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Part 2: Alice Walker on Activism, Gay Marriage, Angela Davis, Obama and Turning 70 Years Old

Web ExclusiveMay 28, 2013
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We continue our conversation with author, poet and activist Alice Walker about her new books and play an excerpt of a new documentary about another world-renowned author, activist and scholar: Angela Davis. Walker also discusses the meaning of the subtitle to The Cushion in the Road: Meditation and Wandering as the Whole World Awakens to Being in Harm’s Way , and shares her thoughts on gay marriage and President Obama’s record so far during his second term in office. “There was a time when I was hoping that he would not run for a second term, because I did not want to see what we are seeing,” Davis says, citing his “cozy connection to the very rich in the world and in this country” and reliance on drones that have killed many innocent people. Click here to watch Part 1 of this interview.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Aaron Maté. And our guest is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, Alice Walker who has written so many books, and now we are with her as she has just published two: The Cushion in the Road: Meditation and Wandering as the Whole World Awakens to Being in Harm’s Way and her book of poetry, The World Will Follow Joy: Turning Madness into Flowers.

It’s great to have you with us, Alice. That subtitle on your book, Meditation and Wandering as the Whole World Awakens to Being in Harm’s Way, can you explain that further?

ALICE WALKER: Yes, well, the world was so asleep, and I think there were parts of it that thought that the real harm would never come to them. And then they were awakened by things like Monsanto, for instance, saying that they couldn’t have their own seeds, that their seed banks were in danger, that they would lose control of what they have—what they eat, you know, things like that, so that they begin to wake up to the reality that unless you stay awake and informed, you are deeply harmed, often without having a clue of how it happened.

AARON MATÉ: Alice Walker, it’s a busy time for you. You have these two books. But also there’s this new film, Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth. Can you tell us about this documentary?

ALICE WALKER: Well, my friend, actually, Pratibha Parmar, is a filmmaker, and we had made a film together before about female genital mutilation called Warrior Marks, and that was how I knew we could actually work together on a film about my life. It has taken them, she and her partner, Shaheen Haq, it has taken them five years to do this film. And I am so impressed with their audacity, their courage, their fortitude, their determination, because they had to raise all of that money to make the film themselves, which they went about doing with crowd funding and all kinds of things. It’s a story of lots of the things that have happened in my life. There’s even a wonderful segment about my former husband, who has rarely been seen, really, and he was such a great being. So, for me, there are wonderful parts of the film—I mean, him and a brother of mine and, you know, people that I have known in my earlier life. It’s wonderful to have them in the film.

AMY GOODMAN: Alice, you made history with your marriage to your husband, your, well, now ex-husband. Talk about what it meant to marry him, where you did and when you did.

ALICE WALKER: Well, we knew we were going to be working in Mississippi, because we had met there the summer before. And we fell in love, and we were living in New York, because he was a law student at NYU Law School, and we were living in his dorm room, actually. And we decided we wanted to go back and work in Mississippi. And basically, we knew it was illegal, but that was one of the things that caused us to want to be married. So we married in New York, where it was legal, and we went to live in Mississippi, where it was illegal, because any kind of cohabitation interracially was illegal. And we waited. We waited to see what would happen, because we wanted to challenge that particular law. And we survived, although many of our neighbors thought we wouldn’t.

AARON MATÉ: Alice Walker, since we’re asking about marriage, I have to ask you about this marriage that you recently officiated, and you write about in your book. You married two men.

ALICE WALKER: I did. Well, I married them because they were the right people for each other. And I understood this. I think one was a friend, Scott Sanders, who was the producer of the musical of The Color Purple. And I knew him to be such a decent and good being. And then I met this person who, you know, had turned up in his life, and I could see that they would be good for each other. And I was very much wanting them to have a marriage that they could be happy in. And so, I had myself ordained, and I married them. And it was a wonderful time, because when you are able to marry the person that you love, you can actually feel that you are a free person.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a friend of yours, the world-renowned author, activist, scholar, Angela Davis. She, too, is the subject of a new documentary. The documentary, Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, is—this is a clip.

REPORTER: Philosophy Professor Angela Davis admitted that she is a member of the Communist Party.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: Hoover put her on the top 10. Everybody had a file on her.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Her first lecture drew 2,000 students.

FANIA DAVIS: Angela’s education is now being put into practice.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Angela Davis purchased four guns.

ANGELA DAVIS: There is a conspiracy in the land. It’s a conspiracy to wipe out the black community as a whole.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: Well, I think she’s trying to overthrow our system of government, and she admits that.

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: The actions of the FBI in apprehending Angela Davis, a rather remarkable story.

REPORTER: The U.S. district court judge set bail at $100,000.

FANIA DAVIS: She knows that the movement to free all political prisoners is growing every day.

GOV. RONALD REAGAN: This entire incident was a deliberate provocation.

ANGELA DAVIS: They wanted to break me. They wanted me to respond.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: There was enormous feeling for Angela everywhere in the world.

SALLYE DAVIS: We know that she is innocent.

RALPH ABERNATHY: We want to tell that pharaoh in Washington to let Angela Davis go free.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 4: What they’re doing to her is an exaggerated form of what happens every day to black people in this country.

PROTESTERS: Free Angela! Free Angela! Free Angela!

ANGELA DAVIS: What does it mean to be a criminal in this society?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 3: They are not going to kill her. They’re not going to imprison her. We’re going to free her. We’re going to win her freedom.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, the documentary by Shola Lynch. Can you talk about Angela Davis’s significance over the decades?

ALICE WALKER: I think what is wonderful about Angela—I mean, one of many things—is her freedom of mind. She felt that she could choose the political course that suited her. And she did it, and she has stood by it. She has also remained intensely connected to the struggle for the freedom of prisoners and the rights of prisoners in prison, not just in this country but internationally. She is a formidable scholar, and her students adore her. She is just a remarkable human being. And just the thought of that grandeur, that beauty, that intelligence being imprisoned was, I think, unbearable for the people all over the world who wanted her free. And the beauty of that film, for me, is that we see that. We see that collectively, collectively together, we can do all kinds of things. It’s about having a good sense of motivation, dedication, a lot of love and humility about, you know, just what it is we do offer. I mean, we all offer something. It’s just about bringing it to the pile. And so, people all around the world brought whatever they had in the effort to free her from prison, imprisonment. It’s a great film, and I really recommend it.

AMY GOODMAN: Alice, you say in the film that one of the best moments for you came when you saw that Aretha Franklin was willing to post bail for Angela Davis. But in her absence, it was paid by a white farmer with a family of five small children who mortgaged his farm. Explain.

ALICE WALKER: Well, this is one of the things—white history—white history is lost to most white people. And this is a tragedy, because often then you end up thinking that you’re a lot worse than you are, you know? I was reminded of this recently. I was at a school in Pennsylvania called Cheyney, Cheyney University. It’s the first school like that for black people in this country. It was founded in 1831 by a white Quaker from, I think, the Caribbean, who couldn’t bear it that the escaping slaves had nowhere to go and no training to prepare them to make a living for themselves. So he founded this school on, you know, a hundred-and-something acres in Pennsylvania. And this is a part of our history that is almost completely unknown. So, in the same way, this farmer with these small children, who mortgaged his farm—and then, you know, he had to patrol his farm with guns to keep the other people from ganging up on him. But this is a part of the white resistance, the white solidarity that is crucial in this country for us to understand in order to really stand together to achieve whatever it is we need to achieve to transform our society.

AARON MATÉ: Alice, I want to talk to about your—the art of writing. Do you remember when you started? And do you consider yourself foremost an author of prose or a poet?

ALICE WALKER: I started when I was crawling, according to my mother. And I started by writing in the dirt with a twig. So it’s been a very long journey. I started writing poetry because it’s cheaper. You know, if you have limited money and limited—I mean, in a way, you can be so poor that people can’t even imagine how poor you can be. But pencils cost money, and paper also, so I could write poetry and afford to do that. When I was, oh, nine or 10, I started doing that. And then I started writing stories. And I have no real sense of trying to prefer one over the other. It’s just that it seems to me that the times will call for what is needed. And these times right now really are calling for poetry. And that’s because poetry, by its truthfulness and by its connection to soul, can lead us much more directly and clearly and cleanly than almost any other expression in art.

AMY GOODMAN: Alice Walker, I wanted to ask you about President Obama. We were together the day after the inauguration. We did a special broadcast. Oh, actually, it was the day of the inauguration of President Obama, the first inauguration of President Obama. Earlier this month, he gave the commencement address at Morehouse College, the historically black all-male college in Georgia. And as he has in other speeches to black audiences, Obama singled out what he called a lack of personal responsibility in the African-American community.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices. And I have to say, growing up, I made quite a few myself. Sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. I had a tendency sometimes to make excuses for me not doing the right thing. But one of the things that all of you have learned over the last four years is there’s no longer any room for excuses. I understand there’s a common fraternity creed here at Morehouse: “Excuses are tools of the incompetent used to build bridges to nowhere and monuments of nothingness.” Well, we’ve got no time for excuses, not because the bitter legacy of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely—they have not—not because racism and discrimination no longer exist. We know those are still out there. It’s just that in today’s hyperconnected, hypercompetitive world, with millions of young people from China and India and Brazil, many of whom started with a whole lot less than all of you did, all of them entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything that you have not earned. Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was. Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination. And moreover, you have to remember that whatever you’ve gone through, it pales in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured, and they overcame them. And if they overcame them, you can overcome them, too.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama giving the commencement address at Morehouse College, the historically black college in Atlanta, Georgia, the alma mater of Dr. Martin Luther King. I wanted to get your response, Alice, to what President Obama says and to a quote by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic, who said that “Taking the full measure of the Obama presidency thus far, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this White House has one way of addressing the social ills that afflict black people — and particularly black youth — and another way of addressing everyone else.”

