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The higher ground of Alice Walker.

Mark Sagliocco/Getty Images

Reading Alice Walker is like hearing John Coltrane’s Alabama. Each bites into strange Southern fruit and finds a sweetness almost as unbearable as the bitterness of violence, humiliation, and oppression. As Walker’s character Grange Copeland says after his granddaughter’s birth: “‘Out of all kinds of shit comes something clean, soft and sweet smellin’.’” Pain and joy, tenderness and power, helplessness and cruelty flow through her writing and are beautiful because of the wholeness of her talent. 

In Walker’s hands wholeness is an all inclusive, open-ended theme. Pointing beyond human guilt, it suggests that an oppressed people’s first step away from helplessness is to take responsibility for their actions toward each other. Asked in a 1973 interview about her “preoccupations,” Walker said simply: “I am preoccupied with the spiritual survival, the survival whole of my people. But beyond that, I am committed to exploring the oppressions, the insanities, the loyalties, and the triumphs of black women. . . . Next to them, I place the old people—male and female—who persist in their beauty in spite of everything.” 

In Walker’s poems black women mostly survive and, even when one doesn’t—like Sammy Lou who, after killing the cracker who murdered her husband, is carried off to the electric chair—her death is heroic. Sammy Lou’s last words have to do with her children as well as her flowers: “Don’t yall forgit to water my purple petunias.” 

In Walker’s fiction there is often nothing but pain, violence, and death for black women. I shouldn’t say nothing because the two women who die violently in The Third Life of Grange Copeland are lovely, strong, and in love as they marry and begin working shares on the white man’s plantation. We are witness first to Grange and Margaret Copeland. The time is the early ‘20s, the place the “vast cotton flats of southern Georgia.” Unmanned by white rule of the land, Grange looks for manhood on Saturday nights with fat Josie at her club in a neighboring town. Margaret’s revenge is to sleep around until she ends up with Shipley, the white owner whose power transformed Grange into “an object, a cipher, something that moved in tense jerks if it moved at all.” Confronted with his wife’s light brown bastard child, Grange deserts without a word. Maddened, Margaret kills her baby and herself leaving Brownfield, her teenage son by Grange, alone in the world.

Heading north, young Brownfield stops at Josie’s and stays on keeping her and her daughter happy. His life as a man begins when he meets and marries Mem, a beautiful, plump, brown-skin girl. They go off to work shares on Cap’n Davis’ plantation. Their labor gets them nothing but aches and pains and debts. Like his father before him, Brownfield feels mocked by his children and by his wife’s burgeoning flowers. He takes his two oppressions, that of parents and that of Cap’n Davis, out on his wife. He beats her into a scrawny, haggard old woman of 30. Finally one Christmas Eve after she’s struggled home from her domestic’s job, he shoots her in the eyes and walks back into the house as his children cling to their mother’s dying, bloody body. 

So far the novel is the story of two black men, father and son, reacting to oppression by annihilating their women. Brownfield stays a lost soul. What he “could not forgive was that in the drama of their lives his father and mother forgot they were not alone.” The novel is also about the transformation that Grange Copeland and his granddaughter, Ruth, work for each other. The love between them comes from the nourishment that flows from past to future generations. Grange gives the child back her past. He teaches her her “untaught history” by teaching her to dance. He also makes clear to her the role of white oppression in her father’s terrible cruelty to her mother. 

Grange despises white people so thoroughly he can’t bear to invite two white civil rights workers onto his porch. At the same time he insists that he, his son and every other black man be responsible and tender to their families no matter how viciously white folks drive them toward cruelty. “‘We guilty, Brownfield, and neither one of us is going to move a step in the right direction until we admit it.’” And: “‘You got to hold tight a place in you where they can’t come.’” Skeptical as he is of Martin Luther King’s nonviolent tactics, the old man admires King because “‘even with them crackers spitting all over him, he gentle with his wife and childrens.’” 

Grange Copeland is Alice Walker’s spokesman for full humanity. “Survival was not everything. He had survived. But to survive whole was what he wanted for Ruth.” The novel’s climax of Grange killing his son to prevent him from taking custody of Ruth is a terrible tribute to his vision of wholeness. He is willing to turn survival into annihilation—white cops in effect execute him without trial after he kills Brownfield in their court—to give Ruth the chance to flower. He embodies and passes on the black heroic tradition of pain, transformation, and action. 

The novel ends with Grange Copeland mourning for Ruth and for himself in a beautiful blues that bears witness to the rhythms of birth and death. “‘Oh, you poor thing, you poor thing,’ he murmured finally, desolate, but also for the sound of a human voice, bending over to the ground and then rearing back, rocking himself in his own arms to a final sleep.” At the last Grange Copeland, having felt fatherhood move him to kill his son to save his granddaughter, becomes a maternal man rocking his own dying self to sleep.

