The more I learn about black-, especially African-American history and culture, the more I understand how great Walker’s writing is and how well she uses her fiction to impart knowledge. Sure, stories are meant to entertain but in Walker’s case they are also clearly written to educate. Every single one of these stories taught me something. For that reason I think of Walker’s short stories as essays, in a sense.
Walker discusses lots of topics, including difficult ones such as interracial relationships, abortion, and pornography. Perhaps some of those topics aren’t for everyone (and a few of the stories were quite explicit) but if there’s anyone who can handle such topics, it’s Walker. I get the feeling that Walker weaves in some of her own experiences in her stories because quite a few of them did seem to have a semi-autobiographical feel.
As the title suggests, the main topic of this book is women, in particular black women. One of the most interesting stories was “Nineteen Fifty-Five,” which was about an older black woman who sold some of her songs to a white male singer. Walker managed to address so many things that I’ve been thinking about art and appropriation, and she also got me thinking about the disparity between group needs and what people from other groups (race, class, gender, etc.), think they want; this is something that she illustrates quite well without explicitly stating it as such.
I know a little about the history of black music in the States and of how it has often been appropriated. Yet, the whole point about art is that it’s supposed to come from within, from our experiences. But so much art has been appropriated anyway:
“Everybody still loves that song of yours. They ask me all the time what do I think it means, really. I mean, they want to know just what I want to know. Where out of your life did it come from?”
“They want what I got only it ain’t mine. That’s what makes ‘em so hungry for me when I sing. They getting the flavour of something but they ain’t getting the thing itself. They like a pack of hound dogs trying to gobble up a scent.”
The story “Coming Apart” was just a masterpiece. In it Walker uses excerpts of an essay I hadn’t heard of, by Tracey A. Gardner, about the racial aspects of pornography. I’ll let the following excerpts speak for themselves:
“For centuries the black woman has served as the primary pornographic “outlet” for white men in Europe and America. We need only think of the black women used as breeders, raped for the pleasure and profit of their owners. We need only think of the license the “master” of the slave woman enjoyed. But, most telling of all, we need only study the old slave societies of the South to note the sadistic treatment — at the hands of white “gentlemen” — of “beautiful”, young quadroons and octoroons” who became increasingly (and were deliberately bred to become) indistinguishable from white women, and were the more highly prized as slave mistresses because of this.”
“Because Tracey A. Gardner has thought about it all, not just presently but historically, and she is clear about all the abuse being done to herself as a black person and as a woman, and she is bold and she is cold—she is furious. The wife, given more to depression and self-abnegation than to fury, basks in the fire of Gardner’s high-spirited anger.”
I’m always interested by exotification being a rare minority where I live. In the story “A Sudden Trip Home in the Spring“, the female protagonist realizes that she is constantly being othered; I could relate so much to that:
“How could they ever know her if they were not allowed to know Wright, she wondered. She was interesting, “beautiful,” only because they had no idea what made her, charming only because they had no idea from where she came. And were they came from, though she glimpsed it—in themselves and in F. Scott Fitzgerald—she was never to enter. She hadn’t the inclination or the proper ticket.”
Like I always say, Walker is one of the bravest and most honest writers I’ve ever come across.And she’s adept at creating multidimensional black women characters. She illustrates black women with agency, and with a (much often denied by society) inner life. For me, a black woman who not so long ago rarely read of black women’s experiences in literature, Alice Walker’s work is so important. Her brand of feminism, womanism, is something I can feel comfortable with as encompassing of the black woman’s experience, which is very often so different from those in mainstream feminism. Additionally, black feminist heroes are included in Walker’s writing and to me that seems like not only is she paying homage, she is also encouraging us to read up on these greats and learn from them. As I learned from doing my thesis, the main way that black women learn is from each other, and from reading black women’s literature as a way to understand their complex identities. Audre Lorde, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells…I’ll be reading you all soon.