Regina de Heer: Do you, by chance, keep a journal?
Ebonee: Yes. I've kept a journal actually since I was nine.
Regina de Heer: Really?
Ebonee: Yes, my mom keeps journals, so I wanted to be like her. I was like, "Oh, I'm supposed to write my thoughts down," [chuckles] and I've been doing it ever since.
Speaker 3: I've been journaling since I was a kid. I just think expressing your thoughts in a way that you feel comfortable, or you just getting everything that you need to fill out and sorting through your own feelings.
Kyle: Does My Notes count in my phone?
Regina de Heer: Yes, for sure.
Regina de Heer: Has there been a moment recently that you felt like in the moment, you had to document it?
Ebonee: Yes, for sure. I'm going through a little heartbreak at the moment. In the last couple of days, I've had many moments where I feel like, "I need to write this down because it's just--" Sometimes the thoughts in your head can be overwhelming, but when you write it down, at least for me, I get clarity.
Kai Wright: Welcome to the show. I'm Kai Wright. I recently had the pleasure of meeting one of the writers who quite honestly shaped my understanding of the world as I was growing up, and trying to figure out what it meant to be a young Black man in the 1980s. Hello.
Alice Walker: Hi.
Kai Wright: Can we hear each other?
Alice Walker: I can hear you now.
Kai Wright: Oh, wonderful. I'm Kai. I'm the host of our show. Alice Walker published The Color Purple in 1982. It's got to be one of the most well-known novels in print today, but by the time it came out, her writing in the 1970s had already helped create a whole school of thought among and about Black women. She has now released a collection of her journals, and that's what I called her up to talk about.
The collection spans four decades from the 1960s through the turn of the century. In its pages, Alice Walker invites us to share her private musings, deeply personal, intimate reflections on her life, her art, and the world in which she created that art. The book is called Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker.
Kai Wright: Valerie Boyd, who was the editor of the collection, called it a primer for people of all ages who wish to lead free lives, which I love. I just love the way that is phrased. I know you and Valerie were close, she passed earlier this year. What was your conversation that led to this collection?
Alice Walker: Valerie and I were very close. Losing her was an incredible blow, although she had been fighting this beast of a disease, pancreatic cancer for almost a decade. We had waited. We had done bits and pieces of our work. We waited a little while a while she had treatment, and then we would plunge in again. We were just very close in that way. She was incredibly courageous, very low-key about this scary illness. Never complain to me about anything, as we were working. She just did her part, did it well, was staunch.
We had this image of ourselves dancing down the Yellow Brick Road. I, at the time, had shaved my head and she had her lost dreadlocks replaced on her head. We were just going to go on [laughs] in the tradition of Harriet Tubman. You just keep going, and people do whatever they're going to do, but you never stop. I feel her with us, even in this moment that she would have been so happy to be right here with us, chatting about this, and encouraging us to believe that you can overcome. Our song in the '60s was,We Shall Overcome. Today, it's applicable to the planet. If we don't overcome, we're losing the planet, and we can all see that now.
Kai Wright: I have always marveled at people who keep journals at all, let alone for decades at a time. What kept you journaling? Why write your thoughts down? Why keep them all?
Alice Walker: Well, because I'm writing novels of intense everything. If I don't write what's happening, I won't have it. That's a very simple answer. The novel that I wrote after The Color Purple is called-- God, what is it called? [chuckles] Anyhow it's [ ]
Kai Wright: I have to tell you that my heart is so open to the idea that Alice Walker can't remember the names of all of the wonderful books that she's written. For the record, the novel is called, You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down. All told, Alice Walker has published 34 books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.
Alice Walker: That's too many. That's so many. Anyway, what I'm trying to say to you, though, is that I don't know people who don't create in this way have any inkling of what it takes. You can go so far away from everything you know, and everybody around you knows that you need a little trail of breadcrumbs to get you back home. Writing a journal in a way is like that.
Kai Wright: I love how it's arranged in decades because I ended up just picking through your life in this way, which feels like a much more honest way to reflect on a life than like a tiny memoir. I wonder as you pick back through these yourself, did you end up arguing with your old self, or learning from your old self, or something of both?
