Berkeley Talks transcript: Novelist Alice Walker: ‘Dance when you feel like dancing’

Listen to Berkeley Talks episode #109: “Novelist Alice Walker: ‘Dance when you feel like dancing.'”

Ula Taylor: Good afternoon. We are so excited that so many of you have joined us for our second event of Critical Conversations. My name is Ula Y. Taylor and as you know, I’m the proud chair of the Department of African American Studies here at UC Berkeley. Our critical conversation series is organized around two themes: celebrating the life and legacy of Dr. Barbara T. Christian and architect of Black feminist criticism, a founding member of our department and a gifted writer and teacher. As well as exploring the concept of abolition democracy, thinking creatively and collaboratively about the practice of abolition as necessary to building life-affirming institutions and robust democratic structures.

Through both themes we ask, what are the lessons of the Black feminist, Black radical and Black intellectual traditions for our moment? And what is the role of Black studies in building more just futures? Before we begin today’s conversation, reaping what we sow, a conversation with Ms. Alice Walker, I want to give my colleagues, professors Leigh Raiford, Nikki Jones and Tianna Paschel an opportunity to share a bit more about our activities and to recognize the financial support for all of our efforts.

Nikki Jones: Thank you, Ula. And good afternoon everyone. It truly is an honor for our department to host this conversation today. And for the abolition democracy initiative to play a role in co organizing this event. The Abolition Democracy Initiative, also referred to as the ADI in our department, is a department initiative that works in a synergistic way with the Black Studies Collaboratory to center and respond to the most pressing questions of the moment. Questions that are perhaps new to some, but that we understand as enduring questions about Black freedom and the ongoing project of abolition.

With support from the Office of the Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost, the chancellor’s office and Dean Raka Ray, the ADI builds on the work of WB Dubois and Angela Davis and others in an effort to support and amplify the work of academics and activists who are actively imagining and building as we speak a world in which policing in prisons are obsolete. ADI supports collaborative community oriented anti-racist research in the social sciences that centers Black humanity and critical epistemologies like the Black radical and Black feminist traditions. The ADI also supports public engagement activities and conversations like this one today. Conversations that will invite, inspire and influence members of our department, the campus community and our community beyond the boundaries of campus.

The critical conversation series stands as an open invitation to all of you out there to join these conversations through the gateway of Black studies. We hope that these conversations will inspire you to commit or recommit to the important and unfinished work of building up the life affirming institutions and relationships we need now. We also want the work of the ADI to have some impact beyond the Academy, to influence, decision-making, policy and practice. We look forward to the conversation ahead. With that, I will turn it over to my brilliant colleague and program director for the Black Studies Collaboratory, Professor Leigh Raiford.

Leigh Raiford: Hello everyone. Thank you, Ula. Thank you, Nikki. I’m so thrilled that we are here today. And I’m so glad all of you could join us. Again my name is Leigh Raiford and I’m proud to be the inaugural director of the Black Studies Collaboratory. We’re recipient of a Mellon Foundation, just futures grant, which is a collaborative initiative to address racial inequality through bold and unique humanities based research projects. The Black Studies Collaboratory asks, what is the role of Black studies in building a more just future? And how do we solidify our commitment to Black studies as a public good? Among our goals for The Black Studies Collaboratory is to provide space for critical engagement and collaborative dreaming, to create opportunities for joyful and generative engagement among Black faculty, students, staff, the surrounding community and around the country.

And certainly, today’s event is in that spirit. Our work over the next three years in the Black Studies Collaboratory will consist of academic year think tanks, summer labs for graduate students, research grants for faculty and students, and a university course open to the public. The Black futures retreat, which, it will be organized in collaboration with a host of community partners will be the culmination of our initiative. Before I turn to my colleague, co-conspirator and co lead on this grant, Dr. Tianna Paschel, I want to acknowledge and thank all of our collaborators and supporters. And first, I want to thank Ms. Joan Miura, Ms. Alice Walker’s assistant for helping us organize today. I want to thank our long time departmental supporters Michael and Jeanie Williams.

I want to thank Stanford University’s Center for the study of race and ethnicity led by Dr. Jennifer Brody, who graciously offered co-sponsorship of this event. I’d also like to acknowledge and thank wholeheartedly our African American studies department administrative staff, Sandra Richmond, Lauren Taylor, and Maria Eredia. I want to thank our graduate student assistants Rachel Anspach, Gilberto, Rosa Duran and Delphine Sams for all of their incredible hard work. The assistant Dean of development of social sciences Christian Gordon, and his staff, especially Hickey Caspy and Debbie Kelly have been instrumental in bringing these events to you. And we’d like to also thank educational technology services for their expert running of this event, especially Gwen Panto. And with that, I’m going to hand it to my wonderful colleague, Tianna Paschel.

