Alice Walker is standing on a small boat, called "The Audacity of Love." The vessel is part of Freedom Flotilla II, an international group of boats protesting Israel’s 2011 blockage of Gaza. Despite the dangers of the conflict zone, this is not the first time Walker has travelled to Gaza to promote peace.
Walker’s repeated involvement in Middle East protests might surprise many, as she is better known for her pioneering role as a fiction and feminist writer. However, Walker has long dedicated her life to forging equality and peace, both through her writing and through political activism, as filmmaker Pritabha Parmar shows. Parmar screened her documentary, Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth, at Stanford on January 29.
Parmar’s film highlights Walker’s diverse body of literary work and activism, ensuring, in her words, that Walker’s “legacy is kept alive for future generations.” The film explores Walker’s literary career ranging from the critically acclaimed The Color Purple, to her lesser-known first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland. In the film, Walker shares her personal goals and life lessons, while figures like Gloria Steinem, Steven Spielberg, and Danny Glover discuss Walker's wider impact on American culture. Parmar also reveals Walker’s compassion for communities across the globe and highlights the mutually reinforcing relationship between Walker’s activism and authorship.
Beauty in Truth chronicles Walker’s childhood on a former Georgia plantation, the adolescent experiences that shaped her as an activist and writer, and her journey to becoming one the twentieth century’s most important literary figures. The film also highlights the integral role she has played in shaping Americans’ perceptions of race, class, gender, and sexuality in recent decades.
The writer spent her childhood in the specter of slavery, as the eighth child of a sharecropping family in Putnam County, Georgia. In 1961, Walker earned a scholarship to Spelman College in Atlanta. As she enrolled in the historically black college for women, the civil rights movement erupted. Many black college students, including Walker, flocked to the March on Washington and participated in massive protests and sit-ins across the south.
Walker’s ascent as a national literary figure paralleled the rise of civil rights to the national stage, as Parmar's film shows. Coming of age in the early 1960s, Walker joined in the protests, as the rich tradition of resistance in southern black communities coalesced into a national movement. Like many other students who left their homes and universities to organize, in 1966 she moved to Mississippi to help local African Americans register to vote and to work with welfare rights campaigns. Walker broke the mold by her marriage to Mel Leventhal—the two lived as one of the first married interracial couples in Mississippi while organizing for the movement. Beauty in Truth punctuates Walker’s defiance with interviews with Leventhal, who emphasizes the courage Walker exhibited in both her personal and professional life.
In novels like The Color Purple and Meridian, Walker explored the rich culture of southern life, race and gender in the south, and civil rights organizing. These novels feature African American women protagonists that redefine women’s roles, shape debates about injustice, and ponder their freedom as African Americans and as women. For example, the character of Meridian Hill, a young college student, joins the civil rights movement and becomes romantically involved with a movement leader. As the novel progresses, and Meridian faces complex choices about motherhood, education, and reproductive rights—ultimately, she chooses activism over motherhood.
In addition to winning numerous awards including the Pulitzer Prize, Walker’s fiction engages in questions of inequality, resistance, power, and culture. By connecting Walker's early novels with her recent activism, Parmar’s film shows how Walker's work extends past its southern roots, calling on Americans to debate the role of race, womanhood, and resistance in social movements and the larger society today.
In her non-fiction essay, “In Search of Our Mothers Gardens,” Walker remarks that African American women, “have, more often than not anonymously, handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see….” She speaks of the many nameless African American women artists whose creativity was muted, but never extinguished, by racism, patriarchy, and poverty.
Walker has dedicated her life to growing this spark that has been handed down, sowing seeds of creativity and activism in multiple communities. After Mississippi, she relocated to New York City where she played a critical role as an editor at Ms. Magazine during the height of the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s, fostering a space for African American women writers. As human rights struggles took hold in Africa and Asia, Walker boldly foregrounded the oppression of women internationally, examining the effects of female genital mutilation in Africa in her 1992 novel, Possessing the Secret of Joy.
Walker continues to travel the world to support those who are economically, politically, and socially oppressed today. Beauty in Truth documents Walker's work with AIDS victims in Africa as well as her protests to end violence in the Middle East. It also reveals how she fosters the literary activism and creativity of others through ventures like her feminist publishing company, Wild Trees Press.
Walker’s commitment to fostering creativity and ending oppression has placed her at the vanguard of many of the most important human rights struggles of the last fifty years. Walker has remarked, “All history is current; all injustice continues on some level, somewhere in the world.” Beauty in Truth shows Walker’s commitment to rewriting this history while expanding the meaning of activism and compassion.