Alice Walker: The Heart And The Home

April 20, 1997|By JEAN THOMPSON | JEAN THOMPSON,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer's Activism," by Alice Walker. Random House. 225 pages $23

Here she comes again, as provocative and annoying and charming as ever: Alice Walker, the author of the American Book Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning ""The Color Purple."

Her new collection of essays, speeches and poems is ostensibly a call to arms, challenging readers to probe the depths of their souls for the strength to stand for what is right.

Guaranteed, you may not agree with the causes she advocates; you may think bizarre her frequent references to the ""Universe" she has come to respect as she has reinvented her religious convictions; you may blush at the prickly subjects she tackles (for me, she broke new ground with an essay comparing the breasts of Aunt Jemima and Marilyn Monroe).

I found myself gritting my teeth as she hammered out her rage over injustices worldwide perpetrated by the enemy she most often identifies as male, but also all of us who fail to defend ""the Earth, our Mother God."

You may also weep, as I did, when she turns her razor-sharp pen on herself: For me, the gems of this collection are her tender reflections on her difficult relationship with her daughter, her interracial first marriage, her late parents and brother.

This is a cornucopia - and a confusion - of essays. It struggles to maintain the thread as it rambles between autobiography and lectures. For Walker, activism begins in the heart and the home.

Readers who know only the award-winning novel will learn how she uses her pen as her sword, and copes with the personal and public storms that come with taking that risk.

""During my years of being close to people engaged in changing the world I have seen fear turn into courage. Sorrow into joy. Funerals into celebrations," she writes.

We travel through her search for herself, from childhood in segregated Eatonton, Ga., where a brown child contemplates a white Jesus, and on to scary New York and then mellow Northern California. There are side trips to Africa to rail against female circumcision; we hear her defense of Fidel Castro, to rallies for the rights of Native Americans; to the valleys and mountaintops of contemporary African-Americans.

This succeeds as a portrait of one activist's development, helping fans divine the wellspring of her best-known work. It gets tiresome as a manifesto, even though it is eloquently written.

If you are the type of reader who browses anthologies rather than reading the essays front to back, flip to the speech titled ""What Can I Give My Daughters, Who are Brave." It is a commencement address delivered May 22, 1995, at Spelman College, the historically black women's college in Atlanta.

This is Walker's anthology in miniature - or perhaps the essay collection expands from it like rings around a stone dropped into a pond. "A Woman is Not a Potted Plant" and ""Expect Nothing" are among the poems included.

She told the graduates: ""What can I give you to help you stay strong when you feel that the world is turned against you and that you are standing, perhaps even naked, absolutely all alone? I give you this poem: "Be Nobody's Darling."

Be nobody's darling; / Be an outcast. / Take the contradictions / Of your life. / And wrap around / You like a shawl / To parry stones/ To keep you warm.

Jean Thompson writes about education for The Sun. She has worked as a journalist for 14 years. A collector of African-American memorabilia and genealogical papers, she also has written about black history.

Pub Date: 4/20/97

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