Alice Walker hasn’t arrived yet.
On this warm, wet October evening, a patchwork quilt of people is gathering at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Macon, Georgia. The mayor is here, along with several members of the City Council. The movers and shakers mingle uneasily with the town’s backbone—the working-class black folks who are here, too, at $25 a head, to have dinner with Alice Walker, to hug her neck, as we say here in the South, and to watch her receive the 1997 Shelia Award from the Tubman African-American Museum—the town’s vanguard cultural institution.
This event promises to be a homecoming of sorts for Alice Walker. Many of her relatives—the Grants, from her mother’s side of the family—live in Macon. And, at about 7 p. m. , as these close and distant kinfolk make their way to the tables reserved for them, they are all aglow in sequins, polyester and family pride.
Alice’s older sister, Ruth Walker-Hood, is here with her 14-year-old grandson. One of Alice’s big brothers has driven from Eatonton— the town about 40 miles down the road, where Alice grew up—to bring her some homemade fruit preserves. Someone else has brought her an old black-and-white photograph of herself, taken at least 30 years ago. Two young women from Atlanta—an hour and a half away—have brought her flowers.
I also have come from Atlanta, along with a couple of other members of the Alice Walker Literary Society, an international organization founded at Spelman College and Emory University last year to urge readers, both scholarly and casual, to become immersed in Walker’s works.
I was baptized in Alice Walker’s words more than 15 years ago by the late great Chicago novelist Leon Forrest, in an African-American literature class at Northwestern University. I had read Walker before, in high school, but what Professor Forrest encouraged was beyond reading—it was reveling.
One of the first books I remember diving into, heart-first, was “Meridian,” Walker’s 1976 tale of a young civil rights activist whose caring for her people sometimes outweighed her need to take care of herself. When I first read “Meridian,” I was a 17-year-old whose political and literary sensibilities were just awakening. And, because I recognized something of myself in Meridian Hill, the tenderness and tautness of that novel gripped me like nothing else I’d ever read.
I felt a similar burst of recognition a year or so later when I read Walkers 1983 essay collection, ‘In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.” I read the book the same summer that I came home from college to help care for my sick grandmother.
An Alabama sharecropper, my grandmother was a loud, boisterous woman who liked to laugh, liked to eat and, most of all, liked to talk.
This summer, though, my grandmother couldn’t talk. She’d had a stroke a few months earlier, and she could only communicate with her eyes, her sounds, her tears.
As I dressed her for bed each night, and dressed her for the day each morning, I realized how much talking we hadn’t done. I realized that I had so many questions for her—about my father’s childhood memory of her holding a Ku Klux Klansman at bay with a shotgun; about her 47-year marriage to my grandfather, whose death a few years earlier had drawn a permanent veil across her face; about the “hoodoo sack” she always wore close to heart—even now, as she knocked on heaven’s door.
My grandmother never answered these questions; she died a few months after our summer of silence.
I did, however, find answers to the mysteries of my Grandma Ura in reading Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.” In the title essay, she talks about her own mother, a Georgia sharecropper who “adorned with flowers whatever shabby house” the Walkers lived in.
“Because of her creativity with flowers,” Walker writes, “even my memories of poverty are seen through a screen of blooms.”
Her mother, Walker explains in this essay, was an artist whose canvas was her garden.
That summer of 1984, reading this essay at my grandmother’s bedside, I realized that she, too, was an artist—and her artistry was right before my eyes. It was in her quilts, which adorned every bed in the house.
Made of bits and pieces of worthless rags, the quilts were priceless displays of creativity and imagination. And my grandmother had made dozens of them.
After she died, my parents and I discovered in her house a closet full of quilts—stacked, literally, from floor to ceiling. There was “the double wedding ring quilt,” “the wind mill,” “the drunken path”— patterns whose names my parents recalled easily. My favorite was the one whose name made my parents blush: “the pussy quilt”—a sort of prefeminist, unabashed paean to the flowery beauty of the vulva. This quilt hangs in my home today.
Alice Walker—whose 1992 novel, “Possessing the Secret of Joy,” is dedicated “to the blameless vulva”—would like this quilt, I’m sure. When I asked my parents why I’d never seen the quilt, or the countless others crowded in my grandmother’s closet, they explained that these were just old quilts “for everyday use”; there was no need to display them.
