On this day, seventy-three years ago, Alice Walker was born in rural Georgia, about an hour and a half outside of Atlanta; the youngest of eight. Living in the Jim Crow South, her father—a sharecropper—and her mother—a domestic worker—strove to ensure their children received an education, resisting landlords who expected their children to work. She started elementary school when she was four and she began writing, privately, when she was eight years old; expressing the interior world—perhaps in relation to the incident that happened around the same age that left her blind in one eye—she had to keep hidden from her family. Raised by a family of storytellers in the oral tradition, Walker found solace after the incident in reading and writing poetry.
Graduating as valedictorian of her class, Walker went to Spelman College on scholarship. It was during her time at Spelman that she met Howard Zinn and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, both of whom got her interested in joining the Civil Rights Movement. After two years at Spelman, she transferred to Sarah Lawrence College; she wrote her first book of poetry during her senior year at Sarah Lawrence. After graduating, she returned to the South and continued her work in the Civil Rights Movement, working in Mississippi with children’s programs, voter registration drives, and campaigning for welfare rights. In 1967, she married Melvyn Roseman Leventhal, a civil rights lawyer—they became the first legally married interracial couple in Mississippi and were met with disapproval from their families and death threats from the Klan.
Aside from two writer-in-residence gigs, her writing was largely put on hold while she focused her efforts on activism. She jumped back into her writing career in the ‘70s when she began introducing students to literature written by Black women in the first women’s studies course in the nation, as well as publishing a novel—The Third Life of Grange Copeland—and a collection of short stories; she, her husband, and her daughter moved to New York in 1974, where Walker was hired by Ms. Magazine. During her tenure at Ms., she wrote “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” detailing her attempts to flesh out the missing details of Hurston’s life Walker found when exploring her writing for that women’s studies course. In the essay, she details having found Hurston was buried in an unmarked grave; she and her colleague purchased a headstone that reads: “’A Genius of the South,’ 1901—1960, Novelist, Folklorist, Anthropologist.” This article is largely credited for singlehandedly reviving interest in the work of the Harlem Renaissance writer.
In 1976, while still working for Ms., she published her second novel, Meridian, a semiautobiographical work that details the life of a young, Black woman in the Civil Rights Movement. In Meridian, Walker’s womanist frame of reference began to clearly take shape in her writing—she would later publish an extensive meditation on womanism, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. It was around this same time that she and Melvyn divorced; they decided to co-parent their daughter, Rebecca, exchanging custody in two-year rotations—an arrangement that would prove to be an additional strain on the relationship between Rebecca and Alice, who are now estranged—after Walker moved to California, having accepted a Guggenheim fellowship to focus on her writing.
In 1982, she published her best-known novel, The Color Purple, which follows Celie as she tries to survive and navigate a racist, patriarchal world and the bonds she makes with other women in the process. The Color Purple was critically and popularly successful, earning her a Pulitzer Prize (she was the first Black woman to do be awarded that prestige) and becoming a bestseller. Three years later, the story made the leap from the page to the big screen. Twenty years after the film’s release, in 2005, it was adapted for a Broadway stage production that ran for over nine-hundred shows. The production was revived in 2015 and just finished its Broadway run last month.
Following the success of The Color Purple, Walker published more novels, poetry, essays, and short stories. Never shying away from the political, Alice Walker continued delving into the particular experiences of Black women living in a violently racist and sexist society in her writing. In the early 2000s, she stepped back into activism off the page—she and twenty-six other women were arrested in 2003 during a protest of the impending Iraq war. She continues to be politically active, focusing her efforts on joining mobilizations around human rights, civil rights, and gender equity around the globe.
Writing poems & songs
Novels & plays, slogans, chants
& protest signs
We think of
—an excerpt from “Loving Humans,”
published in Hard Times Require Furious Dancing
In 2014, coinciding with her 70th birthday, PBS aired Pratibha Parmar’s documentary “Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth” as a part of the American Masters series. The documentary features members of The Color Purple film cast, fellow iconic feminist writers and activists—and even her ex-husband—alongside Walker herself, tracing her trajectory from rural Georgia to literary icon. Though, as of now, it is not scheduled to be aired again, you can watch segments of the documentary on American Masters’ website.
In her seventy-three years on this planet, Alice Walker has constantly, for better and for worse, broken the molds the world expected her to fit into neatly. Her rebelliousness, her being opinionated, her commitment to speaking the truth as she sees it has earned her so much praise. And a whole lot of criticism. Still, through all the trials and triumphs, she has consistently and unapologetically laid claim to her space and her words and, in so doing, she has inspired so many others—myself included—to claim their space, their words, and to join in the ongoing struggle for justice for everyone.
It is with much love and much gratitude that I wish Alice Walker a very happy birthday.