Biography of Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize Winning Writer

Alice Walker in 1989

Photo by Anthony Barboza / Getty Images

Alice Walker (born Feb. 9, 1944) is a writer and activist, perhaps best known as the author of "The Color Purple" and more than 20 other books and poetry collectionsShe is also known for recovering the work of Zora Neale Hurston and for her work against female circumcision. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 and the National Book Award in 1984.

Fast Facts: Alice Walker

  • Known For: Writer, feminist, and activist
  • Born: Feb. 9, 1944 in Eatonton, Georgia
  • Parents: Minnie Tallulah Grant and Willie Lee Walker
  • Education: East Putnam Consolidated, Butler-Baker High School in Eatonton, Spelman College, and Sarah Lawrence College
  • Published Works: The Color Purple, The Temple of My Familiar, Possessing the Secret of Joy
  • Spouse: Melvyn R. Leventhal (m. 1967–1976)
  • Children: Rebecca Leventhal (b. November 1969)

Early Life

Walker was born on Feb. 9, 1944, in Eatonton, Georgia, the last of eight children born to Minnie Tallulah Grant and Willie Lee Walker. Her parents were sharecroppers who worked on a large cotton farm during the days of Jim Crow. Recognizing Walker's abilities at a very young age, her mother got the 4-year old into first grade at East Putnam Consolidated, where she quickly became a star pupil. In 1952, a childhood accident blinded her in one eye. Medical conditions in the Jim Crow south meant she did not get proper medical treatment until six years later when she visited her brother in Boston. Nevertheless, she went on to become valedictorian of her class at Butler-Baker High School.

At 17, Walker received a scholarship to attend Spelman College in Atlanta, where she became interested in Russian literature and the burgeoning Civil Rights movement. In 1963, she was offered a scholarship to Sarah Lawrence College, and, after her activist mentor Howard Zinn was fired from Spelman, Walker transferred to Sarah Lawrence. There, she studied poetry with Muriel Rukeyser (1913–1980), who would help her get her first collection of poems, "Once," published in 1968. In her senior year, Walker studied in East Africa as an exchange student; she graduated in 1965.

Professional Life

After college, Walker worked briefly for the New York City Department of Welfare and then returned to the South, moving to Jackson, Mississippi. In Jackson, she volunteered in voter registration drives and worked for the Legal Defense Fund of the NAACP. She met fellow civil rights worker Melvyn R. Leventhal on March 17, 1967, and they married in New York and moved back to Jackson, where they were the first legally married biracial couple in the city. They had one daughter, Rebecca, born Nov. 17, 1969, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1976.

Walker started her professional writing career as a writer-in-residence first at Jackson State University (1968–1969) and then at Tougaloo College (1970–1971). Her first novel, a three-generation saga of sharecroppers called "The Third Life of Grange Copeland," was published in 1970. In 1972, she taught a course in Black Women's Writers at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. She continued steadily writing throughout this period.

Early Writing

By the mid-1970s, Walker turned to her inspirations from the Harlem Renaissance period of the early 20th century. In 1974, Walker wrote a biography of poet Langston Hughes (1902–1967), and the following year she published a description of her research with Charlotte Hunt, "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston," in Ms. magazine. Walker is credited with reviving interest in the writer/anthropologist (1891–1960). Her novel "Meridian" came out in 1976, and the subject was the civil rights movement in the South. Her next novel, "The Color Purple," changed her life.

Walker's poems, novels, and short stories frankly deal with rape, violence, isolation, troubled relationships, bisexuality, multigenerational perspectives, sexism, and racism: all of the things which she knew from her personal experiences. Always, and more as she grew as a writer, Walker has been unafraid to be controversial.

"The Color Purple" and Important Books

When "The Color Purple" came out in 1982, Walker became known to an even wider audience. Her Pulitzer Prize and the movie by Steven Spielberg brought both fame and controversy. She was widely criticized for negative portrayals of men in "The Color Purple," though many critics admitted that the movie presented more simplistic negative pictures than the book's more nuanced portrayals.

Additionally, "The Color Purple," according to Shapero Rare Books, a London-based bookseller:

"...has been banned by school boards across the United States since its publication due to the vivid depictions of violence, particularly rape; offensive language; sexual content, with scenes of lesbian love; and perceived racism."

Yet, this banning—particularly with its note of "perceived racism"—is troubling, as there are so few Black women authors included in high school and college reading lists.

In addition to "The Color Purple," critics and readers may debate which are Walker's most important books, but Early Bird Books, a website that offers free and discounted ebooks and author interviews, excerpts from new novels, thematic reading lists, and book club recommendations, says readers should consider the following:

  • "Revolutionary Petunias," a 1973 book of Walker's poems for which she was nominated and won several prestigious awards.
  • "You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down," a 1981 collection of short stories. "From cultural theft to misogyny, Walker writes about the terrible things that can happen to women," Greta Shull writes of the book on the Early Bird Books website.
  • "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens," a 1983 collection of essays where, "Walker writes about everything from political movements to other writers," Shull notes.
  • "Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful," a 1984 volume of Walker's poems covering themes of anger, hope, and comfort.
  • "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens," a 1985 collection of essays where, "Walker writes about everything from political movements to other writers," Shull notes.