Alice Walker: Oh, yes, I did. That's how you grow. We're totally unfinished, we're raggedy, and we're struggling. You're trying to evolve into what is the best that you can do and be? You need to have some little trail that will help you so five months after you thought about killing yourself, you can go back and see where that started. Well, was it ice cream? Did you have too much sugar really? Were you angry because the bus driver told you to go in the back of the bus, and you thought that law had already changed? What was it? What changed you?
You go back there, and then you come forward again, and you see that poco a poco, step by step, you have basically dragged yourself up the hill one more time, and you're somewhere else, and that's life. That is what I'd like to share, especially with younger people because we are being hit by so many suicides of various kinds now because people are just scared. A lot of them have been in wars they never should have been drafted into and they've done terrible things and seen things, and so they just went out.
I maintain that if you journal, it's entirely possible that you will see where you've been, how you got there, who did it?
Alice Walker: You can vote them out, and all of those things. Journaling is really the thread of Ariadne. You go into the Minotaurs, then with your little thread there to try to help you come out again, you slay the Minotaur hopefully, and then you can find your way out of the cavern or this cave that the Minotaur lives in, which is the cave of delusion, and the cave of wanting to rule the world and rule other people and rule you. You learn these things by journaling.
Kai Wright: I was really drawn to the journal entries in your youth, in your 20s in the 1960s. Just the yearning to write and to write big things leaps off of the page as you read it. You just can feel how much you yearned to have the life that you ultimately had. Looking back at yourself as a young writer at those moments, what stood out to you?
Alice Walker: Well, how determined I was to be my real self. I was at a school in Atlanta, an upper-middle-class Black women's college.
Kai Wright: Spelman College.
Alice Walker: I love it dearly, but I was poor. I was really poor, but I had a mind. I really wanted to develop that mind to see the world as it is rather than the bogus world that people try to make you believe in. All along in those entries, I was trying to see that world. That's why when I went to Helsinki-- I went to Helsinki--
Kai Wright: She went after her first year in college, at least a part as a way to get away from Spelman. She attended a youth peace conference there and she traveled throughout Europe.
Kai Wright: Like many youth of her generation, she felt in her bones that she was being lied to about the world, and that through travel, through simply meeting different kinds of people, she could lift a curtain and reveal some kind of deeper truth.
Alice Walker: I was very much into that even as a student. I wanted to find out what was behind that curtain. Actually, when I got to the Iron Curtain on my way to the Soviet Union, I got out of the train. We had to get out of the train because it was going to another country, but I was looking for that Iron Curtain, "Where is it? I want to see it." Of course, there was no Iron Curtain, and it was a big teaching for me.
Kai Wright: Well, you wrote that you would never be the same because it wouldn't allow you to see people as ideas instead of as people.
Alice Walker: Well, of course, you must never see people as ideas. You have to see them as people because otherwise you'll go over and kill a lot of people that you don't know because somebody has made you mad at the leader and the leader is probably crazy.
Kai Wright: Right. You asked yourself at one point in one of the journal entries in this period whether it was possible to create out of happiness. I don't know if you mean the same thing but it made my mind jump to something. I read Toni Morrison say once that she always tried to find moments of cooperation between her characters in order to propel the narrative as opposed to conflict. I wonder what were you asking there? Did you ever answer it for yourself whether it was possible to create out of happiness?
Alice Walker: Well, I love what Tony said. She's wonderful and brilliant of course. Yes, of course, you can create out of happiness. Look Thich Nhat Hanh. He was so--
Kai Wright: Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, and his life's work defies an easy description, much like Alice Walker's actually. His writings and his teachings deeply shaped the global peace movement. He taught that mindful living means not only contemplation but also engagement in making the world a more just and peaceful place.
