A leading voice among American writers, Alice Walker has published books of influential poetry, novels, short stories, essays, and criticism. In this program, Ms. Walker talks with Bill Moyers about a range of subjects, including the ways in which her life experiences and ancestry are reflected in her writing.
BILL MOYERS: Alice Walker is one of our country’s foremost writers, best known for her novel, The Color Purple, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1983. She’s also written volumes of short stories, poems and essays. Alice Walker also takes sides as a citizen. She and a score of other writers were arrested in Washington earlier this year protesting the war in Iraq.
ALICE WALKER: I, too, pray for you — young, poor, ignorant, pathetic assassin.
BILL MOYERS: I met with Alice Walker while she was in New York recently, reading at the 92nd Street Y from her new book of poems Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth. I wanted to talk to her about that trust and about the power of the word.
BILL MOYERS: Do words matter in a time of war?
ALICE WALKER: Oh, they matter perhaps more than anything else. First of all, they don’t harm you, no matter how strong they are. I mean, they don’t necessarily make you cower. Words are not exactly swords, even though they can penetrate consciousness. We need them very much in times of war.
BILL MOYERS: You were arrested recently in Washington protesting the invasion of Iraq, you and a score of other writers — Susan Griffith, Maxine Hong Kingston. Neither your words nor you witness stop this war.
ALICE WALKER: No, but it was my responsibility to oppose it because I don’t believe in war. So I wasn’t even saying that I would — I didn’t think I would stop it if it was going to happen. But I had to put myself there because I’m a human being. I believe in a very different way of life than war and bombing people.
BILL MOYERS: When you say “I had to put myself there,” you’re suggesting some kind of imperative.
ALICE WALKER: It is imperative for me to live up to my own expectations of myself. I couldn’t live in a time like this without speaking out. It would be impossible, I couldn’t even think of it.
BILL MOYERS: But if your words and you witness don’t touch the people in power, of what use are they?
ALICE WALKER: I think that eventually they will touch the people in power. But until then, they touch the people around me. And that is my primary concern, that I am here to offer comfort, solace, some instruction, perhaps, whatever I have to the people around me and the people who need to hear poetry, the people who need to know that together we can still celebrate, even though this is a very dreadful time.
BILL MOYERS: Listening to you last night in reading your new book, words do leave a record of account. I mean, they speak for people who can’t speak for themselves. This one for example, would you read thousands of feet below you?
ALICE WALKER: Yes. Thousands of feet below you, there is a small boy running from your bombs. If he were to show up at your mother’s house on a green sea island off the coast of Georgia, he’d be invited in for dinner. Now, driven, you have shattered his bones. He lies steaming in the desert in 50 or 60, or maybe 100 oily slimy bits.
If you survive and return to your island home and your mother’s gracious table where the cup of loving kindness overflows the brim, and from which no one in memory was ever turned, gather yourself, gather yourself. Set a place for him.
BILL MOYERS: That’s very powerful. Do you think that if people in power read poems like that, they could exercise power?
ALICE WALKER: I think it would be more difficult to assault and kill people that you don’t see, because you would have some kind of sense of how they’re connected to you. And you would be reminded that you, yourself, generally speaking in this country, would come from a family that would have the same people that you’re killing in your house for dinner. I mean, in my culture, that is certainly true.
If they wandered into Georgia and they wandered up to my mother’s door, she would have no problem, if she were alive, accepting them as guests, and trying to feed and take care of them. That’s the human way. War is really a backward step for humanity.
ALICE WALKER: I always come back to something that my parents taught me growing up in Georgia when lynching was not uncommon. And when black people were treated horribly, they would always say to us, you must not consider all of them evil. I mean, because it was so easy to think of all white people as evil. I mean, people who enslaved you, battered you, brutalized you, I mean, of course you would think they were evil. But they would say, no, they’re not all evil. And you mustn’t think that way. You must think instead that they don’t know any better. Because if they knew better — and this is a spiritual teaching. If they knew better, they would do better. And so that prevented us from — and for generations of black people, from after the Civil War for trying to just kill all the white people we came across.
BILL MOYERS: You have been very consistent in your stand. You were arrested before protesting apartheid in South Africa. You were arrested for protesting American intervention in Central America. What was different this time?
ALICE WALKER: This time it really felt like if we don’t change, we’re witnessing the beginning of the end. Partly because the weapons are so great. And because there is this feeling that there is no reason why this won’t just keep going around the world. There might be no end to the countries considered needing our administration. And I think it’s a time when everything that we have worked for — I mean, art, literature, music, all of that is in danger.
BILL MOYERS: What did you think of while you were waiting in jail?
