Beyond 'Purple'

Alice Walker - from her fight for civil rights in the '60s to her literary triumph in the '80s

Today Alice Walker stands with Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou in a literary triptych. They are icons as well as writers. Their accomplishments call attention to the struggles of black women. But the public probably focuses too exclusively on Walker's 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Color Purple," which inspired the Steven Spielberg film. Readers with no background information on the path that led to that shining success will find Evelyn White's "Alice Walker" particularly engaging.

White decided to write this book after hearing Walker lecture on female genital mutilation practiced within certain African and Arab cultures. White was overcome by Walker's dignity and poise while under fire from a perturbed administrator. "In Walker's visage," she writes, "I detected the anguish of generations of black women whose flesh-and-blood vulnerabilities have never been acknowledged. After several moments fraught with silence, Alice took a breath and began to speak."

Hence, this biography was born. "I understood, immediately, that my task was to chronicle the life of the woman who'd instantly transformed an insult into an impassioned paean for the dispossessed."

Walker cooperated with the book, as did several of her intimate acquaintances. Childhood friends provide reminisces so glowing that you suspect they've been dazzled by Walker's later fame. And sometimes White borrows material from Walker's own published autobiographical writings - stories that aficionados will find familiar. But all in all, this is a credible biography.

Born in 1944, the youngest child of a sharecropping family in the segregated South, Walker was permanently blinded in one eye at the age of eight by a BB-gun. Her tenant farming family lacked the resources for proper medical care. Worse, she lied to her parents to protect her brothers, who were responsible for the accident.

Today, she views the calamity - particularly her misery over the lie - as a turning point. "It was very much like rape. It is also at the root of my need to tell the truth, always, because I experienced, very early, the pain of telling a lie."

White covers Walker's student days, her first literary efforts, and her sometimes volatile encounters with influential literati who helped promote her: historian Howard Zinn, poet Muriel Rukeyser, and philanthropist Charles Merrill.

As important as these big names was the self-discipline she cultivated as a '60s civil-rights activist. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence, the novice writer ventured back to the South with her new husband, Mel Leventhal, a Jewish attorney. Together they labored to desegregate the violent and recalcitrant state of Mississippi. Her first books were produced far from literary milieus.

Of course, the book also covers Walker's revival of Zora Neale Hurston, the queen of black folklore and storytelling, who had died in poverty in 1960. Another highlight is the account of the controversy surrounding "The Color Purple." Some critics accused the feminist novel of negatively stereotyping black men. The charge was a hot-button issue in the early '80s, when the black community was incensed over Reagan-era social policy.

After this point, however, the biography suffers from contemporaneity. It's hard to separate the glitz from the facts. Walker discovers her bisexuality and purportedly has an affair with pop singer Tracy Chapman; Walker's biracial, identity-conflicted daughter publishes a book portraying her mother as self-absorbed.

Walker's interest in mysticism deepens and leads her to champion admirable causes. But there are also quotes that make the reader suspect she may be suffering from a messiah complex: "The books that I have produced already carry forward the thoughts I feel the ancestors were trying to help me pass on. In every generation someone (or two or three) is chosen for this work."

White's book occasionally reads more like a fan book than a critical biography. One wonders about her critical distance from her material. Because the best moments come when she quotes from her interviews, "Alice Walker" might have been stronger as an oral history book.

In her time, Walker has traveled from a feminist, activist, and primarily realistic writer to a more international "womanist" (a word Walker coined) writer with an inspirational slant. "The Color Purple" and her essay collection "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens" are watershed books. "Alice Walker" tells a fascinating story. However, it's certain the story will be told again more definitively.

Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a poet and critic living in Charleston, S.C.

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