Green lap, brown embrace, blue body: the ecospirituality of Alice Walker – Afro-American author
Pamela A. Smith
Alice Walker’s Earth is a womanist goddess of many colors.
In The Color Purple, Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, the blues singer Shug is the sassy, sensual, bounteous woman who awakens the brutalized and silenced Celie to her own strength and sexuality. With loving song and tender touch, she opens Celie to her own loveliness and possibility and reveals a God who is not the “big and old and tall and graybearded and white” stern codger of Celie’s old-time religion but, instead, an expansive God of trees, air, birds, people an erotic God who “love all them feelings,” who “love everything you love,” and “love admiration . . . just wanting to share a good thing.”(1)
This same Shug reappears in The Temple of My Familiar as matriarch and high priestess of the academic-turned-masseuse Fanny’s womanist religion. Fanny, the granddaughter of Celie, propagates “The Gospel According to Shug,” a series of twenty-seven macarisms, beatitudes, which all begin “Helped are those who. . . .” Fanny elaborates these maxims of “Mama Shug” into a womanist ethic of inner strength, generosity, resistance, inclusiveness, prayer, laughter, and love of stranger, Earth, and cosmos. She also willingly provides a summary, the shema or first great commandment of Shug:
“Rule number one: Don’t ever mess over nobody, honey, and nobody will ever mess over you.”(2)
Alice Walker’s womanist credo seems exemplified in the words and the passions of Shug. Walker’s literature and life work have been an expression of splendor and love of life. But they have also arisen from Walker’s immersion in the stuff of lamentation, outcry, blues. Since the 1960s, when she was a civil rights activist, to the 1990s, when she has become a spokesperson for women subjected to ritual genital mutilation and Earth subjected to waste and depredation, Walker has spoken for life and flourishing and loving kindness through poetry, short stories, novels, essays, journals, feature film, and documentary. As critic Donna Haisty Winchell has written: “Walker has indeed come to see her work as prayer. She still believes, as she did when she wrote Once [her first book, poems], that poetry saves lives.”(3) For Walker, life is art is political statement is rescue mission is prayer. It is all, in some way, lovemaking – and earthy.
A plethora of themes emerge as Walker’s words make flesh, flesh makes words, thoughts make breath, flowers and southern dirt and African drums and Native American incantations make spirit and sustenance. Prominent among Walker’s themes or motifs are eros, activism, and pantheism. It is these three themes which I explore here to describe Walker’s ecospirituality, a womanist spirituality which proposes what might be called not a realized but a realizable eschatology.
With the 1983 collection In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose (ISMG), Walker introduced to the American lexicon the term “womanist.” Among the writers and theologians who have expanded upon and explicated what it is to be a womanist have been Katie G. Cannon, with Black Womanist Ethics (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988), and Emilie M. Townes, in her In a Blaze of Glory: Womanist Spirituality as Social Witness (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), and the earlier collection she edited, A Troubling in My Soul: Womanist Perspectives on Evil and Suffering (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1993). Perhaps the simplest way to summarize what a womanist is, from an ethical and spiritual perspective, is to borrow from Gretchen E. Ziegenhals, who says that a womanist is one “who speaks out, speaks up, speaks against or in defense of something important – a woman who loves herself, her culture, and who is committed to survival.”(4) She is also, by definition and by common usage, a woman of color, a woman who inevitably has viewed life and society from the underside. She is, Walker says, purple – purple with rage, purple as restored royalty, purple blossoming wild in an open field. “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender,” declares Walker? A womanist is bold, brassy, “universalist,” as Walker describes her, “committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female” (ISMG, xi). A womanist is also – and thoroughgoingly – erotic: “A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually” and exultantly “Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself: Regardless” (ISMG, xii).
Love, as much as Walker celebrates it, is never an unconflicted garden of earthly delights, mystic, romantic, lush. It is, rather, learned, often fought for, birthed in pain. It is sometimes sought in counterfeit and, as a result, turns tragic – as in the short story “Her Sweet Jerome,” in which a lovelorn woman engulfs herself in the blaze which she has set to burn her husband’s books.(6) Or it is surrendered to in frustration, fantasy, and self-compromise, as in “We Drink the Wine in France” (ILT, 121-28). Love is sometimes twisted into beatings or the killing of one’s own children, as in Walker’s first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland(7) or “The Child Who Favored Daughter” (ILT, 35-46). Loves are sometimes traded and betrayed, as in The Temple of My Familiar (particularly among the intersecting triangles of Arveyda, Carlotta, Zede and Suwelo, Carlotta, Fanny) or “Laurel,” the story of an affair that becomes a pathetic haunting years later.(8) And sometimes loves simply disappoint and dry up, as in the love between Meridian and Truman or Truman and Lynne in the second novel, Meridian(9) – or are undone by the psychic damages done to the beloved in childhood, as in the love of Adam and Tashi in Possessing the Secret of Joy.(10) Yet love is always hoped for, indulged sexually to the extent that it can be, and always rejoiced in when it seems most closely to approach wholeness or most likely to endure.