Tianna Paschel: Good morning, everyone. So the largest component of the Black Studies Collaboratory is our abolition democracy fellows program, which we’ll welcome our first cohort later this fall. And hopefully in person. In bringing elders, activists, artists, postdoctoral and dissertation fellows into critical engagement and collaborative imagining, the Fellows program aims to create a shared space for experimentation, world-building and exchange towards more just futures. So it is with great pleasure and excitement that we announced our first fellow, Ms. Daphne Muse, who will serve as our inaugural elder in residence.

A writer, activist, archivist, cultural broker, and a long time member of Alice Walker’s brain trust. Daphne Muse has already contributed so much to our community and the department of African American studies at Berkeley and to the greater Bay area, Black community. Her life’s work is truly remarkable and her enthusiasm. And I should say, laughter is contagious. We are so honored. She has accepted our invitation and we look forward to welcoming her along with other fellows in the fall. We will now hear from Dr. Ula Taylor, who will introduce the moderators for today’s conversation with Alice Walker. Thank you.

Ula Y. Taylor: Thank you professors Leigh Raiford, Nikki Jones and Tianna Paschel. Now, I have the pleasure to introduce our two moderators who will in turn introduce Ms. Alice Walker and begin the conversation. Professor Darieck Scott is a professor in African American studies here at UC Berkeley and is the author of Extravagant Abjection: Blackness, Power, and Sexuality in the African American Literary Imagination. Winner of the 2011 Alan Bray prize for queer studies of the modern language association, and the author of the novels Hex published in 2007, and Traders To The Race in 1995. And we are so excited about his forthcoming novel Keeping It Unreal: Black Queer Fantasy and Superhero Comics. Keeping It Unreal examines representations of Blackness in the fantasy-infused genres of comics, film and fantasy.

And theorizes how fantasies of Black power fashion, theoretical and political aesthetics to challenge white supremacy and anti-Blackness. It also teaches for the department his popular course on the novels of Toni Morrison. Darieck’s co moderator is Ra Malika Imhotep, who is a Black feminist writer and performance artist from Atlanta, Georgia. Currently pursuing a doctoral degree in African diaspora studies in the Department of African American Studies here at UC Berkeley, her intellectual and creative work tends to the relationships between queer articulations of Black femininity, vernacular culture and the performance of labor. She is the co-convener of an embodied spiritual-political education project called The Church of Black Feminist Thought. I will now turn it over to both Darieck and Malika.

Darieck Scott: Thank you, Ula. Welcome everybody. Wonderful to have you all here this afternoon for this conversation we’re going to have with Alice Walker. Alice Walker needs no introduction, but as an offering of our love and appreciation for the breadth of her life’s work, Malika and I are going to offer one anyway.

During the first panel of this critical conversation series, poet and theorists Fred Moten, lauded Barbara Christian’s practice of being in an active relationship with the Black women writers of her time. She sought them out. She reviewed their books and she built courses that would introduce them to her students. Alice Walker is a writer to whom Barbara Christian paid rigorous and loving attention and also appear and coast steward of the Black feminist and womanist traditions. It also bears mentioning that Alice Walker was the friend of another of our department, anchor ancestors, the poet activist, June Jordan.

It’s our hope that this conversation today will honor the spirit of this intimate network of Black feminist and womanist fellowship. Alice Walker is an internationally celebrated writer, poet and activist whose books include, seven novels, four collections of short stories for children’s books and volumes of essays and poetry, including the Pulitzer prize and fiction and National Book Award winning work, The Color Purple. Walker has been an activist all of her adult life and believes that learning to extend the range of our compassion is activity and work available to all. She’s a staunch defender, not only of human rights, but of the rights of all living beings. She’s one of the world’s most prolific writers yet continues to travel the world to stand on the side of the poor and the economically, spiritually and politically oppressed. She also stands on the side of the revolutionaries, teachers and leaders who seek change and transformation of the world.

Malika Imhotep: In the essay titled “Alice Walker, The Black Woman Artist as Wayward,” Barbara Christian described the defining characteristics of Walker’s writing in terms that articulate exactly why Walker’s work and her wisdom are indispensable to the future of Black studies. Walker’s peculiar sound, Christian writes, the specific mode through which her deepening of self-knowledge and self-love comes seems to have much to do with her contrariness. Her willingness at all times to challenge the fashionable belief of the day, to re-examine it in the light of her own experiences and have daily one principles that she has previously challenged and absorbed.

