Banned Books Week: The author of The Color Purple (and one of America’s most censored writers) tells Megan Labrise about finding wisdom in the songs of ancestors, why her acclaimed novel won’t be translated into Hebrew, and approaching writing in a priestly state of mind.
Alice Walker understands the pendulum swing between acclaim and scorn. Her novel, The Color Purple, won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award in 1983—the following year it was challenged as inappropriate reading material for students. In the decades since, Walker has addressed censorship in speeches, essays and a book, Alice Walker Banned, which includes her most-challenged works—the short stories “Am I Blue?” and “Roselily,” and an excerpt from The Color Purple—along with the letters to the editor and school board meeting minutes that detail the ideological battles waged over her art.
In honor of Banned Books Week, Walker shared with us her thoughts on the artist’s charge, drawing strength from history, and what it feels like to wield the pen that has everyone up in arms.
— Megan Labrise for Guernica.
Guernica: According to the American Library Association, The Color Purple was first challenged in Oakland, California schools in 1984—removed from or retained by schools and libraries after serious debates in 1985, 1986, 1989, 1990, 1992, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2002—and most recently challenged in Morgantown, North Carolina schools in 2008. Could you share with us the memory of the first time you learned your work was being challenged? How did it make you feel?
Alice Walker: I found it very interesting; however I was very busy at the time working on making a film of the book with Steven Spielberg. I remember feeling, and understanding, the fear that drove some parents in the schools to wish to ban The Color Purple. I realized, given the sexism in our culture, that some of the complainers were probably people who had at some time sexually abused children. Or, they had been sexually abused themselves and could not bear thinking about it, as adults. There were also those who felt the language, or way of speaking, of their parents and grandparents would best be forgotten, since it was not “correct” standard English speech. I actually felt a lot of compassion for everyone. Black men had a fear they were being trashed in the character of Mister and had no faith that he could redeem himself. Which he does, by novel’s end. The lesbian nature of Shug and Celie’s relationship was especially hard to bear for people who believe sex, like marriage, should only occur between a woman and a man. It was a lot. And yet, for me, those considerations were all secondary to the overarching expression in the book of spirituality and the assurance found by many of the characters that the divine is all around us in Nature.
There is an attempt, fueled by corporations that sell meat, drugs, religion and other life choices, to control the population’s way of eating, worshipping, and expressing the desire to create something different.
Guernica: Your essay “Am I Blue?” was removed from the 10th-grade California Learning Assessment System exam because, among other reasons, “it might be viewed as advocating a particular nutritional lifestyle” (a meatless one). The Traditional Values Coalition proclaimed that your story “Roselily” “could easily be construed as anti-religious and anti-clergy.” And The Color Purple has been described with quite colorful language, including: “profanity,” “garbage,” “a feminist agenda at the expense of black men,” and “smut.” Why do you think these works were really challenged? What are the real, underlying threats censors saw in these works?
Alice Walker: There is an attempt, fueled by corporations that sell meat, drugs, religion and other life choices, to control the population’s way of eating, worshipping, and expressing the desire to create something different. There are gate-keepers in academia and in literary societies and establishments whose job is to spot the work that could mean fewer hamburgers being sold, fewer drugs purchased, and much less organized religion consumed etc., and to discredit it. I used to wonder why certain people who obviously had no admiration for people of color, women, or the poor, were in positions to say which of my works would be applauded and which not. For instance, a short story “Everyday Use” is all most people know of the stories I have written. Largely because it is deemed much less incendiary politically than the ones that explore the corrupt music industry, “1955,” pornography, or interracial rape.
Many people of course condemned The Color Purple unread. Some read the first five pages and decided they were doing society a service by silencing the voice of a 14-year-old uneducated black girl whose only language was what she’d heard in her community, where people rarely spoke in euphemisms.
In this canon we find songs that, even under the most brutal conditions, consider Life itself to simply be a race with one’s self. The object is to reach the end intact as you.
Guernica: In the introduction to Alice Walker Banned, Patricia Holt writes, “Along with her Pulitzer Prize and American Book Award, Alice Walker has the honor of being one of the most censored writers in American literature.” Did you ever feel that the censorship of your work created duties for you—moral, ethical, or otherwise—that you didn’t ask for?