ALICE WALKER: I thought that I was one of the happiest people on the face of Earth because I felt that I had lived up to the ideals of my ancestors, and to my own expectation of myself to stand for what I believe in and against something that I feel is detrimental to humankind.
BILL MOYERS: Who did you think of while you were there?
ALICE WALKER: I thought of Martin Luther King, Jr. I really loved him very deeply as a teacher. And I had met him when I was a student. And I followed him on many of his marches, and I was at the march on Washington in ’63. And I went to Mississippi to live because he said to us, go back to Georgia, go back to Alabama, go back to Mississippi. Otherwise, I would have lived in the North. So I was thinking about him and I was thinking how he was always so fearless, and how impressed I was with that fearlessness. And I was thinking what — all those years I used to think, what was it? Why was he without fear?
And then I remembered that line from — again, I think the New Testament, “Perfect love casteth out fear.” And it was the love that he had for humanity that made him fearless.
BILL MOYERS: Is it true, as I heard or read, that while you were in jail, you led the others singing “This Little Light of Mine?”
ALICE WALKER: Oh, absolutely. Yes, I was — you know how when you’re in jail or you’re —
BILL MOYERS: No, I don’t, actually.
ALICE WALKER: Well, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: Maybe I’ll find out.
I think that when you can gather with people, even if you are temporarily defeated, and I think many people in the peace movement today are feeling quite defeated and sad. Still, there is the sense that there are millions of people — we are connected to millions of people around the world who want peace and who have demonstrated that desire. And this is very powerful.
BILL MOYERS: How do you live in a world that is — it seemed at times so constructed of lies? If not of lies, propaganda. How do you personally assert yourself against that avalanche of disinformation, misinformation, propaganda, sentimentality?
ALICE WALKER: I rarely watch television.
BILL MOYERS: Oh.
ALICE WALKER: Well, no, I watch you sometimes. But yes, I mean you know what television can be like. And I think that it’s imperative that we protect that part of ourselves that is still connected to nature and to some truth. And I’ve learned to do that. I meditate. I’ve meditated for many, many years. I study great spiritual teachers. I find them. They find me.
I try to remember what is important in terms of how you treat people. Everybody on Earth, I don’t care what they speak, how they dress, what kind of camel or car they have, they’re pretty much like me. They want to have a decent place to live. They want to have food. They want to have some spiritual freedom and political freedom. And basically, they want to be happy. That’s it.
BILL MOYERS: But we have all of these images created for television that tell us to try to how to be happy. Other people and giving us their prescription for happiness all the time. We are bombarded constantly by images of mass consumption.
ALICE WALKER: But not if you shut it off. You can avoid it. And that is the power that people have. And they don’t take it. And that’s the problem. What may have gotten so addicted to being given all of that, that they don’t know how to shut it out.
BILL MOYERS: You said you meditate. Meditation is so intimate, so personal, so subjective. Can you try to describe what happens to you?
ALICE WALKER: It’s actually very simple. You have a little quiet space in which to get to know who you are. And you get to hear the inner voice very clearly. And you get to see what is important to you. And also, you get to do what I think of as kind of housecleaning, things that — that little voice that’s just a little kind of idiot just yakking. You learn to let that one go.
BILL MOYERS: Last night I thought you had that entire audience in a state of meditation when you read what is one of my favorite poems. “You Too Can Look, Smell, Dress, Act This Way.” I’m going to ask you to read that. But first, remind us who Jane Goodall is.
ALICE WALKER: Well, Jane Goodall is a primatologist who works with chimpanzees. And I have never met her. I’ve only seen her briefly on television. But what I like about her is that she always seems so herself and so centered in that. And that’s —
BILL MOYERS: What inspired you to write this poem?
ALICE WALKER: Well, in a culture in which women are told to augment their breasts and people are told that their noses are too big, their ears need to be flatter, their skin needs to be lighter or darker, their — I think we need to look at people who have a radical trust that the way that they are is really just fine. In fact, it’s perfect. And so that is what I like about her.
She may fall. I know she may have things that are not so great. But what I like is that she has a sense of her own personal integrity.
BILL MOYERS: So read this poem that you wrote.
ALICE WALKER: You too can look, smell, dress, act this way. Whenever I notice advertising, how they can tuck away your nipples and suck off your hips, and make you smell like nobody who’s ever lived, I like to think of Jane Goodall. Plain Jane Goodall.
I like to imagine her hunkered down motionless, quiet, observant of wild chimpanzees in the bush. Her gray hair tugged off her honest face — with a rubber band I bet. While she studies the body proud cousins looking for clues about why we are so dissatisfied. Sometimes a person’s name just suits them. Jane. Nothing you can do with Jane except say it. Jane Goodall.
