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Saturday, June 14, 2003  

White liberals and black genius: Alice Walker

African-American writer Alice Walker's name is now a household word. Even people who have never opened one of her books recognize the name. She has had a Pulitzer Prize firmly in hand since 1983. Oprah Winfrey's production of her novel The Color Purple made her name recognizable to people who aren't readers, one of her goals. Her political activism has made her somone people in the know recognize as more than a writer, much like Nadine Gordimer's has.

But, it wasn't always that way. Walker's first publication, which occurred while she was in college, came relatively easy. She showed some of her writing to a professor and he was able to pull the strings that led to a book contract. But, subsequent books, before she became famous, were much harder for her to present to the public.

In the interim, Walker worked at various jobs, including community organizing in Mississippi, as a legal assistant at a law firm and as a contributor to several magazines. Those work experiences were marred by her clashes with some white people. Well, she was in the South and these events would have been occurring during the 1960s and '70s, when desegregation was still being opposed in places like that, you're probably thinking. You're right -- to an extent. Walker spent more than a decade in the South during the worst of the abuses of people fighting for an end to racial discrimination. She married and lived with a white man, which was illegal in much of the South at the time. And, she never checked her mouth, her pen or her political involvement. Strange cars driving back and forth in front of her house were not unusual. She regularly received threatening notes in her mailbox saying things like, 'the Klan is watching you.' When white folks were being particularly restive in Mississippi, Walker's husband and the black men in their neighborhood would sit on their front porches, drinking sweet tea and fanning -- with their shotguns loaded and by their sides. That demonstration of not bowing to pressure to shut the hell up and stop agitating may have saved their lives. It definitely gained them the political rights they have now.

But, Walker's career problems were not caused by supporters of either the Klan or the White Citizens Councils. They were caused by white liberals. An incident that occurred while she was a correspondent for Ms. Magazine is typical. Walker penned an article in which she mentioned, in passing, that she and her husband had purposely planned the birth of their daughter, Rebecca, so that it would prevent him from being drafted and possibly sent to Vietnam. The largely white liberal female readership of the magazine fell on her like wolves on a lamb. They said she had shown that she was not a patriot, not even a true American. That she was being selfish. That black people needed to earn their right to full citizenship by supporting the war. Her response didn't please them. She maintained her right to make her own decisions and not have white bosses calling themselves liberals make them for her.

Despite their efforts, the white liberals who found Walker such an objectional Negro and one who's success should be thwarted, were unable to prevent her from making a living, and of equal importance, continuing to write. When publication in magazines and writing because difficult because of whispering campaigns by them against her, she took up adjunct teaching at different colleges. The jobs put money in her pockets, but again, she often clashed with her white liberal counterparts. Office mates sometimes refused to speak to her. Jobs were short-lived. She was excluded from networking.

Eventually, Walker became physically and emotionally exhausted. Some people would say she had a nervous breakdown of became mentally ill. A few might use the word psychotic. (However, people reading this entry who believe African-Americans with brains and minds of their own should be put in their place, who apparently aren't rare in the blogosphere, should not cheer yet.) A move away from the South, where she was constantly battling day-to-day overt discrimination in addition to job-related problems, helped. A divorce soon after freed her from what had become a troubled union. After some wandering, Walker was able to settle down and intensely focus on her career as a writer, without distractions. The rest is history.

Why did Walker, a pretty, petite, soft-spoken woman who seems to go out of her way to understand other people, have so much trouble with white liberals? Well, the woman is a genius. That is rare and when it occurs people expect to see it in a white man, probably someone from the upper-classes. White people, regardless of political stripe, often aren't comfortable with black genius because, from their viewpoint, someone who is supposed to be beneath them has surpassed them. In addition, Walker is a person who will not go along to get along. If she had accepted being patronized in those teaching positions or been careful to write nothing that readers might take offense at as a contributor to magazines and journals, her life would have been less stressful.

One way in which Walker dealt with her problems with white feminists was by creating a new category for women of color with feminist values -- womanist. By doing so, she distanced herself from the women who had sought her out as a token black feminist while refusing to treat her as the equal she is.

Alice Walker's stature is such now that few, if any, liberals would dare to attack her. If she were to start a weblog, which she probably has absolutely no interest in doing, I don't believe she would encounter the 'echo us or shut up' attitude other minority bloggers are often often treated with in the blogosphere. A lot of teeth gritting would ensue, emails bursting with objections to what she has written on a given day would bounce back and forth, perhaps the few bloggers who have a little name recognition outside of the blogosphere would be beside themselves that a really famous person, and a black one who would tell them to stick it where the sun don't shine, had taken up the avocation. But, there would be no attack of the white liberals because Alice Walker is not a lamb anymore.

I have a lot of nerve writing about Alice Walker because I haven't treated her right. I briefly had a correspondence with Walker. Her advice to me was: Stop pursuing an interest here or an interest there and concentrate on your writing of literary fiction. I never really followed her advice, and, as you can see, still am not doing so. So, I let the correspondence sputter out rather than continue looking like I did not respect her, which I do.

I have used the phrase 'white liberals' very generally in this essay. I realize there are white liberals who would not have treated Walker as a second-class citizen required to kiss their backsides back before she became a 'name.' I just wish there were more of them.

11:41 PM