In Love and Trouble is a collection of Alice Walker’s fiction written between 1967 and 1973. The title expresses the condition of black women in the blues tradition. In Love and Trouble: a Southern voice—sensuous and sad, slow and strong. The language conjures images of black women working and suffering and loving while they tell their stories with music. 

The stories evoke magnificently diverse lives from the same rural Southern roots. In “The Child Who Favored Daughter,” a black father cuts off his daughter’s breasts because of her affair with a white boy. Unable to distinguish his daughter from his dead sister, he assaults her with a rage always checked in front of white people who are the cause of his oppression. The horror is bearable only because of Walker’s images fusing nature and the girl’s inner world and because of the ebb and flow of blues rhythms in the story’s voice. In Walker’s prose the facts are always stark; the essential quality of sympathy comes partly from reverberations of Jean Toomer and Zora Neale Hurston in her folk voices. 

“Everyday Use” is about a woman choosing which of her daughters to give a quilt pieced in the old way by her mother. The older daughter, Dee (now Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo), comes back home with her Muslim man and demands the quilt because she understands the black “heritage.” Maggie, the other daughter, has stayed south; she’s been promised her grandma’s quilt for her wedding. She won’t fight over the quilt; she loves it and the memories it holds too much. Passionately moved by Maggie’s genuine kinship with tradition, her mama declares allegiance. Maggie will get the quilt. Walker ends “Everyday Use” with images and sounds that remind me of McCoy Tyner’s earthy, sassy, conspiratorial, black Southern tune, “Goin’ Home.” “And then the two of us sat there just enjoying, until it was time to go in the house and go to bed.” “Just enjoying”: there’s folk talk that unifies in a moment all the humor, pain, and love in the story. 

In Love and Trouble is full of other challenging and movingly realized stories. Two root-workers in “The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff” gain revenge for an old woman by working so shrewdly on the fear and guilt of the white woman who did Hannah wrong that she unwittingly turns a potion’s magic against herself until she dies of it. “The Welcome Table” shows us an old, stubborn black woman who, having been lifted bodily out of a white church, has a vision of Jesus high-stepping down the highway with her until she dies of ecstasy and exhaustion. “Strong Horse Tea” is about a “not pretty,” “nobody” woman with no husband and a sick baby boy. She waits for the white doctor until the baby is almost dead. When no one comes, she turns to Aunt Sarah, an old black herb doctor. “The child’s dying,” Aunt Sarah tells her, and the only possible remedy is horse piss while it’s still warm and steaming. Rannie Toomer goes out in a thunderstorm, fetches the strong horse tea, puts her mouth to a shoe to keep the medicine from leaking, and runs home not knowing her Baby Snooks is already dead. A piece called “The Flowers” is a metaphor for the complexity of pain and beauty Alice Walker finds in black Southern lives. Myop, a 10-year-old girl, is exploring what seem to her new and beautiful places in the woods from which to gather the flowers she loves. Suddenly she gets her foot caught “in the broken ridge between brow and nose” of a man who has been lynched years ago. She finds the noose: “Frayed, rotted, bleached, and frazzled—barely there—but spinning restlessly in the breeze. Myop laid down her flowers.” Innocence and survival are incompatible for blacks in the South, even for children.

We hear Alice Walker’s love of tradition in “Women,” a poem in honor of the “head-ragged Generals” of her mother’s generation: 

How they knew what we
Must know
Without knowing a page
Of it

We see tradition in “To Hell With Dying,” a story directly out of Walker’s childhood. For years its narrator participated in “revivals” of Mr. Sweet, a diabetic, alcoholic old man who periodically seemed on the verge of dying. When he’s 90, the girl, now a woman of 24 doing a Ph.D. up north, can’t revive him anymore. He dies, but his steel guitar passes to the young woman. As she hums “Sweet Georgia Brown,” her kinship with the old man becomes whole in her heart. 

Alice Walker’s power as a writer is exactly that power she has felt in Jean Toomer. “He is both feminine and masculine in his perceptions.” Alice Walker is Ruth, and she is Grange Copeland. She is old Mr. Sweet and the girl who revives him. As I’ve heard Michael Harper say as he reads his poems and those of the neglected Sterling Brown: “I been down so long that down don’t bother me.” The essentials of Alice Walker’s passionate black tradition and talent are contained in the last stanza of “Alice,” Harper’s poem for her: 

And for this I say your name: Alice,
my grandmother’s name, your name,
conjured in snake-infested field
where Zora Neale welcomed you home,
and where I speak from now
on higher ground of her risen
black marker where you have written
your name in hers, and in mine.