Authors Who Made History: Alice Walker

Alice Walker is a Pulitzer Prize-winning, African-American novelist, acclaimed poet and essayist. She worked as a social worker, teacher and lecturer, and took part in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi. Walker is most famous for authoring her 1982 novel, The Color Purple, for which she won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Early Life

Novelist, poet and feminist Alice Malsenior Walker was born on February 9, 1944, in Eatonton, Georgia. Alice Walker is one of the most admired African-American writers working today. The youngest daughter of sharecroppers, she grew up poor. Her mother worked as a maid to help support the family’s eight children. When Walker was 8 years old, she suffered a serious injury: she was accidentally wounded in the right eye by a shot from a BB gun fired by one of her brothers. In 2013, on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs, she said the act was actually deliberate but she agreed to protect her brother against their parents’ anger if they knew the truth.

Because the family had no car, the Walkers could not take their daughter to a hospital for immediate treatment. By the time they reached a doctor a week later, she had become permanently blind in that eye. When a layer of scar tissue formed over her wounded eye, Alice became self-conscious and painfully shy. Walker largely withdrew from the world around her.

“For a long time, I thought I was very ugly and disfigured,”

she told John O’Brien in an interview that was published in Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives, Past and Present.

“This made me shy and timid, and I often reacted to insults and slights that were not intended.”

Stared at and sometimes taunted, she felt like an outcast and turned for solace to reading and to writing poetry. When she was 14, the scar tissue was removed. She later became valedictorian and was voted most-popular girl, as well as queen of her senior class, but she realized that her traumatic injury had some value: it had 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”.

After high school, Walker went to Spelman College in Atlanta on a full scholarship in 1961 and later transferred to Sarah Lawrence College, graduating in 1965—the same year that she published her first short story.


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.

Early Works

After college, Walker worked as a social worker, teacher and lecturer. She became active in the Civil Rights Movement, fighting for equality for all African Americans. Her experiences informed her first collection of poetry, Once, which was published in 1968. Better known now as a novelist, Walker showed her talents for storytelling in her debut work, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970).

Walker continued to explore writing in all of its forms. In 1973, she published a set of short stories, In Love and Trouble; the poetry collection Revolutionary Petunias; and her first children’s book, Langston Hughes: American Poet. She also emerged as a prominent voice in the black feminist movement.

The Color Purple

Walker’s career as a writer took flight with the publication of her third novel, The Color Purple, in 1982. Set in the early 1900s, the novel explores the female African-American experience through the life and struggles of its narrator, Celie. Celie suffers terrible abuse at the hands of her father, and later, from her husband. The compelling work won Walker both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction in 1983.

Three years later, Walker’s story made it to the big screen: Steven Spielberg directed The Color Purple, which starred Whoopi Goldberg as Celie, as well as Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover. Like the novel, the movie was a critical success, receiving 11 Academy Award nominations. Walker explored her own feelings about the film in her 1996 work, The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult. In 2005, The Color Purple became a Broadway musical.

Walker incorporated characters and their relations from The Color Purple into two of her other novels: The Temple of My Familiar (1989) and Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992), which earned great critical praise and caused some controversy for its exploration of the practice of female genital mutilation.

Recent Works

Walker has proved time and time again to be a versatile writer. In 2004, she published Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart. Two years later, in 2006, she published a collection of essays, We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: Light in a Time of Darkness, and the well-received picture book There Is a Flower at the Tip of My Nose Smelling Me.

Continuing her work as a political activist, Walker also wrote about her experiences with the group Women for Women International in 2010’s Overcoming Speechlessness: A Poet Encounters the Horror in Rwanda, Eastern Congo and Palestine/Israel. She published another poetry collection, Hard Times Require Furious Dancing, that same year.

After more than four decades as a writer, Alice Walker shows no signs of slowing down. In 2012, she released The Chicken Chronicles; in this latest memoir, she ruminates on caring for her flock of chickens. Following the release of The Chicken Chronicles, she began working on The Cushion in the Road, a collection of mediations on a variety of subjects slated to be published in 2013.

Personal Life

Walker married activist Melvyn Leventhal in 1967. The couple had one daughter, Rebecca Walker, before divorcing in 1976.

Awards and Honors

  • Ingram Merrill Foundation Fellowship (1967)
  • Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1983) for The Color Purple
  • National Book Award for Fiction (1983) for The Color Purple
  • O. Henry Award for “Kindred Spirits” (1985)
  • Honorary degree from the California Institute of the Arts (1995)
  • American Humanist Association named her as “Humanist of the Year” (1997)
  • Lillian Smith Award from the National Endowment for the Arts
  • Rosenthal Award from the National Institute of Arts & Letters
  • Radcliffe Institute Fellowship, the Merrill Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship
  • Front Page Award for Best Magazine Criticism from the Newswoman’s Club of New York
  • Induction into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame (2001)
  • Induction into the California Hall of Fame in The California Museum for History, Women, and the Arts (2006)
  • Domestic Human Rights Award from Global Exchange (2007)
  • The LennonOno Grant for Peace (2010)

Information Source: Wikipedia and

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