Soon after, I read a short story by Alice Walker, called “Everyday Use,” about a quiltmaker whose artistry wasn’t always recognized. When I read that story, which could have been about my grandmother, I knew, in a profound and enduring way, that Alice Walker and I were kindred spirits.
Since that summer, I’ve consumed each of Walker’s books—her five novels, two collections of short stories, four collections of essays and five volumes of poetry—with a kind of hunger.
A more common hunger is creeping upon me now, though, as I warily eye the wilting lettuce that constitutes the pitiful first course of this banquet. As I look around, I realize that for most people here, as for me, the food isn’t the main attraction. While a few folks are gamely chomping on their nutrient-free iceberg, most people are watching the door, looking for Alice.
This is not the first time I’ve been in a small Georgia town looking for Alice Walker. A few weeks earlier, on a radiant, no-humidity day, I’d taken a drive to Eatonton, about 75 miles east of Atlanta.
I’m not sure what I was looking for there, but I do know that as I’ve become more and more of a writer, my sense of connection to Alice Walker has continued to grow.
Like Walker, I was born and raised in Georgia, though I know, even before I visit Eatonton, that it is a far cry from Atlanta, my hometown. And, like Walker, I count Zora Neale Hurston, another black Southern-born writer, as my literary foremother. Recently, though, it occurred to me that if Zora is my spiritual and artistic grandmother, a literary counterpart to my quiltmaking Grandma Ura, then Alice Walker—who put a marker on Hurston’s weed-choked grave in 1973—is my mother.
So I suppose I took my drive to Eatonton, to borrow Alice’s phrase, in search of my mother’s garden.
Heading into town on Highway 441,1 am greeted by a flurry of signs: “Welcome to Putnam County, Dairy Capital of the U. S.” I make a note of this and remember it later when the sight of cows grazing along the countryside has become commonplace.
Then I see a more revealing sign: A huge billboard urges passers-by to “Join the Sons of Confederate Veterans.” I don’t write down the 800-number, but I do notice the Confederate flags adorning either side of the billboard.
“You’re not in Atlanta anymore,” I tell myself. “You’re in Georgia.”
More signs follow: “Lawrence’s BBQ”; “General Putnam’s Motel and Restaurant”; “Country Buffet, All You Can Eat, $6. “Then I see the one I’ve been looking for: “Welcome to Historic Eatonton, Home of Joel Chandler Harris and Alice Walker. “Walker’s name is below Harris’ and at least a point size smaller. On the same sign, Eatonton brags that it is “Close to Everything . . . Next to Perfect.”
Within the next three miles, I see three signs inviting me to visit the Uncle Remus Museum and reminding me that Eatonton is the birthplace of Joel Chandler Harris, author of the infamous Uncle Remus tales. I don’t see any more Alice Walker signs.
When I walk into the little yellow house that is home to the Eatonton-Putnam Chamber of Commerce and the Tourist Information Center, I am greeted by a woman with platinum blond hair, wide blue eyes and a Band-Aid struggling to hold down a wad of cotton in the crook of her right elbow. She seems surprised to see me. As her eyes do a quick sweep, checking out my purple batik pants and down-the-back dreadlocks, I tell her that I am visiting Eatonton for the first time and would like to explore the area attractions.
She recommends, with a straight face, the Uncle Remus Museum, the Tour of Homes and the nearby Lake Oconee and Lake Sinclair Recreation areas, pulling down brochures from a bookshelf.
“What about Alice Walker?” I ask. “I’m interested in Alice Walker.”
“Of course,” the woman says perkily. She pulls a lilac-colored brochure off the shelf and hands it to me. On the front, there’s a 15-year-old black-and-white photograph of Alice Walker, back when she was still wearing an Afro—the same photo that was on the cover of “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.”
Inside the trifold brochure, the literary chronology only goes up to 1992’s publication of “Possessing the Secret of Joy. “The brochure doesn’t mention Walker’s more recent books—“The Same River Twice” and “Anything We Love Can Be Saved.” Still, I’m heartened by the fact that the brochure even exists and that it promises an Alice Walker Driving Tour.
Yet the chamber employee seems a bit apologetic, warning me that the driving tour is strictly for driving. “You can’t get out and walk around on the property,” she says, “because Alice Walker still has family who live in the area.”
