Alice Walker Has Been Cancelled
In a rare interview, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Color Purple discusses the repeated "cancellations" she has faced throughout her career.
We are approaching the 40th anniversary of The Color Purple, a novel that garnered critical acclaim, won Alice Walker the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and brought her sudden literary scrutiny. Both the book and its subsequent feature film adaptation elicited a flurry of criticism, frequently from within the Black community.
Accused of reinforcing stereotypes of Black men as inherently violent, Walker was viewed by some as a race traitor. And for reasons that include depictions of rape, incest, homosexuality, violence and explicit language, The Color Purple has consistently remained on the American Library Association’s list of frequently challenged and banned books over the years.
Host Amna Khalid speaks with Ms. Walker about what it’s been like to experience a kind of “cancellation” repeatedly throughout her career.
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AMNA KHALID: We’re approaching the 40th anniversary of The Color Purple, the novel that earned Alice Walker the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, making her the first Black woman to receive the award. Shortly after, it was adapted into a feature film by Steven Spielberg, which was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and 4 Golden Globes. The success of the book and then the film arguably made Alice Walker a household name.
And yet it also opened her up to some of the harshest criticism of her career. For her use of a Black dialect, her portrayal of Black men and her depiction of same-sex love between women, Walker was excoriated from within the Black community. Many said she was trading in racist stereotypes of Black men as violent rapists. Ishmael Reed, an African American and another giant in the literary world, was incensed, almost personally offended, by Walker’s rendering of Black men in the novel:
REED: You look at The Color Purple, you would think that the incest and all the people committing incest and committing rape are Black men. This is not true. Alice Walker said Black men are evil. She said they’re more evil than White men because White men are aware of their evil.
AK: When the film was released in 1985, the Coalition Against Black Exploitation protested outside the premier in Los Angeles. Vernon Jarrett, an African American columnist for the Chicago Sun Times, was one of many who were critical of the movie’s portrayal of Black men:
JARRETT: If it had been a story of Israel, would the Jews have permitted a movie to be made where every single male character was either a rapist, an incest perpetrator, a beast, or even dumb?
AK: The fact that Walker had allowed Spielberg — a White, Jewish man — to adapt the novel for the big screen led many to view her as a race traitor. Here, speaking at the time, is Louis Farrakhan, Leader of the Nation of Islam:
FARRAKHAN: He uses her, Whoopi Goldberg. She plays her part so well — I’m telling you — she may win an Oscar for that role. But not just because of her acting ability; but she wins an Oscar in the eyes of White folk because she aids in proving the point that the Black man is a dog. And as long as the Black man remains a dog, you cannot rise, therefore he cannot fall: The Color Purple.
AK: Joining us now to discuss censorship, cancelation and the relationship between society and the artist is the author of The Color Purple, Alice Walker. Ms. Walker, thank you so much for your time.
ALICE WALKER: Absolutely.
AK: The Color Purple and the response that you received to both the book and then the movie and the musical in many ways presaged for us the current moment that we're in and the kind of politics around cultural representation, around art and the role of art, and also around who gets to speak and who gets to tell the story, who does it belong to. And I cannot think of a better person to reflect on our moment today, when everyone is being canceled left, right and center, because there is this objection to how they're presenting things, I can't think of a better person than you to reflect on our moment in light of the experience that you had when The Color Purple came out.
AW: Well, you know, it’s not a pleasant feeling to be attacked for expressing the truth of your life, basically. This is how I, at the time, wanted to share what I understood of reality. And it was actually surprising and in some ways shocking that people were so afraid of it, and I understood that that was part of it, that they were really afraid. They were afraid of their own feelings where women loving women are concerned. They were really afraid when I said the God of the Bible was not the one that was interesting to me. So, I just basically bore it and lived my life outside of a lot of the controversy which went on for years.
AK: Can I ask you a little bit about some of the responses that you've received to your work and what were you not anticipating and that you were shocked to see?
AW: I was surprised that people didn't understand the compassion I feel for Black men. It was so interesting, but then I realized that they didn't read the books and that helped. I said, “Oh, they didn't read them.” And I think that's true and that's unfortunate.
AK: There seems to be the capacity in your characters to hold complexity, to simultaneously have done things which people might find morally reprehensible, but then also to be so much more than that.
AW: I see them as very human, and I don't see them as different from any of the other men on the planet. I mean, the men who do bad things in my novels are the same men who do bad things in China. That's why when my book was published, I went to China, and it was a bestseller already. It was an underground bestseller. And I said to the people who invited me, “Well, why? How did this happen?” – Of course, they hadn’t told me they were selling it – And they said, “Well, it’s a very Chinese story.” And that has been true on every continent. It's been true everywhere we've sold this book, and that's why it's so long lasting. It's just people and how they behave given the structures that they've had to live under.
AK: Ms. Walker, I'm originally from Pakistan and I first encountered your book while I was still there. And indeed, it has this way of speaking across boundaries, across barriers of race, because it's telling a story that is around us all and we see it. But there is a way in which I find that today's atmosphere, especially around judging who gets to speak and who gets to represent, is very focused, especially in the U.S., on race, almost exclusively on race to the detriment of class, gender and other ways in which oppression may be—through which they may be refracted.