Advertising never seems to reach Jane. Her hips always appear to be just where they always were. Her breasts never strain to declare themselves. Each time she emerges blinking out of the mists, she’s wearing the exact same white blouse and indifferent blue skirt.
She never seems to have heard of a makeup that wasn’t character. If I could sniff Jane Goodall, as her friends the chimpanzees do, I know she would smell just like her name. Like no advertiser’s perfume ever touched her. No surgeon’s shears ever trimmed such ample integrity. She would smell like Earth, air, water, ancient forest, and like no man was ever there.
BILL MOYERS: My wife and I took our three grandchildren to see a marvelous film about Jane Goodall recently not knowing of your poem. And when I heard you read it last night, I thought, yes, Alice Walker has it. That’s the Jane Goodall that comes through that film.
ALICE WALKER: Oh, good. I’d like to see that.
BILL MOYERS: It’s a very powerful film. I want to believe that this spirit that you radiate is contagious. And yet I look around and I have to say, how can anyone write a book of poems today with the title Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth? You really believe in the goodness of the Earth?
ALICE WALKER: I do.
BILL MOYERS: What is that?
ALICE WALKER: Absolutely. Well, clearly you were not brought up as a farmer.
BILL MOYERS: No.
ALICE WALKER: See? Well I was. And I have that connection to the reality that the Earth is for us, for humans, basically all there is. You may want a God up in the sky, but basically you’re here on Earth. And it’s Earth that feeds you, Earth that shelters you, Earth that clothes you. And in my experience, that is good.
ALICE WALKER: How can you witness spring anywhere in the world that’s not being bombarded, but just spring itself? How can you witness that without knowing that the Earth is good? How can you eat a watermelon? How can you smell a peach? How can you eat an ear of corn without knowing that the Earth is absolutely fabulous?
BILL MOYERS: People have said of your new book that it affirms the power of nature and the beauty of the human spirit. But I’m beginning to have some trouble with language like that. Because nature has a nasty side and the human spirit is capable of such great cruelty. I read a story some years ago about the first South Africa black woman who declared that she had AIDS. And you know what happened?
ALICE WALKER: They stoned her.
BILL MOYERS: Her neighbors stoned her. Now what does that say about the human spirit that you celebrate?
ALICE WALKER: Well, it says that there’s a lot of suffering. And the foundation of suffering is ignorance. I mean, we’re talking about a village that was really incredibly ignorant. They had no idea what had befallen them. They had no idea really what had befallen her. And they just turned on her. And I think the foundation — I would not call those people evil, even for stoning her. Like the people in Nigeria who want to stone the young woman who is pregnant out of quote, “wedlock,”
BILL MOYERS: The fundamentalist Muslims want her stoned as punishment.
ALICE WALKER: This is ignorance. This is just ignorance. And often people have been deliberately kept in ignorance.
BILL MOYERS: Promoted by religion.
ALICE WALKER: Promoted by religion.
BILL MOYERS: In fact, there’s a line in your book Possessing the Secret of Joy. One character says to another, “religion is an elaborate excuse for what man has done to woman, and to the Earth.”
ALICE WALKER: I believe that.
BILL MOYERS: Where does this ignorance come from? Who promotes it? Who teaches it? Who profits from it?
ALICE WALKER: Well, I think men think that they do. I think that men actually believe that they do because they seem to get most of the profit. I mean, literally. If you look at who owns most of the Earth, it’s men. Women quote, “own” just a fraction of the Earth, of the land, of the water. So I think men all over think that they are the ones.
BILL MOYERS: I grant that. I grant that the three great monotheistic faiths have had a paternalistic view of the world. So in your scheme, where is God?
ALICE WALKER: I think we’re it. I think the whole thing is God. Everything is God.
BILL MOYERS: This is very Buddhist you know?
ALICE WALKER: Yeah, of course it is. And very Hindu. And it’s very — also farmer. Because that is what the farmer learns, that it’s all God. How can you plant a seed?
I’ve already planted one of my gardens. And I put everything in it as usual. And my daughter who is so much more urban than me went out there one day and everything had started to come up. And she was just amazed. She just kept saying, you mean you put seeds there and this is what happens? God.
BILL MOYERS: And yet, you yourself have written so vividly about incest, wife abuse, female genital mutilation. What do they say about the goodness of the Earth?
ALICE WALKER: Oh, they say that people are really suffering and that they are ignorant. And that if they were taught better, if they were able to have a kind of loving light shown up on them, that there would be more clarity.
BILL MOYERS: That can only come — that loving light can only come from someone else.
