The University has a long, rich tradition of bringing speakers of literary and cultural significance to address students and the community at large. Tomorrow, the University will host novelist, poet and activist Alice Walker, who was the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for her pivotal work “The Color Purple,” a novel that continues to inspire and influence writers and readers alike.

Alice Walker: Zora Neale Hurston Lecture

Wednesday, November 5, 5:30 p.m.
Hill Auditorium
Free (Registration Requested)

Alice Walker will serve as the guest lecturer for this year’s Zora Neale Hurston Lecture, an annual event presented by the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies and the Center for the Education of Women.

Michael Awkward, a DAAS professor and founder of the Zora Neale Hurston Lecture, spoke about the creation of the event, now in its 20th year.

“I started the series in 1994 when I was director of Afroamerican and African Studies feeling that the unit, and the University, needed a major annual event to showcase the breath and depth of the field,” Awkward said. “Hurston, an American novelist, essayist, a playwright and anthropologist whose interests spanned the African diaspora, seemed the perfect symbol of the expansiveness of the field of Black or Africana Studies.”

While many of us have read Hurston’s classic “Their Eyes Were Watching God” at some point in our academic careers, for many years, Hurston and her work sat in relative obscurity. In fact, it was largely through Alice Walker’s research and writings that Hurston’s writings were rediscovered.

“Fortunately, unlike Hurston, Walker achieved major recognition during her lifetime — relatively early, in fact, if we note that ‘The Color Purple’ was published over 30 years ago,” Awkward said. “Also, Walker appeared at a time when respect for talented Black and women writers was more widespread than it was in Hurston’s day, so she hasn’t been ignored or, at least since the early 1980s, suffered the sort of poverty that debilitated Hurston.”

“They share a courageousness, certainly. And Walker’s insistence on being a voice for those she feels are unduly mistreated has made her as controversial as any Black American writer I can think of, and a deep concern for understanding and representing the lives of Black people generally and black women in particular.”

It is this emphasis on the lives and realities of Black women that mark Walker’s “womanist” perspective, a theory of social change based on Black women’s unique experience of both racial and gender oppression. Walker’s “womanism” is evident in “The Color Purple,” which tells the story of the struggles of African American women in rural Georgia in the 1930s.

“ ‘Womanist’ is a term Walker uses,” Awkward said, “to signify that gender equity for Black American women is impossible to imagine until we recognize that the lives of Black women and men as inextricably bound together.”

Walker’s writings are intrinsically linked to her commitment to social justice and political activism, which imbues them with great poignancy but also leaves her open to partisan criticism, including the controversy last year when the University disinvited Walker from speaking at an event — allegedly because of pressure from donors who disagreed with Walker’s views on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“Walker emerged as a writer in part because of her connection to politics albeit of a racial and national variety, which she was able quite seamlessly to connect to the gender politics that marked the feminist movement,” Awkward said. “Her connections to those movements certainly had an influence on her legacy up until the 1980s.”

“Since then, her focus has included international atrocities, and she’s ruffled the feathers of people who believe she has no right to speak about controversies connected to non-US countries or that she doesn’t understand the issues,” said Awkward. “We won’t stop reading ‘The Color Purple’ or her seminal essays because of Walker’s pronouncements on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, I suspect, though those pronouncements, as well as hers on the bestiality of the patriarchal institution of clitoridectomy, will become unavoidable aspects of her literary biography.”

By taking on clitoridectomy in her novel “Possessing the Secret of Joy,” Walker rejected the romanticizing of Africa by many Black writers in the 1960s, and again challenged readers to look at the complex interplay of ethnicity and gender in the lives of Black women.

“In one of my books I write that she ‘marches tirelessly for justice.’ And I suspect that she’d willingly sacrifice what, even if her work ended after ‘The Color Purple,’ would have been a complicated literary legacy to continue to advocate for the causes that speak to her soul,” Awkward said.

Despite the political controversy, Awkward is confident that Walker and her work will continue to impact our understanding of and relation to American literature.

“No one will be able to discuss American writing during the last four decades of the 20th century without considering Walker’s contributions.”

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