our traditional values of peace, peoplehood, caring about strangers, feeding the hungry, and not bombing children. I'm very disappointed.
"More than disappointed, I think I've actually returned to a kind of realism about how the world works. That's helpful. Because in a way, no matter who's in charge of the corporation that the United States is, the direction in which it is taken seems to be inexorable. So, you just get the job of being the front man for four or eight years. Now, most people realize that's what you are. ...
KW: I think the black community sort of got checkmated in terms of its own agenda. And very vocal folks who try to hold Obama accountable are having their blackness questioned or their blackness revoked, like Tavis Smiley.
AW: That's okay. It's better to have your blackness taken away than to stand there and lie about who you actually are. That's the trap. In fact, Cynthia McKinney just sent me a piece by somebody about how, for the first time in history, black people are supporting the wars, the military strikes on Syria, and other awful things, as if they woke up and became entirely different people. It's totally distressing! Look at the NDAA [The National Defense Authorization Act], look at the Patriot Act, look at the NSA, and the ruthless droning of civilians. I pretty much lost it when they droned the grandmother who was teaching her grandchildren how to pick okra. It seems to me the ones who are the real threat are the ones who are in power. ...
KW: I was struck by something you said in "Beauty in Truth": "The pain we inflict on children is the pain we later endure as a society."
AW: Boy, is that scary, when you consider what we're doing to children all over the planet. They're the ones who are truly being terrorized by all the madness adults are perpetrating. ...
KW: Editor/Legist Patricia Turnier says: "You learned to read at a very young age. You were in the first grade when you were four years old. Illiteracy is still an ongoing issue around the world. Do you think that exposing a child as early as possible to education can be a determinant in decreasing the level of illiteracy on a global scale?"
AW: I know from having had a child, and from having been a child myself, that children will copy you. So, the best way to get them to read, is to read. The best way to get them to do anything is to do it yourself, and they will absolutely copy you. That way, you don't have to worry about what's supposedly age appropriate; a child will pick something up when the child is ready.
KW: It was heartbreaking in "Beauty in Truth" to hear you talk about being estranged from your daughter. It was very touching.
AW: Hmmm... I like hearing that it was moving, and provocative in a way, because these things do happen to us. The very thing you think will never happen to you, happens! And then you get to see, oh, that's because life is alive! (LOL)
KW: Toni Banks says: "Thanks for 'Meridian.' It's my favorite work of yours." She asks, "was the novel biographical fiction?"
AW: Not really. There was a young woman in SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) whose name was Ruby Doris (Smith-Robinson). She was someone I didn't really know, but I heard about how she was having such a really hard time with the men in the organization. That was one of my early introductions to patriarchal behavior, which undermines progress.
If the men are going to try to keep the women down, everybody's going to be stuck back there somewhere. So, she was a person I was thinking about, and I also wanted to write about the sort of spiritual and inspirational work that a lot of people in the movement were doing. ...
KW: The Rev. Florine Thompson asks: "What advice might you offer young adolescent females searching for positive self-identity?
AW: Love yourself. Just love yourself. In fact, the love of the self cures every kind of problem you have with yourself. For instance, if someone calls you nappy-headed, it rolls right off your body, if you love nappy hair.
Or if someone calls you buck-toothed or too black, that won't be a problem if you love being buck-toothed or black. If you love it, then so what. The development of self-love cures many of the ills that people suffer from.
KW: Thanks again Alice, it's been a privilege.
AW: Thank you, Kam