There is a sense in which the forbidden in society is consistently approached by Walker as a possible route to truth. At the core of this contrariness is an unwavering honesty about what she sees. And so, with very full hearts, we welcome you Ms. Alice Walker and your unwavering honesty as we reflect on the legacy of Barbara Christian and the themes of creativity, freedom, and survival your work has illuminated for us all. And to start, we just want to ask how you’re doing and what’s something bringing you joy today.

Alice Walker: I’m doing well. It’s been a little chilly in the night here and in this school because of the storms and the cold weather, but otherwise it’s extremely beautiful. And I’m well taken care of. And my friends are fairly near and my dog is very near. So, life is good.

Malika Imhotep: Thank you. We’re so happy. I am literally bursting. I’m sure you can tell but I just had to name it before I keep talking. Our first question was to invite just some reflection on the spirit of friendship of your creative and social relationships with Barbara Christian and June Jordan. Would you reflect on those friendships for us and what they’ve meant to your work?

Alice Walker: Well, June and I were actually warriors connected, almost at all times, even though we were very different. And this is something that we should really think about a lot, how you can have goals in terms of changing society, but you don’t have to really agree with each other all the time. It just isn’t necessary. And with Barbara, I would say we were more colleagues that we were friends. But we weren’t… June and I talked about intimate things too, but Barbara and I did not. We talked more about work. And I remember my strongest memory of her I think is that after I had convened a gathering of women and I think maybe one man, maybe Robert Ballon, to talk about whether we should proceed with making a film of The Color Purple, she thought it was a good idea.

Since you understand that once Hollywood gets ahold of something, they’re quite capable of going along with it whether you want to go or not. Maybe they just think the problems of the people, right. So we knew that. And so she was the kind of person who was very clear about what she thought, what the risks would be, what it would entail which is wonderful to have in a friend. To have someone who just outlines all the possibilities. And then when the film was made, she didn’t like it. And so, that was also very good because she could disagree and just say, “Well, I think they missed the whole point.” And that is very valuable because you don’t want friends and colleagues who will lie to you. It’s not helpful. It just isn’t. So we were on the same side and we knew that. Yes.

Malika Imhotep: Thank you.

Darieck Scott: Well, sort of sticking with the talking about Barbara Christian, Ms. Walker, for many of us in the Academy who identify ourselves as following the legacy of Barbara Christian. A lot of us reference her essay from 1987 called “The Race for Theory,” where she argues that theorizing in the African American intellectual tradition has often or even primarily been done in fiction by fiction writers. And she mentions you a couple of times in that essay. And we want to ask, do you think of yourself as doing the work of theory or theorizing or creating theory in what you write? And if you do what are you theorizing currently in your poetry and fiction?

Alice Walker: I don’t think about that at all. I think about what brings me joy and what intrigues me and what seems wonderful and what seems maddening. It’s for somebody else to do the theorizing. And I’m happy for them to do it. I think I would feel weighed down by even thinking about what I’m doing. The joy of doing for me is very much the same joy I imagine a flower field as it’s blooming.

Malika Imhotep: Wow.

Darieck Scott: Thank you.

Malika Imhotep: Thank you. And really right in alignment with our next question, which is about how your writing pulls on our senses. Always engaging sensory leaks, sensorial experiences so vigorously and wanting to hear you talk a little bit about why that’s important to you and perhaps why you feel that’s important to Black thought and Black life and Black literature?

Alice Walker: We must not become a people who can’t feel. We see what happens to people who just stop feeling. And I just put on my blog something about, well, it was kind of a review of this last incredible book about Malcolm X, where, it’s just mind-boggling and mind-blowing, this book. But what I was wanting to share was that he had the nerve and the courage to keep reaching for his own spirit. And when you don’t do that, you become like so many of the people in the culture that we’re surrounded by. They’re just bodies. They have no… I mean from my observation, the soul is gone. They’re basically meat people. And that is to say, you know that they have this, the body, but they don’t really have a light.

They’re not really… And that is something worth talking about and understanding in our culture because otherwise, we will just imitate what we see, which would destroy so much to, so beautiful and our spirits. We were not meant to be meat people. I mean, some of us, unfortunately, are, but that was never intended for us. We don’t come from a transition where you just stomp all over your heart and your spirit. You affirm your heart and your spirit. Even when you have to adopt a God that is foreign to you, you use that God to help you stay alive in your spirit. I mean that’s what God has been for people who could not possibly believe because they were branded — that Jesus wanted them marked on their body. Yeah.

Malika Imhotep: Yeah. And when you develop characters, are you thinking about ways to make that everything you just shared just like felt in the characters that you create?

