Profiles in History: Alice Walker

Many readers of this blog may already be at least a little familiar with Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Color Purple.  As a famous writer and activist, Alice Walker has worked throughout her life to draw attention to issues of oppression and the need for equality.  Many of her works, including The Color Purple and Meridian drew heavily on her own experiences living in the South under the Jim Crow laws and during the Civil Rights Movement.  Though her most famous works were released in the 1980s, Walker’s most recent writing was published in 2013, as she continues to pursue both writing and activism.

Alice Walker was born in Georgia in 1944, to parents who defied the expectations of their white counterparts and insisted on educating all of their children, including Alice.  Her first book of poetry was written during her senior year at Sarah Lawrence College, and she went on to work for Ms. magazine.  Walker’s most famous work, The Color Purple, follows a black female protagonist who struggles to navigate both a racist white society and a patriarchal black society, and looks to the overlapping oppressions that black women face in the United States.  Her other works, including novels and poetry collections alike, have focused on the experiences of black women in a racist, sexist, and often violent society that violates their rights and threatens their personhood.

Walker also participated in the 1963 March on Washington, after which she returned to the South to help register black voters in Mississippi; she was an active participant in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.  On top of that, Walker has been active in the movement for justice for Palestine, and has openly criticized Israeli policies towards the Palestinians, particularly the sanctioning of Israeli settlements in the territories.  She has been publicly criticized for this stance and accused of antisemitism.  In 2012, Elijah Goldberg of the Daily Beast came to Walker’s defense, pointing out that her husband is Jewish, her daughter half-Jewish, and that she has had a working relationship with many Jews over the course of her career; his piece clarified that Walker’s stance has never been anti-Jew, or even anti-Israeli, but in opposition to the Israeli government.

Alice Walker has won numerous awards, including both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award for The Color Purple, an honorary degree from the California Institute for the Arts, the 1997 Humanist of the Year Award, and induction into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, among others.

Because she is still alive and still making contributions to both humanitarian causes and to literature, it seems odd to honor Alice Walker for Women’s History Month.  But Alice Walker has in fact made significant contributions to history.  Her literary works, especially The Color Purple, have given a voice to marginalized groups of women and conveyed their stories in a compelling way that has attracted both attention and acclaim; the book is now read and analyzed in high schools and universities across the country, shedding light on oppression and forcing individuals to confront the ways in which oppression manifests itself and the ways in which oppressed groups further harm those within them based on power structures and internal hierarchies.  Her activism regarding Israel has brought much-needed attention to events happening in the Palestinian territories.  Most of all, Alice Walker stands as shining example of what a person can accomplish even without coming from a place of privilege, and is a reminder of the importance of listening to all voices, especially those which are otherwise marginalized.

Happy Women’s History Month.

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~ by Randi Saunders on March 3, 2014.

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