Alice Walker was born on February 9, 1944, in the small rural town of Eatonton, Georgia. She was the eighth and last child of Willie Lee Walker and Minnie Tallulah Grant, two sharecroppers. Walker’s parents’ experiences with the oppressive sharecropping system and the racism of the American South deeply influenced Walker’s writing and life’s work. When Walker was eight, one of her brothers accidentally shot her, permanently blinding her in one eye. Ashamed of her facial disfigurement, Walker isolated herself from other children, reading and writing to pass the time.
In 1961, on a scholarship for disabled students, Walker enrolled in Spelman College in Atlanta, where she became active in the A-frican-American civil rights movement. Two years later, Walker transferred to Sarah Lawrence College in New York and eventually traveled to Uganda as an exchange student. When she returned for her senior year, Walker was shocked to learn that she was pregnant, and, afraid of her parents’ reaction, she considered suicide. However, a classmate helped Walker obtain a safe abortion, and she graduated from Sarah Lawrence in 1965. At this time, Walker composed two early landmark pieces: “To Hell with Dying,” her first published short story, and Once: Poems, her first volume of poetry.
Walker continued her involvement with the civil rights movement after graduation, working as a volunteer on black voter registration drives in Georgia and Mississippi in 1965 and 1966. In 1967, Walker married Melvyn Leventhal, a Jewish civil rights lawyer, with whom she had one daughter before the two divorced in the mid-1970s. Walker’s second novel, Meridian, explored the controversial issue of sexism in the civil rights movement.
In 1982, Walker published her most famous novel, The Color Purple. For the novel, which chronicles the struggle of several black women in rural Georgia in the first half of the twentieth century, Walker won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award. In 1985, a Steven Spielberg film based on the novel was released to wide audiences and significant acclaim.
Upon its publication, The Color Purple unleashed a storm of controversy. It instigated heated debates about black cultural representation, as a number of male African-American critics complained that the novel reaffirmed old racist stereotypes about pathology in black communities and of black men in particular. Critics also charged Walker with focusing heavily on sexism at the expense of addressing notions of racism in America. Nonetheless, The Color Purple also had its ardent supporters, especially among black women and others who praised the novel as a feminist fable. The heated disputes surrounding The Color Purple are a testimony to the resounding effects the work has had on cultural and racial discourse in the United States.
Walker’s 1992 novel, Possessing the Secret of Joy, concerns the marriage of Adam and Tashi—two characters who make their first appearance in The Color Purple—and the consequences of Tashi’s decision to undergo the traditional African ritual of female circumcision. Walker has continued to explore the unique problems that face black women in both in the United States and Africa. Her novels, poetry, essays, and criticism have become an important part in a burgeoning tradition of talented black women writers.