Alice Walker’s years of struggle against racism, feminism and sexuality

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Gathering Blossoms Under Fire edited by Valerie Boyd

DIARY
Gathering the Flowers Under the Fire: The Diaries of Alice Walker
edited by Valerie Boyd.
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, $34.99

Something changed when Alice Walker’s novel The purple color won the American Book Award in 1983. His acceptance speech grabbed him: “I accept this award for my novel, on behalf of the people, like my parents, who never wrote or read a novel; the people of this country, deprived of education, health and happiness, and forced to work for the benefit of the oppressive classes, and the people of the whole world…” She goes on to say “we must use all our anger and all our love …”

Anger. To like. Hang on to those words. On the evidence of these journals, they summarize his life. From the start, she had a rage not only to live but a need to be seen doing it. Living was a political act. It takes courage. And art.

In 2007, Walker placed over 65 notebooks and journals in the Rare Book Library at Emory University in Atlanta. Walker, an avid/obsessive columnist, has blacked out everything until 2040, when she will be 96. These 537 pages have been selected to reveal “an intimate account of her development as an artist, human rights activist and intellectual. She has also published a few passages that reveal her, in the words of her picky editor Valerie Boyd, as “a woman, a writer, an African American, a wife, a daughter, a mother, a lover, a sister, a friend, a citizen of the world”. The title Pick flowers under the fire comes from one of his poems.

Walker’s personal life and his life as a writer cannot be separated. There are drafts of poems, speeches, comments about the people she meets, her friends and her enemies. Envy and jealousy are big hitters in his circles. And then there is his family. She could surpass Dickens for a demanding family. But, like him, she continues to give because, like him, she feels responsible for them. And for the world. Change and reform drive Walker.

AuthorAlice Walker

Walker wanted beauty, but she also wants to move her reader elsewhere. The early and necessarily elevated diary of a driven young woman are the entries that will eventually become controversy The purple color. This, and Spielberg’s film adaptation, made Walker one of America’s hottest women. Black women had written novels before, but none had won awards, none had such a cinematic interpretation. The diaries trace the genesis of this complicated romance, beginning 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 courage were more complicated than most. Or maybe for black families they weren’t. Walker was still early and she had already been published, but with The purple color, her precise ear for language, an original imagination and a politico-feminist conscience collided and were coherent. She had found her voice and she had a unique intimacy.

The first entry dates to June 1965, when Walker, 21 and a student at the prestigious, majority-white Sarah Lawrence College in New York City, considered getting involved in the civil rights campaign in the South. Four years later, she is deeply involved. His credentials are impeccable. She also keeps tabs on what she thinks and what she might write, observes that Tom Wolfe’s dialogue is “wooden” (hooray!), and how to discipline herself with “patience and precision” to be able to turn a page white into something worth reading.

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