Alice Walker: Not at all. I considered it part of what can happen to anyone on the journey of one’s life. In Southern Black culture we are sustained more than most people might imagine by our ancestral songs; these songs, called “sorrow songs” (from the days of enslavement) and later “spirituals,” later morphed into gospel, jazz and blues. In this canon we find songs that, even under the most brutal conditions, consider Life itself to simply be a race with one’s self. The object is to reach the end intact as you. So one of the songs goes: “Guide my feet, while I run this race; Guide my feet, while I run this race. Guide my feet, while I run this race. ’Cause I don’t want to run this race in vain.” This plea is addressed to The Creator, who is also the deep Self. The truest work is not to run the race of life in vain; ending up completely severed from your true self. I am so thankful for songs like this! When I speak and write about being under the protection of ancestors, it is because of messages and wisdom like this that I know sustain me.
Also, I think it is anyone’s right to do what they feel they have to do. They have a job. I have a job. I will write what I think is right for me to write. They will oppose it. In a way that makes us equal. Though when one’s work is completely suppressed this is a bitter acceptance. However, my work has always been championed. Stood up for. Thousands of people in California and beyond spoke up for The Color Purple and for my short stores. There was a great outpouring of support. From everywhere! And actually I left the struggle up to others. I had delivered my gift. It was given in complete love to everyone. If they wanted to keep it, it would have to be their work to fight for it. They did.
Guernica: As a censored writer, you’re keeping hallowed company: Dorothy Allison, Harper Lee. Toni Morrison, John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut and Howard Zinn have all been challenged, and that’s just the tip of the censorious black marker. What are some of the banned books you most admire?
Alice Walker: I have so loved the work of Kurt Vonnegut and Howard Zinn, especially while a student, both of them dedicated to the exposure of the insanity of war. I also love Mark Twain for his clear denunciation of American imperialism and for his wise and humorous, often quite sly, sendup of organized religion.
Guernica: Earlier this year, you declined to have The Color Purple translated into Hebrew, as part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel in protest of its treatment of Palestine. (You also prevented the film version of The Color Purple from being distributed in South Africa until apartheid was ended.) Some critics have said that the decision deprives those who may benefit most from your writing, especially that which addresses racism. How do you respond?
Alice Walker: It is more important to stand with the Palestinian people who are now suffering, far more violently, what I myself suffered growing up in Apartheid America. In other words, there is a cultural boycott of Israel because of its apartheid and persecution of the Palestinian people. How could I not respect it? After all, I was a juror of the Russell Tribunal in Cape Town in 2011 where this charge was made. But even to pose the question in this way is racist, since obviously when I write I’m not writing simply about race. Always I am writing about human beings first, humans who have other attributes that embellish or hinder their soul’s journey.
Great Literature is help for humans. It is medicine of the highest order. In a more aware culture, writers would be considered priests.
Guernica: Do violent reactions to works of art or free speech more broadly—such as the recent response to an intentionally inflammatory anti-Muslim video—ever make you reconsider the role of censorship?
Alice Walker: I have not seen this film. It seems, from what I’ve heard, to have been a deliberate attempt to inflame the emotions of Muslims. To send them into a predictable rage that could then be used against them. In this sense, it is like shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre when there is no fire. My thought on this is that Muslims might consider engaging in a practice of non-reaction to what is obviously the work of provocateurs. Black people had to learn this, over many centuries. Interestingly, part of this non-reactive practice comes from another ancestral teaching song: “The Dozens.” In this rap-like song a person is subjected to numerous insults especially centered on his or her mother, since to insult one’s mother (like Mohammed, for Muslims) was considered the ultimate blasphemy. In fact, one of the first things we learned in the Civil Rights Movement was “passive resistance.” We were called everything, our most cherished elders and ancestors were mocked. But over time we learned not to respond in predictable ways. Which white racists would then have used to discredit our movement toward freedom and equality.
Guernica: What’s most at stake when a book like The Color Purple is banned? What’s at stake for women, and women of color, when a story like this is silenced?
Alice Walker: Great Literature is help for humans. It is medicine of the highest order. In a more aware culture, writers would be considered priests. And, in fact, I have approached writing in a distinctly priestess frame of mind. I know what The Color Purple can mean to people, women and men, who have no voice. Who believe they have few choices in life. It can open to them, to their view, the full abundance of this amazing journey we are all on. It can lift them into a new realization of their own power, beauty, love, courage. It is a book that unites the present with the past, therefore giving people a sense of history and of timelessness they might never achieve otherwise. And even were it not “great” literature, it has the best interests of all of us humans at heart. That we grow, change, challenge, encourage, love fiercely in the awareness that real love can never be incorrect.
Megan Labrise is a freelance journalist based in New York.
Check out the rest of Guernica Daily’s Banned Books Week series: