For a year or so, back in the early 1970s, before she gained deserved fame as one of our finest writers, Alice Walker lived next door. She had published her first book of poetry, "Once," and her first novel, "The Third Life of Grange Copeland." Her talents though were hardly certain signs of the tremendous success she would achieve with her award-winning novel, "The Color Purple."
Even then, Alice was her own person, ready to withdraw an article rather than subject it to editing she felt violated her integrity. Warned by one magazine that she would have to accept their changes, Walker told the editor, "All I have to do is save my soul."
"Living by the Word," a slim volume of 27 short essays, is not only vintage Alice Walker: passionate, political, personal, and poetic, it also provides a panoramic view of a fine human being saving her soul through good deeds and extraordinary writing.
The style of this book is mainly conversational and relaxed, but there is plenty of Alice Walker, the militant activist. She is present at the 1984 trial of Indian Movement leader, Dennis Banks. She is arrested for participating in the 1987 anti-war protest at the Concord Naval Weapons Station. And, in a deeply moving essay, "Try to See My Sister," we learn of her persistent but unsuccessful efforts to visit Dessie Woods, serving a long term in a Georgia prison for defending herself and another black woman from rape and possible death.
Unlike "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens"--"womanist" prose dealing with gender, class, and race--the essays in "Living by the Word" cover a broader range of the problems facing the planet. They express many spiritual themes that she credits to learning more about Native American philosophies and concepts.
Her interest in Native Americans is more than academic. Alice Walker and a considerable number of blacks have some Indian blood. The reason, we learn in the essay, "My Big Brother Bill," contradicts the oft-told story that Indians would not adapt to slavery. In fact, they were sold into slavery in all the Southern Colonies and were compelled to associate and intermarry with blacks until they lost their identity and were classified as blacks.
"Living by the Word," uses carefully crafted images that provide a universality to unique events. Parents who read "My Daughter Smokes" will share Walker's concern. And blacks who view racism as the product of American capitalism will be as shocked as she to learn as she did on a trip to China that racism flourishes along with progress in that socialist nation.
Walker responds at some length to the severe and sometimes personal criticism leveled at "The Color Purple." For those who attacked her use of black dialect as degrading to black people, she reports that her character "Celie's" unique speech was patterned on the dialect spoken by her step-grandmother. She adds: "Language is an intrinsic part of who we are and what has, for good or evil, happened to us. And, amazingly, it has sustained us more securely than the arms of angels."
About her black, male critics, she says, "It is nearly crushing to realize there was an assumption on anyone's part that black women would not fight injustice except when the foe was white." That response carries real weight, though Walker may underestimate both the power of her pen and the willingness of that white foe to enlist even her undeniable truths in ways quite the opposite of the love and respect in which she wrote them.
Walker's truths about the worth of black men are contained in a very personal memoir titled simply, "Father." This essay, unself-conscious and filled with spiritual insight, reveals her struggle to find a father she can love, . . . a struggle that continued after her father's death.
"Living by the Word" serves notice of Alice Walker's determination to protect her integrity against black critics for the same reasons she gave magazine editors. The harsh criticism of black critics saddened and disappointed her, but she writes: "The infinite faith I have in people's ability to understand anything that makes sense has always been justified, finally, by their behavior. In my work and in myself I reflect black people, women and men, as I reflect others. One day even the most self-protective ones will look into the mirror I provide and not be afraid."