Biography of Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize Winning Writer

Alice Walker in 1989

Photo by Anthony Barboza / Getty Images

Alice Walker (born February 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: February 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

Alice Walker was born on February 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 Alice'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, Massachusetts. 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, Alice 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 November 17, 1969, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1976.

Alice 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.

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

'The Color Purple'

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.

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?


Alice Walker's works are known for their portrayals of the African-American 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 non-fiction women's history writing, such portrayals give a sense of the differences and similarities of women's condition today and in that other time.

Alice 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."


  • "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.