“Really?” I ask. “What family?”
“Sisters and cousins, I believe,” the woman replies. Actually, the brochure—which the chamber employee obviously hasn’t read in a while—says Alice’s brother, Fred, now lives in the house where their mother was born. The brochure doesn’t mention that two more of Alice’s brothers—Jimmy and Bobby—are also among the town’s 4,737 residents.
“So has the chamber asked Alice Walker about doing more to mark her origins in Eatonton?” I ask.
“Yes, we have,” the woman replies, bright-eyed as ever.
“And she’s said no?” I prompt, sounding more suspicious than I mean to.
“Yes. I mean, since she’s still alive and all, she just doesn’t want us to do a lot. And I can’t blame her. I’d prpbably be the same way if I was her,” she adds.”I mean, the Uncle Remus stuff is dead. But she’s still alive, and she’s still got family here. So we try real hard to protect her privacy.”
Privacy is important to Alice, her sister Ruth Walker-Hood acknowledges. But there’s more to it than that. The truth, according to Ruth, is that any efforts Eatonton wants to make now to honor Alice Walker may be too little, too late.
For instance, Ruth says, the local newspaper, The Eatonton Messenger, never reported Alice’s successes—despite Ruth’s constant calls—until the day she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983. “That day, the paper called me,” Ruth says.
“Alice has reached the very top of her field. And she’s done it without the support of her hometown, and I’m quite sure she doesn’t need it now,” Ruth says.
So if Alice doesn’t care about being properly honored in her hometown, why should I? Why should you?
We should care because Alice Walker is a leading light in the literary world and should be properly recognized as such, not just in cosmopolitan places like New York or San Francisco—where she currently lives, and where her book signings often attract block-long lines of readers—but everywhere, particularly in her hometown.
We should care because Eatonton’s refusal to honor her—its insistence, in fact, on making her subservient to a lesser writer, Joel Chandler Harris—is historically and politically incorrect, an insult to anyone who believes in literature as a tool for revelation and revolution.
We should care for the same reason that Ruth cares: “It’s important to give these kids today someone to look up to. You can see her, you can touch her, you can ask her questions. We need to let these kids know that a little black girl from Eatonton has reached this level.”
Guided by the map inside the brochure, the first place I find is the church. As I get out of my citified green sports car to walk around—in defiance of the Chamber of Commerce’s recommendation—a warm breeze rustles through the congregation of trees on the side of the tiny white church, and I notice that the yard seems to attract more than its share of butterflies.
In case you’ve forgotten that you’re on the Alice Walker Driving Tour, there is a small purple sign—maroon, really—to remind you. Anchored in the church yard by a wooden stake, the metal sign has an icon of a woman sitting in a rocking chair—recognizable as Celie from Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, ‘The Color Purple.’ “This church, the sign says, is where “Alice Malsenior Walker was baptized and faithfully attended services.”
Near the front door of the church, a hand-drawn sign is decorated with an old rugged cross, colored a fading gray. The sign says: “Ward Chapel A. M. E. Church. Service every 2nd. and 4th. Sunday.” Later, Ruth tells me that because the old church’s descendants “are scattered to the four corners,” services are no longer held here—not even on the second and fourth Sundays. These days, the church is only used for an occasional funeral.
Still, despite the too-high grass around the steps, the broken window panes and the 19 crushed Budweiser cans strewn in the back yard, there is something about this church that remains alive.
Perhaps it’s the butterflies and the birds, which seem to guard the church from malevolent spirits. I wonder if cardinals and robins ever fly through the broken glass and into the sanctuary during the eulogies or, better yet, while the choir is sending some soul home with “Amazing Grace.”
Alice Walker likes birds. I recently heard her talk about this in an audiotaped interview, called “My Life as My Self.” She specifically talks about vultures, considered sacred in many African countries— particularly in Egypt—because they can eat death and not die. I wonder if vultures ever come to the funerals at Wards Chapel A. M. E. I wonder if the people know that the big dark birds are holy—or if they are frightened when the vultures appear.
The church is, as Alice Walker has written, “simple, serene, sweet.” In a 1986 article in The Eatonton Messenger, Fannie L. Simpkins put it even better: “The big church is still moving. One of my reasons for saying it’s big is because Jesus is there, second is because Alice Walker came out of it.”’
Across the street from the church is the Wards Chapel Cemetery, where Alice’s parents—Willie Lee Walker and Minnie Tallulah Grant Walker—are buried, along with other family members. Another “Color Purple” sign marks the spot. Surely, Alice Walker had something to do with the stone on her mother’s tomb. It says simply: “Loving Soul, Great Spirit.”
My map leads me three-tenths of a mile up Wards Chapel Road to another “Color Purple” sign, this one marking the site of the home where Alice Walker grew up. The house that sits on the huge expanse of farmland is a small wooden cabin that looks too new to be the actual home where Alice was raised. It sits far back from the road, and a long gravelly trail leads to it. Several slender black and white cows lounge contentedly on nature’s green carpet.
Less than two miles up the road is the site of Walker s birth home. A foreboding fence protects the land from trespassers. Just outside the fence, though, is another purple sign, and behind the sign is a stubby, stocky wild tree. A funeral flower is laid lovingly at the foot of the tree, next to a white cross with a name that at first glance appears to be “Janie” stenciled across it. This makes me think of Janie from Zora Neale Hurston’s novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God”—about which Walker has said: “There is no book more important to me than this one.” On closer inspection, I see that the name of the person being remembered here is Jamie. As I wonder who this Jamie was, and if she died in that spot, the intoxicating smell of pine trees wafts through the air.
I drive on, looking for the fifth and final stop of the Alice Walker Driving Tour—the Grant Plantation, the birthplace of Alice’s mother. I can’t find it, despite three attempts. No “Color Purple” sign marks the spot. There is, however, a sign for Uncle Remus Realty, whose mascot is a nattily attired, dancing white rabbit. Br’er Rabbit, I suppose.
At the Uncle Remus Museum—situated in the center of town— the rabbit hailing passers-by is a dirty gray, but he’s still nattily dressed. The museum is catty-corner to the Putnam Middle School. The kids, black and white together, have a good view of the former slave cabin that became the Uncle Remus Museum in 1963—the same year another famous Georgian, Martin Luther King Jr., gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Joel Chandler Harris is heralded—in this town, damn near worshipped—as the creator of Uncle Remus. But even Harris admitted his creativity was questionable: “[Uncle Remus] was not an invention of my own,” Harris said in an interview once, “but a human syndicate, I might say, of three or four old darkies whom I knew. I just walloped them together into one person and called him ‘Uncle Remus.’”
Alice Walker wrote eloquently about her hometown’s strange exaltation of Harris in a 1981 essay called “The Dummy in the Window: Joel Chandler Harris and the Invention of Uncle Remus,” which is collected in her book “Living by the Word.”
“Joel Chandler Harris is billed as the creator of Uncle Remus. Uncle Remus told the stories of Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox, all the classic folk tales that came from Africa and that, even now in Africa, are still being told. We, too, my brothers and sisters and I, listened to them,” Walker writes.
“But after we saw ‘Song of the South’ [the 1946 film of Uncle Remus and the little white children to whom he told his tales], we no longer listened to them. They were killed for us. In fact, I do not remember any of my relatives ever telling any of those tales after they saw what had been done with them.”
A generation younger than Alice Walker, I never saw “Song of the South,” and my parents never told me Uncle Remus tales. But, even in relatively progressive Atlanta, I’ve had my own encounters with Joel Chandler Harris.
For years, I lived around the corner from the Wrens Nest, the huge Victorian home where Harris resided for many years, and where he died in 1908. Though it is described as “a shrine to Harris’ memory,” the Wrens Nest never had the impact on my psyche that the Uncle Remus Museum apparently had on Walker’s.
Here’s why: The historic home is in the middle of what is now an all-black neighborhood, and it is surrounded by what Eatonton lacks—images that tell a different story about black people.
Two blocks down the street from the Wrens Nest, for instance, is the Shrine of the Black Madonna bookstore, where Walker and countless other African-American authors read and sign their books. Also nearby is an African-American fine arts museum called the Hammonds House; a massive church that, in my childhood, was pastored by civil rights leader Ralph David Abernathy; a black-owned photography studio; and the Atlanta University Center, an educational complex that includes the well-regarded Morehouse College (Dr. King s alma mater) and Spelman College (where the Alice Walker Literary Society was chartered).
