Alice Walker Reflects on Working Toward Peace
activism-cultural, political, spiritual-is rooted in my
love of nature and my delight in human beings. It is when
people are at peace, content, full, that they are most likely
to meet my expectations, selfish, no doubt, that they be
a generous, joyous, even entertaining experience for me.
I believe people exist to be enjoyed, much as a restful
or engaging view might be. As the ocean or drifting clouds
might be. Or as if they were the human equivalent of melons,
mangoes, or any other kind of attractive, seductive fruit.
When I am in the presence of other human beings I want to
revel in their creative and intellectual fullness, their
uninhibited social warmth. I want their precious human radiance
to wrap me in light. I do not want fear of war or starvation
or bodily mutilation to steal both my pleasure in them and
their own birthright. Everything I would like other people
to be for me, I want to be for them.
I have been an activist all my adult life, though I have
sometimes felt embarrassed to call myself one. In the sixties,
many of us were plagued by the notion that, given the magnitude
of the task before us-the dismantling of American apartheid-our
individual tasks were puny. There was also the apparent
reality that the most committed, most directly confrontational
people suffered more. The most "revolutionary"
often ended up severely beaten, in prison, or dead. Shot
down in front of their children, blown up in cars or in
church, run over by racist drunks, raped, and thrown in
In Mississippi, where I lived from 1967 to 1974, people
who challenged the system anticipated menace, battery, even
murder, every day. In this context, I sometimes felt ashamed
that my contributions at the time were not more radical.
I taught in two local black colleges, I wrote about the
Movement, and I created tiny history booklets which were
used to teach the teachers of children enrolled in Head
Start. And, of course, I was interracially married, which
was illegal. It was perhaps in Mississippi during those
years that I understood how the daily news of disaster can
become, for the spirit, a numbing assault, and that one's
own activism, however modest, fighting against this tide
of death, provides at least the possibility of generating
a different kind of "news." A "news"
that empowers rather than defeats.
There is always a moment in any kind of struggle when
one feels in full bloom. Vivid. Alive. One might be blown
to bits in such a moment and still be at peace. Martin Luther
King Jr. at the mountaintop. Gandhi dying with the name
of God on his lips. Sojourner Truth baring her breasts at
a women's rights convention in 1851. Harriet Tubman exposing
her revolver to some of the slaves she had freed, who, fearing
an unknown freedom, looked longingly backward to their captivity,
thereby endangering the freedom of all. To be such a person
witness anyone at this moment of transcendent presence is
to know that what is human is linked, by a daring comparison,
to what is divine. During my years of being close to people
engaged in changing the world, I have seen fear turn into
courage. Sorrow into joy. Funerals into celebrations. Because
whatever the consequences, people, standing side by side,
have expressed who they really are, and that ultimately
they believe in the love of the world and each other enough
to be that-which is the foundation of activism.
It has become a common feeling, I believe, as we have
watched our heroes falling over the years, that our own
small stone of activism, which might not seem to measure
up to the rugged boulders of heroism we have so admired,
is a paltry offering toward the building of an edifice of
hope. Many who believe this choose to withhold their offerings
out of shame. This is the tragedy of the world.
For we can do nothing substantial toward changing our
course on the planet, a destructive one, without rousing
ourselves, individual by individual, and bringing our small,
imperfect stones to the pile.
In this regard, I have a story to tell. In the mid-sixties
during a voter registration campaign in south Georgia, my
canvassing partner, Beverly, a local black teenager, was
arrested on a bogus moving-violation charge. This was meant
to intimidate her, "show her her place," and terrify
her family. Those of us who feared for her safety during
the night held a vigil outside the jail. I remember the
raw vulnerability I felt as the swaggering state troopers-each
of them three times Beverly's size, and mine-stomped in
and out of the building, scowling at us. The feeling of
solidarity with Beverly and our friends was strong, but
also the feeling of being alone, as it occurred to me that
not even my parents knew where I was. We were black and
very young; we knew no one in white America paid the slightest
attention to the deaths of such as us. It was partly because
of this that we sometimes resented the presence of the white
people who came to stand, and take their chances, with us.
I was one of those to whom such resentment came easily.
I especially resented blond Paul from Minnesota, whose
Aryan appearance meant, when he was not with us, freedom
and almost worship in the race-obsessed South. I had treated
him with coolness since the day we met. We certainly did
not invite him to our vigil. And yet, at just the moment
I felt most downhearted, I heard someone coming along the
street in our direction, whistling. A moment later, Paul
appeared. Still whistling a Movement spiritual that sounded
strange, even comical, on his lips, he calmly took his place
beside us. Knowing his Nordic presence meant a measure of
safety for us, and without being asked, he offered it. This
remains a moment bright as any I recall from that time.
As a poet and writer, I used to think being an activist
and writing about it "demoted" me to the level
of "mere journalist." Now I know that, as with
the best journalists, activism is often my muse. And that
it is organic. Grounded in my mother's love of beauty, the
well-tended garden and the carefully swept yard, her satisfaction
in knowing everyone in her environment was sheltered and
fed; and in my father's insistence, even as a poor black
man, easily "disappeared" for any political activity,
that black people deserved the vote, black children deserved
All we own, at least for the short time we have it, is
our life. With it we write what we come to know of the world.
I believe the Earth is good. That people, untortured by
circumstance or fate, are also good. I do not believe the
people of the world are naturally my enemies, or that animals,
including snakes, are, or that Nature is. Whenever I experience
evil, and it is not, unfortunately, uncommon to experience
it in these times, my deepest feeling is disappointment.
I have learned to accept the fact that we risk disappointment,
disillusionment, even despair, every time we act. Every
time we decide to believe the world can be better. Every
time we decide to trust others to be as noble as we think
they are. And that there might be years during which our
grief is equal to, or even greater than, our hope. The alternative,
however, not to act, and therefore to miss experiencing
other people at their best, reaching toward their fullness,
has never appealed to me.
I have learned other things: One is the futility of expecting
anyone, including oneself, to be perfect. People who go
about seeking to change the world, to diminish suffering,
to demonstrate any kind of enlightenment, are often as flawed
as anybody else. Sometimes more so. But it is the awareness
of having faults, I think, and the knowledge that this links
us to everyone on Earth, that opens us to courage and compassion.
It occurs to me often that many of those I deeply love are
flawed. They might actually have said or done some of the
mean things I've felt, heard, read about, or feared. But
it is their struggle with the flaw, surprisingly endearing,
and the going on anyhow, that is part of what I cherish
Sometimes our stones are, to us, misshapen, odd. Their
color seems off. Their singing, like Paul's whistling, comical
and strange. Presenting them, we perceive our own imperfect
nakedness. But also, paradoxically, the wholeness, the rightness,
of it. In the collective vulnerability of presence, we learn
not to be afraid.
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