Sunday, February 20, 2005

Keesha Highlights Alice Walker for Black History Month

Keesha: We always talk about voices that speak to us so my choice for Black History Month is Alice Walker because she speaks to me in ways that other people never have.

In fourth grade, my older cousin passed on The Color Purple. I think I'd seen the movie by them. I had problems with the movie, still do. But the book amazed me (still does). It spoke to me and inspired me. It changed the way I saw the world.

That might come as a shock to people who've only seen the movie. The movie is so watered down. In the movie, you get a religious lesson; in the book, you get spirituality. In the movie, you get isolated incidents of racism; in the book, you get at the heart of a system. In the movie, the system's not mentioned so sexism can be skirted; in the book, sexism is a very big part of the narrative.

I admire the performances in the film by everyone, especially Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey and Alfre Woodard. But in terms of the narrative, the film disgusts me.

This isn't a case of condensing that we often get when a book is turned into a movie. This is a case of the key points of the narrative being stripped away. Walker presented a social criticism and a better world. The film seems focused only on individual events and strips the overall message from the book.

If you've seen the movie and liked it, you need to now read the book because you do not know Celie from the movie.

I next read The Temple of My Familiar (a novel by Walker) and it didn't reach me. Maybe I was looking for another Color Purple. So I turned to her poetry and that spoke to me. Revolutionary Petunias & Other Poems especially.

From "Expect Nothing:"

Expect nothing. Live frugally
On surprise.
Become a stranger
To need of pity
Or, if compassion be freely
Given out
Take only enough
Stop short of urge to plead
Then purge away the need.
. . .
Discover the reason why
So tiny human midgets
Exists at all
So scared unwise
But expect nothing. Live frugally
On surprise.

Then I couldn't stop talking about Walker to everyone I knew. And I was surprised that most knew of her but didn't know her writing. When I've come across a Walker fan, I've always known I was on the verge of forging a long standing friendship. One friend (African-American, female) turned me on to Meridian, an amazing novel.

He stood there for several minutes more, on display. Sunk in his own memories, in confusion, in loss then was led back gently to his seat, his large body falling heavily palms to the crowd. And then there rose the sweet music that received its inimitable soul from just such inarticulate grief as this, and a passing of the collection plate with the money going to the church's prison fund, and the preacher urged all those within his hearing to vote for black candidates on the twenty-third. And the service was over.
For a while, the congregation did not move. Meridian sat thinking of how much she had always disliked church. Whenever she was in a church, she felt claustrophobic, as if the walls were clsoing in. She had, even as a child, felt sermons listlessly fanning in the summer heat and hoping, vainly, she felt, for the best. The music she loved. Next to the music, she had liked only the stained-glass windows, when there were any, because the colored glass changed ordinary light into something richer, of gold and rose and mauve. It was restful and beautiful and inspired the reverence the sermons had failed to rouse. Thinking of the glass now she raised her head to look at the large stained-glass window across from her.
Instead of the traditional pale Christ with stray lamb there was a tall, broad-shouldered black man. He was wearing a brilliant blue suit through which the light swam as if in a lake, and a bright red tie that looked as if someone were pouring cherries down his chest. His face was thrown back, contorted in song, sweat, like glowing diamonds, fell from his head. In one hand he held a guitar that was attached to a golden strap that ran over his shoulder. It was maroon, much narrower at one end than at the other, with amber buttons, like butterscotch kisses, on the narrow end. The other arm was raised above his head and it held a long shiny object the end of which was dripping with blood.
"What's that?" she asked the placid woman sitting next to her, who was humming and swatting flies and bopping her restless children, inter mittently, on the head.
"What?" she turned kindly to Meridian and smiled in a charming and easygoing way. "Oh, that. One of our young artists did that. It's called 'B.B., With Sword.'"

Then I poured over the novel The Third Life of Grange Copeland which is amazing. At which point, a friend (white, male) suggested I read In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, a collection of her essays. I was told I would be amazed. I was skeptical because I felt I had become my own little mini-Alice Walker expert and certainly there were only head nods in the future as I read, nothing would surprise me. How wrong I was.

"Breaking Chains and Encouraging Life," "Coretta Scott King: Revisted," "Only Justice Can Stop a Curse," "If the Present Looks Like the Past, What Does the Future Look Like?," and "A Writer Because of, Not in Spite of, Her Children" were some of the many amazing essays in that book.

Living By the Word and Anything We Love Can Be Saved quickly followed. I'm still devouring her work. Possessing the Secret of Joy was a novel I'd missed out on until it was mentioned at The Common Ills. I grabbed it the next day at a bookstore (I paid for it) and rushed home to read it. Amazing.

Alice Walker is an activist fighting for social justice and that is important and worthy of applause. But you get that on the page. You don't need an interview or feature article on her to know where she stands. You only need to enter the world of her fiction to see all that could be.
I think her writing does more to address the human condition and the need for systematic change than any speech that could be given. With her writing (all her writing) she's laid a groundwork for change on many levels.

When I speak to a "reader" and they're unfamiliar with Walker's writing, I find it very hard to connect with them if they're ticking off the standard "fiction" stocked at Wal-Mart or some other bulk store. Reading is important, even if it's page-turner paperbacks. But if someone's never discovered Alice Walker's writing in any form, it's as though we're speaking two different languages. You can walk them through it and they can get it on a surface level but until you've entered the world of Alice Walker's writing, it's as though you are living on the surface and there's an entire dimension you've never noticed even though it's all around you. She truly opens eyes.

I know I've quoted a great deal but I want to end with a section of from her Sent by Earth: A Message From the Grandmother Spirit After the Attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon:

Just as the body loves exercise, though it complains, the soul loves awareness. For a long time, I've pondered the expression "Never let the right hand know what the left hand is doing." This advice, I believe, is wrong. We must struggle to see both our hands, and their activity, clearly. We must see, for instance, the Palestinians and what has happened to their homes, their fields, and their trees; and we must see what is happening to the Israelis and their homes and their fields and their trees. We must see where our tax dollars flow and try, in awareness, to follow them. We, as Americans, have a hand in each nation's fate, but we tend to look only at the hand the news media shows us, constnatly. This situation in the Middle East, a war between brothers and cousins, may mean the end of life as we in North America know it. It may ultimately mean our lives. The sould wants to know the truth; what is really going on. Nor must we fall asleep while Afghanistan, a country with 700,000 disabled orphans, is being bombed. We must struggle to stay awake enough to imagine what it feels like to be small and afraid, not to have parents, to be disabled, to be hungry and lonely, and not be able, either, to get out of the way of America's wrath. The soul wants to know why we have paid taxes to support the Taliban. Why, through that group, we have so heartlessly supported the debasement and assassination of The Feminine.