Pratibha Parmar’s new documentary about Alice Walker opens with visuals from the rural, poor South of her birth. The tattered shacks, frayed and proud people are not what we (non-Southerners) associate with the 20th century. The film and those images remind us that Walker is one of the most phenomenal literary figures in that 20th century. She has been able to recreate that world with an unrelenting eye and still show her love. The Parmar film makes clear the significance of Walker’s contribution to US culture and, ironically, the value of words on paper (or whatever your current equivalent might be).
The author of a half dozen books of fiction and poetry before the 1982 publication of The Color Purple, an epistolary novel, Walker was already teaching, and a survivor of Civil Rights activism in the South where she was born and raised. Her novel depicts Black, rural, Southern poverty and its personal dysfunctions—intra-family violence, sexual abuse and alcoholism among them. It bore witness to the quote from poet W.H. Auden: “Those to whom evil has been done do evil in return.”
I wrote about The Color Purple in the anthology, Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology; itself a groundbreaking publication that put the words ‘Black’ and ‘Feminist’ in a title together for the first time. The article appeared just as the caldron of Black, male dissent against Walker was beginning to boil.
The Color Purple (similarly the theatre piece by Ntozake Shange, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide when the Rainbow is Enuf,) was pilloried in public forums across the country (but mostly on the East Coast). African American (primarily) men—some of them quite prominent—whipped up a public frenzy of anger with accusations of ‘race traitor’ and worse: ‘lesbian.’
The whole sorry period of clownery and woman-bashing would have been almost comical if it hadn’t reflected the depth of psychological damage slavery and poverty had wrought in the Black community. Both Walker and Shange received death threats and calls to boycott their work.
The reality that disturbed males was that both authors had put women—not men—at the center of their writing, and that seems to be scary! Walker, herself is philosophically speaking, a lot more kind and thoughtful than most anyone I’ve ever talked to or heard speak. I interviewed her for the International Museum of Women several years ago and not just her words but her aura were so Buddha-like, peaceful and thoughtful I felt like a raving commando just sitting beside her on stage!
The Color Purple did delve into the horror of violence visited by Black people on each other. She wrote about the things that Black women had been saying to themselves but never dared to speak out loud. These are the horrors we now see in the headlines in any urban newspaper today—babies killed by stray bullets fired by Black youth, famous Black female pop singers battered by famous Black and unapologetic male singers. But her novel (like Shange’s play) did include redemption, something the ranters failed to get to…maybe they only read the Cliff Notes version.
Her novel blasted open the discussions of violence in Black families and the destructive legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and poverty. Thus it changed the paradigm for Black Feminists who no longer had to tip toe around the discussion of power, privilege and maleness.
Her later book, Possessing the Secret of Joy, tackles the physical and psychological damage done by female genital mutilation in some African countries. Once again the roar of male anger almost drowned out the sorrow and screams of girls who have their joy cut away from them to satisfy a male dictate.
The response that the mutilation is a ‘tradition’ so should not to be discarded is one with which women are quite familiar. Kind of like using the Bible to justify homophobia only decades after it was used to justify racial segregation and centuries after it was used to justify slavery.
It’s fitting that Parmar’s film appears during the year of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. The documentary gathers together all the strands of activism from Walker’s Civil Rights days to support for Palestinians, so we see the link between oppressions and understand how activism informs her fiction, poetry and essays. Those interviewed in the film ably deepen our knowledge of Walker as a woman and a writer.
My favorite interviews in the film (I don’t count myself!) are Beverly Guy Sheftall, a Spellman professor with an encyclopedic sense of history and saucy quality that makes you hang on her every insight. I was also grateful to hear from the late Howard Zinn, author of his own groundbreaking book, A People’s History of the United States. He knew Alice first as a student then as a comrade. Of course, Jennifer Brody, who teaches at Stanford, is an amazing analyst of gender and race and human nature. She packs deep concepts so concisely into informal language listeners want to take notes to remember them!
The film was an emotional, intellectual and political feast. Ideas spilled over everywhere and made the audience hungry for more. This coupled with Pratibha Parmar’s visual sense makes the film more than live up to its title: Beauty in Truth. Pratibha and her partner and producer, Shaheen Haq, make up Kali Films which has created enough visually delicious and intellectually stimulating media to make the women’s movement worth it all by themselves.
It’s often implied that novelists have no political perspective in their work or that they shouldn’t have one. That’s a major load of BS! Every novelist writes from her own personal core and that core was shaped by some social reality. It’s impossible to write with no political perspective whether you’re Ian Fleming, Terry MacMillan, Gail Tsukiyama, Stephen King, Toni Morrison or Danielle Steele.
Beauty in Truth celebrates that core that makes Alice Walker who she is and makes her writing resonate for some many people internationally.
A gorgeous film that makes you want to read more…what could be bad!
Jewelle Gomez is featured in Beauty in Truth. She is the author of 7 books including the lesbian vampire classic novel, The Gilda Stories. Follow her on Twitter: VampyreVamp. Or her website: www.jewellegomez.com