Alice Walker: Who knows how characters are formed? Who knows where they come from? Who knows what creation is? I’m creating just like anything else here on the planet. That is what I do. That is my job. That is my life function. And that is my being. And so, I don’t have all the questions about which, why and this and that. I mean, sometimes I want to form something so that other people can see what I’m doing. I mean, like making any other object. If you want to give people water, you have to create a cup. And so, I can see that I’m doing that. And that is to say that there are certain realities that I feel I’m uniquely placed to understand and have been educated and worked with by forces of whatever kind, to deliver that.

And I see that as, basically, as my reason for being. And I love it. I love that because I see that everything else in nature produces what it produces. Why shouldn’t we? So, in a way, the theorizing part is just really foreign to me. Yeah, I know that in academia, it’s sometimes thought of as totally necessary and you have to… I really am not, I’ve never been all that attractive. I like instead to feel and to grow from my feeling, to even grow my understanding from my feeling.

Malika Imhotep: Yes. Thank you.

Darieck Scott: Ms. Walker, in this period of COVID, a lot of us have been experiencing forced isolation and solitude as a privation. But you’ve written about how solitude is really fundamental to your practice and to your spiritual practice, as well as your work. Could you talk about the lessons of solitude or how this period has been for you in terms of this, the forced isolation all of us are experiencing?

Alice Walker: I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve enjoyed having my usual solitude, basically, which is to say that of course, I get a little stir crazy from time to time, but then I’ve always gotten a little stir crazy. And that’s when I traditionally have planned big parties and wonderful picnics and people spread all over the land and sleeping overnight in the hay. I mean, that’s how it goes, but for so much of the time, I’m perfectly content in solitude and it beats me. And my thought is clarified in that silence just the same way that when you make tea or something and the beliefs drop to the bottom and you get your purity. It’s like that. And so I’ve learned to really treasure that a lot.

Darieck Scott: Could you talk a little bit about your daily rituals, in terms of solitude? And one of the questions that came up from one of the registrant’s was, how was it that you’re able to do your work and also maintain peace that you’re in? How do you balance those things?

Alice Walker: I maintain peace because I’m doing my work. If I were not doing my work, I would not be at peace. And I don’t see how people can be if they don’t do their work. I honestly don’t get it. Given yourself and your education and your tools, your training or experience, how can you not use that to do the work that clearly is yours to do? And my hope for everyone is that there is or becomes a clear work that they know is theirs. Nobody else can do it. So, there’s a great deal of peace in that. Just to know that you’re here, you have this to do, no matter who is against it and who hates it, who doesn’t want it, that’s their problem. Your job is to do what you’re here to do.

And I’ve been very joyful. I’ve had some sinks of course, like all of us, but overwhelmingly, I have felt just incredible joy in making that contribution to life, that I have been gifted really to provide. And I don’t even understand quite how it happened. I’m one of eight children. We were very poor in the South that, all of that. And yet, somehow, my desire to share… I think the fundamental joy I found in reading, learning to read so early and recognizing the magic of it, I just wanted that for everyone. And so that’s been a part of my path to make sure that is passed on.

Malika Imhotep: Thank you so much. I’m so thrilled that we’re having the chance to just explore all these regions of thought and feeling. My question, or this question, and our questions are kind of combining things that we came up with and the feedback we got from registrants. But I’m thinking about ways that you find yourself in conversation with the past or, specifically, the kind of like sudden traditions of storytelling of wisdom-sharing. They come before you. And how you feel like in knowing that or however you feel about your relationship to the past and ancient wisdoms and all those things. What’s your relationship to the future? Like, do you find yourself writing for the future or towards the future? Are you writing for the present or both or everything?

Alice Walker: Is there a future?

Malika Imhotep: Good question.

Alice Walker: I mean, we kind of know we’ve had a past but I’m not so sure we know we have a future. But what there is. What can you say except that you will continue to do your best and, you know, try to arouse the humans to do their best and to get them really to see that they’re in incredible danger and to act.

So, it sounds like kind of a downer, but it’s very realistic. And I would like more realism around this issue of future. I mean, more people than you would like to think about just take it for granted. Well, why would you do that? I mean, there will be a future, of course. For planets and stars and Earth maybe, but maybe not for you. And I would really like us to really hone in on that. Because I love little ones as much as anybody. But it is harder and harder to see them come into the world that humans have ruined.

Malika Imhotep: Have you felt that sense of danger as a consistent presence throughout your writing career?

