Monday, October 31, 2011

Another Reader-Requested Piece: Reflections on Alice Walker's Significance for Me

I blogged recently about my response to Rembert Weakland's book A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church, noting that I was doing so because a reader of a previous posting about Weakland had invited me to read Weakland's memoir and then write about my response to the book.  Today, I want to fulfill another promise to a reader of this blog whose feedback I also value.

Recently, Pratibha Parmar contacted me after having read my several postings this past summer about Alice Walker and her book The Chicken Chronicles: Sitting with the Angels Who Have Returned with My Memories: Glorious, Rufus, Gertrude Stein, Splendor, Hortensia, Agnes of God, the Gladyses & Babe: A Memoir (NY: New Press, 2011) (click on the label "Alice Walker" beneath the posting if you want to retrieve these).  Pratibha (who's an award-winning filmmaker) told me of an important project in which she's now involved--making a documentary film about the life of Alice Walker.  The film's title is "Alice Walker, Beauty in Truth," and this website contains an overview of this significant project, along with biographical information about Pratibha Parmar.

As Pratibha and I emailed back and forth about her wonderful work to document Alice Walker's life, she asked if I might consider writing a posting about Walker's significance for me, and how I came to value her work.  I told Pratibha that I'd be delighted to do this, and for some weeks now, I've been thinking about when and how I first encountered the work of Alice Walker, and why I have kept assiduously reading her from the early 1980s forward, when she published The Color Purple, up to now.

And here's the story I've pieced together in my memory: if I'm not mistaken, Alice Walker's work may actually have first come on my radar screen in the late 1970s, when James Cone and Gayraud Wilmore published their rich overview of sources of black theology, Black Theology: A Documentary History (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1979).  I was in grad school in Toronto at the time, studying theology, and as I focused on academic issues like hermeneutics of suspicion and the circle of theory and praxis--as I focused on academic and theoretical aspects of theology, I intend to say--it began to be increasingly clear to me that I needed to reflect on the path that had brought me to the academic study of theology.

I needed to focus on the experiential, real-life path that had led me to read the heavily intellectualized  works I was being challenged to read in the field of theology.  And since, for me, that experiential path had necessarily led right through the heart of the Civil Rights struggle in the American South, in which I had come of age, I decided that it was critical for my self-education that I begin to think about and struggle with theological statements by African-American theologians.  And with my own racism--a never-finished struggle I had begun to undertake as a young adolescent watching dramatic changes in the world around me in the 1960s, as one historic racial barrier after another fell in the society in which I had grown up.

One of the courses I took as I completed my master's degree and started doctoral work was a course in third-world Christianity and the theologies of liberation it was spawning.  The course was offered at Trinity College, one of the two Anglican schools that, along with other denominational schools in association with the University of Toronto, constituted the Toronto School of Theology.  One of the primary attractions of the Toronto School of Theology for me was its ecumenical composition and its encouragement of students to take courses at any of the member institutions of the consortium--though by the time I began doing my work at the University of St. Michael's College, a move was already underway to lean on students to focus primarily on the two Catholic schools of the consortium, and to invest less time than had previously been the case in taking classes at the non-Catholic schools.

I resisted these pressures, even when, as I recall, one of my classmates asked if I really was Catholic, since I insisted on taking classes in those non-Catholic schools.  I insisted on the right the consortium afforded me to take courses in its member schools, as well as in the University of Toronto, and I took courses in almost all of these schools because the personal journey I had undertaken when I realized that the study of theology was, for me, a matter of wrestling with the roots of my own faith, and not a head trip, required me to engage in conversations that crossed confessional boundaries.  And to try to understand perspectives different from my own, from my own faith tradition.

Hence that course in third-world Christianity and its many liberation theologies, at an Anglican college: as that semester unfolded and I worked with the instructor on ideas for a summary paper for the course, it began to occur to me that there was something strange about my studying and writing about, say, theologies of liberation in Africa, when my theological education (and personal theological reflection) had given insufficient attention to the indigenous African-American theologies of liberation right in my own backyard.

And so I asked the course instructor if I might write my final paper for the course on black theology in the U.S., and if I might develop the paper as a personal reflection on my experience having grown up during the Civil Rights movement in the American South, as black theologies of liberation reshaped my entire society and my own personal experience in profound ways.  He agreed to permit me to undertake such a study, and it was in this context that I read Cone and Wilmore's book.

And as I did so, unless my memory is awry, I encountered Alice Walker's classic essay, "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens," which Walker had first published in 1974, if I'm not mistaken, and which has been republished numerous times since then in various collections of essays, including the Cone and Wilmore book, and by Walker herself as the title essay in a collection of her essays.  (I keep saying "unless my memory is awry," and "if I'm not mistaken" for the following reason: around 2000, Steve and I gave both of our entire theology libraries to Philander Smith College, a small African-American college in Little Rock, and I no longer have the books about which I'm speaking from memory here at my fingertips.)

I do remember clearly having read Cone and Wilmore's book for the work I did in that course in the late 1970s.  What's fuzzier for me is the following: I'm not entirely sure that the original version of the Cone and Wilmore book included Walker's essay, though I'm fairly sure later editions did.  I make that observation for the following reason: I can remember an illuminating brief introductory essay by Cone for the section of the book that included essays representing black womanist thinking, in which Cone noted that black theology in its earliest historical roots (and he himself, in his earliest work) had tended to ignore the contributions and perspectives of women.  Just as Latin American liberation theology, in its earliest roots, also tended to ignore women's contributions and perspectives, and treated gender analysis and analysis of the inequities of power among men and women as a soft bourgeois concern that distracts those seeking social transformation from the real forms of oppression that demand most attention, which are economic and social . . . .