AW: I think that's deliberate. We have always been used as a scapegoat. We've always been used as the focus so that you don't notice all the other horrible things that are happening to you. You can always just say, “Oh, those poor Black people,” or, “Oh, those terrible Black people,” something about the Black people, and very often about the Black men, which is why the criticism that I was somehow hostile to Black men was just absurd. It's useful to the people who want to divide us, very useful. It was a way to actually divide Black men and Black women and it was a way to distract all the rest of the people on the planet from their disasters. So, they could all look at the Black people and say, “Oh my God, they're fighting again,” or, “She's saying this and they're saying that.” It’s a tactic. And I think most of us are used to it by now.
AK: But what's interesting is that a lot of this response actually came from within the Black community.
AW: Yeah. But what I'm saying is that that is what gets focused on by the mainstream. So, they would focus on that rather than on the fact that The Color Purpleis a theological work. It’s about God. I mean, it's about God, it's about do we believe this, that we've been force fed, or do we not? And if we don't, what is our sense of what God is? But if you spend all your time worrying about Black men and Black women fighting over whatever, you will never get to that subject, which is central.
AK: It's also interesting to me that I see this huge contrast between how you tell your stories — right? – and what we're seeing today, which, like I said, not only focuses on race, but is extremely unforgiving. There is no room for people to be human. The expectation is that somehow we should all be superhuman, 100 percent pure.
AW: It’s ridiculous. That makes me think of how they came down hard on Flannery O'Connor. Now, Flannery O'Connor was a racist most of her life, but she evolved. And if you take the position that people who are locked into racism or whatever and that they never evolve, then you just get rid of them and whatever they created, which means that you stunt yourself. You never grow yourself. That's the real issue here: that if you in your indignation, in your inability to allow other people to grow and to evolve, you will never grow and evolve yourself, there you’re stuck. So, you know, I recognize Flannery O'Connor was a racist. We lived across the highway from each other when I was a child. But I also grew up to read her work and to watch her evolve in her work. And that's all anybody can do. If you are brought up in a racist society or sexist society, all you can do basically is try to free yourself by any means necessary, by reading, by traveling, by listening, by thinking. That's what you do. And I think people who insist on—they took her name off of the building at some Catholic university in their rage that she wasn't perfect. But nobody is. And people are evolving. People can evolve. And if you don't give them that opportunity, all you're setting yourself up for is that nobody will give you the opportunity in the future. And I dread thinking about what will happen to these same people further along the line.
AK: Where do you think it comes from: this unwillingness to allow change and evolution?
AW: Fear. Many people on the planet now think of these as the last days. And most of the people who have been taught from the Bible that—that's what the Bible says: that there will be an end of times. And so many people see this time now as that end of time, and they are trying to, in a way, purify themselves by getting rid of what they see as the impure. Too bad, because the impure, quote, are often the people you need to teach you how to get through some of the roughest periods. And this is a rough one.
AK: Earlier this year, Ms. Walker was invited to deliver a commencement address to the graduating class of Hudson Valley Community College in New York, but just days before the event the college suddenly withdrew the invitation. I asked her what happened.
AW: Well, I was invited to this college in upstate New York, and I was ready to go. And I made a tape, like we’re doing. And then they decided that they didn't want me speaking to their graduating class. I mean, just a really frivolous charge: some book that I had on my nightstand was written by someone who was an anti-Semite, says, I guess, some anonymous person. And they canceled my talk to the students, which is terrible for the students. I mean, it hardly impacted me. I was, you know, sorry they missed my talk. But think of what that does to the students not to be able to hear from someone that they had wanted to hear from. I'm sure those students were the ones who decided they wanted to invite me to come and talk to them at their graduation.
AK: Did they expressly say that it was this anonymous person who objected to a book?
AW: Yeah, objected to a book that I had mentioned in The New York Times over a year ago. I mean, there was a flap then, too, because I was accused of being anti-Semitic myself, which is such an old trope. I mean, it's just ridiculous. I don't really spend a whole lot of time agonizing over any of this because people do have a right to their perceptions, but they twist things so that the world that we would like to have where people are feeling free and equal, that's not likely to happen with all of the canceling, all the cancelations. I just posted on my blog this morning, one of the most cancelled people on earth: Norman Finkelstein. And, you know, he's been called everything—as we say down South—but the child of God. And I think he's brilliant. What can we do about all of these things? We can continue to forward the thought and the action and the outrageousness and wonderfulness that we see. Like you're doing. I mean, this is what you do, this is how you move forward in the world what it is you would like to see. You know, more honesty, clarity, vision, not so much fragility and fear and backwardness, which is how I see a lot of this. It’s just backward. You can't really expect people or want people or hope for people not to know a reality that shaped them.
AK: And where do you see things going if we keep going down this route?
AW: Life has its own meaning, its own reason and its own reality. And so, this will play for a while, but it will not stand. I mean, even if it takes us all the way to, like, I don't know, Nazi Germany or some of the other horrible places that come to mind, we may well go through them, but there's something in the human spirit that just wants to know what happened. That's human. And we will always have that unless we're drugged into oblivion, which we might be, but, you know, until then, we will want to know. And that's one of the great things about being human beings: our curiosity.
