Wednesday, January 29, 2014
Alice in Walkerland!
Alice Walker in her garden
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Writer/activist Alice Walker (b. Feb. 9, 1944) made history as the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her seminal novel “The Color Purple” (1982), for which she won the National Book Award.
THIRTEEN’s American Masters presents “Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth,” premiering nationally Friday, February 7 at 9 p.m. on PBS in honor of Walker’s 70th birthday and Black History Month. Filmmaker Pratibha Parmar’s new documentary tells Walker’s dramatic life story with poetry and lyricism, and features new interviews with Walker, Steven Spielberg, Danny Glover, Quincy Jones, Gloria Steinem, Sapphire and the late Howard Zinn in one of his final interviews.
American Masters — “Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth” charts Walker’s inspiring journey from her birth into a family of sharecroppers in Eatonton, Ga. to the present. The film explores Walker’s relationship with her mother, poverty, and participation in the Civil Rights Movement, which were the formative influences on her consciousness and became the inherent themes in her writing.
Living through the violent racism and seismic social changes of mid-20th century America, Walker overcame adversity to achieve international recognition as one of the most influential — and controversial — writers of the 20th century. Delving into her personal life, Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth reveals the inspiration for many of her works, including Once (1968), The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), Meridian (1976), The Color Purple (1982), In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (1983), Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992) and Overcoming Speechlessness (2010).
Praised and pilloried, Walker has driven people to express joy as well as anger and ruthless vilification over her art, personal views and global human rights advocacy. As seen in the film, Yoko Ono awarded her the 2010 LennonOno Peace Award for her ongoing humanitarian work. American Masters analyzes these aspects of the self-confessed renegade’s life and career.
“As a filmmaker, one of the deepest desires is to engage the audience in the conversation unfolding on screen. I am thrilled to offer this in Beauty In Truth, where Alice’s openness, warmth and on-screen intimacy reflects our long history of kinship,” said Parmar. “Making Beauty In Truth has been an adventure of discovery and sheer inspiration. I’m so pleased it will have a national audience on American Masters.” Parmar’s past works include feature film Nina’s Heavenly Delights (2006) and the documentary Warrior Marks (1993), based on the book of the same name that she and Walker co-authored.
“Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth is a complex exploration of a pioneering artist and human rights activist that gives audiences a penetrating look at a life lived with passionate commitment,” said Stephen Segaller, vice president of programming for WNET. “Having the American Masters premiere coincide with her 70th birthday is a nice bonus.”
Launched in 1986 by series creator Susan Lacy, American Masters has earned 26 Emmy Awards — including nine for Outstanding Non-Fiction Series since 1999 and five for Outstanding Non-Fiction Special — 12 Peabodys, an Oscar, three Grammys, two Producers Guild Awards, and many other honors. Now in its 28th season on PBS, the series is a production of THIRTEEN. WNET is the parent company of THIRTEEN and WLIW21, New York’s public television stations, and operator of NJTV. For more than 50 years, THIRTEEN has been a partner with the tri-state community, using its rich resources to inform and inspire the passionate people of New York and the world to better understand and address the issues that challenge our diverse communities.
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Alice Walker at London premier of "Beauty in Truth" Photo: Brenda Lawley
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Alice Walker: PBS American Master
Interview with Kam Williams
Alice Walker has been defined as one of the key international writers of the 20th Century. She 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 — one of the few literary books to capture the popular imagination and leave a permanent imprint. The award-winning novel served as the inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film and was adapted for the stage, opening at New York City’s Broadway Theatre in 2005, and capturing a Tony Award for best leading actress in a musical in 2006.
An internationally celebrated author, poet and activist, Alice’s books include seven novels, four collections of short stories, four children’s books, and volumes of essays and poetry. She has written many other best sellers, too, among them, Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992), which detailed the devastating effects of female genital mutilation and led to the 1993 documentary Warrior Marks, a collaboration with the British-Indian filmmaker Pratibha Parmar, with Walker as executive producer.
In 2001, Alice was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame and, in 2006, she was honored as one of the inaugural inductees into the California Hall of Fame. In 2007, her archives were opened to the public at Emory University.
