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On July 13, 2019, Putnam County was colored purple. Every street facing sign in Eatonton, Georgia declared “Happy 75th Birthday Alice.” Certainly nobody’s darling—not Eatonton’s, not Georgia’s, not Black folks’, not feminism’s —Alice Walker’s presence as a contemporary Southern literary giant has offered Southerners, and readers more broadly, an opportunity to imagine and engage Black life and Black cultural forms on their own terms. The July festivities, organized by Walker biographer, writer and academic, Valerie Boyd, brought out all of Walker’s hometown and much of the Black, Southern literary world to celebrate her enormous contribution to American literature.
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The day’s celebrations began with a screening of Pratibha Parmar’s 2013 documentary Alice Walker: Beauty In Truth. We were immersed in a winding account of the author’s undying revolutionary spirit. In its anachronistic relay of the events that came to shape this “American Master,” Beauty in Truth offers a glimpse at the profound spiritual drive that led Walker from Putnam County to Atlanta to Northern California and on to global acclaim. As Alexis Pauline Gumbs says in the film, whether you agree or disagree with her, Walker continuously blows off the shell of secrecy and opens up the room for debate and dialogue that she, Walker, hopes will lead to universal healing. The more Walker dares herself to tell the truth, to be the person she was meant to be—regardless of local or racial barriers—the more the world around her is forced to expand past its comforts. Perhaps in no place is that more true than in her hometown of Eatonton.
Walker’s birthplace of Eatonton is home to the Georgia Writer’s Museum and stakes a claim to the legacies of esteemed Southern writers Joel Chandler Harris and Flannery O’Connor. While the latter was born in Savannah, she is said to have started writing right near the city limits. The former, Harris, was born and raised in Eatonton, where he began his writing career with a newspaper called The Countryman that was published on the estate of the Turnworld Plantation. During his tenure at Turnworld, it is said that Harris spent most of his spare time amongst the enslaved, absorbing their stories and becoming familiar with their real and fictional characters. One enslaved laborer, Uncle George Terrell, became a role model for Harris and is believed to be the progenitor for the character Uncle Remus, enshrined as the narrator in the collection of plantation folklore The Uncle Remus Tales.
The Uncle Remus Tales are a contentious representation of Southern literature. On one hand they represent one white Southerner’s exploitative and fetishistic relationship to Black life and Black cultural forms in the late 19th century. And on the other they are, as described by James Wheldon Johnson author of the Negro National Anthem, “the greatest body of folklore that America has produced.”
The popularity of this folklore, paired with racialized nostalgia for the idyllic days of the Old South, led to the opening of Eatonton’s Uncle Remus Museum in 1963. The museum itself is housed within a reconfigured “slave dwelling” with a yard dotted by playful renderings of Harris’ central critter, Brer Rabbit. During a break in the day the city had dedicated to celebrating the illustrious Alice Malsenior Tallulah-Kate Walker, my father and I visited the museum, where we met Mrs. Georgia Benjamin-Smith, an Eatonton native who has worked as a docent and resident griot at the small museum for more than 10 years. When we mentioned we were in town for the Alice Walker birthday celebration she quickly informed us that Walker was 4 years behind her in school, and invited us to a gospel concert she was organizing later that evening. Some may rush to completely divorce an ardently Black feminist writer like Walker from the racialized tensions of Harris’ paternalistic writings and Uncle Remus folklore, but when I asked Mrs. Georgia how she related to the Uncle Remus stories growing up she glowed reminiscing on the days her grandma used to tell those same stories. Appreciating Mrs. Georgia and her grandma as inheritors of the Southern plantation lore Harris recorded means understanding that, as a part of their community, Walker is a writer whose imagination was, too, bred in the briar patch.
Those who worked, struggled, and made life in Eatonton’s racially stratified climate inspired much of Walker’s ascent into the radical political movements of the ’60s and which in turn shaped her prolific literary production spanning four decades. It was at Eatonton’s Rock Eagle campgrounds where Walker engaged in her first protest, contesting the segregated conditions she worked under while employed there as a teenager. As Walker charged with the 1983 publication of In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens, it would be impossible to fully account for the wealth of genius that dwelled inside generations Eatonton’s Black women as they worked to exhaustion imposing beauty onto the dust around them. It is, as she described in another essay, the “advantageous heritage” of a Black writer in and of the South to make sense of and give voice to this close contact between “silent bitterness” and “sustaining love.” When I asked Mrs. Georgia about her relationship to Alice Walker’s work, she offered another story about her grandmother. For her, The Color Purple held reflections of family stories not everyone was ready to face. Walker had proved to be “minding grown folks business” and inviting the world to see it.