ALICE WALKER: No, no, no, no, no. No, I’m sorry. It comes from you, too. I mean, you have to create your own too.
BILL MOYERS: But don’t you think it takes a loving presence to draw that lovingness out of you?
ALICE WALKER: Well, that is why we were born. That is exactly why we were born, for each other. That is what we can do for each other. That is why when you read a book and it changes you completely, that’s that loving light.
BILL MOYERS: But what so many children of whom you have written about — born into homes where they’re abused.
ALICE WALKER: Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: To parents who exploit them.
ALICE WALKER: Right.
BILL MOYERS: So the purpose of birth is not to deliver one into that kind of tyranny.
ALICE WALKER: Well, hopefully not. But unfortunately, often that is what happens. And that gives us our work, actually. I can’t tell you how many thousands of people I’ve talked to who have read The Color Purple and who have said, basically, I was drowning. I was about to kill myself. Or I thought I was the worst person on Earth because this had happened to me — incest, wife beating, whatever.
And this book came at a time when it changed that. It changed that feeling.
BILL MOYERS: How so? Made them see what?
ALICE WALKER: Well, it made them see their connectedness to other people who had survived this. And who didn’t stay in that corner. See, if you think about people in that situation as people who just stay there — I know this bad stuff is happening all over the world. But sometimes people can come out of it, and they do. So it’s not permanent. It may seem permanent because it’s always happening, but it’s not always happening to the same people.
BILL MOYERS: So is their evil in the world as well as goodness in your scheme?
ALICE WALKER: I think so. Yes. As I said before, I think evil, like good, is an energy.
BILL MOYERS: It can be a person, a persona?
ALICE WALKER: Well, I don’t think it’s the person. I think it’s the force moving through the person. And that’s why it really is senseless to try to kill an evil person. You don’t want to kill the person, you just want to get rid of the evil. And the evil can be gotten rid of by accepting that thing that you think of as evil is really ignorance.
BILL MOYERS: But you would not say that the United States should do that to an Idi Amin, to a Saddam Hussein?
ALICE WALKER: I would not. I would not because I think of them as human beings. But Idi Amin, who — I have some terrible stories about Idi Amin because I was in Uganda.
BILL MOYERS: He was the dictator of Uganda who, like Pol Pot in Cambodia, was responsible for killing millions of his own people.
ALICE WALKER: Oh, yes. Yes, he was a terrible person.
BILL MOYERS: And you were there?
ALICE WALKER: Well, I was there for part of it. And I actually lived with his in-laws, some of his in-laws.
BILL MOYERS: I didn’t know that.
ALICE WALKER: Oh, well. I mean, you don’t want to know some of the stories. But an awful, awful person. And still, I would not say that he is evil. And I would say that he was profoundly ignorant. And I would not want — I would not assume that by killing him, I would then get rid of evil. I think that is just not even — I mean you cannot get rid of evil by killing a person who is evil.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve said something at the reading last night that I hadn’t read or heard about you. You said that you started thinking seriously about being a novelist at the age of 13 when you actually saw a murdered woman.
ALICE WALKER: My sister, at that time, worked as a cosmetologist and beautician next door to where I was babysitting. I was babysitting just a few steps from this funeral home where she worked. And she had her beauty shop for living people on one side, and then she would later go and take care of the cadavers on the other side.
And one day she came to where I was babysitting. And she said, Alice, come. I want you to see this. I don’t know why she wanted me to see it. But we went in. And I think it was because the woman’s last name was Walker, Mrs. Walker. And she took me into the room and there was this woman lying there. And her husband had basically shot her in the face. And I’ve written about this. Because my first novel, the Third Life of Grange Copeland has this in it.
ALICE WALKER: And so she was lying there. They had the iron pillow. And she was lying there. So I saw the damage that had been done to her face, which went right through my heart. But the thing that really got to me was when I looked at her feet, I saw that she had big hole — they hadn’t taken her shoes off. And there were big holes in the bottoms of her shoes. And she had covered the holes with newspaper. And she had been shot coming home from work. I couldn’t imagine what this woman could have done to deserve being met at her own door by her husband and their little children, and him with a gun. I could not.
And so, yes, I thought, that this — who can I tell? Who will even see this? There’s a way in which the culture is so on the side of the aggressor that the victim is just considered stupid. And I knew this woman working hard for nothing as women in the South — black women have worked for hundreds of years — was trying to feed her children. And she didn’t deserve this.
BILL MOYERS: So how did this lead a 13-year-old girl to think of writing?