In 2010, she presented the keynote address at The 11th Annual Steve Biko Lecture at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, and was awarded the Lennon/Ono Grant for Peace, in Reykjavik, Iceland. Alice donated the financial award to an orphanage for the children of AIDS victims in Kenya.
She has served as a jurist for two sessions of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, and writes a regular blog on her website: www.alicewalkersgardens.com. Here, she talks about her career and about the documentary “Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth” which premieres on PBS on Friday, February 7th at 9 p.m. ET/PT (check local listings)
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.
Kam Williams: The only time I came close to meeting you before now was back in the Eighties one summer, when I was invited to a party out in the Hamptons that you were rumored to be attending.
Alice Walker: Oh, I did have a few friends near there, one in Montauk, another on Fire Island. But oh, that was a long time ago.
Kam Williams: 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?
Alice Walker: 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.
Kam Williams: 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.
Alice Walker: 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.
Kam Williams: For doing more than just teaching.
Alice Walker: 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]
Kam Williams: 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.
Alice Walker: 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.
Kam Williams: Kate Newell says: I'm more than awestruck about this opportunity to ask you a question. How did you feel about the screen adaptation of "The Color Purple"?
Alice Walker: 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.
Kam Williams: 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?
Alice Walker: 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.
Kam Williams: Attorney Bernadette Beekman asks: What did you think of the stage version of "The Color Purple"?
Alice Walker: I so loved working with the musicians. It was just wonderful! It was great and I felt like it was such a tonic for people to see it.
Kam Williams: 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?
Alice Walker: 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 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.
Kam Williams: Talking about being a good or bad president is like talking about being a good or bad rapist.
Alice Walker: [LOL] That’s a very good thought.
Kam Williams: 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.
Alice Walker: 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.
Kam Williams: Film director Rel Dowdell asks: Did Danny Glover fully personify the character Mister in "The Color Purple"?
Alice Walker: No. I love Danny, and he did a good job, but no. Mister is a small man. Danny is huge! And that matters, because what I was showing was how even a small man can be a terrorist in the home because of all the patriarchal weight that he brings to any situation. That would’ve been very powerful. In a way, making Mister so big undercut that message because we’re kind of afraid of big people anyway, because they take up so much room.
I felt that at times there wasn’t enough subtlety in his abuse of Celie and her sister, Nettie, because what I’ve discovered and observed is that often it’s the subtle oppression that deeply wounds the soul. The parting for instance, which is so horrendous, where Nettie leaves, and is forced out by Mister. In the novel, that’s handled with a lot of restraint. Filmed with that restraint it would’ve been just as powerful, even with a little Mister, just by virtue of his being a man and having patriarchy as his backup.
Kam Williams: Are you interested in writing your own screenplay?
Alice Walker: At this point, no, because I have gone back to writing poetry, which I absolutely love. And I write on my blog, which I enjoy. And life being what it is, every once in a while I’ll have a book which will have developed without my actually having paid that much attention to that part of it. I’m really only interested in each day’s gift.
Kam Williams: 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.”
Alice Walker: 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.
Kam Williams: Generational warfare. In the U.S., we even have it here between the prison industrial complex and the indentured servitude of the young via college loans they can never repay.
Alice Walker: They’re supposed to be slaves. And those that aren’t just slaves, can become drug addicts. And the drug addicts that are caught get put into the prison system to make a profit for the people who own the prisons. It’s all worked out.
Alice Walker with Director Pratibha Parmar and producer Shaheen Haq in Northern California. Photo credit: Trish Govoni
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Kam Williams: Novelist and short story writer Suzan Greenberg was wondering whether you had any idea that your short story "Everyday Use" would be so widely anthologized?
Alice Walker: I did not, and I’m puzzled that it is, because it’s not the story that I would’ve picked to be anthologized so widely. I think it’s chosen partly because it reinforces some people’s notions of the Deep South, Southerners and black people. That story has its own power, but it also permits a kind of distance, as if it happened in the far past. I think that’s why people use it opposed to more gritty stories like “Advancing Luna“ or “Laurel,” which come out of the struggle in the South in the Sixties but are very modern in terms of their sense of white and black people grappling with issues of interracial rape and interracial love. I think it’s hard for people to read those stories as dispassionately.