Those who worked, struggled and made life in Eatonton’s racially stratified climate inspired much of Walker’s ascent into the radical political movements of the ’60s and which in turn shaped her prolific literary production spanning four decades.
In a roundabout way, Eatonton was a metonymic source for Walker, a wellspring of creative and political energy that brought a distinctly Southern appreciation of the ordinary grandeur of our ancestors into the terrain of popular Black feminism. This gave me pause as I thought about the acclaimed author’s complicated relationship to her hometown. July’s celebration marked Walker’s first visit back to Eatonton since leaving in a fury of discontent, but, in her words, the sight of the crowd was exactly what she and her former partner Mel Leventhal (who was also in attendance) were working to make possible during those years spent in Mississippi at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. For her, this was a homecoming, to a place that finally—75 years after her birth—felt like home.
As the afternoon of tributes and dedications unfurled, the poet Kamilah Aisha Moon offered a moving love letter to Ms. Walker, whose smile the poet described as “a star to wish upon.” Daniel Black, a novelist and professor of Black Studies at Clark Atlanta University, offered a rousing oration of Walker’s short story “The Flowers”—reminding us that Walker, who walks as humility, is a human being that “didn’t wait to die to become ancestral.” Moon and Black each offered intimate looks at the ways Walker’s work shaped their lives and careers as Black writers. Their divergent forms of tribute showcased the genre-fluid reach of Walker’s inspiration.
July’s celebration marked Walker’s first visit back to Eatonton since leaving in a fury of discontent…
Towards the conclusion of this series of tributes, the scholar Evelyn White read an excerpt from the essay “Looking to the side, and back,” in which Walker recounts being held and cared for by the late June Jordan as they faced a contentious crowd of Black women who were not quite ready to face the depths of sorrows that often accompanied our mother’s strengths. White’s calling in of June Jordan, whose birthday had just passed, was a stunning enactment of the Black feminist care ethic that Walker both embodies and articulates in her writing.
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Performed in Eatonton, these distinctive tributes underscored a call to continue the paradigm-shifting work of telling Black Southern stories in distinctly Black Southern ways. In the short story “Everyday Use,” originally published in 1967, Alice Walker tells the story of a Southern mother standing between two daughters, the homely and subdued Maggie and the boisterous and brilliant Dee/Wangero who returns home from some city with a fetish for icons of the Southern heritage she always thought she was better than. This is one major tension of Southern homecomings. There is a temptation to look out at everything with an excessive sense of nostalgia that reduces the life around you into relics of the conditions you were fortunate enough to escape.
But Walker’s work refuses to escape or deny. Stewarding the fertile grounds of Black collective memory, Walker—along with contemporaries like the late Toni Morrison, Pauli Marshall, and Donna Allegra, among many others—wrote with the intent to teach and hold, challenge and heal. Later that evening in a keynote conversation with Valerie Boyd, Walker shared that it had been incredible to see her people, her Eatonton folks, happy. She cited this happiness as a testament to the universal capacity to find peace and joy, the kind that calls us to remember our full capacity of feeling in the face of insurmountable adversity. Indeed, Homecomings are always complicated, especially in the South where our sites of familial tenderness are also sites of structural violence. But following Walker’s example, we can learn to look for and create moments of catharsis—storytelling, writing, and perhaps above all else, dancing. After musing on which of her books deserved more attention and which issues need the most urgent tending in our moment, at the end of her birthday ceremony, Walker insisted that everyone dance.
Walker, who walks as humility, is a human being that “didn’t wait to die to become ancestral.”
Toni Morrison wrote that “writers who construct meaning in the face of chaos must be nurtured, protected. And it is right that such protection be initiated by other writers. And it is imperative not only to save the besieged writers, but to save ourselves.” As we continue to face the emotional and political turbulence of our everyday lives, I’m reminded of Alice Walker’s lifelong commitment to universal care and truth-telling, not just for her town, but ultimately for herself.
Happy 76 years on this earth, Ms. Walker. You’ve given us a homecoming in your books. You’ve given us ourselves.