ALICE WALKER: I don’t know if it was that clear. I don’t know if I just really was absolutely crystal clear, but I was a great reader. And I could see that if I learned how to tell this story, there was a possibility that somebody could see this tragedy for what he was, and not just another statistic. I try to help people see what is really there.
It’s like 11 days after 9/11, I gave a talk to midwives in Albuquerque. And I think people were wondering about whether we should bomb Afghanistan, and what to do, and so forth. But I was saying to them, these are all women who are there at the moment of birth. They are the ones who know what it feels like when a woman is in labor, when you don’t want any kind of disturbance around you. So I was talking about how not a woman in that room, or there were a few male midwives, too — or men — would want to be in the middle of a war trying to give birth.
ALICE WALKER: And so I was trying to help us all see, just to see with feeling. To see with feeling, not just to gaze. But when you see something, when you think of a pregnant woman pacing the floor, wondering if the roof is going to stay over her head, or whether something is going to drop through the roof onto her and her unborn baby. When you can help people to feel what that’s like, then there’s a possibility of changing them.
BILL MOYERS: How did you learn not to accept what is unjust? Where did that come from?
ALICE WALKER: My mother. My mother once cleaned the house of a white woman who owned the land all around. And she cleaned the woman’s house, she washed her windows, she scrubbed her floors, she cooked dinner, she raked the leaves, the magnolia leaves in the yard. She did this from sunup to sundown and the woman paid her $0.75.
BILL MOYERS: For the day?
ALICE WALKER: And my mother gave it back to her.
BILL MOYERS: She just handed her the money for the pay and your mother said?
ALICE WALKER: No thank you. No thank you. I mean, you have to know your own worth. You have to understand what your gift is and what you’re giving, and to put a value on it. And to just say no to injustice. And that was so unjust.
BILL MOYERS: Then your mother would come home after those long days, walk home, and then take another long walk to get the water from the well to bring back to nurture the garden she had planted.
ALICE WALKER: Well, and to bathe us, and feed us, and take care of us. She was amazing. And that’s my model. I feel that there’s my mother and then there is the Earth mother. So I feel actually very well taken care of.
BILL MOYERS: Your mother’s garden keeps reappearing in your mind and in your work, doesn’t it?
ALICE WALKER: Yes. Well, because it was so indelible. Imagine — I mean, you don’t have to imagine because you’re from the South also. But a very impoverished situation that through my mother’s art and great heart, she turned into a magical place by planting flowers. So many that the poverty was obscured. I saw was just incredible beauty. And I also saw her fascination and involvement with creation. And that’s a wonderful legacy for anyone.
And she was determined, despite the adversity of her life, and the long distances she had to walk, and the long hours she had to put in, she was determined every year to have a garden.
ALICE WALKER: That’s how much she loved beauty. She understood this profound thing, which is that food is OK for your body, but there for the mind and for the soul you have to have beauty. If you don’t have beauty your soul cannot thrive.
BILL MOYERS: Would you read this, “The Snail is My Power Animal?” I never imagined the snail as a power animal.
ALICE WALKER: I didn’t either.
BILL MOYERS: I loved this one.
ALICE WALKER: And actually, the snail chose me because that’s how it works.
That’s the thing about poems, you never know when they’re going to crawl up the hill, stick out their wrinkled necks, and rest in your front door. I was just here feeling overdressed. That I am too warm, yet craving hot soup. Between the boiling of the soup and the tasting of it, I see my dog shift her body, wondering why we’re always on the road. I see the house I’ve made substantial, solid, that I carry on my back like a shell.
BILL MOYERS: You were on a medicine quest?
ALICE WALKER: Yes, I went to the Amazon.
BILL MOYERS: And this is when you wrote this poem?
ALICE WALKER: That’s where that poem comes from.
BILL MOYERS: What were you looking for?
ALICE WALKER: I was looking for many things. I was looking for the indigenous way of being. They have — people have — destroyed so much of indigenous culture around the world that we no longer feel that we can use any of the wisdom. I mean, we’re relearning this. And I’m one of those people who wanted very deeply to relearn it. So I was in the Amazon studying with shamans, and with older people, older indigenous people.
BILL MOYERS: Shamans are the wise people of indigenous culture, the medicine men?
ALICE WALKER: Yes, the medicine men of the indigenous cultures. So that’s what I was doing. And so the snail, this huge snail — I mean, biggest snail I ever saw in my life, every morning would come up from the Amazon River, which was right down below my hut. And it would come and rest in my door. And it was just the most amazing thing. I would have expected something much more interesting, big, but that’s what came. And so I then had to think about, what did it mean? And the poem is that, that like a snail I have been so fearful that I’ve carried my houses on my back for protection.
