Alice Walker has been called one of the major international writers of the 20th century. She made history as the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1983 for her novel “The Color Purple,” one of the few literary works to capture the popular imagination and leave a permanent imprint.
The documentary “Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth” premieres on PBS’ “American Masters” series on Friday at 9 p.m.
KW: I learned so much about you from the film. For instance, I was surprised to hear that Howard Zinn had been a professor of yours in college.
AW: He was already teaching at Spelman [College] when I arrived as a freshperson. I took his class the following year, because I had gone to the Soviet Union and wanted to learn more about Russia, and I think he was the only person in all of Atlanta who knew anything about Russian literature, which I loved. He was teaching Russian literature, the language, and some of the politics. We became really good friends when I took his class, but then he was fired.
KW: For doing more than just teaching.
AW: He helped us desegregate Atlanta. That was moving because he took a lot of abuse for that. He and Staughton Lynd, a fellow professor who was also from the North, stood with us. They were certainly behind us. In fact, they often stood in front of us. This had a huge impact on me. But one of the reasons I was very careful about speaking about the relationship I had with him and Staughton was because, in a racist society, if you acknowledge a deep love for and a deep debt owed to White teachers, they tend to discredit your own parents and your own community. And I was very unhappy about that because I come from somewhere and from specific black people in the South, including my parents, who built our first school, and rebuilt it after it was burned to the ground.
KW: What was it like dealing with the blowback for the next several years coming from critics who said “The Color Purple” was anti-Black men?
AW: It actually lasted for a decade. How could you imagine that people could be mad at you for so long? I felt a great deal of weariness. But because it wasn’t the first time that I had been heavily criticized, I learned that you just keep going and turn to other things.
KW: How do you feel about President Obama’s presidency thus far?
AW: I’m very disappointed in Obama. I was very much in support of him in the beginning, but I cannot support war. I cannot support droning. I cannot support capitulating to the banks. I cannot support his caving in to Netanyahu [Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu]. There’s a long list of this administration’s initiatives that I find unsupportable. I think many black people support him because they’re so happy to have handsome black man in the White House.