At the Wrens Nest itself, the storyteller-in-residence is an African-American poet who renders the tales of Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox in their original African context. Wearing a traditional dashiki and long beard, the storyteller, Akbar Imhotep, resembles a West African griot—not an Uncle Remus.
Eatonton doesn’t have these kinds of balancing images. In addition to the Uncle Remus Museum, Alice Walker writes, “there was also, until a few years ago, an Uncle Remus restaurant. There used to be a dummy of a black man, an elderly, kindly, cottony-haired darkie, seated in a rocking chair in the restaurant window. In fantasy, I frequently liberated him, using Army tanks and guns. Blacks, of course, were not allowed in this restaurant.”
Almost to my surprise, I am allowed in Eatonton’s Uncle Remus Museum. The museum volunteer, a gracious Southern belle named Kathryn Walden, greets me warmly and invites me to sign the guest book. I am the 35th adult visitor of the day, she proudly announces. As I sign in, I notice that earlier visitors had come from as far away as Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.
“Oh yes,” Mrs. Walden assures me. “We get about 1000 visitors a month. And we’ve had visitors from all 50 states and 38 foreign countries.”
I had heard that the museum’s docent keeps a folder of information on Alice Walker here at Uncle Remus headquarters. I guess the logic would be to put both of the town’s famous African Americans under one roof.
But when I ask Mrs. Walden about it, she says, “No, we don’t have anything on her here,” emphasizing the last word. “I hope they’re going to do something for her—like start a museum for her— but we don’t have anything about her here.”
As I cautiously make my way around the museum, I am captivated by newspaper clippings of stories covering the Harris Centennial Celebration on Dec. 9, 1948—the day that would have been Joel Chandler Harris’ 100th birthday. Alice Walker had been born a few years before the Centennial Celebration, on Feb. 9, 1944.
Reading the newspaper reports, I wonder if Alice’s parents knew Sam Cole, the local actor who portrayed Uncle Remus during the celebration. I wonder if her parents read The Atlanta Constitution’s coverage of the event, which reportedly included “a parade that circled the Confederate monument on Eatonton’s main street, passing storefronts decorated in antebellum fashion.”
I wonder if Alice and her siblings were among the children the reporter referred to when he wrote this: “And the descendants of Uncle Remus’ darky friends took part, too, with Negro school children marching along.”
A couple of white kids come into the museum with their grandmother. They are fascinated by the bolls of cotton placed in a basket in a brightly lit corner of the slave cabin. They want to buy some to take home.
Near the bale of cotton, an old tin poster advertises Uncle Remus brand syrup. It features a picture of a smiling, bearded black man—the typical portrait of Uncle Remus—along with what are presumably his words: “Dis sho’ am good.”
I am surprised as a rush of shame heats up my face. I am embarrassed that these white children see this poster and accept it as a true representation of a black man, past or present. They don’t blink at the exaggerated mockery of his words—words that a white advertising copywriter imagined an uneducated black man would say; words that are alien to me and every black person I’ve ever known, including poorly educated folks from Uncle Remus’ generation—people like my Grandma Ura.
“Joel Chandler Harris and I lived in the same town, although nearly 100 years apart,” Alice Walker has said. “As far as I’m concerned, he stole a good part of my heritage. How did he steal it? By making me feel ashamed of it.”
At the Eatonton-Putnam County Library, things are a little more egalitarian. The library carries most of Alice Walker’s books and, in the library computer, her name appears 40 times. To be fair, there are also 40 occurrences of Br’er Rabbit, and—edging out the competition—42 of Joel Chandler Harris.
I ask one of the librarians if there is a special Alice Walker collection.
She wants to educate me on Walker’s versatility as a writer: “No, we don’t have a special collection separate from everything else because she writes all kinds of books. Some are fiction, some are poetry, some are essays—”
“Yes, I’m familiar with her work,” I interrupt.
“Now, I do have a vertical file of clippings I’ve kept over the years in my office,” she offers.
“So are the materials in the vertical file accessible to the public?”
“Yes. Well, it’s in my office. But I can bring the materials out to you.” Somewhat reluctantly, the woman steps through a glass door.
I am excited. This is what I want to see. Not just a little folder on Alice in the Uncle Remus Museum, but a vertical file. A whole file.
