One theory has it that she who puts pen to paper or fingers to keyboard is, whatever the ostensible genre, writing fiction: our imperfect memories and our human subjectivity so inform whatever we write that even in crafting nonfiction, we create as well as record. If one accepts this theory, then with Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker, 1965–2000, edited and with an introduction by the late Valerie Boyd, the writer, one of the most prominent African-American literary figures of the past half-century, may be said to have given us her longest novel and her greatest character: Alice Walker. That is not to say that Walker has misrepresented facts or has a distorted view of her own life, only that in keeping numerous handwritten journals over the decades, she has arguably fashioned a story and a protagonist in greater depth than in any of her purely fictional creations
Walker was born in 1944 in Eatonton, Georgia, the youngest of the eight children of sharecroppers. She began writing in her first brown fake-leather journal – a gift from a friend – in the early 1960s, when she was a student at the historically Black Spelman College, a school for women in Atlanta. Dissatisfied with the education she was receiving there, she transferred to Sarah Lawrence College, outside New York City. Even there she did not simply settle into the life of a college student. Walker’s early journal entries reveal a restless spirit and the conscience of an activist; This was, after all, the era of civil rights and antiwar protests, and she felt the pull of the political. “There are times when I feel too old to be among these people at Sarah Lawrence”, she writes in one entry from the mid-1960s. “I can no longer discuss Viet Nam with ‘bright’ girls who want to reconcile their feelings about the war to their violin music. The deaths of VietNamese children weigh too heavily on me for that.” The young Walker was brave, traveling in Africa and joining the civil rights movement in the South, where she met a Jewish law student, Mel Leventhal, her future husband. The couple moved to Jackson, Mississippi, at a time when anti-miscegenation laws were still in place, and pursued civil rights activism, working to integrate hotels and restaurants, all while evading the Ku Klux Klan. Their daughter, Rebecca, was born in 1969. In the midst of all of this, Walker managed not only to keep a journal, but also to begin publishing books. Her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copelandappeared in 1970.
At various points in the journals Walker makes thoughtful observations about her chosen craft. “The best kind of writing”, she notes at one point, “sees to be simply the writing down of a story overheard.” At another, she writes, “novelists who stick to color and class – when they live in a multi-colored, multi-class society – lack courage and sufficient curiosity to justify long interest.” At still another: “Perhaps writer’s block is simply unresolved emotion in one’s private life. Of course, being machinelike, some writers probably have learned to ignore their block and write anyway – that could account for so many bad books.” Some of Walker’s most interesting reflections concern her development and characteristics as a writer. “I must … read some more authors and see how they handle dialogue, as dialogue for me is very Tom Wolfe, which is to say, wooden”, she writes as an aspiring novelist in 1965. In an entry from 1987 – by which time she had written her most popular book, the runaway bestseller The Color Purple (1982) – she muses, “I’ve discovered something: I’m not really good at creating characters who are like me”.
Readers in search of insights into the creations of Walker’s characters and plots, however, may be disappointed, since the journals are much more concerned with her life than her work. The main concerns, and themes, of that life begin to emerge in entries from the late 1960s, when Walker was a young wife and new mother who was beginning to have doubts about marriage and parenthood. Having written earlier of her love for Mel, she takes to making observations such as: “I surprised myself today, for the first time thinking that had I married a black man we would have had sense enough to know we couldn’t live in Mississippi “. She loves her daughter, but admits in her journal that Rebecca “began to seem an extra arm I didn’t know how to use”. She also refers, in an entry from the mid-1970s, to “one or two periods of depression in the past two years”, and she writes on her thirtieth birthday, in 1974, “I have felt – all last week – that was just a matter of finding a sharp enough blade.” Walker and Leventhal divorced in the mid-1970s, after which their daughter divided her time between households. Walker moved to New York before settling in California and devoting herself to writing, spirituality, activism (including a documentary film condemning genital mutilation in Africa) and romantic love (usually, though not always, with just one person).
And so begins, in the journals, a pattern of deeply passionate feelings toward, and ecstatic sex with, a succession of people — male and female — eventually mixed with analyzes of their faults. (Walker discusses her own shortcomings in the relationships too.) The first and longest of these relationships was with the writer and editor Robert L. Allen, whom Walker had dated before her marriage, and with whom she became involved again immediately after the divorce. The most tabloid-worthy of her loves was with the singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman, Walker’s junior by two decades, though readers might also be interested in Walker’s unrealized feelings for the musician and producer Quincy Jones.
Through it all – thoughts about her lovers, concerns over money (at least before the publication of The Color Purple), ambivalent feelings about her original family – Walker emerges as a woman whose most held concerns have much in common with the themes of her novels. The author of works often involving complicated father figures and others in fraught family relationships, she writes: “I am 48. I want a father”. (Walker’s father died in 1972, when the author was 28.) “That is what I’ve wanted in the men I’ve decided & I’ve gotten bits and pieces of ‘fatherliness.’ Especially from Mel. Perhaps this is why sex always seemed somewhat incestuous – especially with Robert who has seemed like my idea of a brother.” She notes in a letter to Chapman recorded in the journal: “One insight I had this week was that you are the first person I’ve loved with the same depth & intensity I loved my mother.” Elsewhere she writes: “I feel I have moved out of my [original] family almost entirely. At times we touch, but mostly we miss. We have always had different aspirations, felt things differently.” Just as her novels often touch on spirituality, Walker, while not religious in a traditional sense, frequently and profusely thanks the “Great Spirit”, which for her imbues all of existence. Her temporary holdings inspire some puzzling passages: “The Universe hears every little wish, and gets right with the program! This is how I know there can be world peace”; “Yesterday I had more energy than I’ve had in a couple of months. My own energy, as opposed to that which I drew from the Universe…”. Those lines might make the reader wonder which universe Walker is living in, but elsewhere she displays a mature understanding of her own character: “I’ve been hard on lovers. Not accepting that they love me, perhaps because I did not truly love & value myself. I pray this will change. That I will never turn on another lover, lashing out with hurtful words as I’ve done in the past.”
The book concludes with a postscript walker written at seventy-seven, in 2021, by which time she could look back on a career comprising more than 30 books of poetry and nonfiction as well as fiction. Walker’s reputation has suffered over the past decade due to charges of antisemitism, largely stemming from her championing of work by the conspiracy theorist and author David Icke. The journals (which do not include every entry Walker wrote over the years) give no hint of such attitudes; It will be interesting to see whether, and how, the next volume addresses the controversy, whether he applies to it the same sharp self-observation she brings to these journals. “I do so hope it’s true”, she notes in the mid-1980s, “that there are no mistakes, only lessons.”
Clifford Thompson‘s book What It Is: Race, family, and one thinking black man’s blues was published in 2019
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