Alice Walker is an American novelist, story story writer, poet and civil rights activist. She is best known for her critically acclaimed novel The Color Purple, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Walker was born in 1944 in Putnam County, Georgia. Walker lived under Jim Crow Laws, but her parents refused to allow her to work the fields from a young age as many of the children of black sharecroppers at the time did. A white plantation owner told her parents that black people had “no need for education.” Walker grew up listening to her grandfather telling stories (she’d later model a character after him in The Color Purple) She began writing at the age of 8, the same age she was injured in the eye with a BB gun causing her to go blind in that eye. Walker felt she was ugly, as the injury left a scar and turned to reading and writing poetry for comfort. The scar tissue was later removed, and Walker ended up being voted most-popular girl and was valedictorian when graduating high school.
Walker continued her education at Superman College in Atlanta before transferring to Sarah Lawrence College. During her time at college, she became involved with the civil rights movement and wrote her first book of poetry. After graduating in 1965, she returned to the South where she continued her civil rights activism, participating in voter registration drives, campaigns for welfare rights and children’s programs in Mississippi. During the late 60’s and early 70’s, Walker worked as a writer in residence at Jackson State College, then Tougaloo College. Her first collection of poetry, Once was published in 1968 and followed in 1970 with her debut novel, Third Life of Grange Copeland. She was also a consultant in black history to the Friends of the Children of Mississippi Head Start program during this time. In 1967, she married Melyn Rosenman Leventhal, a Jewish civil rights lawyer, becoming “the first legally married inter-racial couple in Mississippi.” They were harassed and threatened by white people, including the Ku Klux Klan because of their union. The marriage did not last long and Walker went on to have a relationship with singer Tracy Chapman.
In 1973, Walker published a set of short stories entitled In Love and Trouble, a poetry collection called Revolutionary Petunias and her first children’s book, Langston Hughes: American Poet. A year later, due to her growing success in writing, Walker became a contributing editor of Ms. Magazine. In 1975, her article “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston“ for the magazine inspired a renewed interest in Hurston’s work, and Walker and fellow Hurston scholar Charlotte D. Hunt went on to discovered Hurston’s unmarked grave in Ft. Pierce, Florida. They then arranged for a modest headstone to be placed at the gravesite with the words “Southern Genius” upon in.
In 1982, Walker published what has would become her best-known work, The Color Purple. The novel details the struggle of a young, black woman navigating racist white culture and patriarchal black culture and won both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction in 1983. Two years later, the book was adapted into a critically acclaimed movie featuring Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg. In 2005 it was adapted into a Broadway musical. Around this time, Walker emerged as a prominent voice in the black feminist movement, and is credited with coining the term “womanism” to mean “black feminism” and united feminists of colour under one term. In 1984, Walker co-founded Wild Tree Press, a feminist publishing company with Robert L. Allen.
Walker continued to write and publish, and in 1989 and 1992 she took on the issue of female genital mutilation in the Temple of My Familiar and Possessing the Secret of Joy, both of which earned great critical praise but were thought of as controversial. Walker has remained a passionate activist, and in 2008 wrote an open letter to President Obama published by The Root. Walker wrote that “seeing you take your rightful place, based solely on your wisdom, stamina, and character, is a balm for the weary warriors of hope, previously only sung about.”
In 2009 Walker and 60 other female activists from the anti-war group Code Pink traveled to Gaza in response to the Gaza War. They intended to deliver aid, meet with NGOs and residents, and to persuade Israel and Egypt to open their borders with Gaza. She returned in 2011 to participate in an aid flotilla and a year later, refused to authorise a Hebrew translation of The Color Purple due to what she termed Israel’s “apartheid state.” Walker is also a judge member of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine and in 2010 she published Overcoming Speechlessness: A Poet Encounters the Horror in Rwanda, Eastern Congo and Palestine/Israel which detailed her experiences with the group Women for Women International.
Walker continues to write, with her most recent works being the Chicken Chronicles, A Memoir (2011) and The cushion in the road – Meditation and wandering as the whole world awakens to be in harm’s way (2013). She also remains active in environmental, feminist/womanist causes, and issues of economic justice. She has been the recipient of many honours, including the Ingram Merrill Foundation Fellowship (1967); the Lillian Smith Award from the National Endowment for the Arts; the Rosenthal Award from the National Institute of Arts & Letters and has been inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame and the California Hall of Fame in The California Museum for History, Women, and the Arts. Her activism has been recognised with the American Humanist Association naming her as “Humanist of the Year” (1997), the Domestic Human Rights Award from Global Exchange (2007) and The Lennon/Ono Grant for Peace (2010).