The librarian brings out a thin manila folder. “Here it is,” she announces.
Trying to suspend my disbelief, I phrase my question delicately: “This is everything you have, right?”
“Uh-hunh. You can sit right there and go through it,” she says, pointing to a table within her eyeshot, so she can make sure I don’t try to sneak off with this treasure chest of information.
“Thanks,” I say dryly.
The most recent clipping in the folder is from 1994—and it’s not even about Alice, but about her daughter, feminist writer/activist Rebecca Leventhal Walker, named byTime magazine in this Dec. 5, 1994, article as one of the 50 “most promising leaders age 40 and under. “The most recent clippings about Alice herself are undated stories from The Eatonton Messenger concerning her 1992 visit to Eatonton with television newswoman Diane Sawyer, who did a segment about Walker for “Primetime Live.”
Among the other gems in the folder: an undated review of Alice Walker’s first published book of poetry, 1968’s “Once”; an undated clipping of a 1975 Ms. magazine article by Walker called “Beyond the Peacock: The Reconstruction of Flannery O’Connor”; a Jan. 8, 1984, cover story on Walker in The New York Times Magazine; and The Eatonton Messenger’s extensive Jan. 23, 1986, coverage including a full page of photos) of Alice’s visit to Eatonton for the premiere of the film version of ‘The Color Purple’ at the now-closed Pex Theatre.
Alice’s sister, Ruth, who organized the premiere at the Pex, is surprised when I tell her the library has copies of Walker’s books. “Once upon a time,” she says, “the library had two ‘Color Purples’ and that’s it.”
Still, there’s no place in Eatonton to buy ‘The Color Purple’ or any other book by Alice Walker—though you can buy many of Joel Chandler Harris’ books at the museum.
The only bookstore in town is a Christian bookstore, Ruth explains, and the people there don’t sell Alice’s books. If Ruth supplies them, though, the folks at Yarbrough’s Jewelry Store will sell Walker’s titles.
A vocal champion of Alice and her writing, Ruth used to be better about keeping the jewelry store stocked. Before 1993, when their mother was living and Ruth made the drive from Atlanta to Eatonton every weekend, she’d sell Alice’s books out of the trunk of her car, she says. “People from Ireland and England have come to my mama’s house looking for traces of Alice.”
Alice Walker strides into the hotel ballroom in Macon at about 7: 40 p. m. She looks smart in a black tuxedo-style pantsuit, an open-collar silky gray shirt and black lace-up ankle boots.
Before heading for the dais, she stops at a table near the door where many of her relatives have already begun their meals. She embraces everyone at the round table and introduces them to her traveling companion, a tall Hawaiian woman with long hair the color of the perfectly sweetened iced tea that folks here are swilling like water.
Shortly after Alice and her guest are seated, an elderly black man wanders up to the dais. Wearing a fading olive-green hat over his long
white hair, he could have been the model for the Uncle Remus poster, but there is something about him that’s too strong, too proud, to ever let white people call him “uncle.”
Alice can call him uncle, though. She stands up to greet him.
He envelops her hands in his. “To all these people, you’re Alice Walker,” he says. “But to me, you’ll always be Baby Alice.”
It will be this way all night—warm hugs, warm smiles, warm words. A letter is read from Georgia first lady Shirley Miller, wife of Gov. Zell Miller. Alice Walker, Mrs. Miller writes, has been “a jewel in the state of Georgia’s crown for many years.”
When Macon Mayor Jim Marshall stands up to present Walker with a key to the city, he is plain-spoken about the fact that this is a homecoming: “Any child coming home deserves a key to the house,” he says, “and I’ve got a key to the city for Alice Walker.”
Alice goes to the microphone and says a simple thank you. She repeats this humble thank you several times through the night as various guests continue to shower her with praises. She enthusiastically starts standing ovations for each of the three young women who serenade her with songs, and for the four-woman African dance group that performs for her.
Finally, after receiving the Shelia Award—an award given to black women of high achievement—Walker hugs the crowd with soft, loving eyes. “I haven’t been in Macon in a long time,” Walker begins. “I used to come as a little girl to see my family . . . I see relatives here I haven’t seen in 10 years.”
