Humanist Women in History: Alice Walker

Humanist Women in History: Alice Walker

March is Women’s History Month in the United States, the UK, and Australia. In commemoration we bring you part two of this year’s four-part series, Humanist Women in History. Read last week’s profile on Mathilde Krim here. Last year’s five-part series is here.

“I left formal religion when I was thirteen in favor of the forest.”

–Alice Walker


Alice Walker (photo by Noah Berger)

Author and activist Alice Walker was born on February 9, 1944, in Eatonton, Georgia, the youngest child of a poor sharecropping family. Her parents prioritized education. Walker’s mother reportedly enrolled her in first grade when she was just four years old, and Alice began writing privately at the age of eight. Around that time one of Alice’s brothers had shot her in the eye with a BB gun. She lost vision in that eye and scar tissue formed over the surface—something she was teased about and which contributed to her seeking solace in writing. The scar tissue was removed when Walker was fourteen, and she later said that the injury had allowed her to “really to see people and things… to notice relationships and to learn to be patient enough to care about how they turned out.”

Walker graduated from high school in 1962 as valedictorian and attended Spellman College in Atlanta before transferring Sarah Lawrence College in New York. The year before she graduated in 1966, she got pregnant and underwent an abortion, after which she suffered from depression. She spent the summer of 1965 in East Africa where she channeled her emotions into poems that became part of her first collection, titled Once and published in 1968.

Throughout the 1960s, Walker was active in the civil rights movement. In 1967 she married civil rights attorney Melvyn Leventhal in New York and they later moved to Mississippi (the first legally married interracial couple in the state), where she was involved in voter registration drives, public assistance campaigns, and other activities. She and Leventhal had a daughter, Rebecca, in 1969 and divorced in 1976.

In the 1970s Walker published two novels, a short story collection, and two volumes of poetry; served as an editor at Ms. Magazine; and taught at the college level in both Mississippi and Massachusetts before moving to Northern California. During the 1980s she published another short story collection, a volume of poetry, two collections of essays, and two novels, including the Pulitzer-Prize winning The Color Purple. In all, she’s written thirteen novels or short story collections, nine poetry collections, and a dozen non-fiction books, the last of which was The Cushion in the Road: Meditation and Wandering as the Whole World Awakens to Be in Harm’s Way (2013).

In 1997 Walker was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association. In his excellent review of the 2013 PBS documentary, Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth, Fred Edwords writes:

It’s important to remember why the American Humanist Association honored her with its Humanist of the Year Award in 1997, doing so after Walker had faced criticism for depicting black male domestic violence in her novel The Color Purple (1982) and for demystifying Africa by casting a light on female genital mutilation in Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992). She had dared to question, to challenge assumptions, both black and white, and to expose unpleasant realities. It’s what good humanists do.

“The struggle to liberate one’s self, one’s spirit, is often long and difficult,” she said in her Humanist of the Year acceptance speech.

And even though I knew when I was thirteen that I preferred nature to the church, still—because of my conditioning, my parents’ conditioning, my grandparents’ conditioning—it was very difficult  to work out all of the reasons and then to create a form so that other people could understand this particular process and this liberation.