Alice Walker: I watched his services after he died and I was so moved by how many things he created while he was basically banned from Vietnam or in danger of being bombed or whatever, and all along, he was just going around creating monasteries [laughs] and he was happy. If there was ever anybody under incredible duress, his people, his country, everything, and who maintained his own happiness, that's Thich Nhat Hanh. I feel that. That's how I feel. I feel very happy a lot of the time.
Kai Wright: As a young writer it seemed, in your journals, you were bedeviled by this question of whether or not you could be happy. I wasn't sure whether you were saying, "Could I be happy and right?" or, "Whether happiness would create good art."
Alice Walker: Well, who had happiness? When you're really young and you're full of stress about everything you can think of including your body's processes, it's not so clear what happiness is. You look at people who say they're happy, and to you, their happiness is just not the kind you are interested in. The bourgeois happiness for instance, I've never ever been interested in it.
It was all around me when I finally left the impoverished place where I was born where happiness was at Christmas, you've had a few days to rest, and so you could see some happiness, but who knew what you could manage if you actually were happy, if you found that place that Thich Nhat Hanh talks about, where you basically are in the wonder of this incredible universe that you somehow managed to get into? It's just an extraordinary experience to get that no matter what happens to know that you lucked out.
Kai Wright: Another striking thing about this time in your life reading the journals is how difficult a relationship you had with the South. In one of the entries, you say you felt nauseated the first time you went back to South after moving to New York for college. It's just striking to me because many of us think about you as one of the most astute and loving chroniclers of Southern Black Life. Just tell me about your relationship with the region at that time.
Alice Walker: Well, when they're bombing your people, they're shooting them, they're raping little girls and sticking sticks up them, throwing them in the river, and you only find them because you're looking for some other people they killed, the nausea is really natural, but that doesn't mean you don't love where you grew up. You love the natural world. The natural world didn't do it. The people who do things like that, that's who did it. I love, love, love the South as the natural world that I grew up in and I knew intimately.
Generations of my family knew that same area where I was born: the Indigenous, the African, and the European. The mixture is there. The European part, of course, came late as usual. Anyway, that love had nothing to do with what was overlaid, the violence that was overlaid that we had to confront as a movement, as a political movement, as a social movement, the Civil Rights Movement. I never liked the name "civil rights" because we are not talking really about civil rights, we're talking about human rights.
Kai Wright: You were so deeply drawn to the movement at the time. It just really jumps out again in these early years in the collection, that you were finding romance in it both figuratively and literally. I feel like people don't talk about that part of movement politics as much today. Do you agree with that, that so much of what people are drawn to, is romance?
Alice Walker: Yes, and it's like they're going back to their separate corners which I think is terrible. We were all falling in love with everybody. We were on fire, we were passionate. It was wonderful. Why not? They may bomb you the next day but the night before that really just express everything you want to express in the most positive way you can.
Kai Wright: This romance included your first husband. He was a white Jewish lawyer, and you proposed to him for political reasons. Tell us that story. Why did you propose to him?
Alice Walker: Well, the South has always been very full of what they call miscegenation, which is race mixing, and they are trying to always uphold their law against it. Don't race-mix. Well, you look at anybody hardly in the South you see a lot of already mixed race. The way of them dealing with the attraction, the white attraction to Black people, Black bodies, and Black women especially, was to make a law that was supposed to keep them separate. Well, it didn't work.
Anyway, when they were confronted with people who really were in love or loved each other, and were brazen about it, they really didn't know what to do, so they would naturally assume that really it couldn't be true that you actually loved this person or you loved each other. When we were going down to Mississippi, one of the rules that I imposed on our relationship was that we had to be married to basically show these people that, A, they cannot stop you for marrying whoever you want to marry, and B, I was not going to be what they were used to, which was the black concubine.
Kai Wright: Well, this part of your story does also make me wonder how you're processing today's political moment around what we call the culture wars. I think it's fair to say that much of the political project around that is about reversing the culture change that you set in motion, obviously not you singularly, but you were certainly a leading voice in a culture shift that was happening. I just wonder what you think about when you hear today's political discourse on this stuff.
