Alice Malsenior Walker was born on February 9, 1944 in Eatonton, Georgia, USA, is an African American author and poet. She has written at length on issues of race and gender, and is most famous for the critically acclaimed novel The Color Purple for which she won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Walker was youngest of eight children, to Willie Lee Walker and Minnie Lou Tallulah Grant. Her father, who was, in her words, “wonderful at math but a terrible farmer,” earned only $300 a year from sharecropping and dairy farming, while her mother supplemented the family income by working as a maid. Her mother worked 11 hours a day for USD $17 a week to help pay for Alice to attend college.
Living under Jim Crow Laws, Walker’s mother had struggles with landlords who expected the children of black sharecroppers to work the fields at a young age. A white plantation owner once asserted to her that blacks had “no need for education.” Mrs. Walker’s response to him was ‘You might have some black children somewhere, but they don’t live in this house. Don’t you ever come around here again talking about how my children don’t need to learn how to read and write.” When she was four years old, Alice was enrolled in the first grade, a year ahead of schedule.
Growing up with an oral tradition, listening to stories from her grandfather, Walker was writing—very privately—since she was eight years old. “With my family, I had to hide things,” she said. “And I had to keep a lot in my mind.”
In 1952, Walker was accidentally wounded in the right eye by a shot from a BB gun fired by one of her brothers. Because the family had no access to a car, the Walkers were unable to take their daughter to a hospital for immediate treatment, and when they finally brought her to a physician a week later, she was permanently blind in that eye. A disfiguring layer of scar tissue formed over it, rendering the previously outgoing child self-conscious and painfully shy.
Stared at and sometimes taunted, she felt like an outcast and turned for solace to reading and to writing poetry. Although when she was 14, the scar tissue was removed—and she subsequently became valedictorian and was voted most-popular girl, as well as queen of her senior class, she realized that her traumatic injury had some value: it allowed her to begin “really to see people and things, really to notice relationships and to learn to be patient enough to care about how they turned out,” as she has said.
Alice Walker met Martin Luther King Jr. when she was a student at Spelman College in Atlanta in the early 1960s. Walker credits King for her decision to return to the American South as an activist for the Civil Rights Movement. She attended the famous 1963 March on Washington. As a young adult she volunteered her time registering voters in Georgia and Mississippi.
After high school, Walker went to Spelman College in Atlanta on a fullscholarship in 1961 and later transferred to Sarah Lawrence College near New York City, graduating in 1965. Walker became interested in the U.S. civil rights movement in part due to the influence of activist Howard Zinn, who was one of her professors at Spelman College. Continuing the activism that she participated in during her college years, Walker returned to the South where she became involved with voter registration drives, campaigns for welfare rights, and children’s programs in Mississippi.
In 1965, Walker met and later married Melvyn Roseman Leventhal, a Jewish civil rights lawyer. They were married on March 17, 1967 in New York City. Later that year the couple relocated to Jackson, Mississippi, becoming “the first legally married inter-racial couple in Mississippi”. This brought them a steady stream of harassment and even murderous threats from the Ku Klux Klan. The couple had a daughter, Rebecca, in 1969, whom she described in 2008 as “a living, breathing, mixed-race embodiment of the new America that they were trying to forge”.
Walker and her husband divorced amicably in 1976. Walker would later become estranged from her daughter, who felt herself to be more of “a political symbol… than a cherished daughter”. Rebecca would later publish a memoir entitled Black White and Jewish, chronicling the effects of her parents’ relationship on her childhood.
In the mid-1990s, Walker was involved in a romance with singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman.
Walker’s first book of poetry was written while she was still a senior at Sarah Lawrence, and she took a brief sabbatical from writing when she was in Mississippi working in the civil rights movement. Walker resumed her writing career when she joined Ms. magazine as an editor before moving to northern California in the late 1970s. An article she published in 1975 was largely responsible for the renewal of interest in the work of Zora Neale Hurston, who was a large source of inspiration for Walker’s writing and subject matter. In 1973, Walker and fellow Hurston scholar Charlotte D. Hunt discovered Hurston’s unmarked grave in Ft. Pierce, Florida. Both women paid for a modest headstone for the gravesite.
In January 2009, she was one of over 50 signers of a letter protesting the Toronto Film Festival’s “City to City” spotlight on Israeli filmmakers, condemning Israel as an “apartheid regime.”