In my creative writing class, my students and I encountered a word and concept neither of us knew. It was the word espaliered, which means to grow flat. It was in the third stanza of Alice Walker’s poem “a woman is not a potted plant.” Here is the stanza:
a woman is not
a potted plant
against the fences
of her race
It is odd that I taught Walker’s poem. For more than two decades after her novel “The Color Purple” was published, I forgot about Alice Walker and her work. Why? Because Alice Walker left me on the sidewalk.
It was not a lover’s quarrel; I am not secretly the folk singer Tracy Chapman. Walker did not leave me in the cold. It was August.
But what happened was, in 1983 I was training with the Summer Program for Minority Journalists on the University of California-Berkeley campus and my editors assigned me to report on Alice Walker speaking in San Francisco, across the bay.
I was happy for the assignment. Her novel had won every major prize, and in April 1983 she was the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I used the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) mass transit system to travel to SF and walked up to the hall to find this sign out front: “Alice Walker Sold-Out.” But the sponsors, the Women’s Party for Survival, admitted me, the media.
They sat me right next to Walker.
In Walker’s journals about this time of her life, collected in “Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker 1960-2000,” she wrote as early as April 1983 that she was “very tired.” And “worn-out.”
She was still tired as we sat side-by-side in August 1983. She told me, no interview. We sat there, side-by-side, like quarreling lovers, not talking. It was so icy. I watched her greet admirers and sign books, “Peace/Alice Walker.” It’s all in my published story except this next part, which was personal.
The event was over. I needed to get back to the BART station fast. I had gotten to the hall fine, but it was dark now. I didn’t know San Francisco well, and I was walking. What would I do if I missed the last train to Berkeley?
Alice Walker was the reason I was at that hall. She was the only person I knew. I asked her for a ride. She said, no.
Now I had to hurry. I was at the corner when a car approached from behind. Then it was beside me. Alice Walker was seated on the side of the car near to me. I saw her. I hoped she saw me, though I knew she was blind in her right eye from a childhood BB-gun accident. I wanted her to change her mind, offer me a ride, but her car kept on going. She never even turned her head.
I didn’t keep up with Alice Walker’s career after she left me on the sidewalk, but that sidewalk never left me. Not that it mattered to her.
She went on to publish goo-gobs of books: 13 books of fiction, 10 of poetry, and 11 of essays. One of the most prolific published writers in America, she interpreted women’s lives in a way that cut to the bone. She gained phenomenal success with “The Color Purple,” a story about Celie, a downtrodden woman writing letters to her lost sister.
For a long time, I did not talk about this close encounter. For some reason, it embarrassed and shamed me to be refused help. To be rejected. And that stopped cold my love for Walker and her work. Since then, as a journalist — or as an “auntie” in the case of Kim Kardashian — I have met famous people, but I never again asked a single one of them for a personal favor. I don’t know them like that. We aren’t friends, no matter how much a publicity machine tries to make it seem so. Yes, we were both Black women, but Walker didn’t know me from boo. All I wanted was a piece of her.
I don’t think any of us regular people can really know what it’s like to be a person making history. Whose work catches God’s lightning rod finger and flames into the sky like katniss, for all to see. Looking up, we regulars think we know them. We don’t. Celebrity worship has brought our country such woes. I am glad I learned early to stop. Alice Walker taught me.
Alice Walker was born in 1944 in Eatonton, Georgia, the youngest of eight children. Her parents were sharecroppers, but she attended Spelman College and graduated from Sarah Lawrence College. Coming of age in the 1960s, Walker was a civil rights activist. She defied southern American mores by marrying a Jewish man, Melvyn Leventhal, and living with him in Mississippi. They had one child, Rebecca Leventhal.
Alice Walker rejected the traditional idea of motherhood and, once divorced, mothered her daughter in a one-year-on, one-year-off custody arrangement with her child’s father.
With people like Gloria Steinem, co-founder of Ms. Magazine, Walker’s passion for African American women’s rights helped forge a new vision of and for all women and cut new sight paths on cultural awareness. On women’s lives, their burdens and contributions. That‘s something to live by every day and, especially during Women’s History Month, to honor and celebrate.
(Dedria Humphries Barker, a Lansing resident, is the author of “Mother of Orphans: The True and Curious Story of Irish Alice, A Colored Man’s Widow,” a biography about education for girls. Her opinion column appears on the last Wednesday of each month.)
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