I will be looking a literary biography written by Evelyn C. White about American author, poet, feminist and civil rights activist, Alice Walker. Before I give a critical review of the biography and discussing its main focus and themes, I will be giving some background on Alice Walker.
Alice grew up in a shack in rural Georgia where she was the youngest of 8 children. Her parents were sharecroppers and dairy farmers, and could not afford to support some of the hobbies that Alice was interested in as a child. As a child one of the things Alice wanted to do was learn how to play an instrument. Alice really wanted to learn how to play the piano, but lessons were far too expensive and she felt that it would not be fair to make her parents pay large amounts of money on a mere hobby. Soon Alice found that writing was something that she was good at and was also a cheaper hobby which only needed paper and a pencil. It can be said that Alice became a writer due to the circumstances of her upbringing. Alice grew up in an environment filled with violent racism and the poverty that she and her family experienced all of which is evident in Alice’s writing.
At 8 years old, a BB gun wounded Alice’s eye to the point that she lost her vision in her right eye and caused a slight facial disfigurement. This incident was both emotionally traumatising as well as painful. Alice later then got the scar tissue removed from her eye but the trauma remained with her for a long time.
Alice was fortunate enough to attend school at the tender age of 4 years old; this is when it became evident that she was really good at writing and expressing her thoughts on paper. Alice was fortunate enough to get scholarships which enabled her to further her education by attending college. It was in college when Alice started becoming active in civil rights demonstrations and rallies. Alice was fortunate enough to gain opportunities that allowed her to travel to Europe and Africa during her youth.
In this biography written by Evelyn C. White, there is an intense focus on Alice’s family and her youth along with her college experiences as a young black woman in America during the racial oppression in the South of America.
In this biography, Evelyn writes of Alice in the light of an activist more than a writer. Evelyn gives us the idea that Alice spent most of her time fighting for the civil rights of black people, mainly black women, and writing was something that she did during her spare time. Racial segregation was something that played a big role in Alice’s life and pushed her to find her own identity as a black female writer in America, this was evident in her writing.
I think an important part of the biography and a turning point in Alice’s life would be when her older sister, Mamie, comes back from college and has had a sudden change in attitude. Alice recalls Mamie’s return and is quoted in the biography saying “Then when she came back home, she criticized the way they live, the way they talked, what they didn’t know. It seemed like she looked down on them.” One can sense the sadness in Alice’s tone as she goes on further to say how much her parents had sacrificed for Mamie to get an education. I say that this may have been a possible turning point for Alice because she saw the way in which Mamie battled with issues of self-love and identity that when she left for college she wanted to make a point of not letting those issues define her. Alice later wrote a poem to Mamie, ‘For My Sister Molly Who in the Fifties”, Mamie received her own personal version of the poem and another was then published with additional lines.
The last line reads: “FOR MY SISTER MOLLY WHO IN THE FIFTIES/left us.”
This line was added to the published version of the poem which Mamie did read and said that “I felt as if Alice had given me praise with one hand and taken it back with the other. One was left with the impression that I had deserted my family or died. One the contrary, everything I learned, I tried to pour into Alice’s head. She could absorb my college-level teachings like a sponge when she was a child. I loved her (and do love her) so much. We both Aquarius, very daring people. But the poem was hurtful.”
Alice was very close to her siblings especially because she was the last born and her growing up so quickly caught her siblings off guard. Her brothers always wanted to play protectant and her sisters wanted to teach her the ways of the world but Alice was far too independent and wanted to learn the ways of life in her own way through experiences.
During her senior year in college Alice fell pregnant with the child of David DeMoss, a man who she was having a relationship with but did not want to marry. The pregnancy made Alice sick with worry as she was scared to disappoint her parents and her community. Alice saw being pregnant whilst in college as a shame because many other black people did not easily receive the opportunity to go to college. Alice struggled to sleep for several days. It is said in the biography that Alice slept with a razor underneath her pillow and contemplated suicide.
Alice found the courage to reveal her secret to three of her friends, one of which found a doctor for her who would perform the abortion. Even going into the procedure, Alice was anxious as she says that he mother had always considered abortion as a sin. Alice slipped into deep depression after the abortion but like after the trauma of her accident where she lost site in her right eye, Alice turned to her only comfort – writing. Alice wrote a series of poems about pain and anxiety which she slipped under the door of her mentor and professor, Muriel Rekeyser. Muriel was impressed with Alice’s poetry and submitted the series of poems to her agent who later published Alice’s work of poetry. Once, the title of her series of poetry in a form of a book was published three years later when Alice turned 24 years old.
Alice seems to have been overly sensitive to the happenings in her life which would cause for her body and mind to react in an extreme manner. Pregnancy seems to have been a reoccurring factor linked to this Evelyn makes the reader aware of this. The first time Alice falls pregnant and has an abortion, she suffers serious anxiety and depression from it. The Second time Alice falls pregnant after marrying Mel, she has a miscarriage. In the biography Alice says that hearing of the death of Martin Luther King junior threw her off completely. She was shocked not only at the news of his passing but the way in which he was assassinated, the amount of stressed she induced caused for her to miscarry. Alice was pregnant at the time with her husband, Mel’s baby.
The Colour Purple is the novel that brought fame to Alice. The main themes in this book are themes that ran dominant throughout Alice’s life which are echoed throughout this biography. Themes such redemption of love, identity, physical abuse and lesbianism were the main focus throughout the book. The book received harsh criticism for its depiction of the abuse and sexism. This novel not only brought her fame but a Pulitzer Prize for fiction and financial success. In 1985 as a movie was released based on the novel. It received 11 Academy Award nominations but unfortunately did not receive any.
In conclusion it can be said that this biography is well written and I thoroughly enjoyed. If one had not known about Alice Walker prior to reading this, one can close the book with better knowledge and understanding of Alice Walker as an author, civil rights activist, and as a human being. Her experiences are written in detail and shape our understanding of this phenomenal woman. This biography can
be seen as a success story of the young and independent African American author, Alice Walker. Alice never wrote with the intentions of getting published, famous or wealthy but in the end she did.