I was no lover of contemporary poetry, particularly the ''radical'' poetry of the 1960's and early 1970's. Some of it had moral force and authenticity, and some of the poets had a sense of craft. But the sentiments of nonjudgmental liberalism that characterized the movements of the period had made it possible for every idiot with a Bic pen and a Big Chief pencil tablet to claim to be a poet, so long as he or she was a member of some oppressed group, imitated Orwell's use of pigs as the symbol of the oppressor and occasionally stapled together a rudimentary chapbook of poems that seemed unified only because they were repetitious.
But Alice Walker's ''Revolutionary Petunias'' was about as far from that airheaded tradition as Leonardo da Vinci is from Andy Warhol. Her sense of line was precise, her images clear, simple, bitingly ironic, the book unified by the symbol of flowers. ''These poems,'' Alice Walker writes, ''are about . . . (and for) those few embattled souls who remain painfully committed to beauty and to love even while facing the firing squad.''
Those ''embattled souls'' included members of her own large (eight children) family: a sister who escaped, through education, the narrow and impoverished world of Alice Walker's native Eatonton, Ga. ( ''Who saw me grow through letters/ The words misspelled But not/ The longing ''); her uncles visiting from the North ( ''They were uncles. . . ./ Who noticed how/ Much/ They drank/ And acted womanish/ With they do-rags ''); her grandfather, seen at the funeral of her grandmother, Rachel Walker:
My grandfather turns his creaking head away from the lavender box. He does not cry. But looks afraid. For years he called her ''Woman''; shortened over the decades to
Page 28 '' 'Oman.'' On the cut stone for '' 'Oman's'' grave he did not notice they had misspelled her name. They also included the women and the old men of Eatonton, and they also included figures from the larger world of political struggle. She mourned:
The quietly pacifist peaceful always die to make room for men Who shout. Who tell lies to children, and crush the corners off of old men's dreams.
And she attacked on their behalf the con men of the revolution who: '' . . . said come/ Let me exploit you;/ Somebody must do it/ And wouldn't you/ Prefer a brother? ''
Those embattled souls included Alice Walker herself. She writes with sadness and defiance of the price she had paid for loving and marrying a white man, a civil-rights lawyer named Mel Leventhal. In ''While Love Is Unfashionable,'' she writes:
While love is dangerous let us walk bareheaded beside the Great River. Let us gather blossoms under fire. She made clear her love of peacefulness, but left no doubt as to her determination to ignore the standards of society and appeal to higher judges: ''Be nobody's darling;/ Be an outcast./ Qualified to live/ Among your dead.''
It took no unique perception to be enthralled by ''Revolutionary Petunias,'' which had already been enthusiastically reviewed, nominated for the National Book Award and given the Lillian Smith Award. However, unlike a number of reviewers, I was even more taken with Alice Walker's first novel, ''The Third Life of Grange Copeland,'' published in 1970, in which a black sharecropper, enslaved by circumstances and eternal debt, breaks free of the destructive cycle at the point where he would have slain his wife, who has betrayed him with the white landowner. Instead, he abandons her and his son, Brownfield, and heads north. Consumed with hatred for Grange, Brownfield nevertheless echoes his father's sins in more sinister harmonic; he destroys his wife's intellect, batters her and their three daughters and eventually kills her. The youngest daughter, Ruth, is taken in by Grange, now returned and transformed by time and experience into a wise and saintly old man. He nurtures and protects Ruth, in the end to the point of killing his own son and sacrificing his own life.
There is, to be fair to its critics, a lot not to like about the novel. Its structure is weak; despite the basic three-part plot implied by the title, the book is chopped up into 11 ''parts'' and 48 short chapters. The plot itself is both episodic and elliptical; the crucial ''second life,'' which would have shown Grange Copeland's transformation, is largely missing.
But there is much to admire, especially in the ''third life,'' in which Grange Copeland emerges as one of the richest, wisest and Page 29 most moving old men in fiction. His speeches, never preachy, always set perfectly in context, ring with complex truth. Speaking of the difference between himself and his son:
''But when he become a man himself, with his own opportunity to righten the wrong I done him by being good to his own children, he had a chance to become a real man, a daddy in his own right. That was the time he should have just forgot about what I done to him - and to his ma. But he messed up with his children, his wife and his home, and never yet blamed hisself. And never blaming hisself done made him weak . . . By George, I know the danger of putting all the blame on somebody else . . . And I'm bound to believe that that's the way the white folks can corrupt you even when you done held up before. 'Cause when they got you thinking that they're to blame for every thing they have you thinking they's some kind of gods!''
Much of Grange's humanity comes out in his interactions with Ruth, a sweet, sassy, feisty, precocious child (''I never in my life seen a more womanish gal,'' says Grange). Their dialogues are dramatic expressions of an unabashedly universalist philosophy.
But much as I admired ''Revolutionary Petunias'' and ''The Third Life of Grange Copeland,'' it was one of Alice Walker's essays, ''The Unglamorous but Worthwhile Duties of the Black Revolutionary Artist,'' that compelled me to meet her. At the time, I was awaiting the publication of my first novel and trying to figure out how I would deal with the political nonsense that seems to always attend the appearance of even the most nonpolitical book by a black.
Alice Walker ''told'' me: ''The truest and most enduring impulse I have is simply to write. It seems necessary for me to forget all the titles, all the labels and all the hours of talk, and to concentrate on the mountain of work I find before me. My major advice to young black artists would be that they shut themselves up somewhere away from all the debates about who they are and what color they are and just turn out paintings and poems and short stories and novels.''
I wanted to meet Alice Walker, I realized, because there were things I needed to learn from her. E ATE IN A DELI ON LEXINGTON AVENUE IN Manhattan and talked of many things - of the 1930's anthropologist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston, whose work Alice Walker had discovered while doing research ''in order to write a story that used authentic black witchcraft.'' The results had been ''The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff,'' and something less purely professional. Alice Walker fell in love with Hurston. ''What I had discovered,'' she had told the Modern Language Association a few months before our lunch, ''was a model. A model who, as it happened, had provided . . . as if she knew someday I would come along wandering in the wilderness, a nearly complete record of her life.''
We talked of my own model, Jean Toomer, one of Hurston's forerunners of whose major work, ''Cane,'' Alice Walker had written, '' I love it passionately; could not possibly exist without it.''
