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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Search for Identity Alice Walker (b. 1944)

[6187] Anonymous, Congress to Unite Women, May 1, 2, 3, ’70: Intermediate School, 333 W. 17 St., N.Y.C. (1970), courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Born in rural Eatonton, Georgia, but educated in the North, Alice Walker has been able to analyze the rural South, the focus of most of her writing, as both an insider and an outsider. In her works, which include novels, short stories, poetry collections, and essays, she has drawn inspiration from her own life experiences, including an abortion and a visit to Africa while she was attending Sarah Lawrence College. Walker also participated actively in the civil rights movement, during which she met civil rights lawyer Mel Leventhal. After she and Leventhal married, they fought discrimination against their interracial relationship. As a professor at Wellesley College, Walker taught one of the first women’s studies courses in the nation, and she has been integral in bringing greater attention and appreciation to the work of early-twentieth-century anthropologist and writer Zora Neale Hurston, who, like Walker, skillfully wove folk materials into her narratives.

Walker won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for her best-known novel, 1982’s The Color Purple, which in 1985 was transformed into a successful movie starring Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey. In The Color Purple, Celie, an African American woman, learns to assert her rights in relationship to her husband and comes to terms with her desire for another woman, Shug. While Walker has sought to describe black women’s struggles to find agency and self-determination, she was criticized for too harshly portraying black men in the novel, a charge that shocked and dismayed her.

Walker’s works include In Love and Trouble (1973), Meridian (1976), In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (1983), and Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992).

Teaching Tips

  • Start by asking your students what kinds of heirlooms their families have, if any, and why they’re meaningful. Pay attention to their reasons: some students may provide sentimental reasons (like Maggie’s), some may provide “cultural” reasons (like Dee/Wangero’s), and some may provide financial reasons (“it may be worth something someday”).
  • Students might be interested in thinking about the quilt as an heirloom in relation to the phenomenon of “antiquing.” You could start this discussion by talking about the PBS television series Antiques Roadshow. On the show, people bring family heirlooms, relics from their attics, mysterious found objects, and the like to antique appraisers. Usually, an object’s owners tell the story of how the object came into their possession, and then the appraisers explain the object’s cultural history (as far as they can tell) and provide estimates of its financial worth. Each episode of the show thus demonstrates many different types of valuation: personal (family stories, family heirlooms, sentimental value), cultural (historical value, the antique’s place in larger narratives about the country, wars, places, etc.), and financial. What makes some antiques more “valuable” than others? Whose definition of “value” is most important? And why are television viewers so interested in watching other peoples’ junk be appraised?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: The story begins with a dedication that reads: “For Your Grandmamma.” How does this dedication shape your understanding of the text? Who does the “your” refer to here: the reader? Someone in the story? And why “Grandmamma”? What is being suggested here?
  2. Comprehension: Why does the story begin with such a detailed description of the yard?
  3. Comprehension: Why have Dee and her boyfriend changed their names to “Wangero” and “Hakim-a-barber”? Why did Dee reject her birth name? What is the significance of the new names? Also, consider Dee/Wangero’s new clothes.
  4. Context: Closely read Walker’s descriptions of the family’s house and compare it to [7030], a photograph taken in 1958. These two houses were categorized as “good enough for Negro occupancy” (later, a housing project was built in their place). What does “good enough” mean? “Read” the photo, as well. What is behind the girl in the foreground? Note her clothes, her stance. Consider the condition of both the house and the yard.
  5. Context: Consider the quilts as “collages” of the family’s history. What different elements are brought together in the quilt? You might also consider how the quilts serve as memorials to earlier generations. Are the quilts more a memorial to a person, Grandma, as Maggie seems to believe, or a culture, as Dee/Wangero seems to believe?
  6. Context: Dee/Wangero seems to feel contempt for her family because they have not, in her opinion, “progressed” into modernity. Compare her anxieties to those expressed in phrases about “F.O.B.” Chinese Americans in Maxine Hong Kingston’s Tripmaster Monkey. Discuss these characters’ fears of seeming unassimilated, unsophisticated, and uncultured.
  7. Exploration: Early in the story the narrator offers a frank description of herself as a “big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands.” She goes on to catalog her various features. Why does she do this? What is she trying to suggest and what does she ultimately accomplish by revealing these things about herself? Do you think that her self-description is meant to convince the reader that she is a certain type of person and, therefore, to be trusted? Are certain types of people inherently more trustworthy than others?
  8. Exploration: When Dee/Wangero arrives at her mother’s homestead, she begins collecting the things she wants to bring back with her. What do the things she wants tell us about her? What does she want to do with them, and why are her intentions here significant?
  9. Exploration: How might we read the argument between Dee/Wangero and her mother over the quilts as a commentary on the function of art and/or heritage? What is each character suggesting about the meaning and purpose of the quilts? What does each believe they should be “used” for? Does the text encourage us to side with one or the other? If so, how does it manipulate our sympathies?
  10. Exploration: Two characters in a story can be called “doubles” when they represent two perspectives about one issue. Some readers have suggested that Maggie and Dee/Wangero are doubles who embody different positions in mid- to late-twentieth-century debates about African American culture and progress. Consider Maggie’s statement that “I can ‘member Grandma Dee without the quilts” and Dee/Wangero’s statement, “You just don’t understand . . . your heritage. It’s really a new day for us.”

Selected Archive Items

[3090] Harriet Powers, Pictorial Quilt (c. 1895-98), 
courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Copyright 2002 MFA, Boston. Harriet Powers (American, 1837-1911). United States (Athens, Georgia), 1895-98, pieced, appliqued, and printed cotton embroidered with cotton and metallic yarns, 175 x 266.7 cm (68 7/8 x 105 in.), Museum of Fine Arts Boston, bequest of Maxim Karolik, 64.619. 
Many slave and freed women used quilts to record their histories. Some quilts communicated messages: for example, quilts using the color black indicated a safe house on the Underground Railroad. Like slave narrative authors, African American quilters often used biblical themes and references in their work.

[4819] Alan Lomax, Zora Neale Hurston, Rochelle French, and Gabriel Brown, Eatonville, Florida (1935), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ61-1777 DLC]. Used with the permission of the Estate of Zora Neale Hurston. 
Hurston is pictured here interviewing residents of her hometown, the all-black community of Eatonville. While studying at Barnard, Hurston worked with renowned anthropologist Franz Boas and, in 1927, under Boas’s direction, traveled to Louisiana and southern Florida to study and collect African American folktales. The Eatonville Anthology, an anthropologically based narrative, sketches vivid images of Hurston’s hometown and reveals her skill as an anthropologist.

[6187] Anonymous, Congress to Unite Women, May 1, 2, 3, ’70: Intermediate School, 333 W. 17 St., N.Y.C. (1970), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress. 
From the same year that Toni Morrison and Alice Walker published their first novels, this poster calls women to one of the many conferences organized to formulate plans of action against the web of racial, heterosexual, and patriarchal oppression. In her article “Playing in the Dark,” Morrison writes: “My work requires me to think about how free I can be as an African-American woman writer in my genderized, sexualized, and wholly radicalized world. [F]or me, imagining is not merely looking or looking at; nor is it taking oneself intact into the other. It is, for the purpose of the work, becoming.”

[6949] Harriet Powers, Bible Quilt (c. 1886), 
courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History. 
Harriet Powers, a black woman from Athens, Georgia, made quilts like this one before and after her emancipation. Her biblical scenes reflect how both slaves and freed people turned to Christianity to interpret their hard circumstances and find hope.

[7030] Anonymous, These Two Houses Were Among the Structures in Washington, D.C. . . . (1958), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-124134]. 
These two Washington, D.C., houses were classed as “good enough” for occupancy by African Americans until they were demolished so that a housing project could be built in their place. In the foreground a young girl stands near an old wooden well.

[8958] Alice Walker, Interview: “Rhythms in Poetry” (2003), 
courtesy of American Passages and Annenberg Media. 
Author Alice Walker discusses Langston Hughes’s writing.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey

Credits

Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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