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.
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.
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.