Additionally, "The Way Forward Is With a Broken Heart" is a book of essays Walker published in 2000 that is notable because, as Walker, herself, put it in describing the emotional repercussions of her 1976 divorce:

"These are the stories that came to me to be told after the close of a magical marriage to an extraordinary man that ended in a less-than-magical divorce. I found myself unmoored, unmated, ungrounded in a way that challenged everything I'd ever thought about human relationships."

Also of note, in two books—"The Temple of My Familiar" (1989) and "Possessing the Secret of Joy" (1992)—Walker took on the issue of female circumcision in Africa, which brought further controversy: was Walker a cultural imperialist to criticize a different culture?

Activism and Current Work

Walker's works are known for their portrayals of the Black woman's life. She depicts vividly the sexism, racism, and poverty that make that life often a struggle. But she also portrays as part of that life, the strengths of family, community, self-worth, and spirituality. Many of her novels depict women in other periods of history than our own. Just as with nonfiction women's history writing, such portrayals give a sense of the differences and similarities of women's condition today and in that other time.

Walker continues not only to write but to be active in environmental, feminist/womanist causes, and issues of economic justice. Her latest novel, "Now is the Time to Open Your Heart," was published in 2004; since that time her published work has been poetry. In 2018, she published a collection of poems titled "Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart."

Her work and activism have been inspired by—and served to help inspire—social movements, particularly in the area of civil rights and women's issues. In 1993, she published "Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Binding of Women" as a companion volume to the documentary, "Warrior Marks," which covers female genital mutilation in Africa, including interviews with victims, activists against female circumcision, and circumcisers, according to IMDb.  In 2008, Walker delivered a reading at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, to commemorate its custodianship of her archive. She also endorsed Barack Obama in his initial presidential run that year and launched her own website, alicewalkersgarden.com.

The website includes poems, stories, interviews, blog posts, and thoughts from Walker about the state of society and the need to continue the fight for racial justice. It notes that in 2008, Walker visited the Gaza Strip, a self-governing Palestinian territory on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea and that borders Israel. Of the trip, Walker said:

“Going to Gaza was our opportunity to remind the people of Gaza and ourselves that we belong to the same world: the world where grief is not only acknowledged, but shared; where we see injustice and call it by its name; where we see suffering and know the one who stands and sees is also harmed, but not nearly so much as the one who stands and sees and says and does nothing.”

In 2010 she presented the keynote address at The 11th Annual Steve Biko Lecture at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, which commemorated the slain South African activist, and where she met Biko's sons. That year she was also awarded the Lennon/Ono Peace Grant in Reykjavik, Iceland, where she met John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s son, Sean Lennon. 

But, perhaps a description of Walker on the "About" page on her website best sums up who she is as a writer and human being as well as what she thinks is important today:

"Walker has been an activist all of her adult life, and believes that learning to extend the range of our compassion is activity and work available to all. She is a staunch defender not only of human rights, but of the rights of all living beings."

Additional References

  • "Alice Walker: By the Book." The New York Times, December 13, 2018. 
  • Howard, Lillie P (ed.). "Alice Walker & Zora Neale Hurston: The Common Bond." Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1993.
  • Lazo, Caroline. "Alice Walker: Freedom Writer." Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 2000.  
  • Takenaga, Lara. "A Q. and A. With Alice Walker Stoked Outrage. Our Book Review Editor Responds." New York Times, December 18, 2018. 
  • Walker, Alice. "Alice Walker Banned." Ed. Holt, Patricia. New York: Aunt Lute Books, 1996. 
  • Walker, Alice (ed.) "I Love Myself When I Am Laughing...& Then Again When I Am Looking Mean & Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader." New York: The Feminist Press, 1979. 
  • Walker, Alice. "Living by the Word: Selected Writings, 1973-1987." San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1981.
  • White, Evelyn C. "Alice Walker: A Life." New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004.
View Article Sources
  1. Banned Books: The Freedom to Read.” Shapero Rare Books.

  2. Shull, Greta. “Beyond The Color Purple: 9 Must-Read Alice Walker Books.” Earlybirdbooks.com, 9 Feb. 2016.

  3. Walker, Alice. "The Way Forward Is With a Broken Heart Kindle Edition." London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2011.

  4. Warrior Marks.” IMDb.

  5. The World Has Changed: Conversations with Alice Walker. New Press, 2011.

  6. Mexican Women Stay Home To Protest Femicides In A Day Without Us.” Alice Walker The Official Website for the American Novelist Poet, alicewalkersgarden.com.

  7. About: Alice Walker: The Official Website for the American Novelist & Poet.” Alice Walker The Official Website for the American Novelist Poet, alicewalkersgarden.com.