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Pulitzer-Winning Author Alice Walker on Obama’s First White House Visit as President-Elect

Guests

Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, poet and activist. In 1983, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her book The Color Purple. She has written many other bestselling books, including In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens and Possessing the Secret of Joy. Her most recent is We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: Inner Light in a Time of Darkness. She recently wrote an open letter to Barack Obama posted online at TheRoot.com.

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One day after Barack Obama’s first visit to the White House as President-elect, we speak to the Pulitzer-winning novelist Alice Walker. In a recent open letter to Obama, Walker writes, "Seeing you take your rightful place, based solely on your wisdom, stamina and character, is a balm for the weary warriors of hope, previously only sung about." [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President-elect Barack Obama and his wife Michelle visited the White House yesterday in a symbolic moment in the transition of power. Bush and Obama sat in the Oval Office with no aides or note-takers and discussed the economic crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other challenges facing the incoming administration. It was Obama’s first time inside the storied office that has come to symbolize American power around the world. Meanwhile, First Lady Laura Bush led Michelle Obama inside the White House residence for a tour of what will soon be her family’s new home.

The visit marked yet another first for the nation, as an African American came to tour the White House as president-elect. Last week, we spoke with the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, one of the most celebrated writers from Latin America. This is what he had to say of Obama entering the White House.

    EDUARDO GALEANO: I would like that Obama, who has now tremendous, historic opportunity, that he never forgets that he’s now going inside the White House. The White House will be his house in the time coming, but this White House was built by black slaves. And I’d like, I hope, that he never, never forgets this.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Eduardo Galeano. We turn now to Alice Walker, the celebrated author, poet and activist. She is perhaps best known for her book The Color Purple, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983, the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer for fiction. The novel was adapted into an Oscar-nominated feature-length film and has been made into a Broadway musical. She’s written many other bestselling books, including In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens and Possessing the Secret of Joy. Her most recent is We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: Inner Light in a Time of Darkness. She recently wrote an open letter to Barack Obama posted TheRoot.com. Alice Walker joins us now from the University of California in Berkeley.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Alice Walker.

ALICE WALKER: Thank you so much. I’m happy to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. Alice, what is your message to Barack Obama? Tell us about your open letter.

ALICE WALKER: Well, I wanted to express that even though — well, first of all, that it’s incredibly wonderful that he is going to live there, and partly because it was built by our ancestors, it will be his home. And one way of thinking about that is that even when they were building it, you know, in chains or in desperation and in sadness, they were building it for him, that ancestors take a very long view of life, and they see what is coming. And so, he should know that they were actually building it for him. They knew he was coming. And now he is there. He will soon be living there. And this is a great victory of the spirit and for people who have had to live basically by faith.

So I was reminding him that the personal life is so important as the support for the public life, and to model success for all of the people on the planet means that he will have to cultivate happiness in his life, no matter how dire our situation is, because it is from our own equanimity and happiness that we can influence the lives of people in a very positive way. And what has often happened is that people in the White House become very tired and grey, because they are trying to do everything at once, and you cannot do that. You can’t fix it all by yourself. And so, you might as well relax and let other people help you.

AMY GOODMAN: You begin your letter by saying you have no idea, really, how profound this moment is for us.

ALICE WALKER: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t you take it from there?

ALICE WALKER: Do you want me to read it?

AMY GOODMAN: Sure.

ALICE WALKER: Oh, OK. I’ll just read that part.

It starts with: "Dear Brother President-elect,

“You have no idea, really, how profound this moment is for us. Us being the black people of the Southern United States. You think you know, because you are thoughtful, and you have studied our history. But seeing you delivering the torch so many others carried, only to be brought down before igniting the flame of justice and of law, is almost more than the heart can bear. And yet, this observation is not intended to burden you, for you are of a different time, and, indeed, because of all the relay runners before you, this is a different America. It is really only to say: Well done. We knew, through all the generations, that you were with us, in us, the best of the spirit of Africa and the Americas. Knowing this, that you would actually appear, someday, was part of our strength. Seeing you take your rightful place, based solely on your wisdom, stamina and character, is a balm for the weary warriors of hope, that was previously only sung about.