In her fiction and nonfiction, Walker celebrates young love, gay and lesbian love, new love, partnerships that last, marriages that mature and grow. In her poetry, loves may be lost or bittersweet, incomplete, filled with longing and loss, as in “Ending,”(11) or “More Love to His Life.”(12) Sexual love and marital love require forgiveness and letting go, as in “Even as I Hold You” and “Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning” (GNWL, 52-53). Yet the inadequacies of love are themselves testaments to the worth of loving. In her journal of feature filmmaking, Walker tells of separation and recovery of friendship with a past lover.(13) In the record of the documentary, she includes notes on a birthday and musings over her “beloved.”(14) To love or to be in love demands physical expression, seeks delight. In a midlife poem, “The Awakening,” Walker writes “for S” the following:
I long to watch you sleep in the night. To find my new self awake in your lightening dark eyes in the day.(15)
Love is watching, waking, holding, knowing the beloved’s breathing and heartbeat. Love makes us new.(16)
Eros includes orgasm (a topic in which Walker is abundantly interested), yet eros is far more and does not require ecstasy. In her 1997 book Anything We Love Can Be Saved, Walker shows a photo of a man from India (not a Chipko woman)(17) hugging a tree. She remarks: “It gives me hope that when the time comes, each of us will know just exactly what is worth putting our arms around.”(18) What Walker has embraced, in her writing and her journeying, has included causes, quilting,(19) hideaway homes, tribal ancestry, motherhood and the daughter for whom she has admitted ambivalent feelings, dance, landscapes, and the gardens which represent oppressed women’s defiant demand for beauty and continuity.(20)
Linda Abbandonato has found that “the color purple” is a multivalent erotic symbol, “a sign,” she says, “of indomitable female spirit,” a way “to encode [a] specifically feminine jouissance. . . . Associated with Easter and resurrection, and thus with spiritual regeneration, purple may also evoke the female genitalia. . . .”(21) The “jouissance” of which Abbandonato speaks, sheer joy in the pleasurability of persons and things, is what makes life worth living – and is, Walker is convinced, the birthright of all. Savoring, exulting, and prospering are expressions of health and freedom throughout Walker’s writing.
We may think of eros in Walker, then, as the love which gives life, pleasures life, and also preserves life. Early in her career, Walker spoke in an interview with John O’Brien of friends who ministered to her as well as realizations that rescued her during three suicidal post-abortion days when she was in college:
In those three days, I said good-by to the world . . .; I realized how much I loved it, and how hard it would be not to see the sunrise every morning, the snow, the sky, the trees, the rocks, the faces of people, all so different and it was during this period that all things began to flow together. . . . (22)
Having come through those days and recommitted herself to life, Walker has pursued in her writing the expression of a commitment to life-giving, pleasuring, and preserving.
Walker holds a womanist theory of eros which she sums up thus:
Men and their religions have tended to make love for anything and anybody other than themselves and their Gods an objectionable thing, a shame. But that is not the message of Nature, the Universe, the Earth, or of the unindoctrinated Human Heart where everything is profusion, chaos, multiplicity, but also creativity, containment and care. Love. Wildness. And to me, Wildness means following the growth of love. Like a plant that reaches through stone toward the sun (SRT, 171-72).
In her life and art, Walker’s pursuit of the freedom to love, to be, to revel, and to rest has led her not only to express life’s passion and promise but also to be an advocate for whomever or whatever she perceives to be submerged, subjugated, oppressed. In Warrior Marks she has commented: “I am a great believer in solidarity. Nicaraguans say something very beautiful. They say that solidarity is the tenderness of the people and real revolution is about tenderness” (WM, 280).
The erotic expression of Alice Walker, then, is far more than a celebration of sexuality and sensuality. It is an embrace of life-force and Earth energies. Carter Heyward speaks of eros as “our embodied yearning for mutuality.”(23) Sam Keen has spoken of an “erotic metaphysics” in which “Plato and Aristotle both saw eros as the prime mover of stars, acorns, and the affairs of men [sic],” and Christianity “defined the ultimate reality – God – as love,” while numerous other traditions and thinkers have given rise to “an erotic vision” which emphasizes the unitive urge of beings, the powers and passions that move toward harmony.(24) It is such an erotic vision to which Walker subscribes.
