Friday, February 9, 2024

Am I going crazy?

‘I guess I really am a queer fish. When I write poems, as I’ve done at a brisk rate for the past 4 hours, they come to me out of locked rooms - out of nowhere. It is the oddest thing! I feel hot, in the same way I imagine a poker player must feel hot. But what bothers me is my constant bouts of depression. Am I going crazy? What is wrong? Am I simply bitchy?’ This is an extract from the diaries of Alice Walker, the celebrated American writer and the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Today is her 80th birthday.

Alice Malsenior Tallulah-Kate Walker was born on 9 February 1944, in Eatonton, Georgia. She grew up in a large sharecropper family during the era of segregation, but despite the challenges of her early life, including an accident that left her blind in one eye, she developed both an intellectual curiosity and a love of reading. She attended Spelman College, Atlanta, for two years before transferring to Sarah Lawrence College in New York, where she graduated in 1965. Her college years were marked by active involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, and, in 1967,, she married Melvyn Rosenman Leventhal, a civil rights attorney. The marriage took place in New York because interracial marriage was still then illegal in the South. They had one child, but would divorce ten years later. Following graduation, she briefly worked for the New York City Department of Welfare. After returning to the South, she took a job working for the Legal Defense Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Jackson, Mississippi.

Walker’s literary career began in the late 1960s, and led to the publication of a first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland in 1970 - with themes of family, racism, and the struggles of African Americans in the South. She moved to California which is where she wrote and published, in 1982, The Color Purple. The novel brought her international fame, and won her the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction. It was later adapted into a critically-acclaimed film directed by Steven Spielberg and a successful Broadway musical.

Numerous novels, short story collections, essays, and volumes of poetry followed. However, Walker also involved herself wholeheartedly into various causes, including the civil rights movement, feminism, and environmentalism. Her work continues to inspire and challenge readers and writers around the world. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Walker’s official website, The Poetry Foundation, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Walker is a committed diarist having filled more than 60 journals through her life. In 2007, she placed these journals - along with hundreds of other documents and items from her personal archive - at Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library in Atlanta. The journals, as well as certain business and financial files, were embargoed until 2040. However, in 2022, she chose to issue a collection of extracts from the embargoed journals in Gathering Blossoms Under Fire (Simon & Schuster), as edited by Valerie Boyd. She told The New York Times, ‘I want the journals to be used so that people can see this working through of disappointment, anger, sorrow, regret. So in that sense, it’s a medicine book.’ Much of the book can sampled at Googlebooks.

In her introduction, Boyd notes that the journal entries traverse an astonishing array of events: marching in Mississippi with other foot soldiers of the civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King Jr., or “the King,” as she called him; her marriage to a Jewish lawyer, partly to defy laws that barred interracial marriage in the 1960s South; an early miscarriage; the birth of her daughter; writing her first novel; the trials and triumphs of the women’s movement; erotic encounters and enduring relationships; the ancestral visits that led her to write The Color Purple; winning the Pulitzer Prize; being admired and maligned, in sometimes equal measure, for her work and her activism; burying her mother; and her estrangement from her own daughter.’ The personal, the political, and the spiritual, she adds, are layered and intertwined in the revealing narrative that emerges from the journals. 

The journal extracts are divided up into four parts by decade: Marriage, Movement, and Mississippi - 1960s; The Nature of This Flower Is to Bloom - 1970s; Be Nobody’s Darling - 1980s; You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down - 1990s. Here are several extracts from Gathering Blossoms Under Fire, mostly taken from the first part.

3 June 1966
‘Who cares to write stories “with punch?” Not I. Also I wonder if I could develop into an existentialist writer - actually I’m not sure what that means. An existentialist person understands the world is perhaps ending, and badly, and resolves to live a moral life anyhow.

I suppose I myself am an existentialist as much as I can understand its definition. All those months at Sarah Lawrence studying Camus, and Sartre, and it’s still rather vague - it would seem that whatever I wrote would probably be existential, doesn’t it? And yet it is not. I should probably become better acquainted with the potential of the short story. Right now I would like to do a story in the fashion of Ambrose Bierce. He is very much like Poe to me, even more terrifying, perhaps. Certainly more haunting than Ray Bradbury, whose stories I must also reconsider.’ 

27 June 1966
‘New York City. I have not left yet for Mississippi and feel so much anxiety about leaving my work that it seems almost absurd for me to go at all. But something draws me there, although I have no illusions about how much good I can do. I would like to go with Marian and Henry out through the woods and across those flatlands, going out so smoothly into the horizon.

The Upper East Side after the Lower East Side: too much glass, new cars, skinny girls and money. One must, I imagine, get used to both cleanliness and money and the fact that they are likely to make one sterile and sweet smelling, like a bar of soap.’

18 May 1967
‘I am afraid, worried, distracted, and it is an old-new feeling and quite unshakeable, although for Mel’s sake it must be overcome. There was a time when a mother-in-law’s shouts, as in a story, would have amused me; now they do not, of course. They fill me with dread for the knowledge that these shouts are unchangeable keeps me from being optimistic about a better future relationship.

