Once upon a time – it seems that long ago – I was working on a Master of Fine Arts (MFA). I was reading Alice Walker. She had accused Black men, specifically Black male authors, of not reading Black women authors, adding that Black women read everything that came down the pike that Black men wrote. So, I set out to read even more Black women authors. I began with Alice Walker. I read her first two collections of short stories, and then her first three novels, the third being “The Color Purple.” As a Black male it is hard to read Alice Walker, which led me to flirting with the idea of going after my MFA. Since I had read Walker’s first five books, I said I might as well write my thesis on her fictional world. For me, titles are important. In fact, before I begin any writing, I begin with a title in mind. My working title for Walker’s work was, “A Good Black Man is Hard to Find: The Pathological World of Alice Walker’s World.” In Walker’s first five books, those two collections of short stories, and three novels, there is so much violence against Black women. One Black father cuts off the breasts of his college-going daughter because she is dating a white male! The violence against Black women is off the chart! There is not one good Black man in Alice Walker’s “fictional” world. And although Walker, in an interview, states that she is not writing “protest novels,” as some Black male authors have, in a very strong way her writing is a protest against the violence against Black women, by both white and Black males. But Black males bear the brunt of Walker’s ire. To state that Walker’s world sickened me is not hyperbole. If there was a shred of truth in Walker’s World, then we were in very bad shape. I think that I am a good Black man, and I know many good Black men, including my father, who grew up in the Jim Crow South and served in the segregated U.S. Army during World War II, despite how white America attacked Black manhood. My father was the best he could be given the world he was born into. When I think of all the stories of Black fathers missing in action, I think of my father, who was always there and, historically, I think of all the Black fathers who were fathers to all the children Black women bore as a result of the rape of white men for hundreds of years during slavery. But that’s another story!
The Black male with the most redeeming qualities in Alice Walker’s World is Grange Copeland, in “The Third Life of Grange Copeland.” In his first two “lives,” Grange gets nothing right, especially fatherhood. In his “third” life Grange has to kill the son, Brownfield, that he has turned into a monster, in large part because of his absence from his son’s life. Brownfield has killed his wife, and after a bit in prison he is released and is intent on destroying his daughter, Ruth. This is when Grange knows beyond a reasonable doubt that he has to kill his son in order to stop the cycle of violence, with an act of violence.
Having made it through five of Walker’s books, having diagnosed her, I was ready to commit her to a hospital for the criminally insane, or I would end up there myself! I came to the conclusion that I was not Walker’s intended audience, and I was okay with that, but I felt like I was a target, and for that reason perhaps I was part of her intended audience. And then I read this book; and then it all made sense. With a clarity even her harshest critics couldn’t deny, Walker lays it out in her collection of nonfiction, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose.” It was then that I got it. For Walker, it really doesn’t matter what happens to Black men in the whole wide world. There’s no excuse to come home and take it out on their women and children.
I am still going to read Alice Walker, Eric, 🙂
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As you should!
Wow!!! Thank you Eric for this honest, deep discussion about your reading of Alice Walker. As a black man, I too find it hard to stomach this aspect of Walker’s writing. I don’t know much about Walker’s life, but I wonder if an exploration of her experience would shed some light as to why this was such a dominant theme in her writing. Did she grow up in an abusive home where she was continually exposed to male violence? Perhaps there are other explanations? If Grange Copeland is the male character with the most redeeming qualities in her early work, one wonders if her later work explored other aspects of black men. Certainly, we can all agree with the conclusion that nothing justifies violence against women, but Walker can make that point without making most of her male characters violent abusers. Thank you for this post! It will force me to read Walker again!
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Brother Mark, in Brownfield I saw the origins of Mister from “The Color Purple.” If you haven’t read “The Third Life of Grange Copeland,” then if you read it you’ll see part of the origin story of Mister.