Walker, Alice

Walker, Alice (1944- ), Georgia-born American writer, essayist, and poet, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Color Purple.

In a passage from her 1983 essay collection In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose, Alice Walker reflects that "one thing I try to have in my life and in my fiction is an awareness of and openness to mystery, which, to me, is deeper than any politics, race, or geographical location." Walker was the youngest of eight children of sharecropping parents Wille Lee Walker and Minnie Tallulah (Grant) Walker. Her childhood was colored by an accident at age eight: she lost sight in one eye when an older brother shot her with a BB gun. Socially outcast as a result of her disfigured appearance, Walker became absorbed in books and began to write poetry while young.

Walker has said that while she was in high school, her mother gave her three important gifts: a sewing machine, which gave her the independence to make her own clothes; a suitcase, which gave her permission to leave home and travel; and a typewriter, which gave her permission to write. Walker graduated from high school as class valedictorian, and from 1961 to 1963 attended Spelman College in Atlanta on a scholarship. But when the "puritanical atmosphere" at Spelman became oppressive, Walker transferred to Sarah Lawrence College, where she completed a B.A. degree in 1965.

Walker then spent time in Georgia and Mississippi, where she registered voters, and in New York City, where she worked at the Welfare Department. She also married white human rights lawyer and activist Mel Leventhal in 1967, and in 1969 gave birth to their daughter, Rebecca. She was divorced in 1977. But through all this activity, Walker continued to write.

Walker published her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, in 1970 at age 26. Two years later she published In Love and Trouble, a short story collection, and the poetry collection Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems. In 1976 she published her second novel, Meridian. By this point, Walker was well established among the rising generation of black women writers. Her work is often praised for its portrayals of individuals and individual relationships, but it is also known for its depictions of the ways in which individuals can rely on their collective culture and cultural heritage to sustain them.

As Walker continued publishing her essays and poetry, she developed a second career as an educator. She has taught black studies and creative writing at Jackson State College, Tougaloo College, Wellesley College, and the University of Massachusetts at Boston; has served as a distinguished writer in African American studies at the University of California at Berkeley; and was named the Fannie Hurst Professor of Literature at Brandeis University. In 1983, however, she became internationally known as a writer with the publication of her third novel, The Color Purple.

The Color Purple portrays Celie, a rural black woman in an abusive marriage, as she struggles to find her self-worth. Told entirely in the form of letters Celie's simple letters to God, her letters to her lost sister Nettie, and Nettie's letters to Celie the powerful narrative won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize and established Walker as a major American novelist. In 1985 The Color Purple was made into a popular movie that was both praised for its portrayal of African American heroines and condemned for its portrayal of African American men. Walker reflected on the complicated issues surrounding the film's production in her essay collection The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult (1996).

One year after The Color Purple Walker published In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, an influential essay collection that introduced the new term womanism as a way of defining black women's feminism. In 1984 she cofounded Wild Tree Press in Novarro, California. Since then, Walker's publications include the novels The Temple of My Familiar (1989) and Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992), another essay collection, several volumes of poetry, and a children's book.

Walker's numerous honors and awards include a National Endowment for the Arts grant and fellowship, a Radcliffe Institute fellowship, an honorary Ph.D. from Russell Sage College, a National Book Award Nomination, a Guggenheim Award, and an O'Henry Award. She is highly in demand as a lecturer, and is not only a writer but also an outspoken liberal political activist. Walker's Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer's Activism was published in 1997.