I don’t think I know everything there is to know, but I do know that I love my husband. This pain each time he pains, sickness even in my body because he feels it, too. My life is double and our lives, one.

We are both nervous, jittery from caring so much about each other.’

4 December 1967
‘A lot has happened since my last entries, easily six or seven months ago. My life is more full than I ever thought it could be. And that is because of my love, not so much my work. Art will always copy life.

My husband has arrived and claimed me forever. He is The One; it is like a fairy tale in its finality - can there be any doubt that, no matter what we will live happily ever after? I did not believe I could become One with anyone - but now I am One. With M.

It seems true that one’s dreams might come true if one waits long enough and remains a hopeful virgin at heart.

The novel too is becoming a reality, albeit a slow one. Perhaps I should have stuck with Hemingway’s example - stories until the Novel was inevitable. I don’t know. Maybe I just write funny. In any case, I think I can see improvement in many themes, stories, “ideas.”

Mel and I are independent. No debts yet. I like this. It gives us freedom from people who only come to pry. Sometimes I wonder if we are more or less complicated (our lives) than when we were single. It is such a strange and sometimes fearful comfort: having someone to lean on.’

11 July 1968
‘After many months of wondering how I, as a married woman, could continue a personal diary, 1 found the answer (I think) quite by accident last night. And it happened when a third person, a girl we love, hurt my husband’s feelings. Then I realized, as I felt his pain, that he is my personal life and that the true joining has come about between us.

He was hurt because Barbara, our closest friend, still regards him on the nitty gritty level as white. I suppose I’m the only black person who does not. Indeed, we are shipwrecked on the American island, just us two against both black and white worlds, but how it makes our love keen! I am reminded of Voznesensky’s poem about pressured lovers being like two shells enclosing their pain but also their intense joy at being permitted by the gods such magnificent, almost heroic emotion.

How I would have been bored as a preacher’s wife!

Now that I’ve found my voice is big enough, occasionally, for two, there is so much to write about that I could not before. There is the growing animosity which blacks in Jackson have towards whites - but not towards the white Mississippi crackers who deserve it, but towards the white civil rights workers who in my opinion do not.

I am thinking now of how Ronnie’s head was split open by a young kid up in Bolivar. Ronnie! Who has worked his ass off every summer in Mississippi hauling black people to the polls -  because he is white and the black kid knew he wouldn’t fight back and wouldn’t call the police! It is so unfair. And then poor Ted Seaver, beaten to a pulp because he was a more effective organizer than his black “friend.” And then there is the black man from Boston who left his family to come work in Mississippi (wife, children; why didn’t he “work” in Roxbury, it needs it as much as Mound Bayou?) who threatened to beat up my husband? If he ever tried it I’d want to murder him and there’s no question I’d want Mel to press charges. Enough is enough! As far as I’m concerned, as long as Mel works to change this world into a better one he’s guilty of nothing. And of course to me there are no white people only white minds. Malcolm learned this, I suspect Baldwin knew it all along. How could my husband be white when we are together trying to make the world fit for our brown babies, our friends who are different colors outside but black by choice?

Barbara objected to Mel’s confidence in this country’s capacity to repress any black uprising. But she and I have said the same thing, made the same dour observation. After all this time though she resents hearing him say it as a white man. And though it is easy to understand her resentment, we are very hurt  - was it because we thought that among our small circle of friends we had abolished the concept of color based on skin color alone?’

11 April 1970
‘Jackson, Mississippi. I guess I really am a queer fish. When I write poems, as I’ve done at a brisk rate for the past 4 hours, they come to me out of locked rooms - out of nowhere. It is the oddest thing! I feel hot, in the same way I imagine a poker player must feel hot. But what bothers me is my constant bouts of depression. Am I going crazy? What is wrong? Am I simply bitchy? I think I will make an effort to get away for a little while. I feel locked inside myself. I feel cramped. And yet when did I ever have more? Somehow that is the problem. I am insecure or else a raging feminist. I resent so many small things - and god knows I don’t want to be picayune.

Hurray! The novel is done - the galleys done, the book jacket already printed (according to Hiram). I cannot believe it - How long it has been, almost three years!

Now I have so many questions going around in my head. Who to send what stuff to. Isn’t that a switch?

Who am I? Why did I lose my wedding ring? Why do I go passive & get headachy so often?’

21 August 1973
‘So now I know - it is possible to fall in love (all over again, or perhaps for the first time) with one’s husband! Because I am in love with Mel. I am becoming sexually awakened truly for the first time. Liking sex and easy about it. It has probably been hard work over the years for Mel - luckily it was work he enjoyed.

Ruth tells me that Mama says “nothing happened” when she made love with Daddy until after Curtis was born, when she was in her thirties. Perhaps it is true that women develop later than they seem to.’

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