In the life and work of Alice Walker, eros, thus broadly conceived, forms ethos. Walker declares in the poem “On Stripping Bark from Myself” that she, evidently the persona of the poem, is engaged in a “struggle . . . against inner darkness,” a struggle which impels her “to unlock life.” She concludes the poem with this self-description:
. . . A woman who loves wood grains, the color yellow and the sun. I am happy to fight all outside murderers as I see I must.
(HBB, 271; also GNWL, 23-24)
Over the more than three decades of her writing life, Walker has immersed herself in protest, civil disobedience, writing, speaking, traveling, and film making on behalf of numerous causes. The civil rights movement of the 1960s involved her in demonstrations, the voter registration campaign, and defiance of Mississippi’s anti-miscegenation laws during her marriage to Mel Leventhal. The 1970s saw her entry into the feminist movement as a regular contributor to Ms. magazine and a friendship with Gloria Steinem. The 1980s brought international attention with her Pulitzer Prize for The Color Purple and Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the book to film. During this decade Walker defined, and in some ways invented, womanist awareness and the womanist movement. In the 1990s she stood firmly against the Gulf War, visited Cuba and promoted a conciliatory view of Castro, mounted a campaign against “female circumcision” (genital mutilation). All of these causes have figured in her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. And with them has been a persistent strain of attentive concern for the fate of the Earth.
Part of Walker’s impetus is, not surprisingly, her critical assessment of the African American experience in the South and a reclaiming of her African roots. Equally compelling, however, has been her identification with her Native American ancestry. In Living by the Word, a collection of essays written between 1973 and 1987, a book which Gretchen Ziegenhals has called “the most religious of her books,”(25) Walker borrows a condemnatory term from the Oglala Sioux to denounce patterns of destruction. She notes that the Sioux called white people the “Wasichu,” a word which means fat-eaters or fat-takers.(26) Walker applies the term to any and all who are racist, sexist, classist, environmentally insensitive. A series of poems, which first appeared in Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful(27) (and are reprinted in HBB), repudiate the Wasichu.
Following a quotation from Black Elk about the boneyard and Earth ruin left by the Wasichu, Walker proceeds in “Family Of,” “Who?” and “No One Can Watch the Wasichu,” as well as other poems, to rant against consumerism, male-dominated politics, assassinations, rape, the arms race, all the variations on “scalping the earth” (“No One Can Watch,” HBB, 385) which afflict persons and the planet. How can one counteract these? “Plant a tree” (“Torture,” HBB, 389), resist, sing “Tra-la-la!” (“Song,” HBB, 394-95), have “a love affair/with tiny wildflowers and gigantic/rocks” (“These Days,” HBB, 397) are ways Walker suggests as healing and Earth-saving acts.
These particular womanist poems – and all of Walker’s poems are womanist, whatever their subject – are by their very nature ecowomanist. Just as the term “eco-feminist” expresses the perception that the degradation of the Earth is of a piece with the subordinating and bullying of women, racial minorities, the poor, and the marginalized, the term “ecowomanist” expresses the burden of this perception on a woman of color.
“Earth itself,” admonishes Walker, “has become the nigger of the world.” But the Earth, she goes on to say, will assuredly undo us if we don’t learn to care for it, revere it, even worship it. Walker warns: “While the Earth is poisoned, everything it supports is poisoned. While the Earth is enslaved, none of us is free. . . . While it is ‘treated like dirt,’ so are we” (LBW, 147). For Walker, the womanist stance is one which men of color and the whole white world must learn. Fortunately, she seems confident that they can, despite certain manifestations of hellbent stubbornness. Adam, the son of CP’s Celie, narrates, in PS J, what his foster father Samuel taught him: “Adam, he would say, What is the fundamental question one must ask of the world? I would think of and posit many things, but the answer was always the same: Why is the child crying?” (PSJ, 165). Many of the men in Walker’s works Grange Copeland (TLGF), the husband in “Coming Apart” (YCK, 41-53), “Mr. _____” in CP, Suwelo in TMF among them – learn as best they can to hear the cry and ask the question. In WM, the book which bears witness to the interventions and interviews involved in the making of the documentary against the genital mutilation of women, Walker shows her activism in educating people to stifled and denied cries. She also shows how old taboos, tribal loyalties, misplaced priorities, and a desire for the panoply of progress can skew the ability to hear and respond, the ability to see alternatives. She expresses dismay at the persistence of poverty in Africa amid politicians’ apparent efforts “to create Europe where they are, for example Houphouet-Boigny’s replication of the Roman basilica in the Ivory Coast.” She observes:
Much of this is understandable, this longing to be where there is comfort, and plenty, and “freedom.” But no cathedral or basilica, not even (or especially) the basilica in Rome itself, is worth the suffering of a single child. Africa and the world must choose (WM, 82).