She spoke of her years in the South, her impoverished childhood in Eatonton, the two years she had spent at Atlanta's elite black women's college, Spelman, before she found a way to escape from what she felt to be its puritanical atmosphere to an elite white women's college, Sarah Lawrence; her years in Mississippi as a civil-rights worker and teacher, a vulnerable position made more so because of her marriage to Leventhal. She spoke, too, of her turning away from formal religion. ''I just need a wider recognition of the universe,'' she would explain years later.
She had little to say about publishing. Breaking into the business had not required the usual years of frustration. She had written most of the poems in ''Once'' during a short, frenzied week following a traumatic abortion while at Sarah Lawrence. One of her teachers, the poet Muriel Rukeyser, gave them to her own agent, who showed them to Hiram Haydn, then an editor at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, who almost immediately accepted them.
Alice Walker in person was as many faceted as Alice Walker in print. She was a scholar of impressive range, from African literature to Oscar Lewis, the noted anthropologist. She was an earthy Southern ''gal'' - as opposed to lady. Her speech was salted with down-home expressions, but peppered with rarified literary allusions. She was an uncompromising feminist, capable of hard-nosed, clear-eyed analysis; she was also given to artless touching and innocent flirtation. She had a sneaky laugh that started as a chuckle and exploded like a bomb. Her eyes sparkled - I did not know then, and surely could not tell, that one of them had been blinded in a childhood accident.
I left Alice Walker in the lobby of the building that housed Ms. magazine, of which she was then a contributing editor, feeling both elated and uneasy - elated because I had liked her every bit as much as I had liked her books, and uneasy because I thought, as I had watched her walk toward the elevators, that the world into which she was moving was a steam- driven meat grinder, and she the tenderest of meat. The black movement, with which she still identified, was split on questions of anti-Semitism, integration, class, region, religion and, increasingly, sex. The women's movement, of which she was perhaps the most artistic and evocative contemporary spokesperson, was increasingly being accused of racism, and had factions of its own.
Alice Walker was black, a pacifist but a rejector of the organized religions to which that tradition belonged. She was married to a white, indeed, a Jew. She was a rejector of black middle-class education and pretensions, and an acceptor of white upper-class education - but not pretensions. She was a Southerner in the ''liberal'' North, a feminist who was also a wife and a mother. She was also sensitive enough to be hurt by criticism.
I worried for her. I watched her go. I wished her well.
I saw Alice Walker only twice in the next seven years: once, in 1976 at a party celebrating the publication of her second novel, ''Meridian''; again, in 1983, at the ceremony where she accepted the American Book Award for her third novel, ''The Color Purple,'' which would, a few days later, be announced as the winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Between those occasions, I had no real conversations with her; I had even allowed our real acquaintance, based on her work, to lapse.
That was, in part, because I had become busy with my own writing and teaching. But I had also been terribly disappointed by ''Meridian'' and the collection of short stories that followed in 1981, ''You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down.''
In this I was, to all appearances, alone. ''Meridian'' had been touted by Newsweek as ''ruthless and tender,'' by Ms. as ''a classic novel of both feminism and the civil- rights movement,'' and by The New York Times Book Review as ''a fine, taut novel that. . . goes down like clear water.'' But to me it seemed far more elliptical and episodic (three parts, 34 chapters) than her first novel, without having that novel's warmth and simplicity. The title character, an itinerant civil-rights worker, seems less pacifist than passive. She suffers from an intermittent paralysis of vague origins that, by the end of the book, she has managed to pass off to a weak skunk of a man, named Truman Held, a former lover who repeatedly betrayed her in order to be with white women. He seems to redeem himself years later by mothering her, accepting her illness and ignoring her sexuality.
The dialogue between Meridian and Truman Held, especially when compared to the easy conversation of Grange Copeland and Ruth, is just plain awful. (''Hah,'' he said bitterly, ''why don't you admit you learned to hate me, to disrespect me, to wish I were dead. It was your contempt for me that made it impossible for me to forget.'') The symbolic unity, so powerful in ''Revolutionary Petunias,'' is missing.
Many of the stories in ''You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down'' show the complexity and artistry of ''In Love & Trouble.'' There is ''A Sudden Trip Home in the Spring,'' in which a young, Southern black girl, a student at a Northern women's college, returns home for the funeral of her father, whom she has never understood, and discovers new sources of strength in her older brother and her grandfather. And there is ''Fame,'' a day in the life of Andrea Clement White, an aging and proper black woman of letters, who goes to a literary-awards luncheon uttering acerbic comments: ''White liberals told you they considered what you said or wrote to be new in the world (and one was expected to fall for this flattery); one never expected them to know one's history well enough to recognize an evolution, a variation, when they saw it; they meant new to them. ''
But many of the stories are flawed by unassimilated rhetoric, simplistic politics and a total lack of plot and characterization. Some are hardly stories. One unsatisfying piece, ''Coming Apart,'' through its complex publication history, hinted at what was going wrong. Commissioned as an introduction to a chapter on third-world women in a feminist collection of essays on pornography, the ''story'' had been published in Ms., entitled ''A Fable,'' then republished in ''You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down,'' retitled and with a polemical, confusing and somewhat inaccurate introduction: '' . . . the more ancient roots of modern pornography are to be found in the almost always pornographic treatment of black women who, from the moment they entered slavery, even in their own homelands, were subjected to rape as the 'logical' convergence of sex and violence.''
''Meridian'' and ''You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down'' upset me. Alice Walker seemed to have lost the balance of form and content that had made her earlier work so forceful. She had ignored the human power of situations in favor of polemical symbolism. Worse, she appeared to have got caught up in the business she had advised young writers to avoid - advice I had taken to the heart of my own existence. I was furious at Alice Walker. I felt . . . misled.
By the time I watched her receive the American Book Award, my anger had faded. By then, I had had some taste of what it is like to scribble in obscurity and then suddenly have people ripping manuscripts out of your hands before you have satisfied yourself and publishing them for reasons and standards far removed from yours. I no longer felt that Alice Walker had misled me; I believed she had been misled, and pressured in ways she could not possibly ignore. When Gloria Naylor, the black woman who won the American Book Award for first novels in 1983, acknowledged the debt that she and other black female writers owed Alice Walker, I could only think, what a heavy burden that tribute must be.
When Alice Walker rose to make her own acceptance speech, I could not help thinking of Andrea Clement White, who tells an interviewer, ''In order to see anything, and therefore to create . . . one must not be famous'' and could only summon up the energy to accept her ''one hundred and eleventh major award'' after hearing a small, dark-skinned girl sing an old slave song. I wondered who, if anybody, was singing for Alice Walker. I had not then, you see, read ''The Color Purple.''