Earlier in the day, Walker says, she had gone to Eatonton to visit her parents’ graves. She draped a lei—made by her friend’s mother— around her mother’s tombstone. She then went to visit her first-grade teacher, who still lives in Eatonton. “Even though the weather has been wet, ‘Walker says, “I was met by warm and wonderful people.”
Noting the legacy of Harriet Tubman, the museum’s namesake, Walker says, “It’s not necessary any longer to be a slave. “Then she addresses the gathering—her family, in one way or another—directly: “In our daily us-ness—with our nappy hair, our brown skin, our black skin, our natural fingernails—we are art,” she says quietly. “Everything that nature creates is art, and so are we.
“If there is a sin,” she adds, “it’s to be in all this glory and not enjoy it, because you’re not fully yourself or you’re not paying attention.”
Alice Walker is attentive to each well-wisher, careful to spell the names correctly as she signs books for about two hours after the program. She hugs children, laughs with the elders and agrees to have her photograph taken again and again.
As the crowd thins, Alice spots those of us who’ve come from the Alice Walker Literary Society in Atlanta. She’s met us before—most recently, at the society’s chartering a few months back—so she greets us with gracious hugs and then invites us to a gathering at the home of the museum’s director.
We watch as she and her companion, Zelie, get into the backseat of a white Lincoln Continental that still has price stickers on its side window. Perhaps the museum borrowed it from a local car dealership for tonight’s occasion, we muse.
We follow the car to the downtown home of museum director Carey Pickard. Alice and Zelie retreat, momentarily, into the lovely country inn next door to Carey’s building. They want to drop off some of Alice’s gifts, they say, promising to join us in the apartment in a few minutes.
It is perhaps 10:30 when we enter Carey’s apartment, which is full of carefully selected antiques, folk art and shelves of books and magazines. Even though Carey is white, he obviously has a great and sincere interest in African-American culture, and his home reflects that—as well as an interest in Elvis and other Southern cultural icons.
Anita Ponder, the director of communications at the museum, had been the emcee for the evening’s program. A local judge, she wore a suit (blue with white pinstripes) and tie (yellow with blue diamonds) for the occasion. At Carey’s she loosens her tie a little and kicks off her high-heeled shoes as someone brings her a glass of ginger ale. With various drinks in hand, we all wander around Carey’s place making small talk until Alice arrives.
She comes in smiling. The black hair bungee that had held a handful of her dreadlocks back during dinner is now a bracelet on her right wrist. Her hair hangs free as she sips a glass of white wine.
With the 10 or so guests, Walker converses easily on a range of subjects—the political situation in Cuba, her recent guest appearance on “Sesame Street,” and her upcoming novel, “By the Light of My Father’s Smile”, (published by Random House in 1998), which she declines to detail, except to say that it is going to be “scandalous.”
When the conversation starts to get depressing—including a brief foray into talk about female genital mutilation, a topic she has written about extensively—Alice smoothly changes the subject.
“It’s important for good people to be happy,” she says firmly. “Are you happy?” she asks one guest. He says he is. She says she is, too.
And it’s easy to believe her. She is kind, relaxed, magnanimous. She is among friends. She is comfortable in her body, in her skin, in her life. She is at home.
This celebration in Macon may be as close to a hometown embrace as Alice Walker is going to get, despite the claim Eatonton makes on its Web site—that it is “a town known for proudly honoring its heroes.”
On the same Web site, a three-page article on the history of Eatonton predictably includes a couple of lengthy paragraphs on Joel Chandler Harris, along with a photo of Br’er Rabbit and a link to the Uncle Remus Museum Web page.
A short paragraph on Alice Walker follows. It starts out talking about two other black women—perhaps more acceptable than Walker to Eatonton s ruling class—Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg.
The Web site informs us: “Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg made their own contribution to Eatonton when they starred in the film version of ‘The Color Purple. ’ The renowned author and poet Alice Walker was born in Eatonton in 1944 and is famed for writing the novel, ‘The Color Purple,’ winner of a Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1983. Whoopi Goldberg’s ‘big screen’ debut in the film gained an Academy Award nomination in 1985.”
Hmmmm. Two mentions of Whoopi, and only one of Alice. What is this telling us?
How is it that, in her hometown, a woman whom The Washington Post has called “one of the best American writers of today” is considered less important than Joel Chandler Harris (surely a less accomplished writer and, arguably, a plagiarizer, if you count the black folk tales as stolen texts)?