As far as Walker is concerned, the capacity to choose is cultivated by watching, attentive listening, opening to “disarmament . . . in the heart and in the spirit” (LBW, 147), turning to “the way of conscious harmlessness” (AWL, 42). Her dedicated writing and her on-the-scene reportage of excruciating rites of initiation, emotional suffering, the silencing of women, the stymieing of life, well-being and growth, and the erection of monuments to tradition or prestige are her efforts to inform the capacity for choice, for ethical decision making.
From the beginning of her writing life, it seems, Walker has seen her role as voice for the voiceless. In LBW she describes her sense that ancient voices sometimes guide her pen. In the same collection she relates in “Am I Blue?” what she perceives as a horse’s pathos. Unselfconsciously, Walker comments in 1987, after a trip to Bali, that a chicken was the most interesting and engaging thing she saw there. She wishes to give voice to the value of its being. Walker adds:
I learn that the writer’s pen is a microphone held up to the mouth of ancestors and even stones of long ago. That once given permission by a writer – a fool, and so why should one fear? – horses, dogs, rivers, and, yes, chickens, can step forward and expound on their lives (LBW, 170).
The call to listen, to attend, is one which Walker repeatedly issues, whether through the “Dear God” letters of Celie, through the poems and stories which often arise from pain, through blissful lauds of women and landscapes and lovers and Earth, or through explicit invitations to readers to join her in a “journey. Hazardous. But guaranteed to work the heart into a bolder shape” (WM, 3).
Raising her voice and using loving weapons of resistance are Walker’s ways to Earth-saving and people-saving. In her 1997 essays, AWL, Walker comments, beneath a photo of a brush taken by Sue Sellars: “The broom, the pen, and one’s body can be used to stir things up” (AWL, 135). Speak and stir she does, motivated by an indefatigable trust in the power and persistence of love. Despite her candor about gynocidal horrors, the degradation of the Earth, and the demoralizing of people, Walker introduces her book of essays on activism with a credal statement which is summed up thus:
I believe the Earth is good. That people, untortured by circumstance or fate, are also good. I do not believe the people of the world are naturally my enemies, or that animals, including snakes, are, or that Nature is” (AWL, xxv).
Walker acknowledges the forces that disappoint and the powers that destroy. But she insists that every effort on behalf of blessed change, every gesture of reverence, every act of love matters.
The imperative, as Walker sees it, writes for it, rallies for it, is “rousing ourselves, individual by individual, and bringing our small imperfect stones to the pile” (AWL, xxiii). Later on in the 1997 essays, she makes it clear that these “stones” are “collective stones of resistance against injustice” – rather like the stone piles which raised the carved heads on Easter Island, perhaps. The bringing together of these “collective stones,” she explains, is the felicitous redirection of “the need, singly, to throw rocks at whatever is oppressing us” (AWL, 26).
Walker indicates more than once that activism is the constructive alternative to suicide, murder, wholesale slaughter. Yet she also allows for the possibility that the rage which fuels resistance may also require killing. Grange Copeland kills. Tashi kills. A young black woman used and abused by a wealthy white lawyer kills.(28) It is as if to say that where life is suppressed and growth is stunted, where persons and systems conspire not to “breathe with” but to suffocate,(29) resistance and activism may sometimes have to kill before anyone or anything can begin to heal. That is the tragedy which “conscious harmlessness” might prevent. And it is Walker’s hope that cultivating a sense of the good, the beautiful, and the holy will avert violence and let the killing cease.
Walker’s celebrations of eros and commitments to activism are clearly religious activities. It does not take long, however, to realize that, for her, true religion and vibrant spirituality require the renunciation of the Judaeo-Christian tradition and the adoption of more pan-religious and pantheist sensibilities. Yet this does not mean a wholesale rejection of Christ. Indeed, Walker has written that Christ advocated the healthful perception of oneself, of women, of people of color, and folks at large as “beloved expressions of the Universe (i.e., children of God). . . . ” It is this element of gospel, of genuine good news, that she sees most often expurgated from Christian preaching. She also is convinced of the presence of protective spirits – not necessarily the angels of Judaeo-Christian tradition perhaps, but something like them. She finds these understandings of the goodness of being, and the striving of the spirit world to support well-being, as crucial for human survival and enjoyment. She continues:
This feeling of being loved and supported by the Universe in general and by certain recognizable spirits in particular is bliss. No other state is remotely like it. And perhaps that is what Jesus tried so hard to teach: that the transformation required of us is not simply to be “like” Christ but to be Christ (LBW, 98).