Alice Walker: Well, I don't really listen to much of it, and also I think people are barking up the wrong tree, to borrow a metaphor from Georgia. I think they should be more concerned about artificial intelligence making the human brain obsolete, and therefore all of us ending up just a computer.
Alice Walker: I feel like people have to awaken and stop even bothering with this stuff when really our whole world is in jeopardy and humanity itself is very endangered.
Kai Wright: I'm talking with Alice Walker about her new collection Gathering Blossoms Under Fire. It's a compilation of her personal journals spanning four decades of life from the 1960s through to the turn of the century. After a break, we'll look at her journal entries on her closest personal relationships, including with her daughter. Stay with us.
Kousha: Hey, everyone. This is Kousha, I'm a producer. A couple weeks ago I told you to stay tuned because we were going to highlight some exciting new journalism from our colleagues at WNYC. I know it actually hasn't dropped down the feed yet but it is coming soon, so thanks for your patience and sorry to keep you waiting a little longer. In the meantime, as always, if anything from this episode resonates for you, let us know. Has Alice Walker or The Color Purple impacted you? Do you keep a journal? What difference has it made in your life? Send us a voice memo. You can email us. The address is firstname.lastname@example.org. That's email@example.com. All right, thanks. Talk to you soon. Promise.
Kai Wright: Welcome back. I'm Kai Wright. This is The United States of Anxiety, and I'm joined for the whole show this week by novelist, poet, and essayist Alice Walker. We're picking through her new collection Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker.
Reading your journals, I felt reminded that our relationships with people we choose to love are so pivotal. They're so often the most pivotal moments in our lives. I know a lot of people will want to hear about your relationship with your daughter, Rebecca. The complexity of your relationship has been quite public, given her memoir. We learned in this collection that you feel the two of you are closer than ever today. It seems she challenges you in all the right ways. Is that right?
Alice Walker: We challenge each other actually. I am a challenge as a mother because I'm so often distracted. I own that. I can't produce what I do. I couldn't make a living for us. I couldn't find housing for us. I couldn't get a job for us. We're not single mindedly pursuing a way for us to live. I think that she now has a son. She's facing some of the things that I faced, and she's understanding what it takes to be a mother, to be a single mother. It's not easy. I sent her to Yale, alone. I did that.
I'm saying it not in a prideful way, but just saying that if you think for two seconds what that takes to actually do that, as a person of color, as a woman, as a writer. I used to sell my books on the street, I want you to know. I did the best I could do as a mother, and my mother before me did the best that she could with eight children. Her mother before her did the best she could with 12 children. I think as you grow into maturity, and are thoughtful, it's very easy to see where the ruptures happen. It's inevitable.
Kai Wright: You say in the book, that it hurt your feelings when you guys were estranged. That just seems like such a straightforward and refreshingly honest statement about what happens in relationships. Do you want to talk about that hurt?
Alice Walker: Now let me just say that I really don't like being called a guy. I really don't.
Kai Wright: I'm so sorry if I did, I didn't even realize I did. That's how deeply engrained it is.
Alice Walker: No, I know you did, it's the culture. That's one of the things we have to look at, how they masculinized all of us now. We are all just guys. You can tell someone, "I really would like you just to acknowledge that I'm not a guy," and they say, "Oh, yes, I know. I'm sorry," and then within 10 seconds, it comes up again. That's the kind of--
Kai Wright: We leaned into this for a minute entity. I was thankful, firstly, because it's a reminder of how we can learn from each other, if we are willing to be both loving, and sometimes uncomfortable. These are not mutually exclusive emotions. I was also thankful because we got to have this wonderful digression into words, how they shape our minds and affect the way we experience the world. We ended up talking about how the language of capitalism and marketing have ruined the way we interact with fruit. Anyway, the point is, I was thankful to be reminded to choose my words carefully because they hold power.
Alice Walker: Back to your question. What was it?
Kai Wright: I was asking you about Rebecca. One of the things that struck me and moved me in the journals is that you mentioned that you felt hurt. You just said, "I felt hurt." I just found that to be such a straightforward and honest thing to say. I just wonder if you want to talk a little about that hurt.
