Alice Walker's Celebration
Editor's note: Presented here are musings from an Alice Walker fan, followed by details of the events of Eatonton's celebration of Alice Walker's 75th birthday and then a sidebar recounting Alice Walker's more recent ties to Eatonton, Putnam County. Although her birthday was February 9, Ms. Walker chose to come home and celebrate in July so her family could attend. Join us as we look forward to the celebration!
Thank you, Alice Walker
By katoya ellis fleming
I didn’t know she would be there.
And all these years later, I don’t remember my reason for going to the Women’s Research and Resource Center at Spelman College on that balmy day in 1997. What I do recall, and what I’ll always remember, is brazenly snatching open the door to the Women’s Center, stepping inside, and freezing in my tracks when I unexpectedly locked eyes with Alice Walker.
As a sophomore at Spelman, I had grown accustomed to running into the occasional celebrity, particularly since the school boasts more than a few famous alumnae. By then, celebrity sightings had become pretty commonplace. But this was Alice Walker. Pulitzer Prize-winning author, poet, activist, goddess, and, as far as I was concerned, the very archetype of literary righteousness. There she sat, dreadlocked and bespectacled, dressed in all black and wearing long sleeves despite the summery weather. Her smile was broad and warm; her eyes, welcoming and kind. The tone of her voice was low and sweet, like if love was a sound.
I think she said “Hello.”
I had walked into the middle of a moment bathed in the easy music of light-hearted laughter that always accompanies mischief between good girlfriends. Ms. Walker and the center’s director, Dr. Beverly Guy-Sheftall, both greeted me with beaming faces that were sisterly, yet slightly amused, as they seemed to sense that I was equal parts mortified to have barged in on them and stunned to see one of my literary idols sitting right in front of me. I apologized profusely but was assured that I’d been no bother. I was welcome in their space.
I proceeded to not say any of the things I wanted to say. I didn’t tell Alice Walker that walking the same hallways that she had walked and knowing that she, like me, had once called this place home, had been confirmation that this was where I belonged. I didn’t tell her that although I had probably been too young to read The Color Purple when I found it on my Granny’s nightstand, I had read it anyway, and it had been the book that catalyzed my love for Black literature in general and her words in particular. I didn’t tell her that In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens had sparked the first fledgling flames of my existence as a Black woman—I was 19, so being a woman was still a newish concept—or that her elegantly brutal and painfully beautiful prose had shone a celestial light that was guiding me along my path as a Black Southern writer and toward being the kind of warrior I aspired to be—a fearless being that she had taught me to call a “womanist.”
I didn’t say any of that.
Instead, my heart stopped and cracked open and silently poured my dumbfounded admiration at her feet. Moments later when I felt my lips beginning to part, I was terrified of what kind of nervous idiocy might come tumbling out. “Thank you,” I heard myself say. It didn’t seem like enough. But she smiled at me warmly and nodded. And I believe she understood.
If this sounds like a love letter to Alice Walker, that’s because it is.
As Eatonton prepares to honor Walker on Saturday, July 13, with a daylong affair celebrating her 75th birthday, I can’t help but reflect on the joy and the inspiration her existence has brought to the last three decades of my own life and how this recognition from her hometown is both well-deserved and overdue.
Growing up, my hometown, Augusta, seemed neither rural nor metropolitan. On a scale of Eatonton to Atlanta, Augusta existed somewhere in between. But it was Georgia nonetheless, a place that still exudes a particular kind of Southern-ness that, for better or worse, is steeped in a deep appreciation for the past. Walker’s authentic connection with this place and her honest renderings of both the geographical landscape and the societal, political, and economic truths of growing up Black in the South made me feel seen in a most profound way, despite being the product of a different generation.