I rediscovered Alice Walker through reading ''The Color Purple.'' In my case, though, the rediscovery almost did not happen. I had read enough about the book to want to avoid it like the plague.
I had read that it was an epistolary novel, with most of the letters written by Celie, a black Southern woman, the victim of every virulent form of male oppression short of actual femicide, who eventually finds true love and orgasm in the arms of another woman. The description made me fear the book would be as disjointed as ''Meridian'' and as polemical as most of ''You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down.''
I also sensed that ''The Color Purple'' was going to be ground zero at a Hiroshima of controversy. In June 1982, Gloria Steinem, in a profile of Alice Walker published in Ms., had written about an ''angry young novelist,'' male and implicitly black, who had been miraculously tamed by Alice Walker's writing. This, Miss Steinem said, was ''a frequent reaction of her readers who are black men.'' But she then went on to question the thoroughness, integrity and motivation of all Alice Walker's reviewers, especially those black and male. ''It's true,'' she wrote, ''that a disproportionate number of her hurtful, negative reviews have been by black men. But those few seem to be reviewing their own conviction that black men should have everything white men have had, including dominance over women. . . .'' That position would make expressing any reservations about ''The Color Purple'' risky business for a black man, and indeed, I had heard rumblings about the review Mel Watkins, a black man, had written in The New York Times, because he had criticized the male portraits as ''pallid'' and the letters not written by Celie as ''lackluster and intrusive'' even though he termed the book ''striking and consummately well written.''
At the same time, I had heard some people - not all of them white and/ or male - expressing some misgivings about the book. One black poet, Sonia Sanchez, criticized Alice Walker's theme of black male brutality as an overemphasis. Another black woman told me ''The Color Purple'' was ''a begging kind of piece'' and she was ''getting tired of being beat over the head with this women's lib stuff, and this whole black woman/black man, 'Lord have mercy on us po' sisters,' kind of thing'' in Alice Walker's work.
On the other hand, one white woman told me that once she had gotten through the first few depressing letters, ''The rest was so uplifting and true , it made me cry.''
All this considered, ''The Color Purple'' seemed a good book to stay away from. But then someone I liked and respected pressed a dogeared copy of ''The Color Purple'' into my hands and said, ''You've got to read this.''
I did and discovered a novel that seems a perfect expression of what, in my mind, makes Alice Walker Alice Walker. The epistolary form is perfectly suited to her experience and expertise with short forms - what in another book would have been choppiness is short and sweet. There is plenty of political consciousness, but it emerges naturally from the characters, instead of being thrust upon them. That Celie - after being repeatedly raped and beaten by a man she thinks of as her father, having him take the children she bears him away, and then, knowing that his brutality has rendered her sterile, hearing him tell her future husband, ''And God done fixed her. You can do everything just like you want to and she ain't gonna make you feed it or clothe it'' - should find herself uninspired by the thought of sex with men, and be drawn to a woman who shows her love and introduces her to ecstasy seems less a ''message'' of radical feminist politics and more an examination of human motivation. That the other woman, Shug Avery, should fall in love with a man gives any such message a counterpoint.
No matter what polemical byways Alice Walker might have strayed into, she had, in the process of creating ''The Color Purple,'' become a writer far more powerful than she had been. Before she had touched me and inspired me. This time, along about page 75, she made me cry.
On an airplane at 35,000 feet, I was suddenly scared to death. I was on my way to talk to Alice Walker, prepatory to writing about her, and I was reading my homework: galley proofs of Alice Walker's newest book, ''In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose,'' essays, speeches and reviews written over 17 years - nearly her entire adult life.
The book made me see an error in my thinking about Alice Walker. I had allowed myself to become so mesmerized by ''The Color Purple'' and the fond recollections it inspired of ''Revolutionary Petunias'' and ''The Third Life of Grange Copeland'' that I had forgotten the works that came between. I had, therefore, set out to write about Alice Walker confident I would not be doing anything ''hurtful,'' but rather testifying that she has a miraculous ability to transubstantiate the crackers and grape juice of political cant into the body and blood of human experience.
Yet Alice Walker, in her time, has produced some crackers and some grape juice, and that surely must show up in a collection such as ''In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens.'' Reading it, I realized I had more or less refused to really see Alice Walker. I had picked and chosen aspects of her, deciding which I would respond to, which I would not.
''In Search of Our Mother's Gardens'' forced me to look at all of her. As it turned out, much in the book is not only pleasing, but impressive and moving. Alice Walker, the award-winning poet, novelist and short-story writer, proves herself the master of yet another form. Her descriptions are elegant. Her sarcasm is biting, her humor pointed.
Nor is her artistry merely a matter of rhetorical form. The content of much of her statements places so many troublesome controversies in proportion and perspective. Her 1976 speech, ''Saving the Life That Is Your Own,'' deposits the question of differences between literature written by blacks and whites into the appropriate circular file.
But there is also much that dismays me. Some of those things can be written off to polemical excess, such as her discounting of the ability of literature to reach across racial lines or her proclamation that she had once attempted to ''suppress'' statements made by another black female writer.
But other excesses are more troubling because they form, it seems, a pattern indicating Alice Walker has a high level of enmity toward black men. Her early praise of individual male writers seems to have been transformed over time to dismissal and disdain: Richard Wright's exile from Mississippi she no longer finds ''offensive'' but proof of his place of favor; Toomer is no longer a genius not to be thrown away but a disposable commodity ('' 'Cane' . . . is a parting gift . . . I think Jean Toomer would want us to keep its beauty but let him go''). Black male writers, in general, are possibly less insightful than their white male counterparts who, ''It is possible . . . are more conscious of their own evil,'' and are guilty of ''usually presenting black females as witches and warlocks.''
Her acidity flows beyond black male writers. It pours over men who are attracted to light-skinned women - including, apparently, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (''Only Malcolm X, among our recent male leaders, chose to affirm, by publicly loving and marrying her, a black woman.'') It spatters, in general, men she considers fundamentally illiterate: ''And look at the ignorance of black men about black women. Though black women have religiously read every black male writer who came down the pike . . . few black men have thought it of any interest at all to read black women.''
The pattern makes me see that some of the ''hurtful'' criticism is demonstrably true: Black men in Alice Walker's fiction and poetry seem capable of goodness only when they become old like Grange Copeland, or paralyzed and feminized, like Truman Held. If they are not thus rendered symbolically impotent, they are figures of malevolence, like Ruth's murderous father, Brownfield, or the black ''brothers'' in ''Revolutionary Petunias'' ( ''and the word/ 'sister'/ hissed by snakes/ belly-low,/ poisonous,/ in the grass./ Waiting with sex/ or tongue/ to strike./ Behold the brothers! '').