Walker regrets that this message of our own cosmic dynamism and Christic possibility is not what the Christian religion has generally imparted. It has seemed instead, she believes, to have transmitted an image of God as taskmaster and inhibitor,(30) a God “who said women deserved to suffer and were evil anyway” (AWL, 13). This, at least, is the image of God she claims to have received from the Methodist convictions of her mother. Walker does not merely reject what she understands to be the churchgoer’s image of God. She also redefines the role of Christ and places the historical Jesus not in the unique role of only-begotten Son but as one among many beloved children, though a distinctly enlightened one. A gifted child, he is worthy of worship. But so are our present brothers and sisters, our ancestors, wisdom figures, and the many spirits in the world, as far as Walker is concerned. She observes:
I further maintain that the Jesus most of us have been brought up to adore must be expanded to include the “wizard” and the dancer, that when this is done, it becomes clear that he coexists quite easily with pagan indigenous people. . . . [O]ur ancestors . . . already practiced the love and sharing that he preached (AWL, 25).
Trudy Bloser Bush has seen in the character Shug the pan-religious amalgam which Walker suggests. Bush observes: “Shug develops the holistic consciousness of the Christian mystics, of Buddhist and Hindu thought, and of African animism. She realizes that God is inside each person; people come to church to share, not find, God.”(31) Walker affirmed her animism and pantheism as early as 1973, in an interview with John O’Brien, when she spoke of animism as part of the African American heritage. And she clearly professed a pantheist’s faith: “Certainly I don’t believe there is a God beyond nature. The world is God. Man is God. So is a leaf or a snake.”(32)
Walker has repeatedly affirmed her pantheist faith over the years. She prays to the Earth at several points in LBW.(33) She speaks too of invoking the universe, telling it what we need, and believes that the universe responds to human desires, whether these desires are for good or for ill, for deadly chemicals or for fields of wildflowers. “God answers prayers,” Walker insists. “Which is another way of saying, ‘the Universe responds.'” The power of these “prayers,” these desires of the heart, requires discernment and discipline. She adds:
We are indeed the world. Only if we have reason to fear what is in our hearts need we fear for the Planet. Teach yourself peace.
Pass it on (LBW, 193).
Walker calls her work “a prayer to and about the world” (SRT, 38). In her 1997 work, she reasserts what she regards as the fitting worshipful way: “In day-to-day life, I worship the Earth as God – representing everything – and Nature as its Spirit” (AWL, 9).
Overall, the God who is “ocean or drifting clouds,” the God within “melons, mangoes, or any other kind of attractive, seductive fruit” (AWL, xii), the God who “worships” us too (AWL, 25), is comforting, curative, celebrant. The Earth-God/Universe-God provides starry nights in which we can find calm, lovers’ arms in which we can rest and thrill, dappled fields and green hills in which we can take refuge, sights and sounds and tastes and smells in which we can revel. Yet Walker has come to a conviction that evil, the suffering we experience, occurs also within the embrace of God.
She describes how her “habit as a born-again pagan to lie on the earth in worship” led to her being bitten by ticks and afflicted with Lyme disease, with a resultant sapping of her strength through much of the later 1980s (SRT, 25). She describes facing the long-delayed and much mistaken diagnosis as a faith crisis. Walker admits her feeling that “the benign Goddess/God I had assumed the earth to be had turned on me” (SRT, 42). The experience, however, led her to a more subtle pantheist theology of suffering. Walker sees Lyme disease as an outcome of the Earth’s need to fight back against assault and presumption, when it becomes “tired of people, worshipers or not, taking her for granted” (SRT, 25). Walker also concludes that there is a lesson to be learned about life’s demand, and Earth’s demand, to be taken on their own terms:
. . . [A]s with a lover, what can one really absolutely trust? Only that she or he will be themselves. And that, I see, is how I must love the earth and Nature and the Universe, my own Trinity. Trusting only that it will be however it is, and accepting that some parts of it may hurt (SRT, 43).