Walker’s abilities to artfully capture the essence of the South, and to speak truth to both the bitter and the sweet, are among the things that I’ve always admired about her work. In Putnam County, the resolve of Walker’s parents and the other Black sharecroppers in town was tested daily, and they often had to rely on each other to make do. But it was also a place where, according to Walker in her essay “The Black Writer and the Southern Experience,” an idyllic summer day or the smell of the dust after the rain could remind you that you are a creature of the earth. She described her hometown as a place where you could love the earth so much that you want to taste it. The beauty of the natural world, and the solidarity that united Southern Black folks as a means to get by, continue to fuel the nostalgia that Black Southern writers draw upon to spirit their worlds onto the page. Surely, too, these memories fuel the nostalgia of Black Southerners at large; a feeling that home can be brutal and beautiful. That it can be a source of pain and yet still be worthy of being loved and saved.
That nostalgia is a feeling that Walker and I share. To again quote her essay, which was written in 1970 and appeared in her book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens:
“No one could wish for a more advantageous heritage than that bequeathed to the black writer in the South: a compassion for the earth, a trust in humanity beyond our knowledge of evil, and an abiding love of justice. We inherit a great responsibility as well, for we must give voice to centuries not only of silent bitterness and hate but also of neighborly kindness and sustaining love.”
This passage, the essay’s conclusion, was to me, a call to arms. A challenge and a charge. For as Walker said in her 2017 keynote speech at Stanford University’s Contemplation by Design Summit, we work for the ancestors. And who, if not we, will hold fast to their stories, to preserve them and tell them with the power and the dignity that they deserve?
Alice Walker doesn’t remember me. Mostly because during our first meeting, we never actually “met.” Since 1997, I’ve either missed or blown several more opportunities to meet her properly and officially. But the truth is, even if I had run into her again, I probably wouldn’t have been any more articulate than I was way back when. To be clear, when I saw her, I wasn’t nervous because I was starstruck, although there was certainly a part of me that was. I was nervous because, while Alice Walker believes (and she is correct) that we have a responsibility to our ancestors, I believe that we have just as much responsibility to the mothers who still walk among us. Those who birthed us into life and those who birthed life into us. Those who enlighten and empower us. Those whose footsteps lead the way and whose torches illuminate our paths. And in the case of Alice Walker, those whose words sent you in search of your mother’s garden with the hope that you might also find your own. We have a responsibility to be worthy of the gifts of our mothers. It is that responsibility, which I was not yet sure I knew how to fulfill, that rendered me speechless in her presence.
I would discover much later a quote from a 2007 article aptly titled “Alice Walker Calls God ‘Mama’” where Walker says in part, “Thank you is the best prayer that anyone can say…Thank you expresses extreme gratitude, humility, understanding.” I can remember that sentiment being evident in her knowing smile when “thank you” was all I could muster to say that day in 1997. I know that she felt my gratitude. I can only hope that her birthday celebration overflows with the abundant thankfulness that Eatonton should shower on their iconic native daughter. And I know that if I’m lucky enough to see her there and “thank you” is all that I can manage to say, “thank you” will always be enough.
katoya ellis fleming is a narrative writer from Augusta, Georgia. She has a BA in English from Spelman College and an MFA in Narrative Nonfiction Writing from the University of Georgia. Her work focuses on race and culture in the American South.
ALICE WALKER @ 75
Saturday, July 13, 2019 - Eatonton, Georgia
Alice Walker will return to Eatonton with her family on Saturday, July 13, and the Georgia Writers Museum is planning a day packed with educational and cultural activities to celebrate her 75th birthday. To be held at the Georgia Writers Museum, the Plaza Arts Center and other locations, event highlights include:
• Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth -- A screening of the PBS American Masters documentary, followed by a conversation with the filmmakers, Pratibha Parmar and Shaheen Haq, and Walker scholar Salimishah Tillet.
• Words & Music: Writers and Musicians Pay Tribute to Alice Walker -- This celebration of Ms. Walker’s vast body of work will feature Oprah Book Club authors Pearl Cleage and Tayari Jones, award-winning violinist and scholar Melanie R. Hill, and several other celebrated writers, including Daniel Black, Kamilah Aisha Moon, Rebecca Walker and Evelyn C. White.
• Alice Walker Bus Tours
• Author Readings and Book Signings
• Cocktail Reception with Birthday Cake Cutting and Champagne Toast
• An Evening with Alice Walker -- An intimate conversation and Q&A session moderated by event co-chairperson Valerie Boyd, editor of the forthcoming Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker.