Yet ''In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens'' has a wealth of honest self-revelation, enough to help me understand where some of that pattern - as well as some of Alice Walker's brilliance - came from. She writes of the aftermath of an accident that befell her at age 8, when her brother accidentally shot her with a BB gun, blinding an eye and filling her with a dread of total blindness as well as leaving her with a disfiguring scar.
After that accident, she felt her family had failed her, especially her father. She felt he had ceased to favor her, and, as a child, blamed him for the poverty that kept her from receiving adequate medical care. He also, she implies, whipped and imprisoned her sister, who had shown too much of an interest in boys, as had the farmer in ''The Child Who Favored Daughter.'' In company with her brothers, her father had failed to ''give me male models I could respect.''
The picture that emerged is of a very unhappy existence, but, ironically, the loss of her sight enabled her to see those truths that imbue her writing: ''For a long time, I thought I was ugly and disfigured. This made me shy and timid, and I often reacted to insults that were not intended . . . I believe, though, that it was from this period . . . that I really began to see people and things. . . .''
Five years ago, Alice Walker sold her small house in Brooklyn and flew to San Francisco in search of a place she had dreamed of without ever seeing, ''a place that had mountains and the ocean.'' In time, she and her companion, Robert Allen, a writer and editor of the journal Black Scholar (she is now divorced from Leventhal), found a small, affordable house in Mendocino County, north of the city, in a locale that looked, to Alice Walker, like Georgia. She planted a hundred fruit trees around the house, just as her mother had ''routinely adorned with flowers whatever shabby house we were forced to live in.''
In San Francisco itself, Alice Walker also found an apartment, which she decorated to her taste - wood, clay, earth tones and, of course, several shades of purple. The apartment, a four-room, third-floor walkup, is in close proximity to Divisadero Street, the main thoroughfare in the black ghetto many San Franciscans maintain does not exist. Alice Walker has traveled far, but has not removed herself from anything. As I settle down in her apartment to talk to her for the first time in the better part of a decade, I wish she had; fatigue is obvious in her features and the tone of her voice. Once she had reminded me of Ruth; now, she reminds me of Meridian.
But unlike Meridian, Alice Walker is not paralyzed. She sits in a comfortable wooden rocker, in constant, rhythmic motion, and talks of the fight she has put up to keep the term ''womanist'' in the subtitle of ''In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens.''
''I just like to have words,'' she explains, ''that describe things correctly. Now to me, 'black feminist' does not do that. I need a word that is organic, that really comes out of the culture, that really expresses the spirit that we see in black women. And it's just . . . womanish. '' Her voice slips into a down-home accent. ''You know, the posture with the hand on the hip, 'Honey, don't you get in my way.' '' She laughs. It is almost the same laugh that she used in the Lexington Avenue deli, but now it is deeper, fuller, more certain. She goes on, expounding on a theme that had grown through ''You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down'' and her later essays: her dissatisfaction with white feminists.
''You see,'' she says, ''one of the problems with white feminism is that it is not a tradition that teaches white women that they are capable. Whereas my tradition assumes I'm capable. I have a tradition of people not letting me get the skills, but I have cleared fields, I have lifted whatever, I have done it. It ain't not a tradition of wondering whether or not I could do it because I'm a woman.''
But womanism, in Alice Walker's definition, is not just different from feminism; it is better. ''Part of our tradition as black women is that we are universalists. Black children, yellow children, red children, brown children, that is the black woman's normal, day-to-day relationship. In my family alone, we are about four different colors. When a black woman looks at the world, it is so different . . . when I look at the people in Iran they look like kinfolk. When I look at the people in Cuba, they look like my uncles and nieces.''
One of them looked like her father. The resemblance was part of the inspiration for one of her most moving essays, ''My Father's Country Is the Poor.''
I ask her about her father.
''He died in '73,'' she says sadly. ''He was racked with every poor man's disease - diabetes, heart trouble. You know, his death was harder than I had thought at the time. We were so estranged that when I heard - I was in an airport somewhere - I didn't think I felt anything. It was years later that I really felt it. We had a wonderful reconciliation after he died.''
I laugh, thinking that she is alluding to something she had written in the essay, that it is ''much easier . . . to approve of dead people than of live ones.'' But she is serious: ''I didn't cry when he died, but that summer I was in terrible shape. And I went to Georgia and I went to the cemetery and I laid down on top of his grave. I wanted to see what he could see, if he could look up. And I started to cry. And all of the knottedness that had been in our relationship dissolved. And we're fine now.''
That year was the epicenter of some general upheaval in her life. In 1973, she wrote the answers to questions published in a collection called ''Interviews with Black Writers,'' and later in ''In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens.'' ''Writing poems,'' she writes, ''is my way of celebrating with the world that I have not committed suicide the evening before.''
''I don't even remember,'' she says at first, when I ask if 1973 had been a particularly difficult year, but then she goes on to recall that it marked, besides the death of her father, her escape from Mississippi, which had ''just about driven me around the bend,'' a period of physical separation from her husband, who had stayed behind to work, while she and her daughter, Rebecca, went to Cambridge, Mass. There she had discovered that ''when I am ill and feel pain, things take on a certain extra clarity . . . something opens up and you begin to see things that you just wouldn't if you were surrounded by happy-go- lucky folk.''
I remind her of another time of trauma she had written in that interview, when she, young, alone, pregnant and suicidal, ''allowed myself exactly two self-pitying tears. . . . But I hated myself for crying, so I stopped.''
Alice Walker laughs about that now. ''Well, you know, I cry so much less than I used to. I used to be one of the most teary people. But I've been really happy here.''
But writing is also a part of the reason she cries less. ''I think,'' she says, ''writing really helps you heal yourself. I think if you write long enough, you will be a healthy person. That is, if you write what you need to write, as opposed to what will make money, or what will make fame.''
As when we talked before, and as when I have read Alice Walker at her best, I find myself being enchanted by her vision of things. She sees the writing process as a kind of visitation of spirits. She eschews the outline and other organizing techniques, and believes that big books are somehow antithetical to the female consciousness (''the books women write can be more like us - much thinner, much leaner, much cleaner''). Later, I will realize that her methods would make it well nigh impossible for her to write a long, sustained narrative and suspect the belief is something of a rationalization - and the kind of sexist comment a male critic would be pilloried for making. Yet when she says it, it seems a wonderful, magical way to write a book. But there is nothing mystical about what she sees as her role in life.
