When Alice Walker was asked to speak at Sarah Lawrence University, she had no idea what she should talk about. She asked Charles DeCarlo, the president of the school, and he told her to speak from her heart. Walker decided then that she wanted to tell the students how to speak from their hearts.
When Walker and her husband first moved to Mississippi, she decided she wanted to teach older, poorly educated women history. She started by asking them to write their autobiographies to match historical events to times in their lives. What she didn’t know was that Mrs. Winson Hudson already was writing her autobiography. Winson defended her house against KKK attacks with a big dog and shotguns, and she wanted to teach other people how to fight back when faced with racist violence.
Through Winson’s autobiography, Walker became interested in other Black women writers, mostly forgotten by history. Most Black women writers died poor and unknown, working menial jobs to pay the bills. To explain why Black women writers were forgotten, but not Black men, she cites two opposing works. Richard Wright’s Black Boy features a protagonist who thinks about White people all the time, while Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God features characters that hardly ever think about White people. Richard Wright died known and with critical acclaim; Zora Neale Hurston died poor and unknown.
Women who want to write, especially Black women, have to work to unearth the forgotten and fight to make their own voices heard. Even academic institutions are racist and silencing. Many believe that there is not enough Black literature to teach for a whole year’s course.
Speaking out as a woman is a hard road. It puts you at odds with others, but is worth all the trouble because it makes the world a little easier for others. Take comfort and hope from the strong Black women of the past. Even great teachers continue to teach us long after they retire.
Walker then thanks some of her great teachers. Helen Merrell Lynd has taught Walker not to fear old age. Muriel Rukeyser followed her own path without fear of what others might think or say. Jane Cooper lent Walker quiet strength and a listening ear.
To conclude, Walker recites two poems. The first is “Be Nobody’s Darling,” in which she encourages the students to live outside the boundaries created by others. “Reassurance” deals with growing into wisdom as one grows older.