How is it that a writer who makes a guest appearance on a TV show as ubiquitous and American as “Sesame Street” doesn’t get any R-E-S-P-E-C-T from the powers that be in her hometown?
I put some of these questions to the president of the Eatonton Historical Society, Jimmy Marshall.
He tells me that the Chamber of Commerce and the Historical Society “have been trying for several years to raise enough money for an Alice Walker marker” to go in a small garden in the side yard of the chamber’s office. The garden is full of purple flowers, he says, and “they want to call it The Color Purple Garden or the Alice Walker Garden.” He doesn’t remember which.
I don’t remember seeing the garden when I was in Eatonton, and neither the woman at the chamber nor the one at the museum mentioned this garden to me or the fund-raising efforts for the marker. But I listen on.
“Right after the premiere of the movie,” he says, they started trying to raise about $6,000 for a large granite or marble monument.
That was more than 10 years ago, I remind him.
“That kind of money is hard to raise in a small community,” he explains.
“Maybe in your article you could make an appeal to Alice Walker devotees to contribute money for the marker—maybe that’s one good thing that could come out of your story,” Marshall adds, apparently unaware that he may be saying something offensive.
He recommends I talk with one of the black elected officials in Eatonton, a town that is 30 percent African-American. At Marshall’s suggestion, I call County Commissioner Jimmy Davis. A member of the Chamber of Commerce, Davis says he knows nothing about the chamber’s efforts to raise money for an Alice Walker marker. There’s never been anything in The Eatonton Messenger about it, he says. “I would be glad to give a donation, and I know of several organizations that would be happy to give a donation, too.”
When I ask Davis, who grew up with Walker’s older siblings, if he thinks racism may be a factor in the town’s failure to properly honor Alice, he is quick to answer: “No, I don’t think nothing like that. It’s just that nobody’s ever brought it up.”
Marshall, the historical society president, takes a pragmatic approach: “People in the community have supported The Color Purple Foundation,” he says, a “what-more-do-you-people-want?” tone creeping into his voice.
The Color Purple Foundation is an educational fund that Ruth Walker-Hood started 11 years ago to provide scholarships for rural youngsters—of any race—who might not otherwise be able to afford to attend college.
“That may be the best payoff in the long run,” Marshall reasons.
He adds that Ruth “deserves a great deal of credit” for pushing The Color Purple Foundation. “I really admire her spunk,” he says. I agree with him.
Perhaps disarmed that he and I have found common ground, he then makes a telling statement: “If Alice made more of an effort like that toward the community, people might respond more positively toward her.”
An effort like that. The words ring in my ears as I thank Marshall for his comments and hang up the phone. Alice Walker, Ruth says, has been The Color Purple Foundation s biggest financial supporter.
But this doesn’t seem to be the kind of effort Marshall is talking about. Perhaps he means ifAlice were chattier with the locals—the local white folks, that is—they might give her the recognition she deserves.
Being an internationally acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Marshall’s statement implies, just isn’t enough.
Before our conversation ended, Marshall told me that Ruth is “a good friend” of his. I wonder if he’d be surprised at her blunt assessment of the situation: “If Alice were white, her books would be all over Eatonton, just like that Uncle Remus crap they’ve forced down our throats all our lives.”
The Uncle Remus Museum may be the best a town like Eatonton can do.
I find it interesting that the museum is called the Uncle Remus Museum—rather than, say, the Joel Chandler Harris Museum or the Br’er Rabbit Museum. Perhaps this is Eatonton’s attempt at honoring African Americans, as represented by Uncle Remus—a certain kind of mythic black figure looming large and languid in the ancestral memories of many white Southerners.
Uncle Remus is a fiction, sprung from the fantasies of a white writer who lifted his stories from black folk culture. He is a servile, gentle, happy cartoon character of a black man with no sense of history, no awareness of injustice, no anger—and no weapons.
Unlike Uncle Remus, Alice Walker is real. She is outspoken, sexual, political, intrepid, inspired and occasionally angry. And her mind and her pen are her weapons.
In short, for a town like Eatonton, Alice Walker is dangerous.
For this reason, at least for now, a woman like Alice Walker can’t be truly honored in Eatonton. Uncle Remus will have to represent us all.