''I was brought up to try to see what was wrong and right it. Since I am a writer, writing is how I right it. I was brought up to look at things that are out of joint, out of balance, and to try to bring them into balance. And as a writer that's what I do. I just always expected people to understand. Black men, because of their oppression, I always thought, would understand. So the criticism that I have had from black men, especially, who don't want me to write about these things, I'm just amazed.''
''You come down very heavy on the men,'' I say. ''How about the black women?''
''Oh, I get to them. But I am really aware that they are under two layers of oppression and that even though everybody, the men and the women, get twisted terribly, the women have less choice than the men. And the things that they do, the bad choices that they make, are not done out of meanness, out of a need to take stuff out on people. . . .''
Her statement seems contradictory.
''In your writing,'' I suggest, ''it's clear that you love old men. But they don't make out too well when they're young. None of them do.''
''Well,'' she says, ''one theory is that men don't start to mature until they're 40.'' She laughs, and I start to laugh, too. But then I realize her voice has taken on a certain rhetorical tone, and it makes me angry - because she herself is not yet 40. Then she slips out of the rhetorical tone, begins to explain, as she often does, how her perception of the general comes from intense feelings about the personal: ''I knew both my grandfathers, and they were just doting, indulgent, sweet old men. I just loved them both and they were crazy about me. However, as young men, middle-aged men, they were . . . brutal. One grandfather knocked my grandmother out of a window. He beat one of his children so severely that the child had epilepsy. Just a horrible, horrible man. But when I knew him, he was a sensitive, wonderful man.''
''Do you think your father would have eventually gotten to be like your grandfather?'' I asked her.
''Oh,'' she says wistfully, ''he had it in him to be.'' I ask her how her political involvements have affected her writing; if she has ever become aware of how the ''brotherhood'' or the ''sisterhood'' might see a particular piece, and thought about changing it.
''I often think about how they will see it, some of them,'' she says. ''I always know that there will be many who will see it negatively, but I always know there will be one or two who will really understand. I've been so out of favor with black people, I figure if I can take that, I can be out of favor with anybody. In some ways, I'm just now becoming a writer who is directed toward 'my' people. My audience is really more my spirit helpers.'' She explains what a spirit helper does by describing a dream she had recently about one of them, Langston Hughes: ''It was as if we were lovers, but we were not sexual lovers, we were just . . . loving lovers. Knowing it was a dream made me so unhappy. But then Langston, in his role of spirit helper, sort of said, 'But you know, the dream is real. And that is where we will always have a place.' I feel like that with all of them. They're as real to me as most people. More real.''
Later, alone in my hotel room, I try to make sense of Alice Walker or, more correctly, of my feelings about her. I am not sure that I like her as much as I once did, that she sees as deeply and as clearly as I once thought. Yet I am sure that there is no one I like more as a writer, or who is possessed of more wisdom - that there is no writer in this country more worthy of the term seer. I would like to forget about 30 percent of what she has written and said. And yet the remaining 70 percent is so powerful that, even in this quandary, I am listening to the tapes of our conversation, and thumbing through her books, looking for an answer.
And it is there. On the tape, I hear her talking of her own reaction to her beloved Zora Neale Hurston: ''I can't remember all the times that I would be apalled by some of the views that she held. But it wasn't her fault that she had to report things a certain way. That was what she found.'' And in the final essay in ''In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens,'' Alice Walker writes of how her daughter had finally liberated her from her sense that she is disfigured, and her fear that her own child will be alienated by her artificial eye. ''Mommy,'' Rebecca tells her, ''there's a world in your eye.''
Yes indeed, I think, there is a world in Alice Walker's eye. It is etched there by pain and sacrifice, and it is probably too much to expect that anything so violently created would be free of some distortion. But it is nevertheless a real world, full of imaginary people capable of teaching real lessons, of imparting real wisdom capable of teaching real lessons.
A Dearth of Black Hippies
I think there are so few Negro hippies because middle-class Negroes, although well fed, are not careless. They are required by the treacherous world they live in to be clearly aware of whoever or whatever might be trying to do them in.
- ''The Civil Rights Movement: What Good Was It?'' (1967), included in ''In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens.'' A Grandfather's Gift
''When I was a child,'' he said, ''I used to cry if somebody killed a ant. As I look back on it now, I liked feeling that way. I don't want to set here now numb to half the peoples in the world. I feel like something soft and warm an' delicate an' sort of shy has just been burned right out of me.''
''Numbness is probably better than hate,'' said Ruth gently. She had never seen her grandfather so anguished.
''The trouble with numbness,'' said Grange, as if he'd thought it over for a long time, ''is that it spreads to all your organs, mainly the heart. Pretty soon after I don't hear the white folks crying for help I don't hear the black.''
- ''The Third Life of Grange Copeland'' (1970). Killing or Teaching
''No one would ask killing of you,'' said Truman.
''Because I'm a woman?''
''Oh, Christ,'' said Truman, ''because you're obviously not cut out for it. You're too sensitive. One shot and even though you missed you'd end up a basket case.''
''That's true,'' said Meridian, ''but do you think that has anything to do with it? I don't. I mean, I think that all of us who want the black and poor to have equal opportunities and goods in life will have to ask ourselves how we stand on killing, even if no one else ever does. Otherwise we will never know - in advance of our fighting - how much we are willing to give up.''
''Suppose you found out, without a doubt, that you could murder other people in a just cause, what would you do? Would you set about murdering them?''
''Never alone,'' said Meridian. ''Besides, revolution would not begin, do you think, with an act of murder - wars might begin in that way - but with teaching.''
''Oh yes, teach ing,'' said Truman, scornfully.
- ''Meridian'' (1976). A Jar of Memories
A certain perverse experience shaped Elethia's life, and made it possible for it to be true that she carried with her at all times a small apothecary jar of ashes.
- ''Elethia'' (1981), included in ''You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down'' Zora Neale Hurston
Being broke made all the difference.
Without money of one's own in a capitalist society, there is no such thing as independence. This is one of the clearest lessons of Zora's life, and why I consider the telling of her life ''a cautionary tale.'' We must learn from it what we can. . . .
