Monday, June 29, 2009

Finding Alice Walker

In 1972, Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Color Purple and other works, came back to her home in Milledgeville, Georgia, for a visit. She, her parents, and her seven brothers and sisters had lived in this Middle Georgia town for about a year. Walker was born in nearby Eatonton and grew up there, minus the year in Milledgeville.

The Walker home in Milledgeville was just a short distance away from Andalusia, a dairy farm and home to novelist and short story writer Flannery O’Connor from 1951-64.

Walker enjoyed O’Connor’s fiction and the fiction of other American writers, but was frustrated that in her literature classes, she wasn’t learning the works of the African American writers who came before her.

Walker and her mother went by the site of their former home to find it rotting away. At Andalusia, Walker found O’Connor’s family home to be very much intact. Though vacant, a caretaker lived on the property. Walker described the experience in her essay, “Beyond the Peacock: The Reconstruction of Flannery O’Connor.” She wrote:

“My bitterness comes from a deeper source than my knowledge of the difference, historically, race has made in the lives of white and black artists. The fact that in Mississippi no one even remembers where Richard Wright lived, while Faulkner’s house is maintained by a black caretaker is painful, but not unbearable. What comes close to being unbearable is that I know how damaging to my own psyche such injustice is. In an unjust society the soul of the sensitive person is in danger of deformity from just such weights as this. For a long time I will feel Faulkner’s house, O’Connor’s house, crushing me. To fight back will require a certain amount of energy, energy better used doing something else.”

On a recent trip through Middle Georgia, I also tried to find Walker’s stomping ground. Eatonton’s Chamber of Commerce web site offers up an Alice Walker Driving Tour, with all stops being on Wards Chapel Road a few miles out from town.

The first stop was Wards Chapel A.M.E. Church, where Walker attended with her family and was baptized. Before I pulled up, I was envisioning it to be a nearly exact replica of the church in movie version of The Color Purple. Instead, I found a building in sad dilapidation, but with a sign out front announcing efforts to restore it.

Down the road were the sites of two homes, one where Walker was born and one where she grew up. Where she grew up had a structure that looked like a picnic shelter and gold panning set up than it did the home of a family of sharecroppers. No sign marked what it really is.

No house stood on the lot where she was born.

Years ago, Walker expressed anger at the disrepair of her former home, so I wonder what she thinks about her old home places now. Nearly four decades after she wrote “Beyond the Peacock,” signs mark the important places in her early life, but the same holds true for the buildings as during her visit in 1972. Unfortunately, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
If you’d like to contribute to the restoration of Wards Chapel A.M.E. Church, call 706-473-1781.

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