But what I was learning on this medicine quest in the Amazon was that perhaps it is time not to have so much of a shell in that way, but to be more fluid. So that is one thing.
BILL MOYERS: Did you find the medicine you were looking for?
ALICE WALKER: I just finished a novel about it, actually.
BILL MOYERS: Title of it is?
ALICE WALKER: The title of the novel is Now is the Time to Open Your Heart. And it comes from a song, it comes from what they call an [icaro]. Because when you have a ceremony with ayahuasca, which is also known as yagé, as you’re going through the journey of it, which is an intense journey, the shaman sings to you. And so this was a song that had that line in it, “now is the time to open your heart,” because that is actually the message and it’s the medicine.
And that’s why when people say — I’ve had people ask me throughout this journey, well, if you could have one minute with George Bush, what would you say? And they expect some kind of fire and brimstone message. But all I would say is open your heart.
BILL MOYERS: You said at that reading last night that some people have an essence that stays close after they are dead. Who are some of those people in your experience?
ALICE WALKER: Langston Hughes, who I met just a little bit before he died, and who would just immediately became a friend, a father figure, a beloved person, didn’t really die for me until about 10 years after his actual death. I could feel him as clear as almost as I feel you sitting there.
BILL MOYERS:You read some of his work at a recent Langston Hughes celebration in the Midwest didn’t you?
ALICE WALKER: Yes, I did. I did. And it was a joy to be there because I got to look at the river that he looked at. I saw the town. I saw his church. And I felt so happy to be keeping faith with him because I felt all those years since this death, the years that he was really with me — a lot of those years in Mississippi when I really needed a guardian angel, he performed that. His spirit, his essence gave me that.
BILL MOYERS:Why did you need a guardian angel?
ALICE WALKER: In Mississippi? Because the Klan came regularly to our door leaving their calling card. And because many people were being killed. And we didn’t know from day to day if we would survive. My husband was a lawyer, trying to change the racial laws in Mississippi.
BILL MOYERS:And he was white. That didn’t help matters.
ALICE WALKER: It didn’t help at all. Although, he was very charming. So that actually, by the time we left, everybody loved him. They hated him, but they loved him because he also had acquired a Southern accent. It was so amusing.
BILL MOYERS: Someone once said the association of guardian angels declared Mississippi off bounds. They just would go only to the delta — only to the Mississippi and stop there. They were not going to Mississippi.
ALICE WALKER: Exactly. And almost none of my family, except my mother, visited me there. None of my brothers came to see me, my sister’s, nobody. Because they had that feeling. But what I learned is that in order for the guardian angel to come where you are, you have to be there. And if you go to the Mississippi’s of the world, if you go to the Africa’s of the world, the guardian angel will come.
BILL MOYERS: I heard you say also last night that you had fallen in love with aging, but you didn’t say why.
ALICE WALKER: Well, I’ve fallen in love with aging because I feel it’s going to be a great adventure. And it is a great adventure. And I know that we may, all of us, have infirmities and things like — I have some poems about forgetfulness, and wrinkles, and all those things. But how can it not be a major adventure for us? After all, it’s the culmination of everything that has gone before. We should know a lot more. I mean, we should know so many things that will help us fully enjoy the rest of our lives.
BILL MOYERS: I like this “Wrinkles,” but — read me a couple of those.
ALICE WALKER: OK. “Wrinkles.” And I like this one because they often say in African American culture that black don’t crack, which means that we don’t often wrinkle. But with the ozone thinning and everything, we’re just wrinkling like everybody.
Wrinkles invited by life have entered this house. Someone new is living in my face. And hallelujah. I mean, that’s life. We’re here. I mean, there is an alternative which is not being here at all.
BILL MOYERS: And yet, the end of aging is inevitable and certain. You actually write about that in another one that I liked. “Lying Quietly” says it very specifically.
ALICE WALKER: Lying quietly bones aching, I feel I must be falling through them. That standing upright was an idea, an interlude an illusion. That we are always, as always, on our way to dust.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think happens when we die?
ALICE WALKER: I anticipate a feeling of moving into greater freedom. That’s what I think death is. I think really it is about being really, really free. And that that is that light that people who have had near-death experiences, that is the light that they see that is so beckoning. That they’re leaving, in some ways, a prison. I mean, I love Earth, so I don’t really feel imprisoned. But I think that what is beyond this is a freedom beyond our imagination.
BILL MOYERS: Why do you think so many Americans when they die want to be put in a box, a metal box?
ALICE WALKER: Isn’t it odd? To me it is unthinkable as a way to end this glorious human life, to be canned. I want to go directly back to Earth. I mean I understand that I am it, but I want to be even more it. I mean, I want to go back to the way I was before, which is minerals and water and plant life.