Walker arrives at a rather blithe acceptance of the suffering which comes from creatures or from the Earth as redemptive and instructive. “[S]uffering has a use; it helps push away the old skin, surely not empathically flexible enough, still clinging to our ankles,” she asserts (SRT, 287). Unlike her attitude of adamant resistance to the suffering wrought by humans, she tends to a more laissez-faire approach to the suffering imposed by her “Trinity’s” being itself. She would not leave such suffering untreated, but she sees no reason to rage against it.
Despite what may be read as a rather smug dismissal of her own suffering here, or a somewhat grudging resignation to it, Walker’s overall pantheist vision may be described as upbeat – immanentist and eschatological in a generally hopeful vein. God, the Goddess, is no more transcendent for her than a distant galaxy is. The Universe spirit is in the garden grubs at our feet. Walker remarked to Oprah Winfrey in 1989: “There is no heaven. This is it. We’re already in heaven, you know, and so in order . . . for the earth to survive, we have to acknowledge each other as part of the family, the same family. . . .(34) The “family,” clearly, is larger than the human family. It is an inclusive family of cosmos, nature, creatures.
Walker’s hope is that we can learn to live together in justice, solidarity, respectfulness. If heaven is here and now, Walker must be seen as the proponent (even prophet) of a realizable eschatology. Freedom and flourishing can and will win out, she believes, if we humans fulfill our own earthly and earthy functions in what might be summarized in the following imperatives:
1. Learn to survive life’s sufferings with spunk and sass.
2. Protect ourselves and others from disabling suffering; prevent it when possible; walk with sufferers when we are powerless to protect or prevent.
3. Live lovingly in the present moment and revel in earthly delights without abuse or excess.
4. Work to transform our environments, shaping our households, relocating our breathing space, simplifying our lifestyles, slowing our pace, adorning our surroundings with beauty, reconfiguring our relationships, always opting for greater health.
5. Recognize, eschew, resist the dysfunctional; wait things through until wholeness and integrity prevail.
6. Look upon all that lives, all that is, with a worshipful gaze. That is, live and let live.
I offer this as an expression of the erotic, activist, pantheist code which can be derived from the Walker corpus.
Alice Walker’s vision may be called eschatological not only because it is hopeful enough to prescribe new ways of being and relating but also because it embraces that element of eschaton which we term “consummation.” Hers is not, however, the consummation of the world in apocalyptic end-time. Consummation for Walker is, rather, the consummation of love and passion, consummation of ourselves and our energies in tasks of social reform and artistic production, surrender to the consummate delights and surprises of beauty and life-force, and the recurrent consummation of Earth and cosmos in the sweep of change, generativity, and mystery.
Walker’s faith and Walker’s self-investments may be discomfitting to those of us who are mainstream, church-loving Christians. But, as Henry Simmons has observed, she challenges us to widen our images of God, to enter into “the imaginative act of leaving androcenter,” to tell “new life stories of God,” and to devise “language about God” which will express “the many sacred presences of God in history and established religion.”(35) To those of us who fancy ourselves ecclesia discens, Walker’s post-Christian neopagan voice must give pause as she questions the validity and the veracity of our preoccupations and dedications. In confronting our rather constrained sense of the sacred and in querying the genuineness of our preaching of universal love, she clearly signals what can and probably should destablilize our spiritual and moral status quo. She also confronts us with the possibility that, if Christianity does not develop its panentheist tradition richly and proselytize vigorously and joyously on behalf of social justice and eco-justice, we will communicate to people a no-God, a moribund Spirit, and a dead-end Earth.
Conclusion: Last Blessing
Walker’s art and her activist engagement in a number of the great causes of the latter twentieth century – racial justice, women’s rights, Earth saving – are expressions of her commitment to mutuality, sensuality, creativity, and freedom. At such close range, it is difficult to say how future generations will weigh her literary productions against Toni Morrison’s – or even Flannery O’Connor’s. But the fact of her impact on our present age is undeniable.
M. H. Abrams, in his retrospective on the literary critical theory of the nineteenth-century British Romantics, has written that “theories of poetic value” tend to align themselves with one or another of two schools of thought, or “broadly distinguishable classes.” They are:
(1) Poetry has intrinsic value, and as poetry, only intrinsic value. It is to be estimated by the literary critic solely as poetry, as an end in itself, without reference to its possible effects on the thought, feeling, or conduct of its readers.