“I would advise you to remember that you did not create the disaster that the world is experiencing, and you alone are not responsible for bringing the world back to balance. A primary responsibility that you do have, however, is to cultivate happiness in your own life. To make a schedule that permits sufficient time of rest and play with your gorgeous wife and lovely daughters. Not to mention your brave and precious grandmother, who, of course, as we know, went on. We are used to seeing men in the White House soon become juiceless and as white-haired as the building; we notice their wives and children looking strained and stressed. They soon have smiles so lacking in joy that they remind us of scissors. This is no way to lead. Nor does your family deserve this fate. One way of thinking about all this is: It is so bad now that there is no excuse not to relax. From your happy, relaxed state, you can model real success, which is only what so many people in the world want. They may buy endless cars and houses and furs and gobble up all the attention and space they can manage, or barely manage, but this is because it is not clear to them yet that success is truly an inside job. That it is within the reach of everyone.

“I would further advise you not to take on other people’s enemies. Most damage that others do us is out of fear, humiliation and pain. Those feelings occur in all of us, not just in those of us who profess a certain religious or racial devotion. We must, all of us, learn actually not to have enemies, but only confused adversaries who are ourselves in disguise. It is understood by all that you are the commander in chief of the United States and are sworn to protect our beloved country; this we understand, completely.” That is, he will soon be the commander in chief. “However, as my mother used to say, quoting a Bible with which I often fought, ‘hate the sin, but love the sinner.’ There must be no more crushing of whole communities, no more torture, no more dehumanizing as a means of ruling a people’s spirit. This has already happened to people of color, poor people, women, children. We see where this leads, where it has led.

“A good model of how to ‘work with the enemy’ internally is presented by the Dalai Lama, in his endless caretaking of his soul as he confronts the Chinese government that invaded Tibet. Because, finally, it is the soul that must be preserved, if one is to remain a credible leader. All else might be lost; but when the soul dies, the connection to earth, to peoples, to animals, to rivers, to mountain ranges, purple and majestic, also dies. And your smile, with which we watch you do gracious battle with unjust characterizations, distortions and lies, is that expression of healthy self-worth, spirit and soul, that, kept happy and free and relaxed, can find an answering smile in all of us, lighting our way, and brightening the world.

“We are the ones — we are the ones we have been waiting for.”

AMY GOODMAN: Alice Walker, reading her open letter to the President-elect, to the first African American president in US history. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. We’ll go to break and then come back to Alice. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Miriam Makeba singing “The Click Song.” She died two nights ago in Italy after a concert. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. Our guest is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, poet, activist, Alice Walker, joining us from Berkeley, California, from her home.

Alice, you knew, you have met Miriam Makeba?

ALICE WALKER: I did. I met her after a concert in New York many years ago.

AMY GOODMAN: I was sad to be the one to tell you the news yesterday of this great South African singer’s death. You said you sat at her feet. In fact, you rubbed her feet.

ALICE WALKER: Well, I gave her a foot massage, because she was wearing these incredibly tight shoes, and her feet had started to swell, and I could see that from my seat in the audience. And so, later, I went backstage, and she was resting, and I gave her a massage on her feet and explained to her, because she said, “Oh, but my audience expects me to wear what I wear,” and I said, “Well, they don’t expect you to have aching feet.” And I was — I’m so happy that I was able to do that. That’s one of my favorite things to do with people who stand on their feet a lot and actually do it for all of us, as she did.

And I actually feel very joyful that she — not so much that she has left us, but that she fulfilled — she was a relay runner, and she fulfilled her part of the race so brilliantly and sang so much of, you know, what we needed to hear in order to get us to this point of electing Barack Obama.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, she did live to see that day; she did live to see the election of Barack Obama. Alice Walker, I wanted to go back in time in your life to talk about the significance of this moment and where we’re headed. You went to Spelman College in Atlanta, and you spent time in Mississippi. You lived in Mississippi and engaged in an illegal act: you married a white man in a time when miscegenation laws around this country were in effect. Talk about why you went South, then North, then back South again.

ALICE WALKER: Well, I was planning to actually just make a beeline for the North, as many black people did who wanted opportunity, and then I got involved with the movement when I was at Spelman and actually met Martin Luther King, Jr. And I was at the 1963 march on Washington, me and this very sweet man I was seeing. We were both very young. And one of the things — I was sitting in a tree, actually, because it was so packed, and one of the things that Martin Luther King, Jr. said that day was, rather than running away to the North, we should all go back home to the South. And it seemed the most revolutionary thing I had ever heard, that you should just go home and struggle from there and fight the battles from there.

And so, I’m from Georgia, but I knew that my parents would be very afraid for me if I tried to — I started some things there. I registered voters in a place called Liberty County, Georgia. But then I decided to go straight to Mississippi and to work in the movement there, because they were putting people off the plantations who voted, who tried to vote, and they were beating people, like Mrs. Hamer, Fannie Lou Hamer. And these people were my people. They were just clearly my people. They were — you know, my parents were also living on a plantation, what was left of a plantation. They were sharecroppers, which was, you know, the new name for slaves. So it was wonderful to be able to go there and to put my education to use, because it had been a hard struggle for my parents to educate eight children. So that’s how I got to Mississippi. And we were there for seven years.