-- All events require a ticket. Visit www.alicewalker75.com for more details and ticket information.
PATHS THAT LEAD HOME
By Lynn Hobbs, Lakelife editor
In July, famed author Alice Walker will make her first public appearance in Eatonton since she attended in 1985 for the premiere of “The Color Purple,” the movie based on her epistolary novel of the same title. But Ms. Walker has actually been directly and indirectly engaged in Putnam and neighboring counties for a while, according to her friend who lives here, Larry Moore, and newspaper coverage of some of her local involvement.
Walker, the daughter of Willie Lee Walker and Minnie Tallulah Grant, grew up in Putnam County, where she attended grammar and high school. After graduating from Butler Baker High School as valedictorian, she went to Spelman College in Atlanta in 1961, and then on to Sarah Lawrence College in New York, from whence she graduated in 1965.
Fast forward several decades through which Ms. Walker had numerous books published, married, became a mother, divorced and later found new loves; and, all the while was a staunch activist traveling the world to advocate for the poor, sick and mistreated, and to manifest various political stances.
Many of her novels, short stories, poetry and non-fiction works became best sellers and earned her numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.
For her hometown, in 2003, she reviewed the development plans of Rock Hawk and has remained updated on its progress over the years. Her poem, “Eagle Rock,” was placed in front of both effigies with her permission; and, she donated a pair of her Native American earrings to Rock Eagle 4H Center.
During the ceremonies in November 2016 when her poems were placed at the effigies, Putnam County Board of Education Chairman Dr. Steve Weiner said the events “marked another example of strengthening the connection of Ms. Alice Walker to her birthplace. Alice Walker wrote some 40 years ago this Rock lives, as does her poetry and writings. And like these Eagles, they serve to inspire, confound and motivate us to think. However, as evidenced by her own life, it is not enough to think. One must take action if change is to occur.” Citing Walker as an example, Weiner added, “We have within ourselves what it takes to fulfill our dreams and change the world.”
A few months earlier, the Putnam community, Putnam County Charter School System, Georgia Writers Museum, and the UGA Willson Center for Humanities & Arts honored Walker at an event, “Unalterable Roots,” at The Plaza Arts Center in Eatonton. More than 200 people attended the free event, which served as an open forum community discussion on racial relations. Evelyn C. White, author of Walker’s biography, was keynote speaker and one of the moderators of the discussion. White said she was impressed with the passion and dedication of the community. “In my opinion, Alice loves this community because it taught her transcendence and justice,” she said.
Although she was not in attendance at that event, Alice Walker donated 300 books from her personal library in hopes of helping the young people of her hometown grasp the joy of turning pages of a book and broadening their horizons through its content, thus helping them make positive contributions to society later in life. Larry Moore presented the books to six local entities: the writers museum, Putnam school system, Georgia College, Eatonton-Putnam Library, Gatewood School and the Putnam Ferst Foundation for Childhood Literacy. Each entity also received a symbolic book that had been signed by Walker, plus a copy of her book, “Revolutionary Petunias” (1971), that contains poetry she wrote about the Putnam County area.
Ms. Walker sometimes visits Putnam County to visit family members, commune with those buried in her family cemetery on Wards Chapel Road, visit her old home there, and to see the murals painted by Putnam County High School and Georgia College students that replaced broken windows on Wards Chapel AME Church, where she attended as a child. She sent the students a letter of appreciation, a portion of which was placed on a plaque and presented to the school.
She and her sister, Dr. Mamie Walker, created the Walker Family Scholarship award in 2015, and a Putnam County High School student was the first recipient. The student, who Alice met while on a speaking engagement at the University of Georgia, also received a personal note from Alice; upon receiving the check, he enrolled at GMC in Milledgeville. Several other local students have received the scholarship since then.
Finally, last summer, Alice, her daughter, Rebecca (who also is an author), and grandson, Tenzin, spent some time in the area and on Lake Oconee and had a wonderful time, according to Mr. Moore.
Rebecca and Tenzin will join her for the 75th birthday celebratory events in Eatonton in July, as will many others, and Eatonton will roll out the purple carpet to welcome them.