AK: What can we do at this moment to nurture that curiosity in the face of this onslaught of cancelation? I love what you're saying about curiosity and how that is so deeply hardwired into us.
AW: Yeah, I mean, it's my guiding light. I mean, I'm curious. I want to know. And if my effort to know offends you, then just go somewhere else. Because, you know, I do have this right, it's innate. It's a human right to be curious. And I exercise that right as much as I can. And I love it and I don't intend to forsake it.
AK: But I also sense hope in how you've presented it. You're convinced that this cannot last that long, that there is a way in which human curiosity will override these attempts to silence and to shut people down.
AW: Human intelligence and curiosity. People really want to know. My books have been banned, they have been critiqued, a few of them have been burned, but I just trust that because I'm a human being that other human beings are more or less like me and they want to know. It’s just a natural thing that we have. And so, I never see this kind of activity as conclusive. Look at Germany, for instance. When you go to Germany now, people are still pretty much the way people are. They're reading, they're writing, they're going to school, they're riding bikes, they're living. In my opinion, it's possible that we need to go through this period to study it. I love study. And I think it would be really wonderful if more of us would just look at this as something to, if we have to, endure, something we will probably have to struggle to survive, but it's a lesson and we can get somewhere from there.
AK: I love this angle that you're presenting, which is if we see this as a moment that is passing, much like those that have happened before, we can study it, and this is not that special. We as humans like to think we are in the most exceptional moment in history, which is so not the case.
AW: I thought about this a long time, about what it actually means to be cancelled. What is the ultimate goal of cancelation? It’s interesting and it’ll help you understand economics in this world and in this country much better. You know, why people are poor and why people cancel people. A lot of it has to do with money, which is an angle that people often don't think about. They just think about something you said that people didn't like, something you wrote that they didn't want their children to see, blah blah blah, but actually it has a financial meaning. And that is something to be studied.
AK: Could you say a little more about the financial meaning?
AW: Well, cancellation, one of the underlying, or maybe the overlying — I mean, it’s very prominent actually — is that they hope to impoverish you. If they impoverish you, you are automatically canceled in your own agency, because what can you do? You have no money in a country where everything is money. And the example I give is of Billie Holiday, this recent movie where you can see what I'm talking about just really, really clearly. Why do they hound this woman to death, chain her to her hospital bed as she was dying? Why were they intent on not letting her have a cabaret card so she could make a living singing? She was a singer. OK? They wanted her to stop singing a particular song about lynching. She refused. And so, their response was basically to just kill her by making her poor or trying to make her poor, sick and all of that so that she couldn't function in society. And that is a real goal, and we should acknowledge it: that people who deal in cancelations of other people are deliberately trying to make them so poor, so impoverished, so weak that they have no agency in the culture.
AK: It's ironic because it's all being done in the name of trying to give people agency, but what you're saying is that it's completely being undermined.
AW: Give what people agency? They're not trying to give the cancelled people agency. They're trying to destroy their agency. I like very much when people remember that in this culture especially, but more and more in the world, it really is about who has the means to speak. I mean, if you're making four thousand dollars a semester or whatever as a subcontracted biology teacher or something, it's unlikely that you actually have the agency to speak, especially if you have children. So, the financial angle is really crucial for us to understand.
And that is why some people, artists, especially in artists, for women and of color, but men who are of color and some poor White men artists, how you have to both do your work and also always consider how you're going to live. These are the parts of the structure of living in a racist, sexist, monetary society that you have to really analyze because otherwise it's always up here, it’s as if there's no foot, there's no foundation to the problem that you're discussing.
AK: No, and indeed, the thrust of all these cancelations is precisely that: people are losing their jobs, people are losing their livelihoods, which then prevents them from—
AW: —from speaking. It’s very cruel. And it says a lot about the culture that it would support this cruelty without acknowledging this part. You notice they will never really acknowledge that this is what they're doing.
AK: Alice Walker, thank you so much. I appreciate how much time you have given. And before I go, may I just ask you one final thing, which is what do you see as the role of art in society?
AW: A mirror. I read somewhere that art is the only mirror in which we can see our collective face. That's why we need it.
AK: I’d like to conclude today’s episode by invoking the words of another great American writer, James Baldwin, on the role of the artist:
“An artist is a sort of emotional or spiritual historian. His role is to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are. He has to tell, because nobody else in the world can tell, what it is like to be alive. All I’ve ever wanted to do is tell that, I’m not trying to solve anybody’s problems, not even my own. I’m just trying to outline what the problems are. I want to be stretched, shook up, to overreach myself, and to make you feel that way too.”
Banished is produced by Matthew Schwartz and Mike Vuolo. N'Dinga Gaba and Chris Mandra mixed the audio. A special thanks to Anika Jones for her help with this episode.
This is Banished. I’m Amna Khalid.
Further reading: Gifts of Spirit — Thoughts on Being Canceled by Alice Walker