We were the only legally married — well, in the Northern states, we were legally married interracially, but then, in Mississippi, of course, we were illegal. And we waited to see what would happen, because we challenged the law.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened?

ALICE WALKER: Well, we managed to encourage many other people to, in fact, break the law and marry each other if they were in love and wanted to. And also, because there was a case in 1967 a few months after we married called Loving v. The State of Virginia. The law was changed, and so —-

AMY GOODMAN: Ironically.

ALICE WALKER: I always loved that it was Loving v. The State of Virginia. And so, this is how change happens, though. It is a relay race, and we’re very conscious of that, that our job really is to do our part of the race, and then we pass it on, and then someone picks it up, and it keeps going. And that is how it is. And we can do this, as a planet, with the consciousness that we may not get it, you know, today, but there’s always a tomorrow. And Barack Obama’s election is one of those tomorrows that was so longed for and so sweated for and so believed in and so hoped for. And it’s an incredibly moving affirmation of where we have been and who we have been and how we have kept so much of what we believe.

AMY GOODMAN: Alice Walker, on election night, one of the people we spoke to was Dr. Vincent Harding. He was a close friend and colleague of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. In fact, he wrote Dr. King’s major antiwar speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” the speech that Dr. King gave a year to the day before he was assassinated. The speech was given at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967. Dr. Harding talked with us -— I was with Juan Gonzalez and Jeremy Scahill — about what he saw as his role after Obama won the election.

    DR. VINCENT HARDING: I am much more deeply involved in the hopes for what we can do to help push him into the place that he needs to go. He is taking a good start at this point by winning this magnificent election, but he is not going to be out there as a messiah by himself. We who believe in freedom are going to have to stand around him, stand beneath him, stand in back of him, and do everything that we can to keep reminding him that what we need is to move towards the very thing that he’s been talking about: creating a more perfect union, creating a more just and peaceable society, creating a more democratic society. So my hopes are very much focused on him, but not on him alone. I see the energy that’s been built up over these two years of campaigns, and I see the possibility that we could gather ourselves together and begin to ask, in a very powerful way, not what should Barack Obama be doing next, but where do we go from here? What is our role as committed, progressive citizens to move to the next stages?

    JEREMY SCAHILL: Vincent Harding, I wanted to ask your reaction — you’re speaking to us from Denver — Barack Obama giving his major address at Invesco Stadium in front of 80,000 people, invoking the name and legacy of Martin Luther King in a speech where he also called for an escalation of the war in Afghanistan. Given your history, I was curious of your response to some of the rhetoric about King and war right now at that event and in the broader campaign.

    DR. VINCENT HARDING: For me, that question about the contradictions that would stand between seeing Barack as a second coming of Martin and seeing Martin as someone who clearly understood that militarism was not the way towards a solution of humanity’s problems. That’s why I said that those of us who believe in creating a more perfect union can only do it by standing around him, under him, behind him, pushing him to ask questions about what is the role of the military in a democratic society, by encouraging him to see the possibility that maybe he would be a better community-organizer-in-chief than commander-in-chief. Maybe a democracy needs community organizers more than it needs commanders.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Vincent Harding, who worked with Dr. King, wrote the draft of his speech he gave April 4th, 1967, taking on the war in Vietnam.

We are joined live by Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, author, activist, in Berkeley, California. Alice, your thoughts, as you listen to Vincent Harding? Community-organizer-in-chief as opposed to commander-in-chief?

ALICE WALKER: Vincent is a very old and dear friend, and I completely see his point, and I think it’s very valid. I think there is a time, of course, when you need a commander-in-chief in defense of yourself and your country, but I think that it is more important for all of us now to take this incredible energy that we see around the planet and turn it on — just turn a really critical and focused eye on the fact of war itself and to understand that with this energy that has been unleashed — and we see it everywhere — we can actually begin to eradicate war. We can make a decision that we just won’t have it. And so, then, if we, all of the people on earth, make this decision, people who try to command us to fight each other will just find that we have stayed home.

AMY GOODMAN: Alice, I wanted to get a comment from you on another person who has responded to the election of Barack Obama. We’re going behind bars right now to Pennsylvania. SCI Green is where the death row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal shared these thoughts.

    MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: The meanings of victory. The count has been called, and Barack Hussein Obama, Jr. has become the forty-fourth president of United States of America. But in truth, history will record him as number one, the first African American president. It is undeniable that this is a singular political achievement, a work of impressive political skill, and, we must admit, a gift of the political gods.

    Among friends, in the privacy of a prison visiting room, I’ve often made the following half-joke: Obama wins handsomely, and in his acceptance speech, flush with victory, loaded with political capital, he would open by saying, “My fellow Americans, first and foremost, I want to thank the one person who made my election possible, if not inevitable: George W. Bush.” I always get a laugh, for, like all good jokes, the truth makes it happen. And the truth is, without the blunders of Bush, Obama would have been an also-ran. His fundamental issue, what set him apart from the rest of the Democratic pack, was his early opposition to the Iraq war. That gave him a wind that carried him far and long beyond his competitors, who were, for the most part, half-hearted war supporters, or worse, people who supported the war only because to not do so would have harmed their political careers. Or so they thought. That wind has carried him to the Oval Office, the grandest prize in US politics.

    But what does it mean? We cannot deny its symbolic value. In millions of black homes, his picture will be placed on walls beside Martin, John F. Kennedy and a pale painting of Jesus. I bet that quite a few African homes, especially in Kenya, will also boast his smiling visage. But beyond symbol is substance. And substantively, some scholars have defined Obama as little different from his predecessors. Yet symbols are powerful things. Sometimes they have a life all their own. They may come to mean something more than first intended. History has been made. We shall see what kind of history it will be.

    From death row, this is Mumia Abu-Jamal.

AMY GOODMAN: That commentary and others at prisonradio.org. Alice Walker, your thoughts on Mumia Abu-Jamal’s comments and Mumia Abu-Jamal, on death row, talking about a president who is not fully opposed to the death penalty?

ALICE WALKER: As usual, Mumia has such a clear understanding of what is happening, no matter where it is, which is remarkable because he is on death row. And I think he’s largely right. I think it’s up to us to do as Vincent was saying, to do the surrounding of our leader in such a way that he understands our will, what it is that we want.

In fact, when I think of Obama leading us, I think that we elected someone who can actually have the humility to follow us, which is to say that the world is turning away from militarism. We’re sick of it. We are absolutely sick of starving children, raped women, abused populations. We are totally disgusted. And we have the power, really, to say, “No more.” What we need is someone at the helm who can understand that if he’s going in the wrong direction, we will turn the boat around. I mean, this is what will happen. The world, as I feel it intuitively, wants desperately to go in a completely different direction. And we hope that he will be able to, you know, take us there, be there with us.

But we should determine, ask the people of the planet to get there, you know, whether — no matter who is with us, because we actually have that power. And we are so connected now that it is really, I think, clear to most of the people on earth how we feel and that we are all human. There were years and years and years, of course, when people thought, well, those people over there on that continent are not quite human, so, you know, it doesn’t matter what happens. Now we know that we’re all the same and that we’re actually all one and that the planet is in such terrible shape that we have to work together to save it. So all of these things mean, I think, that we’re going on. We are against war. We have had it. And we hope that all of our leaders will follow us into peace.

AMY GOODMAN: It wasn’t long after Barack Obama made his speech, his statement against war in 2002, that you were in front of the White House with a group of women writers, artists, activists, arm in arm, standing in front of the White House, getting arrested. It was Women’s Day, International Women’s Day, that period of time, that you got arrested. Now, Barack Obama is opposed to the war in Iraq, the timetable not exactly clear how it will work to pull out, but supporting a so-called surge in Afghanistan. How do protest someone you support so much?

ALICE WALKER: I protest them the same way I protest the ones, you know, like Bush and, you know, those people: whatever it takes — writing, speaking, being arrested. It won’t change. My part of the relay race won’t change. I know what my duty is. And my duty is to try to prevent war by whatever means I can manage.

And I love this person that we’ve elected. I love this gentle, seemingly considerate, thoughtful person. And that will, in no way, stop me from saying I don’t agree with, you know, X, Y and Z. I will not support this war. I think war is so incredibly backward, and I don’t think it’s intelligent, and it’s not sane. So why would you want to support it? And we’ve had leaders who would never be open to that kind of thought, and I think that he might well be open to the understanding that this is really true, that war is an insanity, basically.

AMY GOODMAN: Alice Walker, I want to thank you so much for being with us, speaking to us from Berkeley, California. Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, poet, activist, recently wrote an open letter to Barack Obama, posted online at TheRoot.com. We’ll link to it at democracynow.org. Thanks for being there, Alice.

ALICE WALKER: Thank you, Amy.

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