Alice Walker: No, not that there was no future. I mean, hardly any. Because lucky for me, when I grew up, we got our water from a spring. Just came up out of the ground. It was perfectly pure and delicious. Now, there are millions of people on the planet who have no idea what that is even, they can’t even imagine it. I mean, their water is so foul or they hardly have any water. So, these are issues that I think the Academy might work into all of its theorizing. You know what I mean? That we’re really down to it now. I mean, we’re really, we’re there, we’re there. And that is something that I think we really have to see. And then from that place, what do we do as a human race?

Malika Imhotep: Thank you.

Darieck Scott: So, you work in a range of forms: poetry, fiction, commentary, gardening, photography, what you’re writing on your website. What moves you to do work in all of those different forms? What kinds of impetuses or questions move you towards doing different forms of expression?

Alice Walker: Absolute love. Totally. I’ve gardened because I love to plant. I come from generations of farmers, who also could tell when spring was coming by the scent of the wind. I don’t want to lose that. I dance because in my community that’s what you love to do, on a Saturday night: You dance. You found some kind of community and you did that. I don’t know. I mean, I’m just basically living out the life of the ancestors. I mean, it’s all coming through me and I’m living in that stream. But fine tune your question because I think I’m kind of jumping around it.

Darieck Scott: Well, I guess part of the question is, are there particular forms that address needs or desires for expression that come up for you, and why a particular form at a particular time? So, for example, now in the current moment in what the exigencies of the moment are as you’ve been talking about where it’s as that our future is fleeting before us and we don’t have one. What kinds of forms of expression seem most important to you or most expressive for you in dealing with that?

Alice Walker: Study. Believe it or not. I think that part of why we are lost is that we’ve forgotten we have to study where we’ve come from and what we’re doing. And I just can’t stress enough how much I want our people, all people, but, you know, our people, to really get a grip on how you have to understand where you’ve been in order to know where you are or where you’re going. And for whatever reason, in much of our community, people don’t honor study. They don’t. And I mean, I see that in my own family. Well, I have a niece who just left two days ago. The whole time she was here she was reading this new, incredible biography of Malcolm X because I had been raving about it. I had been raving about this new book about Malcolm.

So, little by little or maybe not so little, we have to really help our young understand that, in order to know where they’re going or where they are, they have to study. They can’t just think they’re learning by listening to hip hop. I mean, they’re all learning something and God bless them and bless hip hop, but it’s very deep, the stuff we need to know. And you have to find wisdom and use it in order to understand where you are. It is really very simple. When I was in high school, I was the only person in my whole school who just loved reading and who could just be found somewhere trying to understand the 16th century because I could almost then see, I could begin to see how it hadn’t died, the 16th century.

Those old centuries don’t die necessarily. You look up and damn, they’re still there in some form. Or, look at our constitution. I mean, if it were not set up in such a way that Trump was acquitted, we’d be in a whole different situation, but no, we are not really examining the history of that to see how it continues to make rules that we follow that then undermine, in this case, democracy. We know what there is in our country. So, I would really want people to be just absolutely devoted to studying this world, to studying the history and to understand much better how they… well, in our case, it’s really just stacked against us so much in it, you know? I know you know.

Malika Imhotep: Wow. Something that’s coming up for me, and we have so many questions about particular work that you’ve done, right? We have questions about Looking for Zora. We have questions about The Color Purple. We have questions about In Search of Our Mother’s Garden. And I’m thinking about how, what you’ve just presented even, this mandate for folks to study is moving in tandem with your mandate for our folks to love. And I kind of just want to hear you talk more about how love and study and Blackness move together.

Alice Walker: Well, let us start with something very basic. The Black human vulva that has been under attack for 6,000 years. Excuse me. It’s been really challenging to get people to really deal with that issue of FGM (female genital mutilation). But I’m offering this because I know it’s one of the most challenging places that we, as a people, can go. And many of us are not going. But actually, if we never go there, as far as I can see, we actually have no right to just to keep fussing about how terrible the world is treating us because look how terrible we are treating ourselves and our children.

So, I know there’s interest in The Color Purple and the film and the constant whatever and how it has a long life. And I’m grateful because I think it does a wonderful job of teaching about so many things. But there are so many things for us to really look at other than what is current or what is… I mean, it’s 40 years old, so it was not really current.

But there’s so many things for us to really consider in a deeper way than by stoning the messenger. And I want us to get over that. In all of these controversies, I’m nothing. I’m just basically saying, “Look at this.” I mean, and you don’t have to get attached to try to knock my hand down. Or you can just say, “Yeah, well, we’ll look at that.” And then you go ahead and do something else. Hi, darling. I’m talking, I can’t talk to you now.

