Alice Walker was born 70 years ago in a South where "colored folks" knew their place. Active in the Civil Rights movement, she went on to become the first African American to be awarded a Pulitizer Prize for literature. “Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth,” Prabitha Parmar's new documentary, reveals that the seeds of Walker's activism, and poetry, were planted in the 19th Century.
As Beauty in Truth begins, Walker recalls the story of her Great Great Great Grandmother, who, she says, lived to be 125. Walker's father had known the matriarch during his own boyhood. As a slave, Walker's ancestor walked from Virginia to Georgia with two babies under her arm. When she married more than a century later, Walker retained her maiden name as a tribute to that walk.
As a child growing up in the South of the 1940s and 50s, Walker lived under the harsh umbrella of segregation and deep-rooted racism. In her elder years she expresses her love of trees. A tree, she says "never calls you a ni**er".
As she speaks for Parmar's camera, she recalls landowners who would hire entire families to work their farms, paying all of them a paltry salary that would should have been paid to one worker, not five or six. Black and white photos and archival footage paint a portrait of the poverty they lived in.
"Your children should be working my field," Walker recalls her mother being told.
"These children are my children," replied Walker, "They're going to be educated." Though she was grossly underpaid, Walker managed to buy Alice a typewriter.
Walker says that she never heard her mother say "I love you" until late in life. "But the love was apparent," she said with a tearful smile.
Hate was always just around the corner, yet Walker was showered with love throughout her childhood.
During the 1960s she met Martin Luther King during her involvement in the civil rights movement. She looks back upon a time in which social unrest changed the course of African American lives. The movement had white supporters, and Walker admits with a laugh that she was among those who didn't want whites to be involved.
Then she met Melvin Leventhal, a white, Jewish lawyer who was involved in civil rights. They fell in love amidst demonstrations and civil disobedience actions, and were the first mixed race married couple to walk down the street together in Georgia.
She and Leventhal divorced after ten years of marriage. Leventhal, who was interviewed for the film, says that he had to "get out of her way."
Over the years, Walker had other relationships, with men and with women, including a high-profile 1980s romance with pop/folk singer Tracy Chapman.
"I'm not lesbian, straight or bisexual," she says in the film. "I'm curious. If you're really alive, how can you be in one place the whole time? For me that doesn't work."
In “The Color Purple,” the book which won Walker the Pulitzer, the author dared to write about the unspeakable, such as lesbianism and spousal abuse in the African American community. When Steven Spielberg's 1985 film version of the book was released, the film was condemned and picketed by the black community. News and talk show footage from the period reveals the community's objections to the portrait that Walker had painted. More recently, it's been pointed out that Walker was attacked because she had the courage to tell the truth.
Walker courageously faces each issue that comes her way. Estranged from her daughter, who has publicly denounced her, Walker expresses her deep hope that she will one day meet her grandchild.
Walker today continues writing and fighting for the rights of all oppressed peoples. Through it all, she never expresses rage, but tries to spread harmony and love even as she exposes injustice.
"All of Alice's writings urge us to think differently and critically about things we take for granted," said longtime activist Angela Davis. "And that can change the world."
“Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth” will air Sunday, February 9 on PBS' American Masters.