And so, at whatever point I encountered Walker's classic essay, what became fixed in my mind as I read it was its stunning argument for the indispensability of hearing the voices of women--and, in particular, of women pushed outside circles of power and influence in any society, who often bear the brunt of the work to sustain those circles of power and influence which demand their silence.  I can recall vividly that it was in Walker's essay that I first encountered the work of Zora Neale Hurston, and her provocative, unforgettable phrase that black women have been made the mule of the world by many societies--those who do the back-breaking labor, who engage in the ceaseless and thankless task of caring for the young and elderly and sick, and who are expected never to have thoughts, insights, and voices of their own as they tread their unending treadmill of chores.

But then, there are those gardens: into which, as Walker powerfully observes, so much creativity is poured.  Creativity that points back to the monumental wellsprings of creativity inside the minds and hearts of these women turned by social structures into mute mules.  Creativity that, if it were ever allowed even the slightest constructive outlet within social structures, would change the world.

Whenever I encountered these ideas--whether in the 1979 edition of the Cone-Wilmore book or some later version of it--they became foundational for me, and I'll always associate them with Alice Walker.  And they rang true for me, because I knew, in my own peripheral, privileged way as a middle-class white Southerner raised by a woman like those whose lives Walker's essay limns with such beauty: I knew she spoke the truth.  Because I knew women similar to those about whom she was writing.

And then came The Color Purple.  Here, my memory of when I first read this work of Walker is clear: the year was 1983, when The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for fiction.  And because I took my first full-time teaching position the following year at Xavier University in New Orleans, an historically black university (a decision I made as a direct result of that commitment, when I began studying theology, to connect the academic study of theology to my own lived experience and my own personal quest for God), some of the critically important resources I discovered in Walker's novel made their way into the curriculum of the courses I was teaching, as I began to teach theology.

Like other novice teachers in most academic departments, I was assigned a heavy load of introductory courses in 1984 (and 1985 and 1986, etc.!).  Inevitably, these included courses called "Introduction to Theology" and "Introduction to Religious Studies" (the first course was designed to be faith-based and Catholic-specific, the second to be more religiously diverse, to give non-Catholic students or Catholics interested in thinking beyond their confessional boundaries a glimpse of other religious traditions).

From the time I began teaching such introductory courses, I invariably included in the course readings an excerpt from The Color Purple, the section in which Shug challenges Celie to rethink the image of God as an old white man she had inherited from the culture around her, and to begin to think about God as the deepest, enlivening center of her soul, of her love, of her joy in the world around her, with its vivid flowers, its rocks, trees, and birds.  And with the color purple everywhere.

Significantly, Shug also challenges Celie to critique the gendered language of God that went hand in hand with the image of God as an old white man that had been handed down to African-American culture by a ruling elite of old white men who needed those "beneath" them to see God as a mirror of themselves, the divinely ordained rulers of the world.

Of course, among the reasons I asked students to read this passage, to think, debate, and write about it, was that a majority of the students I was teaching were African Americans.  And this recently published novel by a major African-American writer gave them an opportunity to think about some of the "big questions" of both introductory courses: questions of how we image God and why we image God as we do, about the language we use to describe God, and about the analogical basis of all images or language we employ to talk about God.

I found the passage extremely helpful in introducing students to these questions for the following reason, as well: a large percentage of the students I was teaching had been raised in conservative evangelical churches in which this kind of theological reflection was anathema, and any talk about God that went beyond "the bible says" was unthinkable.  And a significant percentage of the Catholic students I was teaching had been taught in their previous religious education classes to think of God in rigid, non-critical, formulaic ways that reflected the heavily catechetical emphasis of their religious upbringing.

Alice Walker's work provided me with a valuable crowbar to begin prying away at this fundamentalism, whether Catholic or evangelical Protestant, and to start students thinking.  And talking.  And owning religious ideas that they had previously only parroted.  And, above all, critiquing--recognizing the intrinsic connections between theological ideas and the social domination of most of the makers of theological ideas.  As well as the intrinsic connections between theological ideas and the revolutionary social aspirations of many of those who receive these ideas from the socially dominant, and then reshape them to meet their needs as socially marginalized people--the kind of people to whom and for whom the scriptures have always spoken far more powerfully than to anyone else in the world.

And so, in summary, I have never stopped reading Alice Walker since then, as my comments on her latest book this past summer indicate.  And how can I stop reading her?  How can I stop, when I remain on that pilgrimage towards God, self-discovery, and solidarity with those on the margins of society that I began as a novice theologian several decades ago?  A pilgrimage that is not finished . . . .

Unfinished, because, among other things, the project of critiquing the unmerited power and privilege of the old white men (who come in both genders and have various social and racial incarnations around the world) is still unfinished, and needs to continue as long as a tiny percentage of the world's population disempowers the vast majority of all the rest of us?  And because the need to broaden our ways of talking about God to include the voices of those whom the world keeps turning into mute mules absolutely has to continue to be addressed--as the ongoing brouhaha over Sister Elizabeth Johnson's book She Who Is demonstrates, and when the Catholic bishops of the U.S., aging white males for the most part, continue to inform us that God is made in their image and not in the image of any woman anywhere in the world.  And that they enjoy privileged access to the mind of God and must retain the right to define God--and the experience of God--for the rest of us.

A brief p.s.: when you visit the webpage for Pratibha Parmar's "Alice Walker, Beauty in Truth" film project, to which a link is provided in the second paragraph above, note the weblink that allows you to donate either financially or in other ways to this valuable, ongoing project.  The same weblink provides you with a link to contact the filmmakers.

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