Kam Williams: Editor/Legist Patricia Turnier says: You have been a successful authoress for decades. Only about a dozen female laureates have won the literature Nobel Prize since its inception. Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin had to adopt the pseudonym George Sand to become a French novelist and memoirist. Historically, it has been difficult for women to thrive in the literary world and the word “writeress” has been excluded or erased from some dictionaries. How can we break the glass ceiling as authoresses and have our voices heard more?
Alice Walker: You can start by not tacking that “ess” onto the end of everything, because you’re either a poet or you’re not, and either a writer or not. You don’t have to accept someone else’s idea that you need to have a tail that shows that you’re wearing a dress. [LOL] You are what you are. If you’re an actor, you’re an actor. You don’t have to be an actress. As far as a glass ceiling, I feel that all you can do is give it your absolute best with whatever gifts the universe has given you. And if you make it in some way that other people can recognize, that’s fine. But even if you don’t quote-unquote make it, you’re fine, if you’ve given it your whole heart and soul. You’re totally in sync with your purpose and with the universe. And that’s fine.
Kam Williams: Patricia also 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?
Alice Walker: 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.
Kam Williams: It was heartbreaking in "Beauty in Truth" to hear you talk about being estranged from your daughter. It was very touching.
Alice Walker: 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]
Kam Williams: Toni Banks says: Thanks for “Meridian.” It’s my favorite work of yours. She asks, was the novel biographical fiction?
Alice Walker: 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.
Alice Walker and Director Pratibha Parmar on location in Mexico. Photo credit: Shaheen Haq
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Kam Williams: Reverend Florine Thompson says: Thank you for making the color purple the sacred. If there was no color purple, what other color might you drape yourself in?
Alice Walker: Well, I don’t really drape myself in purple, although people have sent me some of everything in purple. So, I get purple shawls and coats and hats and bathrobes and boots… You could pick any color, although purple is kind of rare. The point about the color purple is just that to really see a color is so remarkable! Anything that you can see that is beautiful is a gift. Blue… green… black… yellow… All these colors are amazing.
Kam Williams: Reverend Thompson also asks: What's the most important thing you've found in your mother's garden?
Alice Walker: Patience, because what gardening teaches us is that if you plant things, they’ll come up. But you have to be willing to wait for them to bear fruit because things are seasonal.
Kam Williams: Finally, Rev Thompson asks: What advice might you offer young adolescent females searching for positive self-identity?
Alice Walker: 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.
Kam Williams: Thanks again Alice, it’s been a privilege.
Alice Walker: Thank you, Kam
To see at trailer for "Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth," visit:
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Until I read “By the Light of My Father's Smile,” the more superior novel, I believed, was her first “The Third Life of Grange Copeland,” a work in which the black male is much more brutal and malevolent than as he appears in any of her other works, including “The Color Purple,” technically an extraordinary piece of writing that far exceeds its cinematic representation. Stephen Spielberg’s “The Color Purple” is sentimental clap-trap, imaginatively on a level with An Imitation of Life, a real old-fashioned tear-jerker.
Disappointedly, I know that many religious fundamentalists and conservative-right politicians (black, white, etc.) would call me to task on the question of Walker's ethics. In that she is an avowed "lesbian," there are those assuredly who view her as immoral, especially in matters of sexuality. For instance, “By the Light of My Father's Smile” in its first chapter begins with an explicit (pornographic?) representation of a black lesbian (Pauline) making love to (having sex with) a bisexual married black woman (Susannah), a scene narrated by Susannah’s ghostly father!
All three characters are very middle-class, prosperous, and educated. An extremely titillating scene indeed, by any measure, yet not ethically irrelevant to the morality enmeshed in this novel and the conundrum in which we find ourselves.—Rudolph Lewis, “The Lie That Unraveled the World: The Relevance of Alice Walker, the Mundo & “By the Light of My Father's Smile”