(2) Poetry has intrinsic value, but also extrinsic value, as a means to moral and social effects beyond itself. The two cannot (or at least, should not) be separated by the critic in estimating its poetic worth.(36)
The first school of thought will tend to assess literary merit on the clarity with which art imitates life, is expressive of reality, is “a literal reflector” or “mirror” of the world which the artist perceives.(37) The second school of thought will tend to assess literary worth not only on artistry but on some sort of “moral efficacy,”(38) a mix of instruction and delight,(39) a didactic purpose,(40) some lighting of a lamp to lead the way.(41)
When we consider Walker’s works to date, it seems that the first two novels, TLGC and M, and the first collection of short stories, ILT, tend more to mirror things as they are – frustrations, oppressions, misdirections, and tragedies. The works of nonfiction, the novels from CP on, and the poetry, from the very first volume, Once (1968), tend to mix realism, moving scenes and moving imagery, with comment, conclusion, even a certain level of ethical direction. bell hooks has critiqued these directive tones in Walker as “the ethics of a narcissistic new age spiritualism.”(42) Emilie Townes, on the other hand, has praised Walker’s “vision” and “spirituality,” especially as expressed in the Godtalk and the personal transformations of the characters in CP. Townes writes: “The hope that Walker presents us with is that we may well, if we choose to seek the Spirit, have the will to dare the injustices and stereotypes to cocreate ourselves in a liberative image of God.”(43)
It seems safe to surmise that Walker, at this point, cares little about the praise or blame of her work. What she does seem to express in the later 1990s works (SRT and AWL) is a personal need to continue to be artist, lover, blesser of all that lives, one who spends whatever life is left “consciously embracing every glowing soul who wanders within our reach” (AWL, 146). In so doing, she links herself implicitly with the “four irrevocable directives,” or four commitments, to which the Parliament of the World’s Religions pledged itself in 1993: nonviolence and respect for all of life; justice and solidarity; truthfulness and tolerance; equality and partnership between men and women.(44) Whatever the ultimate literary judgment on her work might be, it has to be said that Walker has caught something of the Zeitgeist, the World-Spirit of the present age, and given it voice.
To Walker, it seems, art and life, words and love, justice-making and play, shape her vocation as literary mirror-holder and lamp-lighter, as vocal woman of color. Her words are womanist sighs and outcries. They are also a prayer of praise about and to Earth, our biosphere:
We have a beautiful mother Her green lap immense Her brown embrace eternal Her blue body everything we know.
Whether we are neopagans or confirmed Christians, quiltmakers or theologians, Sioux or Wasichu, hairdressers or wearers of dreadlocks, lovers or lovelorn, there are colors which Walker wants us to see and know: purple, yellow, green, brown, blue. She wants us to love them – and ourselves – with the “revolutionary tenderness” of eros and activism, and to know God and/or Goddess thereby and therein.
1. Alice Walker, The Color Purple (New York: Pocket Books, 1982), 201, 203. Cited hereafter in the text as CP
2. Alice Walker, The Temple of My Familiar (New York: Pocket Books, 1989), 300. Cited hereafter in the text as TMF. “The Gospel According to Shug” appears at the opening of Part Five of the novel, 287-89.
3. Donna Haisty Winchell, Alice Walker (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992), 115.
4. Gretchen E. Ziegenhals, “The World in Walker’s Eye,” Christian Century 105 (1988): 1037. The article presents a sweeping review of Walker’s work through 1988 and especially recommends the 1988 nonfiction collection, Living by the Word.
5. Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983), xii. Cited hereafter in the text as ISMG.
6. Alice Walker, In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1973), 24-34. Cited hereafter in the text as ILT.
7. Alice Walker, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (New York: Pocket Books, 1970). Cited hereafter in the text as TLGC. While there is something redemptive and even loving in the final killings of this narrative, it depicts Grange Copeland, the redeemed figure, and Brownfield Copeland, the doomed son shot by his father to save the last granddaughter, as men who are both caught in patterns of violence and domination over those whom they have claimed to love.
8. In Alice Walker, You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1981), 105-18. Cited hereafter in the text as YCK.
9. Alice Walker, Meridian (New York: Pocket Books, 1976). Cited hereafter in the text as M.
10. Alice Walker, Possessing the Secret of Joy (New York: Pocket Books, 1992). Cited hereafter in the text as PSJ.
11. Alice Walker, Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1973), 43. Cited hereafter in the text as RP.
12. Alice Walker, Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979), 4. Cited hereafter in the text as GNWL.
13. Cf. Alice Walker, The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult – A Meditation on Life, Spirit, Art, and the Making of the Film “The Color Purple” Ten Years Later (New York: Scribner, 1996). Cited hereafter in the text as SRT. Walker shares at some length in this journal the rift in her long relationship with Robert Allen and some restoration, after distancing.
