In this poignant essay, Alice Walker reflects on how growing up poor, Southern, and Black gave her rich and rewarding experiences from which to draw as a writer. She begins by telling one of her mother’s favorite stories to illustrate what her life was like as a child. In the midst of the Great Depression, Walker’s family lived in Georgia and worked as sharecroppers. Food was scarce, so the Red Cross distributed flour to anyone who brought a voucher from a local official into the office in town. A box of used clothes arrived from an aunt in the North the day Walker’s mother was supposed to get her flour, so she went to town in a new-looking dress. The White woman distributing flour told Walker’s mother she looked too nice to be getting handouts and turned her away. Well, the family had corn left over from their harvest, and they traded it to Aunt Mandy for flour. Somehow, they made it through another year. Much later, Walker’s mother thanked Jesus because the White woman ended up crippled, and she was healthy her whole life.
Walker marvels that the religion used to oppress slaves later kept poor Black Southerners from becoming bitter in their dire circumstances. The important part of the story to Walker is not the snobbish White woman, but rather the community spirit that helped the family through rough times.
Black Southern writers grew up with a sense of community that others never experienced. A place where midwives accepted fruit and crafts as payment when hospitals turn away people with no money is hard to come by. While Walker doesn’t miss being poverty, she never really felt poor as a child because the whole community was poor, and they all pitched in and helped each other when it was necessary.
In college, Walker rejected Christianity. Later in life she realized that Black Southern women turned the slavers’ religion into something strong and beautiful. The women Walker grew up with were more Christian in their deeds than the White people who converted them.
Black Southern culture isn’t somewhere White people expect poetry to come from, but it provided rich experiences for Walker to write about.
She grew up with the beauty of the country instead of the confines of the city and learned to love the earth.
Black Southern writers can also credit their parents with portraying the utmost humanity in treating all people as individuals in the face of oppressive racism. Many White Southern writers faded out of existence for writing racist works, but Walker and her contemporaries will write work that endures because it sees people clearly for what they are.
Alice Walker did like William Faulkner, until she read some of his racist comments. Faulkner linked Black intelligence to the amount of White blood they had in them, and believed White people to be morally superior to Black people. Walker had the great fortune to grow up with men like Martin Luther King, Jr., who clearly invalidated Faulkner’s claims. Because you can’t separate the author from his work, it is clear to Walker now why Faulkner doesn’t advocate for change in his novels. Flannery O’Connor was a bit better in that she was not a racist, but her works do not advocate change to the status quo, either.
On the other hand, Walker has quite a bit of positive material in her background to write about. Like most writers, her childhood was full of mixed experiences, but Walker thinks her Black Southern roots are a blessing. Her childhood taught her to love the land and justice, and to believe in the goodness of humanity. Not only does she have the responsibility to write about Southern racism, she also has a responsibility to write about the love she felt in her community.