She did not complain about not having money. She was not the type. (Several months ago I received a long letter from one of Zora's nieces, a bright 10-year-old, who explained to me that her aunt was so proud that the only way the family could guess she was ill or without funds was by realizing they had no idea where she was. Therefore, none of the family attended either Zora's sickbed or her funeral.) Those of us who have had ''grants and fellowships from 'white folks' '' know this aid is extended in precisely the way welfare is extended in Mississippi. One is asked, curtly, more often than not: How much do you need just to survive? Then one is - if fortunate - given a third of that. What is amazing is that Zora, who became an orphan at 9, a runaway at 14, a maid and manicurist (because of necessity and not from love of the work) before she was 20 - with one dress - managed to become Zora Neale Hurston, author and anthropologist, at all.
- ''Zora Neale Hurston'' (1979), included in ''In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens'' On Happiness
I am so happy. I got love, I got work, I got money, friends and time. . . . Celie
- From ''The Color Purple'' (1982)Continue reading the main story
The heroism of black women in the face of turmoil of all kinds rings from both volumes of Alice Walker’s short stories like the refrain of a protest song. In Love and Trouble reveals the extremes of cruelty and violence to which poor black women are often subjected in their personal relationships, while the struggles in You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down reflect the social upheavals of the 1970’s.
In Love and Trouble
Such subjects and themes lend themselves to a kind of narrative that is filled with tension. The words “love” and “trouble,” for example, in the title of the first collection, identify a connection that is both unexpected and inevitable. Each of the thirteen stories in this collection is a vivid confirmation that every kind of love known to woman brings its own kind of suffering. Walker is adept at pairing such elements so as to create pronounced and revealing contrasts or intense conflicts. One such pair that appears in many of these short stories is a stylistic one and easy to see: the poetry and prose that alternate on the page. Another unusual combination at work throughout the short fiction may be called the lyrical and the sociological. Like the protest song, Walker’s stories make a plea for justice made more memorable by its poetic form. She breathes rhythmic, eloquent language into the most brutish and banal abuses.
These two elements—similarity of subject matter and the balance of highly charged contraries—produce a certain unity within each volume. Yet beyond this common ground, the stories have been arranged so as to convey a progression of interconnected pieces whose circumstances and themes repeat, alternate, and overlap rather like a musical composition. The first three stories of In Love and Trouble, for example, are all about married love; the next two are about love between parent and child; then come three stories in which black-white conflict is central; the fourth group concerns religious expression; and the last three stories focus on initiation. Other themes emerge and run through this five-set sequence, linking individual motifs and strengthening the whole. Jealousy is one of those motifs, as is the drive for self-respect, black folkways, and flowers, in particular the rose and the black-eyed Susan.
Four stories suggest the breadth of Walker’s imagination and narrative skills. “Roselily” strikes an anticipatory note of foreboding. “The Child Who Favored Daughter” is an equally representative selection, this time of the horrific destruction of the black woman. “The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff” is as cool and clear as “The Child Who Favored Daughter” is dark and fevered. The narrator recounts a tale of Voodoo justice, specifically crediting Zora Neale Hurston, author of Mules and Men (1935). The final story in this collection, “To Hell with Dying,” is an affirmative treatment of many themes Walker has developed elsewhere more darkly.
“Roselily” takes place on a front porch surrounded by a crowd of black folk, in sight of Highway 61 in Mississippi during the time it takes to perform a wedding ceremony. As the preacher intones the formal words, the bride’s mind wanders among the people closest to her there—the bridegroom, the preacher, her parents, sisters, and children. The groom’s religion is note the same as hers, and she knows that he disapproves of this gathering. She speculates uneasily about their future life together in Chicago, where she will wear a veil, sit on the women’s side of his church, and have more babies. She is the mother of four children already but has never been married. He is giving her security, but he intends, she realizes, to remake her into the image he wants. Even the love he gives her causes her great sadness, as it makes her aware of how unloved she was before. At last, the ceremony over, they stand in the yard, greeting well-wishers, he completely alien, she overcome with anxiety. She squeezes his hand for reassurance but receives no answering signal from him.
Poetic and fairy tale elements intensify the ambivalence felt by the bride in this magnetic mood piece. First, there are the ceremonial resonances of the words between the paragraphs of narrative, stately and solemn like a slow drumbeat. As these phrases alternate with Roselily’s thoughts, a tension develops. At the words “Dearly Beloved,” a daydream of images begins to flow, herself a small girl in her mother’s fancy dress, struggling through “a bowl of quicksand soup”; the words “we are gathered here” suggest to her the image of cotton, waiting to be weighed, a Mississippi ruralness she knows the bridegroom finds repugnant; “in the sight of God” creates in her mind the image of God as a little black boy tugging at the preacher’s coattail. Gradually, a sense of foreboding builds. At the words “to join this man and this woman” she imagines “ropes, chains, handcuffs, his religion.” The bridegroom is her rescuer, like Prince Charming, and is ready to become her Pygmalion. Like Sleeping Beauty, Roselily is only dimly aware of exchanging one form of confinement, of enchantment, for another. At the end of the ceremony, she awakes to his passionate kiss and a terrible sense of being wrong.
“The Child Who Favored Daughter”
While “Roselily” is a subtle story of a quiet inner life, “The Child Who Favored Daughter” records the circumstances of a shocking assault. It begins, also, on a front porch. A father waits with a shotgun on a hot afternoon for his daughter to walk from the school bus through the front yard. He is holding in his hand a letter she had written to her white lover. Realizing what her father knows, the girl comes slowly down the dusty lane, pausing to study the black-eyed Susans. As his daughter approaches, the father is reminded of his sister, “Daughter,” who also had a white lover. His intense love for his sister had turned to bitterness when she gave herself to a man by whom he felt enslaved; his bitterness poisoned all of his relationships with women thereafter. He confronts the girl on the porch with the words “White man’s slut!” then beats her with a stable harness and leaves her in the shed behind the house. The next morning, failing to make her deny the letter and struggling to suppress his “unnameable desire,” he slashes off her breasts. As the story ends, he sits in a stupor on the front porch.
This story of perverted parental love and warring passions explores the destructive power of jealousy and denial. Its evil spell emanates from the father’s unrepented and unacknowledged desire to possess his sister. He is haunted by her when he looks at his own daughter. Once again, a strongly lyrical style heightens the dominant tone, in this case, horror. Short lines of verse, like snatches of song interspersed with the narrative, contrast sharply in their suggestion of pure feeling with the tightly restrained prose. The daughter’s motif associates her with the attraction of natural beauty: “Fire of earth/ Lure of flower smells/ The sun.” The father’s theme sounds his particular resignation and doom: “Memories of years/ Unknowable women—/ sisters/ spouses/ illusions of soul.” The resulting trancelike confrontation seems inevitable, the two moving through a pattern they do not control, do not understand.