14. In Alice Walker and Pratibha Parmar, Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1996); the sections by Walker include recurrent mention of her “Beloved,” a woman who is credited in the final acknowledgments with a “beauty that reminds me always always of the liberating power of that which is free, natural, and whole” (356). Warrior Marks is cited hereafter in the text as WM.
15. Alice Walker, Her Blue Body Everything We Know: Earthling Poems 1965-1990 (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1991), 453. Cited hereafter in the text as HBB.
16. As samples of Walker’s love poems, see “New Face,” RP, 66, and “Mornings/of an impossible love,” HBB, 118-23.
17. The ecological efforts of the Chipko women, a tree-hugging movement in India active in the 1970s and 1980s, are described in Carolyn Merchant, Radical Ecology: The Search for a Livable World (New York: Routledge, 1992), 183, 185, 200-202.
18. Alice Walker, Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer’s Activism (New York: Random House 1997), 44. Cited hereafter in the text as AWL.
19. At an exhibit entitled “A Communion of the Spirits: African American Quilters, Preservers, and Their Stories,” featured at Detroit’s Museum of African American History from January through June 1998, Walker’s reflections on the craft of quilting and its restorative, balancing effects are noted. She has credited her work on a nine-patch pattern strong-colored quilt in North Carolina as a source of sustenance for the production of The Color Purple. Walker also offers some remarks upon quilting in ISMC, 239.
20. Cf. the poem “Revolutionary Petunias” in RP, 29, and the title essay in ISMG, 231-43.
21. Linda Abbandonato, “Rewriting the Heroine’s Story in The Color Purple,” in Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah (New York: Amistad, 1993), 306. Dinitia Smith, in “Review of The Color Purple” (reprinted from The Nation, 4 September 1982), in Gates and Appiah, 19-20, adds that purple is “for Walker, the color of radiance and majesty (and also the emblematic color of lesbianism).”
22. John O’Brien, “Alice Walker: An Interview,” in Gates and Appiah, 328.
23. Carter Heyward, Touching Our Strength: The Erotic as Power and the Love of God (New York: Harper and Row, 1989), 3.
24. Sam Keen, The Passionate Life: Stages of Loving (New York: Harper and Row, 1983), 26.
25. Ziegenhals, 1036.
26. Alice Walker, Living by the Word (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988), 144. Cited hereafter in the text as LBW.
27. Alice Walker, Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1983). Cited hereafter in the text as HML.
28. Cf. “How Did I Get Away with Killing One of the Biggest Lawyers in the State? It Was Easy,” in YCK, 21-26.
29. Cf. Walker’s remarks to Earth (addressed as God) concerning healthful “conspiracy” in AWL, 52-53.
30. Cf. “The Diary of an African Nun,” ILT, 113-18.
31. Trudy Bloser Bush, “Transforming Vision: Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston,” Christian Century 105 (1988): 1039.
32. O’Brien, in Gates and Appiah, 341. Cf. 332 for comments on African animism and its persistence among African Americans.
33. This prayer is one of several which appear: “Thank you again. I love you. I love your trees, your sun, your stars and moon and light. Your darkness. Your plums and watermelons and meadows. And all your creatures and their fur and eyes and feathers and scales” (LBW, 96).
34. The quotation from this interview with Winfrey appears in Winchell, 133. We may recall that Winfrey portrayed Sophia in the film The Color Purple.
35. Henry C. Simmons, “Reflections on The Color Purple: Losing and Finding God in Non-Male Images,” Living Light 25 (1989): 354, 356, 358.
36. M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1953), 326-27.
37. Abrams, 34.
38. Abrams, 330.
39. Cf. Abrams, for a discussion of Sir Philip Sidney’s presentation of this approach, 14-15.
40. Cf. Abrams, for a discussion of Samuel Johnson’s critique of Shakespeare on the grounds of didactic negligence, 329.
41. See the epigraph from William Butler Yeats which lends The Mirror and the Lamp its title.
42. bell hooks, “Reading and Resistance: The Color Purple,” in Gates and Appiah, 291.
43. Emilie M. Townes, In a Blaze of Glory: Womanist Spirituality as Social Witness (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995).
44. Cf. Hans Kung and Karl-Josef Kuschel, A Global Ethic: The Declaration of the Parliament of the World’s Religions (New York: Continuum, 1993) for the full text and the list of signatories.
PAMELA A. SMITH is Director of Lay Ministry Programs for SS. Cyril and Methodius Seminary and author of What Are They Saying about Environmental Ethics? (Paulist, 1977).
COPYRIGHT 1998 Association for Religion and Intellectual Life
COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group