And we must, I mean, don’t even let people drag you in the some fruitless controversy. How about a crying child? There is no controversy. The child is crying. The messenger by then who knows when she’s gone on off to wherever and you’re still there. Don’t do that. It’s just a waste of time.

Malika Imhotep: Right. And I think you just kinda answered again, the question about how you do your work and keep your peace, right. I think it’s because your work is the truth. So, you keep your peace because you know that you’re doing the work of the truth. And you can keep it pushing.

Alice Walker: Well, it’s the truth, as I understand it. And I mean, there is no greater truth than a child is crying from being hurt. I mean, what greater truth is there? And who are we if we can’t see that? I mean, who are we if we didn’t say, “Well. I don’t care who’s crying, but you should have told me she’d cry.” And that’s where we have been, where we got stuck and just don’t have it. We have no time. We never had time for any of that, but now we really have none, period

Darieck Scott: Thank you. Following up on the sort of talking about The Color Purple. Since it’s been made into a film, recently into a musical, it’s a kind of an icon in the culture in many ways and shows up as a meme in various places. How do you think about that? How do you feel about the work having taken on its own life and been transformed into things far beyond or different from what you may have intended or what you created yourself? Do you ignore that or just forget about it or is the work when it’s done, is it done for you? Or do you follow the different lives that the book has had?

Alice Walker: It was a gift. It was a gift to me to be able to basically write in my grandparents’ voices. A lot of it. I was very thankful. When I finished that novel, I cried on my knees. And I really think that some of that gift that I felt and have felt is what people feel. They know it’s a gift. People have not been so stunned by the onslaught slot of Western civilization that they can’t recognize a gift from ancestors. That’s what they see. That’s what they feel and they know. So, the ancestors were just as rotten and just as raunchy and just as crazy as they still are. I mean, they want people around us now. Just as whatever they are.

But I offer what I can, they always want more, so I offer what I have from wherever I am. That’s my job, that’s what I’m supposed to do with what I have offered already. I offer more of what I can, but do I hang onto it? No, not at all. And I feel when the people have taken the nourishment that they need, they won’t either. And then, that will be fine. And then, I want to turn them loose on The Temple of My Familiar, which is much more to my taste, in a way. I mean, I love it all, because it’s lovable. It’s lovable because it has a certain humility in it. All of it. It’s like, okay, got this and don’t know how it happened, but I got to bring this. And so, I’m very grateful.

Malika Imhotep: Yes. Well, I have to give a shout out to another alum of African American studies at UC Berkeley, Jasmine Johnson, who gifted me a copy of The Temple of My Familiar when I graduated undergrad. So, just like the webs of legacy work and how big of a gift that was, even if… I’m sure she knew because she must, because we’d be knowing, but yes, absolutely.

Alice Walker: People love that novel. And every time I go somewhere, there’s always one person who has just been blown away and we connect. On the other hand, I’m happy wherever people are. I mean, I think all of my books have been for me, miracles, just the… Because actually, it’s like you draw so much just out of nothing. I mean that’s how you start to understand how full the universe is, that you can create out of actually nothing. And it’s an incredible gift.

Malika Imhotep: And it keeps giving, it’s just… It’s like self seeding flowers. It just keeps happening.

Alice Walker: I don’t cling to it either. When the day arrives when nothing is coming through me or to my… I’m going to be so fine with it.

Darieck Scott: Do you read literary criticism of your work and think about it?

Alice Walker: You know, send me something. And like, my friend Melanie has written this book about womanism, and written in terms of religion. You know what, I’m really happy when I feel somebody understands. That’s what makes me happy. Somebody will write something or say something and I will think, “What I was trying to give was received.” And that makes me very happy. But I have to say, I don’t really spend had any time where there’s a controversy about it.

Malika Imhotep: Absolutely.

Alice Walker: I’d rather just go and do something else. For instance, there were years of controversy over The Color Purple. And during those years, I decided to start a publishing company, as I like to say, in order to publish other unpopular people. So, who has time? I mean in other words, you will find, if you haven’t already, that there is a mission in life. There is something for you to do. It’s yours. It’s yours. Nobody else can do it, really. And if you’re doing that, you don’t have time really to wonder or worry or care. I mean, although caring is so natural and I’ve been deeply hurt. So there’s that.

But actually on another level, you realize that, “I have only so much time to fulfill whatever this is that I see as my work to do.” Things that I understand that I somehow… And I’m sure you’ve had this experience, where you feel like, “I get this, I know what this is. Let me work on this.” And the bliss that comes after that recognition is so distracting. I mean, it’s like, why would I want to get involved with that when I’m perfectly happy being showered with the gold of this understanding? This new whatever it is. Because creation itself is just bliss. I mean, it is just creating something out of nothing. I mean, what could be more wonderful?