I think it’s very exciting to think of being — I mean, imagine you could be as years go by, you could be a field of wildflowers. What could be more beautiful?
BILL MOYERS: In your novel, By the Light of My Father’s Smile, you create an imaginary tribe, the Mundos. What appealed to you about those people who didn’t exist?
ALICE WALKER: Well, this is a novel that is trying to help mainly fathers bless the sexuality of their daughters, which is one of the deep wounds in our culture that fathers tend to want to control that. And if they control it, if they try to control it, they wreck the daughter’s belief in them. And therefore, there’s this great tearing apart of fathers and daughters. So that was what I was thinking of. And so in order to put this in a form as a creator, as a writer, I need a form to offer this. So I created a tribe of people who live in Mexico, the Mundo — African and indigenous Indians of Mexico. And their way is for that to happen, for the father to bless his daughter’s sexuality, whatever it is, and to bless the sexuality, in general, of human beings. Just to see the body as something to worship rather than to control.
BILL MOYERS: What about your own Mundo? Where were your bloodlines?
ALICE WALKER: Celtic, African, and Cherokee.
BILL MOYERS: Cherokee, too. I had some Cherokee back there. I have a picture of — one my great grandmother’s a Cherokee. And my wife does, too. So there’s a lot of Mundo in all of us, don’t you think?
ALICE WALKER: Yes, I do. I think so. And we need to reconnect with that because it’s almost as if we have an overlay of a way that really isn’t ours. It’s the patriarchal way, the strong arm way, the controlling way. But we have other roots. We have roots that say sexuality is fine, that women can be free, that children are treasured, that everyone should be fed. That whoever wanders into your realm should be taken care of. I mean, that is part of indigenous wisdom. And at some level, we’re all indigenous.
If we go back far enough, we come from Pagans, basically. And that is what connects us. And that is what we should affirm much more. And that will bring us closer together.
ALICE WALKER: When I write, I am connected to all of my ancestors. And I don’t divide them. I mean, I used to. In fact, the white won, the Celtic one — Scottish, Irish, English — whose name I carry, except that I transformed it by making it mean something else — I tried to keep him outside.
ALICE WALKER: Well, because he was a rapist. In this instance, he was. And that had come down in our oral history. And he was a rapist furthermore of a child, my great grandmother. So I had to really struggle with him. And one of the ways that I was able to bring him inside and to honor — because he’s there. And one of the ways that I was able to deal with that was to acknowledge that he was a very ignorant person. But maybe he had some musical abilities, so I managed to get him bagpipes for the Scottish part. And to have him start making music. And I think it’s worth doing.
You cannot assume that just because they’re quote, “dead,” it’s almost like saying, well, I used to be part Cherokee. You could say that. Or I used to be part Celtic. But really, you’re still what you were. It’s just that it’s been recombined. So you have to make peace with all of those parts, and own them, and cherish them, and they will be great teachers for you.
BILL MOYERS:Have you healed from the wounds that I know were inflicted by a series of assaults on you after The Color Purple? Saying that you had defamed black men, that you had supported — enforced the stereotype of black men. Some of those attacks were very vicious. Have you healed from those? And if so, how?
ALICE WALKER: Well, I have, actually. And again, you see, this is where ignorance comes in again. And I like to use numerous rather than evil because anybody can be ignorant. And we’re all ignorant of something. So a lot of those attacks were made by people who had never read me. They didn’t even see the film that they were complaining about. So, of course, that is their view.
And it was very sad. It was very painful. I really did suffer. And partly that led me to more meditation, a deeper involvement into Buddhism, more interest in other parts of the world where people were not complaining about my point of view. So actually, it led to more education.
BILL MOYERS:Do you ever go back to the South?
ALICE WALKER: I do. I went back — my brother died a year ago. And we went back to bury him. And my little town is so different. It’s so different. I mean, they have a Huddle House. I mean, I come from a really small place. And now they have Huddle house. They have a McDonald’s. It was shocking. And furthermore, at all the tables, there white people and black people having coffee together. And without a thought that 30 years ago they could have been arrested for doing it.
BILL MOYERS:And were.
ALICE WALKER: Yes, exactly.
BILL MOYERS: Have you made your peace with the world that keeps waiting for another Color Purple?
ALICE WALKER: I never cared that they waited — really. I was always writing something else. I mean after The Color Purple, I wrote the Temple of My Familiar, which I love. And each of my books I feel very happy with. So that other people want another — why do they want another one, they have one?
BILL MOYERS: Well, but winning the Pulitzer Prize in your early 40s, that’s quite a bar that everybody judges you by. Well, will she do it again?