“The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff”
In “The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff,” a woman who has lost husband, children, and self-respect, all because a charity worker denied her food stamps, comes to the seer Tante Rosie for peace of mind. Tante Rosie assures the troubled woman that the combined powers of the Man-God and the Great Mother of Us All will destroy her enemy. Tante Rosie’s apprentice, who narrates the story, teaches Mrs. Kemhuff the curse-prayer printed in Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men. Then she sets about to collect the necessary ingredients for the conjure: Sarah Sadler Holley’s feces, water, nail parings. Her task seems to become almost impossible when her mentor tells her that these items must be gained directly from the victim herself. Nevertheless, with a plan in mind, the young woman approaches Mrs. Holley, tells her that she is learning the profession from Tante Rosie, and then asks her to prove that she, as she claims, does not believe in “rootworking.” It is only a short while until Mrs. Kemhuff dies, followed a few months later by Mrs. Holley, who had, after the visit of the apprentice, taken to her bedroom, eating her nails, saving her fallen hair, and collecting her excrement in plastic bags and barrels.
This is the first story in the collection in which the black community comes into conflict with the white. It is a conflict of religious traditions and a strong statement in recognition of something profound in African folkways. Mrs. Holley failed Mrs. Kemhuff years before in the greatest of Christian virtues, that of charity. Mrs. Kemhuff, though now reconciled to her church, cannot find peace and seeks the even greater power of ancient conjure to restore her pride. Like other African American writers who have handled this subject, Walker first acknowledges that Voodoo is widely discounted as sheer superstition, but then her story argues away all rational objections. Mrs. Holley does not die as the result of hocus-pocus but because of her own radical belief, a belief in spite of herself. There is something else about this story that is different from those at the beginning of the collection. Instead of a dreamy or hypnotic action, alert characters speak and think purposefully, clearly, one strand of many evolving patterns that emerge as the stories are read in sequence.
“To Hell with Dying”
“To Hell with Dying” is the last story in the collection and a strong one. A more mellow love-and-trouble story than most preceding it, it features a male character who is not the villain of the piece. Mr. Sweet Little is a melancholy man whom the narrator has loved from childhood, when her father would bring the children to Mr. Sweet’s bedside to rouse him from his depression with a shout: “To hell with dying! These children want Mr. Sweet!” Because the children were so successful in “revivaling” Mr. Sweet with their kisses and tickling and cajoling ways, they were not to learn for some time what death really meant. Years pass. Summoned from her doctoral studies in Massachusetts, the twenty-four-year-old narrator rushes to Mr. Sweet’s bedside, where she cannot quite believe that she will not succeed. She does induce him to open his eyes, smile, and trace her hairline with his finger as he once did. Still, however, he dies. His legacy to her is the steel guitar on which he played away his blues all those years, that and her realization that he was her first love.
It is useful to recognize this story as an initiation story, like the two that precede it, “The Flowers” and “We Drink the Wine in France.” Initiation stories usually involve, among other things, an unpleasant brush with reality, a new reality. A child, adolescent, or young adult faces an unfamiliar challenge and, if successful, emerges at a new level of maturity or increased status. Always, however, something is lost, something must be given up. As a very small girl, the narrator remembers, she did not understand quite what was going on during their visits to the neighbor’s shack. When she was somewhat older, she felt the weight of responsibility for the dying man’s survival. At last, after she has lost her old friend, she is happy, realizing how important they were to each other. She has successfully negotiated her initiation into the mysteries of love and death, as, in truth, she had already done to the best of her ability at those earlier stages. This often-reprinted story is a culmination of the struggle between Death and Love for the lives of the girls and women, really for all the blacks of In Love and Trouble, one which well represents Walker’s talent and demonstrates her vision of blacks supporting and affirming one another in community.
You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down
You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down is her salute to black women who are pushing ahead, those who have crossed some barriers and are in some sense champions. There are black women who are songwriters, artists, writers, students in exclusive Eastern schools; they are having abortions, teaching their men the meaning of pornography, coming to terms with the death of a father, on one hand, or with the meaning of black men raping white women, on the other. Always, they are caught up short by the notions of whites. In other words, all the political, sexual, racial, countercultural issues of the 1970’s are in these stories, developed from what Walker calls the “womanist” point of view.
This set of stories, then, is somewhat more explicitly sociological than the first and somewhat less lyrical, and it is also more apparently autobiographical, but in a special sense. Walker herself is a champion, so her life is a natural, even an inescapable, source of material. Walker-the-artist plays with Walker-the-college-student and Walker-the-idealistic-teacher, as well as with some of the other roles she sees herself as having occupied during that decade of social upheaval. Once a writer’s experience has become transformed within a fictive world, it becomes next to impossible to think of the story’s events as either simply autobiography or simply invention. The distinction has been deliberately blurred. It is because Walker wants to unite her public and private worlds, her politics and her art, life as lived and life as imagined, that, instead of poetry, these stories are interspersed with autobiographical parallels, journal entries, letters, and other expressions of her personality. There are three stories that deserve special attention, “Nineteen Fifty-Five,” “Fame,” and “Source.” To begin with, they serve as checkpoints for the collection’s development, from the essentially simple and familiar to the increasingly complex and strange, from 1955 to 1980. Furthermore, these stories are independently memorable.
The opening story, “Nineteen Fifty-Five,” is presented from the perspective of a middle-aged blues singer, Gracie Mae Still, whose signature song, recorded by a young white man named Traynor, brings him fame and fortune. Gracie Mae records her impressions of Traynor in a journal, beginning with their first meeting in 1955 and continuing until his death in 1977. Over the years, the rock-and-roll star (obviously meant to suggest Elvis Presley) stays in touch with the matronly musician, buying her lavish gifts—a white Cadillac, a mink coat, a house—and quizzing her on the real meaning of her song. From the army, he writes to tell her that her song is very much in demand, and that everyone asks him what he thinks it means, really. As time goes by and his life disappoints him, he turns to the song, as if it were a touchstone that could give his life meaning. He even arranges an appearance for himself and Gracie Mae on the variety show hosted by Johnny Carson, with some half-developed notion of showing his fans what the real thing is and how he aspires to it. If he is searching for a shared experience of something true and moving with his audience, however, he is to be disappointed again. His fans applaud only briefly, out of politeness, for the originator of the song, the one who really gives it life, then squeal wildly for his imitation, without any recognition of what he wanted them to understand. That is the last time the two musicians see each other.