Malika Imhotep: Yes.

Darieck Scott: I agree.

Malika Imhotep: Wow. Can we talk for a second about another unpopular person that you actually resurrected in a lot of ways? Can we talk about Zora Neale Hurston and the love work of finding her, the approach you took?

Alice Walker: What do you want to know?

Malika Imhotep: I just, I think I’m trying to… Again, put in my questions mixing with the questions that we received, but why was it important for you to include your own journey in your telling of this, of the reclamation Zora Neale Hurston? I know my father was deeply impacted by your story of going and putting a headstone on her grave. And so, what do you feel like was the importance of not just writing about an essay about Zora Neale Hurston but writing a story of your work to find Zora?

Alice Walker: Okay. I just posted something on my blog, just one line and it says, “In order to show people how beautiful they are, you have to show them how ugly they’ve been acting.” Got it? Okay. So, and writing it in that way, I got to actually embody a behavior that is, I think, a more healthy one than Zora had been subjected to. And so, it was a showing, it was an enactment of our duty, our responsibility and our beauty. And so, coming from the South, I knew that there would be people who’d be so heartbroken and offended that they let her slip by and down and out. And I wanted them to feel that.

It’s so interesting because all these years later, you go back then… Well, not now because everybody’s pretty much dead, but at the time it was remarkable how many people disclaimed any slight starter, any bad-mouthing of her. You know how people do. I mean, they can’t do that later on. But I think that writing it in that way and pretending to be her niece, especially, it was a way of reminding people of our perhaps familial responsibility. I mean, this is a literary aunt. And we have a responsibility to the people who show us anything of value. We do tend to think that we don’t, that somehow, they can just kind of bleed out their hearts for us.

Show us something. To think that that can happen. And then, we just take it and kick it to the curb if we want to. As you know Wright did, and what’s his name? Ellison. No, they often and then years later, a new crop of really wonderful Black male writers delighted and telling me that they’d never read her. I mean, they thought that was a wonderful thing to tell me. And I could look at them and think, “No, who are you? Who are you? Is being a man worth this that you’re basically disowning a part of your soul?” That this woman has been dragging up the hill to live for you.

Malika Imhotep: Wow.

Darieck Scott: So, on your website you talk about the sort of perspective of being an elder and commenting on various things like Pose or the writing Core of A Doll or whatever. What does it mean to you to be an elder?

Alice Walker: I just posted something else on my blog which just appeared out of nowhere. But it’s a talk that I gave many, many, many years ago about how in our culture, people have often forgotten that they have a role to play as an elder. And instead of being that which is to kind of be there for the youth, they’re just trying to be the youth. And if you are all going to be the youth, we’re lost, we have no guidance. So, I think that in every village, whether it’s a village we create like now, or however, there are people that we trust, that we know we trust. We know we trust them, by the way they’ve lived their lives.

That’s the only way you can really know. You look at somebody and say, “Well, why were they here? And what did they do there?” And so, in any, you know, you say, “I think I can listen to that person.” And we have to have elders who are like Daphne Muse. You have to have people who recognize the value of being an elder, not a senior, as in high school. I mean, you can be that, too, if you want to. But definitely elder and eldering, traditionally, and I think for as long as there have been humans has really meant something very positive, very nutritious spiritually for the tribe. And people should stop being afraid of being old. It’s so wasteful.

Malika Imhotep: Thank you. Wow. I’m like, I know we’re getting closer to time, but I feel like a duty to my generation of Black feminist, womanist thinkers, and feelers and writers and poets and actresses and dancers, just to ask: Do you still feel like… When you wrote the definition for womanist, you created so much space, like I think almost every day about the last line, “like she loves herself, regardless.” But I know that there’s sometimes a lot of contention. Is a Black feminist a womanist? Is a womanist a Black feminist? Do you feel like there’s a meaningful distinction or do you feel like there’s some space there that’s substantial?

Alice Walker: I feel like you should try to learn to know what you feel. And go with that. I mean, I never offered that to cause any kind of dissension of fighting over who’s got more of this or that. That’s why it has that long definition. It has a real meaning. It comes out of a specific history and culture and it’s just an offering. It’s offering, like anything else. It’s not meant to be fussed over and whatever else people do. It’s just an offering, it’s like giving you a flower. And then you look at the flower and you like it or you don’t like it, or you put it in your hair or you put it in a base or you… Whatever. That’s not my interest. My interest is and my responsibility was to give you something to help you see yourself differently. And choose it or not, it’s all the same to me.