ALICE WALKER: It’s not a bar for me. I didn’t even know they had one for fiction — the Pulitzer. I’m not very much into awards. I feel like I have won already everything there is to win. Really, what more is there?
BILL MOYERS: But also this goes somehow to the source of creativity. I mean, one couldn’t create The Color Purple again. Where did that book come from?
It came from a lot of love of my grandparents who were so — talk about ignorance. My grandfathers were mean, both of them. They were so mean to their children. They were mean to their wives. And this was brought down to us through stories. Because by the time I knew them, were they mean? Were they horrible? No, they were totally sweet. They couldn’t do enough for me. They adored me. I mean, I wanted to write in such a way that people could see how you can transform. And that is what happens in that novel, there’s transformation.
ALICE WALKER: And beyond that, there is the transformation of Celie from someone who believes in a totally inaccessible deaf God to the god of her sister, herself, and nature. So I was working on those two levels specifically.
BILL MOYERS: So it doesn’t matter to you anymore whether God is deaf or not?
ALICE WALKER: I know that nature is not. I mean, it shows us all the time that it is completely alert to what is being done to it, and to everything. I mean, it’s all — well, it’s all just alive.
BILL MOYERS: There’s a poem in your book that seems to me to come right out of The Color Purple, “When We Let Spirit Lead Us.”
ALICE WALKER: Yeah, this just comes right out of me. When we let the spirit lead us, it is impossible to know where we are being led. All we know, all we can believe, all we can hope is that we are going home. That wherever spirit takes us is where we live.
BILL MOYERS: How do we get the spirit to lead us?
ALICE WALKER: It’s really very easy. If you are very quiet and open and trusting, and just acknowledge that you’re really also insignificant. That if it comes, it’s grace. Then spirit may want to come and say hello.
BILL MOYERS: Even as you talk, I can see Shug and Celie walking through a field of purple flowers at the end of the film. Shug says, “More than anything, God love admiration.” Celie, “You saying God is vain.” Shug says, “No, no. Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God if you walk by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it.” Those are enduring words. Is there still any color purple left out there in the world?
ALICE WALKER: It’s everywhere. That’s the point. The reason it’s called The Color Purple is that we used to think that purple was rare. Just like we thought incest was rare. Or we thought that a certain kind of beauty was rare. Or that we thought, whatever was rare. Gay people, we thought that was rare. In fact, it is everywhere. It is in everything. There’s purple everywhere. There is everywhere. It’s there. And it can represent all kinds of things.
BILL MOYERS: Where was it for you growing up in a very segregated, racist, hostile environment where young black girls were seen as objects and not as people? Where did you first see the color purple?
ALICE WALKER: I think in the community, in the love of the community, that that was a purple. And in Georgia, for instance, the landscape is sometimes very beautiful. Just to look at it. And the way the storms come with the clouds that look like waves. I remember being so nourished just by the wonder of it. The wonder that we exist in is so incredible that really we shouldn’t be complaining.
BILL MOYERS: Where do you see at this moment the color purple?
ALICE WALKER: I see it right here with us. I mean, 30 years ago I don’t think you and I would be sitting here looking at each other calmly, eye-to-eye, feeling quite OK about talking, and laughing, and remembering, and worrying. Don’t you see that we — not by not by trying to destroy each other. I mean, it’s true that some of the Klan and some of the white people in Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, and wherever, tried to kill us. They did. And yet, here we are.
I can look at you. And when I look at you, I don’t see a Klansman. I see someone who’s trying to do good work in the world.
BILL MOYERS: Do you see a white man?
ALICE WALKER: Oh, yeah, you’re white. But it’s not a barrier. I mean, it doesn’t frighten me. I don’t dread it. You have a right to be white. That’s who you are.
BILL MOYERS: I have to be white. I can’t change that. You can’t change.
ALICE WALKER: Well, and you have your purple of Cherokee and I have my purple of Cherokee. And in that purple, we are connected. I mean, if that’s the only place we are connected, that is one place.
BILL MOYERS: Then let’s close with this poem. It’s not new, but it endures. Tell me about that one. That seems to be pure Alice White.
ALICE WALKER: Oh, I know. Yes, this is “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 the urge to plead, then purge away the need. Wish for nothing larger than your own small heart or greater than a star. Tame wild disappointment with caress, unmoved and cold. Make of it a parka for your soul. Discover the reason why so tiny human midget exists at all, so scared and so unwise. But expect nothing, live frugally on surprise.
BILL MOYERS: Thank you, Alice Walker.
ALICE WALKER: Thank you.
This transcript was entered on June 24, 2015.