In part, this story is about the contribution that black music made to the spirit of the times and how strangely whites transformed it. The white rock-and-roll singer, who seems as much in a daze as some of the women of In Love and Trouble, senses something superior in the original blues version, but he misplaces its value, looking for some meaning to life that can be rolled up in the nutshell of a lyric. In contrast to the bemused Traynor, Gracie Mae is a down-to-earth champion, and her dialect looks forward to Walker’s masterful handling of dialect in The Color Purple. She repeatedly gives Traynor simple and sensible advice when he turns to her for help, and she has her own answer to the mystery of his emptiness: “Really, I think, some peoples advance so slowly.”
The champion of “Fame” is Andrea Clement White, and the events take place on one day, when she is being honored, when she is being confronted by her own fame. She is speaking to a television interviewer as the story begins. The old woman tells the young interviewer that in order to look at the world freshly and creatively, an artist simply cannot be famous. When reminded by the young woman that she herself is famous, Andrea Clement White is somewhat at a loss. As the interview continues its predictable way, the novelist explaining once again that she writes about people, not their color, she uneasily asks herself why she does not “feel famous,” why she feels as though she has not accomplished what she set out to do.
The highlight of the day is to be a luncheon in her honor, at which her former colleagues, the president, and specially invited dignitaries, as well as the generally detested former dean, will all applaud her life accomplishments (while raising money). All the while, the lady of the hour keeps a bitingly humorous commentary running in her mind. Her former students in attendance are “numbskulls,” the professors, “mediocre.” Out loud, she comments that the president is a bore. No matter how outrageous her behavior, she is forgiven because of her stature; when she eats her Rock Cornish hen with her hands, the entire assembly of five hundred follows suit. At last, however, the spleen and anxious bravado give way to something out of reach of the taint of fame: a child singing an anonymous slave song. Recalled to her dignity, the honored guest is able to face her moment in the limelight stoically.
In this comic story of the aggravations and annoyances that beset the publicly recognized artist, Walker imagines herself as an aging novelist who does not suffer fools gladly. She puts the artist’s inner world on paper so that something of her gift for storytelling and her habits of mind become visible. The stress of the occasion and being brought into forced contact with her former president and dean trigger her aggressive imagination, and her innate narrative gift takes over. She visualizes using her heavy award as a weapon against the repulsive, kissing dean, hearing him squeal, and briefly feels gleeful. The story, however, is something more than simply a comic portrait of the artist’s foibles. When Andrea Clement White questions herself about her own sense of fame, admits her own doubts, she is searching for something certain, as Traynor is searching in “Nineteen Fifty-five,” though not so blindly. Like him, she is called out of the mundane by a meaningful song.
The last story of You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down is “Source,” which connects the social conscience of an antipoverty worker in Mississippi with the expanding consciousness of the alternative lifestyle as practiced on the West Coast. Two friends, Irene and Anastasia had attended college together in New York. When funding for Irene’s adult-education project was cut, she traveled to San Francisco for a change of scene, to be met by Anastasia, living on welfare with some friends named Calm, Peace, and their baby, Bliss, all under the guidance of a swami named Source. The two young women had been unable to find any common ground, Irene believing in collective action and Anastasia believing that people choose to suffer and that nothing can be changed. After walking out on a meeting with Source, Irene was asked to leave. Years later, the two meet again in Alaska, where Irene is lecturing to educators. Anastasia is now living with an Indian and passing for white. This time, the two women talk more directly, of color, of Anastasia’s panic when she is alone, of her never being accepted as a black because of her pale skin. Irene is brought to face her own part in this intolerance and to confess that her reliance on government funding was every bit as insecure as had been Anastasia’s reliance on Source. Their friendship restored and deepened, the two women embrace.
The title of this story suggests a theme that runs throughout the entire collection, the search for a center, a source of strength, meaning, or truth. This source is very important to the pioneer, but it can be a false lure. When Irene recognizes that she and Anastasia were both reaching out for something on which to depend, she states what might be taken as the guiding principle for the champion: “any direction that is away from ourselves is the wrong direction.” This final portrait of a good woman who cannot be kept down is a distinctively personal one. Women who are not distracted by external influences and who are true to themselves and able to open themselves to one another will triumph.
Walker’s short fiction adds a new image to the pantheon of American folk heroes: the twentieth century black woman, in whatever walk of life, however crushed or blocked, still persevering. Even those who seem the most unaware, the most poorly equipped for the struggle, are persevering, because, in their integrity, they cannot do otherwise. The better equipped know themselves to be advocates. They shoulder their dedication seriously and cheerfully. They are the fortunate ones; they understand that what they do has meaning.
One of the more widely anthologized of Walker’s stories, “Everyday Use” addresses the issues of identity and true cultural awareness and attacks the “hyper-Africanism” much in vogue during the 1960’s and 1970’s as false and shallow. The occasion of the story is Dee’s brief trip back to her home, ostensibly to visit with her mother and her sister, Maggie, who was left seriously scarred in the fire of suspicious origin that destroyed their home years earlier. Dee’s real purpose, however, is to acquire some homemade quilts and other artifacts of her culture so that she can display them in her home as tokens of her “authenticity,” her roots in the soil of rural Georgia. She wears a spectacular dashiki and wishes to be called by an “African” name; she is accompanied by a man who likewise affects “African” dress, hairstyle, naming tradition, and handshaking routines. Walker’s tongue is firmly in her cheek as she portrays these two characters in vivid contrast with Mama and Maggie, whose lives are simple, close to the earth, and genuine. Despite (or perhaps because of) Mama’s sacrifices and hard work to send Dee off to acquire an education in the outside world, Dee reveals a fundamental selfishness and lack of understanding of her culture and family and, her purposes thwarted, leaves without the quilts in a cloud of dust and disdain. Mama and Maggie sit in their neat yard, its dirt surface carefully raked, enjoying the shade and their snuff together “until it was time to go in the house and go to bed.”
Walker’s control of style and tone is nowhere more certain than in this powerful and economical story. Here she shows that family, tradition, and strength are to be found in the items of everyday use that have survived the fires of prejudice, from whatever source, and illuminate the true meaning of family and love and forgiveness. Despite the truth of Dee’s parting statement that “it really is a new day for us,” Walker leaves no doubt that the promise of that new day will be dimmed if traditions are exploited rather than understood and cherished. Maggie, after all, learned how to quilt from her grandmother and her great aunt and thus has a much surer sense of her own identity than her sister.