Malika Imhotep: Yeah. And that you did, definitely.

Alice Walker: And it’s fun. I mean, that’s the other part of it. I don’t create… I mean, I was trying to somebody how… When I’m creating even though I’m creating sometimes things that are just so rough. Often, I’m very, in some deep inner part of my spirit, so happy. So happy, because I get to shape it and give it a form that people can actually use. And if they use it, I can tell, some part of me really understands that it’s going to be like magic, I mean, in their lives. I mean, think about Shogun and Seeley’s kiss.

It was a very close to this, nobody knew. But it really was able to help so many people understand kissing. And that you have a right to kiss. I don’t care who you’re kissing. You know, kiss. I mean, that’s the… So, the joy of creativity, the joy of being able to offer a key to the locked door. Just get that key, unlock that door, be free. This planet has so much to do with being free. You can’t really enjoy this planet the way it’s meant to be enjoyed if you’re a slave of anything.

Darieck Scott: Is there any advice that you would give to your younger writing self or to younger writers?

Alice Walker: Any advice, other than be free? Well, study, be free, enjoy your life, dance when you feel like dancing. Sleep outside under the moon when you want to. Swim in whatever body of water appeals to you, although the ocean is a little tricky now because of Fukushima on our coast and on the other coast. But live, live your life. Live it. I mean, I don’t care if every time you open your mouth, somebody’s ready to throw something at you or trip you up or lie about you, or whatever. The joy of being here, I think only comes if you are really here as you. You have to be here. I mean, think a lot of the people who are here is somebody else, I mean. And now who comes to mind is Sammy Davis Jr. But you know what I mean.

Malika Imhotep: Yeah.

Alice Walker: That you have to really love nature. If you love nature as I love nature, you will always feel that you belong. Everything in nature is just what it is. And so are we, if we can trust that. And I’m right because if I weren’t right, I wouldn’t be here. Right?

Darieck Scott: Yes.

Malika Imhotep: Yes, absolutely. I feel like we need to be holding hands at this point. I’m looking at the faces in our little Zoom space and there’s so much life and movement and feeling, and emotion.

Alice Walker: We should plan to do that after the pandemic. If there’s an end to the pandemic, let’s gather somewhere.

Malika Imhotep: Yeah.

Alice Walker: The other part of my talk all these years has been the necessity of circles. You have to have some kind of circle to play off of each other and to share and to talk and to be down grounded with the reality of where we are. We are in a terrible situation. And we mustn’t be alone. So, we are very smart. We’ll figure out how to deal with this, but it’s really important that a circle whenever we can. And it’s great that we can do it in person. But if we can’t, this is great. I love this.

Darieck Scott: Wonderful point at which to come to a close, but are there any other questions you want to ask?

Malika Imhotep: No, I think I just want to say thank you. And just, again, my heart’s still full. I’m still feeling just flushed with so much excitement and gratitude and yeah, just thank you for giving so abundantly in your work and in conversation with us today.

Darieck Scott: Yeah, I want to echo that and say also that, when I was asking that question about theorizing part of what Barbara Christian was saying in that essay was that what we think of as theorizing is not necessarily the kind of theory that has really been done in the African American intellectual tradition and we should be looking at other sources and fiction being one of those. And I, as a teacher who has taught your work and who has been in the Academy for a long time, I feel that you have contributed a great deal to our thinking as students of African American culture and literature, and your gift has been immense. And I’m just really grateful for it. I know we all are. And thank you so much for it.

Alice Walker: But I thank all of you for being beautiful. I think beauty is just such an incredible gift to each other, to the world, to the universe. It mirrors the universe. And you’re all beautiful, you’re all doing your work, which is another form of beauty. And I’m very grateful that you were here and that you’re carrying on.

Malika Imhotep: Thank you so much. Thank you. Can we clap?

Ula Taylor: Please, please show some appreciation for Ms. Alice Walker, Ms. Malika Imhotep, professor Darieck Scott. We thank the three of you. I’m sure most of you would agree that we just experienced creative genius. And we are indeed living in the stream of our ancestors. So amazing.

Thank you so, so very much. Tomorrow, all of you will receive an email from us where you can comment and reflect on what you just witnessed. Additionally, you will receive an email alerting you to our next conversation on Feb. 22: “Black Feminism and the Sonic Archive” with professors Daphne Brooks and Carter Matthews. And it’s going to be moderated by our own professor Leigh Raiford. We look forward to see all of you on Feb. 22, and we deeply, deeply appreciate your participation today. Thank you.