Alice Walker: Oh, I was terribly hurt. Are you kidding? To lose your child and have her see you in a way that is, to you, distorted. It may not have been that way to her but she has a right to how she sees people and me included, and that's the bedrock. She has a right. This is her right. I would never ever take it from her. Of course, it hurt, but I have to say, I got over it.
I reached a place where I totally realized, "This is her perspective. This is her life. I'm pretty okay in my life. We can share this planet and never see each other again." That's really where you can get to with almost anything, but lucky for us, we had a reunion [laughs] and we can talk about some of this, as I said, partly because she now has a child. She's in a culture where children, they're not well loved. Children are not and they're not well supported. They're constantly being separated by class, by color, by anything you can think of which is terrible for them, because they have to live in a world that's going to be a world after their parents leave.
Everybody should be, it seems to me, attempting to fashion childhoods so that children can get along peacefully and happily with whoever they meet in the world.
Kai Wright: You also have said that you consider your own mother a goddess. What did you learn from her about motherhood?
Alice Walker: Well, I learned that she was a goddess and she also had clay feet. All goddesses who. It goes with the territory, nobody's perfect. Just get over it. For the most part, mothers, in my experience, generally speaking, they're pretty much doing the best they can do. We are gathering our shattered charts and foraging on, because that also is our tradition. We are knocked down and we get up. You knock us down, we get up until we can't get up. Hopefully, there's somebody behind us who's going to step over us and keep going.
Kai Wright: I'm asking all these questions because it's just, there's so much to learn in your openness and vulnerability about your relationships in this collection. There's so much art for me to learn about just how we manage ourselves. Another piece of that is that you write very openly about mental health, times of happiness, times of sadness, and times when you felt like you couldn't get out of bed. I guess you have done so with intention. You have put these things into the world. Why? You could have edited this journal to be just about your work.
Alice Walker: Well, I was saying to somebody who came to interview me a little while ago, and I said it's like a coda. It seemed a good idea to basically offer to, especially the young, but anybody who is seriously struggling with a host of issues like everybody's probably doing now. It seemed good as an elder to offer this kind of experience so that people don't have to keep--
There's an expression in Zora Neale Hurston's work where she says, "People are often jumping up and down in the same foot tracks." It means you never get anywhere. So often, you never get anywhere because the people who've already walked ahead didn't tell you. They didn't tell you that you didn't have to do some of this stuff. I wish somebody had told me, for instance, how you get pregnant. I didn't really know. I was never told. Things like that.
My mother was never told. She ended up with eight children, before she started having them, never having a clue and never been permitted to know. The history of that is that these plantation owners, they wanted workers. They didn't want you to tell the women what was going on about pregnancy and how you got pregnant. They just wanted these workers, and your body was supposed to provide the workers for the plantations. She was caught in that, her mother was caught in that, her grandmother was caught in that. Now, if she had been able to write a journal, it would have helped me a lot, really.
Kai Wright: Along those lines, I think about somebody reading the passages where you're thinking out loud about your sexuality. There's an entry in 1995 that really touched me where you're wrestling with-- we get to follow along as you think about labels and how to apply them. I'm going to do an awful sin of reading Alice Walker to Alice Walker, but you're right.
It is important what we call ourselves. The word "lesbian" is growing on me as I find myself loving, desiring, and admiring so many lesbians. In fact, the spirit of lesbians is often irresistible. I had resisted it because for me it symbolized an island and a separation I do not feel. I've always liked the sound of gay. I thought the expression in the life particularly fine, and very Black. I hope that "full" might be seen by others to be a useful, warm lipped word too that, while being said with love, will draw attention, praise and perhaps the thought of kisses to the speaker's tinder, sincere and generous mouth."
In 1995, I was wrestling with these labels as well. I had never heard anybody wrestle with these labels. I didn't know. I thought I was going crazy trying to because I remember trying on in the life. It made my heart jump and I just wonder what you think looking back at that passage now.
