Rights activist and Pulitzer-winning author Alice Walker takes C.K. Meena through the transit points of her epochal journey

Purple is her colour, but Alice Walker is dressed in blue instead – a kurta blue as a kingfisher's breast. Sitting in a living room overlooking a garden beside Sankey Tank, surrounded by women and the odd man or two, on her first visit to India (under the Distinguished Visitors' Programme of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations), the Pulitzer-winning author, poet and rights activist is speaking in her soft, measured manner about President Barack Obama. “My love for him is unconditional,” she says, “because of the courage it has taken him to be where he is.”

No looking back

It has taken no less courage for Alice Walker to be where she is today. The eighth and youngest child of poor tenant farmers who laboured for little or no wages on a white man's cotton field in Georgia, she read and studied and battled her way to being a renowned and respected literary and political figure. The world at large knows her as merely the author of “The Color Purple”, which Steven Spielberg made into a movie, and is unaware of the “many journeys and struggles and pilgrimages” that this extraordinary woman has undertaken.

At 65, Dr. Walker continues to stand up for what she believes in, be it the Iraq war or the Israel-Palestine conflict. Her mother would have been proud of her. Dr. Walker loves to talk about her. “I had a very strong mother who taught me women must be strong,” she says with evident pride. “She was a very moral person.” As she describes her one can picture her vividly: a large woman, a Sagittarian, who was “like the mother of our village”, had a short temper, spoke her mind, adored children, and could “do anything” — she quilted, planted crops, churned butter, toiled in the fields, and made everything her children wore except for their shoes. A fourth grade dropout, she valued education deeply and would try to teach every child she saw how to read. When the cotton field owner ordered her to send her kids to work there, she stood “toe to toe” with him and flatly refused to obey.

After Alice left home at 17 to go to college in Atlanta, there was no looking back. She survived racial discrimination, plunged into the black civil rights movement, courted arrest, moved to Mississippi, embraced the women's movement, became a novelist, poet and essayist, was contributing editor for Ms. Magazine, earned a doctorate, won the Guggenheim Fellowship, has professorships at various universities — and those are just the achievements in her public life! Her personal life has been equally eventful. At 23 she married a Jewish law student and rights campaigner and received constant death threats from the Ku Klux Klan because theirs was perhaps the first inter-racial marriage in Mississippi. She lost a child, gained another, got divorced, lived with a man for some years, uncovered her bisexuality, recovered from a harrowing break-up, discovered Buddhism, and continues her spiritual journey.

Her inner calm is reflected on her face but her fighting spirit cannot be quelled. She does not mince words, whether she is speaking of the “shambles of Copenhagen”, or the U.S. government's treatment of Native Americans (“leaving them to rot” on reservations), or the Israeli treatment of Palestinians (“heinous – I cannot excuse it”). She calls her 30-year friendship with Gloria Steinem “a miracle” because it exists despite one being black and the other, white. “Racism is still so prevalent in our culture. Our whole country was designed to keep us apart... to keep an under-caste to work for an upper-caste.”

The woman who wrote famously in the early 1980s, “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender”, looks back on the term she coined – womanism – to counter the predominantly white upper-class complexion of 1960s U.S. feminism. “Talking heads” is how she remembers white feminists as being. At seminars, much of it was “chatter, one-upmanship of words.” It didn't include black culture or the “roundness” of the black experience: “dancing, music, all the things of life… a sense of humour, joy, spontaneity… more time to extend a dialogue, more time for stories.” Black women wanted “the whole embodied experience of liberation”.

Speaking of modern women who hesitate to embrace the feminine, Dr. Walker observes, “Women are afraid to be women. They've seen what happens to women, to Mother Planet.” As distressed as she is over the environmental disaster ahead of us (“We're dying as a planet; we're dying as a species”) she is no pessimist. “People can be educated to change.” It's just that people have forgotten how to listen to their own voice, she muses. “The place that is internal has become a foreign country.” Those of us who share her worry can perhaps take some comfort from her words: “The fate of the planet depends on friendship.”

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