Alice Walker: Well, I'm glad I had it there. I wish I'd had it there for you because some of the suffering that we impose on people by keeping silent is just not necessary, really. We're all going to be leaving here at some point anyway, we might as well make noise. We might as well say what we're thinking. We might as well pass it on to somebody so that we can help them have a happier life.
I really like "full". As I think I go on to talk about, the thing about the word "full" for anybody who feels attracted to. I was always a loving child. In my community, I told somebody this recently, my mother and father always entered me into the baby contests because we've had to raise money to build our church, which people burned down. I would always win. I would always win because I would raise the most money partly because I was the most loving child. I didn't see anybody I didn't love.
That's just my nature, it's my character. To box me into some label that I may outgrow next week, why would I do that? Why would I want that to happen? I just refuse it. I will be loving of whoever, I'm loving all-- Somebody's coming into my firewood.
Kai Wright: Introduce us to your dog. Because we do Zoom interviews now, we're never in studio. We meet a lot of people's dogs on our show. Who's your dog?
Alice Walker: Oh, my dog is wonderful. My dog is just tiny but thinks he's as big as a sofa. He's scaring whoever is coming in the door. Hi, there. Thank you.
Kai Wright: You also explore your faith and spirituality. How would you describe god today?
Alice Walker: Well, I think first for me, I had to get rid of the old white guy. I really did. Charlton Heston, he just didn't do it for me. Lucky for me, I grew up in the countryside and so my god was ever present. It's just nature. There it is, the whole of this, the whole everything. What is, what was, what will be, all of the natural world is it to me, which means that I'm included, and that's a good thing.
In away, one of the irritating things about the reception of The Color Purple was that people were so intent on what the humans were doing to each other, and what the men were doing to the women and, blah, blah. All that is wonderful because you have to suffer to get to "God", but it's a book of theology. I left church at 11 because I could see that the way they had it set up was not right. It excluded the natural world. The preacher never said anything about, "My God, look at these trees. Look at that cloud. Look at that sun." Never. Never, never. It was as if all of that didn't exist.
Even I don't know, 8 or 9 or 10, I thought, "How could you separate yourself from this glory? Now, how could you? Do you see what the clouds look like when they are coming so strong over here, they look like a wave? Have you noticed? What is that? Who did that? How did that happen?" These are issues that I'm always interested in although now I'm just completely content. I feel I live in heaven. I've always lived in heaven and I always will live in heaven.
Kai Wright: I'm talking with Alice Walker about her new collection, Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker. Coming up we look back on the release of her most famous work, The Color Purple. Stay with us.
Regina de Heer: Have you by chance ever read or see in the movie The Color Purple or the book? What does that bring up for you as a Black person?
Willow: I feel like The Color Purple as a whole, it talks about the experience for Black women and just understanding it from such a bird's eye view.
Kyle: I think of trauma. When you're watching the movie you just feel the emotional pain that you have to go through as a Black person.
Regina de Heer: Have you by chance ever read or seen The Color Purple?
Regina de Heer: What does the experience of The Color Purple bring up for you?
Ebonee: I feel like when I think about The Color Purple, I think about the song I'm Here because The Color Purple, Celie goes through so much trauma. What's amazing is how she's propped up by so many Black women on her story. I just think that that's a tale as old as time.
Kai Wright: Welcome back. I'm Kai Wright, and I'm joined this week by poet, essayist, and novelist, Alice Walker. As we look back on her life and career, we, of course, have to linger on The Color Purple. It's the story of two sisters and their life journey to spiritual freedom. It includes the violence and sexual abuse they faced along the way from the men in their lives. As a result, both the novel and the later film stirred intense debate within the Black community, about how Black men are represented.
The Color Purple turns 40 this year. It is a book that meant a great deal to so many people, myself included. You mentioned the loud minority of Black men who took issue with the book.
Alice Walker: And some women. Some women too.
Kai Wright: That's fair. I remember processing it, looking at other Black men, and trying to take my cues as a young man of how I was supposed to feel. I just want to ask you to look back at that time. How did you process the negative reactions?
Alice Walker: It was shocking and it was disappointing. It really was. I felt despair. I felt like if you're going to try to pretend that this is not happening, if this is not true, what will this do to our children? What will it do, especially to our young men who really need it, to really sit with it? Actually, it would have been more helpful if the older Black men had taken the book-- most didn't read it, of course, but if they had taken the book and sat with young Black men. A lot of the stuff that we have seen over the last 40 years would not have happened.
When you deny the truth about something, you wound the culture terribly. This was, of course, a grief for me because I was trying to do the opposite. I was feeling like, if you can actually show this and you can make people feel this, they will change it, obviously. They will change this, they will have to. They will be so moved that they will say, "Oh, no, no, no, I can see. This is not--" Also-- well, never mind. Anyhow, that's the some of it.
Kai Wright: Well, I have to tell you that when the book became a film, I went to the theater with my father. I just remember this moment, and I don't even remember what part in the story it was, but looking up and seeing my father crying, and our barber was sitting nearby, and seeing him crying. It is seared in my brain as a young man as a moment where I thought, "What does it mean to be a Black man? Do I need to think differently?" I can't be more articulate than that about what happened for me, but it was a shift seeing their emotional reaction.
Alice Walker: Well, thank you for telling me. That's not what I usually hear. It makes me feel very close to those men because we're in this together, and we have to basically sit with each other's truths. Instead of trying to wound each other about what we're expressing, it's possible to basically bear witness instead. Everybody, almost everybody, especially in the Black community, has a story that just fits with this story because why wouldn't we? Look where we've been. 400 years of unspeakable horror totally twisting the personalities of so many of our people, most of them really, and then when the artist comes along, tries to show some light, and bring some healing, [laughs] then they're stoned.
Kai Wright: People don't want to healed.
Alice Walker: No, because often that is what you get. We're used to being wounded, the victim, and not being taken seriously that that feels comfortable. I'm saying that no, no, no, no, no. We look at this, we sit with this, we hash it out with each other, and then we try to bring the younger people into a healthier situation.
Kai Wright: How did The Color Purple change your life? In the journals it seems like it's a moment where you have to wrestle with the idea of fame.
Alice Walker: Well, I'm a very private person. I love solitude. As I said before, I'm basically a monk but a monk that has traveled everywhere. I think I've been almost everywhere on the planet except a few places. It gave me space and, of course, funds so that I could do the kind of travel that I wanted to do. I just posted something recently about, I started a publishing company and one of the people we published was a young painter and writer that we met in Bali. In fact, while I was being virtually stoned here, I managed to escape. [chuckles] I took myself and my sweetheart and my daughter to Bali for a month. While there, we learned a whole other world of things. Just incredible.
The success of the book and especially of the film meant that I could actually do what I needed to do which will see the planet, to see the other people, and to see how innocent they are. Their leaders are crazy. I'm not saying every single person is innocent. You know what I mean. I mean that the people generally speaking are just people, and most of them are just trying to have a life, be happy, raise their children, and tend to their goats or whatever. That was very good for me.
Kai Wright: Back in 1979 before The Color Purple, you coined the term "womanist" in your short story, Coming Apart. What does that term mean to you today? How would you define it today?
Alice Walker: Well, it means the same thing. It's not trying to escape feminism. It's basically the belief that you come out of a culture that has its own word for whatever it is you are.
Alice Walker: Harriet Tubman would be a "womanist" rather than a feminist because for one thing, the feminist of that time wouldn't have been able to sit with her unless she was on the floor. It's complicated and yet it's simple. It's that you have to have your own things, and you do. We have ancestors who made sure. They made sure, usually in the music, that we had the medicine we needed to go along this treacherous path.
For instance, it became a blues song, but some of the blues songs, because the musicians were trying to make money, were actually expressions out of the period of enslavement which, 400 years long. One of those expressions is, "I'd rather drink muddy water and sleep in a hollow log." Now, some blues singer tried to make that into something about his woman and how he can't stand being without her blah, blah, blah, blah.
Basically, if you apply it to the period of escaping slaves, what they were saying is that they would not have the abuse from the slave owner. They would run away. They would rather drink muddy water and sleep in a hollow log than stay with somebody who's trying to make them be something they're not.
Kai Wright: That's right. The postscript of this collection for your journals is one of the most fun parts for me. This is where you get to go back and reinsert the things that you feel like Valerie Boyd edited out. It's the dream of every nonfiction writer to be able to go back and say, "Well, here's the parts my editor took out that I really like I want to tell you about." I loved that.
In particular, your conversation about dreams. There's one dream that you recount in one of the journal entries. I think it's from 1990. You describe a dream in which a multiracial cross-section of America is having a party really. You write that that dream makes you feel like this version of America is still possible.
Alice Walker: At the time it was a dream in which very much like what actually happened to me up in the hills in Northern California, I ended up with a bunch of hippies who, some of them actually built my house. They were musicians and playing together. I had my shekere, they had various and sundry instruments. It was a way of understanding deeply, as always, for a long time, how unhappy our country is. We live in a really seriously unhappy country. It's so sad. It was not meant to be that way. Well, maybe it was meant to be that way but we didn't have to keep it that way.
It should be happy. America should be happy but it will never be happy with all these factions; fighting each other, the racial thing, the sex thing and the this and that. Yes, I put that in because I could feel that it was a dream. It was given to me as a dream with all of us playing our musical instruments together and being really mellow, this was given to me, to pass on, to remind us that we are not a happy country, but we can be. We can be a happy country.
Kai Wright: You say dreams are the source of first knowledge in that postscript. What do you mean by that? Why are dreams so important to you?
Alice Walker: Well, I think I mean what the Aboriginal people of Australia have always meant when they talk about the dream time. I believe that the dream time for them was what I somehow have a corner of in this life. The dream time was when people received, by dreaming, the information that nobody told them. They dreamed it. That's how they knew.
I feel that way when I have a dream like the one we were talking about, that it has a meaning. It has a meaning in its directive to us to consider the unhappiness of America and own it.
Don't start fighting about, "Oh, yes, we're happy." [laughs] What people mean when they say that basically is that they're happy because they have everything they want and more. Anyway, to think about how to be a happy country, and you cannot be a happy country if you're always fighting each other. It's just impossible.
Kai Wright: Well, Alice Walker, I thank you so much for this conversation and for sharing life's lessons and struggles with us on the page.
Alice Walker: Well, I think you've been great, and thank you.
Kai Wright: Thank you.
Alice Walker: Bye-bye.
Kai Wright: Bye-bye. Alice Walker's new collection is called Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker. It offers a peek into her private diary spanning four decades from the 1960s through the turn of the century.
Kai Wright: A note before we go. It's Memorial Day weekend and we sadly have an awful lot of people to remember, people whose lives have been needlessly cut short in this country, more than a million lives lost to COVID, and the political failures that have accompanied this pandemic, more than 45,000 lives a year at most recent count lost to our national fetish for guns.
This weekend, a lot of us are thinking about George Floyd who was murdered on Memorial Day in 2020, and the numbingly large number of Black lives lost to similar police violence. All of which is to say, yes, hold your people close in joy this weekend as we celebrate the coming days of summer, but also, let us remember these needless deaths, and let us meditate on how we can prevent more like them.
Kai Wright: The United States of Anxiety is produced by Emily Botein, Regina de Heer, Karen Frillmann, Kousha Navidar, Rahima Nasa, and Jared Paul, and a special thanks this week to Bill Moss who mixed this episode. Bill, it's so nice to have you back. Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band. You can send us your thoughts on any and everything you hear on the show by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We particularly love to get voice memos there. Just record one on your smartphone and email it along, send it to email@example.com.
You can follow us wherever you get your podcast or you can find the whole archive at wnyc.org/anxiety. There is a tab there that says "Collections". If you're looking for a good place to start, that's got a few curated episode lists for you. Otherwise, I'll see you here next Sunday. I'm Kai Wright. Thanks for spending this time with us, and happy Memorial Day weekend.
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