ALICE WALKER: Well, I think that there’s a lot of truth in what he was saying. I think that, from my perspective, what I sometimes really feel so sad about is that he is not a better model for our children. I think, you know, there was a time when I was hoping that he would not run for a second term, because I did not want to see what we are seeing, you know, this sort of cozy connection to the very rich in the world and in this country, the use of drones to basically kill people who a lot of them, you know, are just what they call collateral damage, but actually, you know, they’re babies and grandmothers and parents. And so, I think that I would like it if he were a better model himself, in a moral kind of way, you know, for our children. I think they must be very confused.

AARON MATÉ: Alice Walker, you were very supportive of Obama’s candidacy, but I also understand that you advised caution after he was elected.

ALICE WALKER: Well, yes, because it’s so easy to have that feel-good feeling about someone who seemed so, you know, intelligent and graceful and witty and, you know, with the lovely family. And that’s a kind of medicine. I mean, we’ve been in this country a long time, and it’s been very hard to not have images, positive images, in high places. So, I think all of us have really loved that. But it has been really disappointing and disturbing to see how connected he is with the people who have the money. And they are basically, you know, white people. It’s been very hard also, for me, to see that some of the things that I really wanted him to work on, he hasn’t done what I would have wished. His inability to stand up to Israel is just painful, and I find it really unacceptable in someone who is, you know, leading the world, in a way, not to be able to—you know, to make a really firm stand in defense of the Palestinian people. I also am not crazy about the lack of really strong interaction with Cuba, which is a place that I care about. There are so many places that, for me, he just—he’s not with us. And I think that that is it. I mean, I think we mistook him. I think we thought he was with us. And he probably never was. And this is very difficult for us, but, you know, if it’s the truth, it’s the truth.

AARON MATÉ: Alice Walker, on the issue of Israel and Palestine, you traveled to Gaza. Now, that’s a place that most Americans, and especially most prominent American authors, never see. So, what led you to go to Gaza?

ALICE WALKER: Well, it’s a place in the world that is deeply suffering, and it’s a long, you know, suffering, as it’s over 60 years. It just smells, you know. I mean, the whole way that the state of Israel came into being, you know, what happened there? What happened with the Six-Day War? I mean, what—all of those things. And I think the fact that I had married a Jewish person drew me to a deeper interest in just what the dynamics were. And we differed, me and this wonderful person that I married. We differed on this. But I had to go and see for myself. And I have. And I’ve been, you know, in that area a few times. And the last time I tried to get there, through Greece, we were turned back. But my heart is very much with the Palestinians, and also with the Israelis who understand the problem and who have worked perhaps harder than anyone to try to change it. And I’m thinking now of Nurit Peled-Elhanan, who is this wonderful woman who has done so much work to show how in Israeli—in Israeli textbooks, the Israeli children are actually indoctrinated into thinking of the Palestinians as people who have no right to even be in their own land. They are taught that they are foreigners, and not only foreigners, but invaders, and that it’s their duty, as soon as they get big enough, to join the army and to fight and destroy them. I mean, this is—you know, this is something that most Americans don’t think about, and by now, they don’t have a lot of time, I guess, to think about other people’s problems. But because we support Israel so wholeheartedly, it’s very important that we pay attention, and also because Israel has nuclear weapons. And it’s a very unstable government and a very—you know, not very sane one, in my opinion.

AMY GOODMAN: Alice, what do you think is the responsibility of the artist?

ALICE WALKER: I think the responsibility of the artist is to see and to be that expression in the culture that permits everyone else to see. And having done that, really, you know, we should be able to go home and, you know, have a nap. But often we can’t, because even though we try to be the focus or the prism through which people can see what is happening, people, for whatever reason, often are not activated to move. And so sometimes the artist, having seen, you know, and having expressed, through painting, through music, through poems, through novels, also has to be actually right there in the situation, whatever it is, that has to be transformed.

AMY GOODMAN: Alice, you’re about to turn 70 next year—not quite about, it’s almost a year from now. Just this year, you’ve published two books; a documentary is coming out about you. Where do you see yourself in your life?

ALICE WALKER: Well, I’d like to see myself on my cushion meditating, and I’m working my way there. I don’t know. I feel very much the way I’ve always felt. I don’t feel that, you know, 70 is some odd place. I feel very much me. I will probably continue to be, you know, creative, because that seems to be my nature, whether in planting things or creating things with my hands or making music. I learned to play the piano when I was 65. And I learned to play six songs, and I probably could not play one of them now, because that was just—I just wanted to learn that. And I learned it, and I loved it. And I think that I will go on like that. There will be things I want to learn, and I will learn them, and I will enjoy them. And I won’t cling to them.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Alice, I want to thank you so much for being with us. Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, poet, activist. Her latest books, The Cushion in the Road: Meditation and Wandering as the Whole World Awakens to Being in Harm’s Way and a collection of poetry called The World Will Follow Joy: Turning Madness into Flowers. Her book The Color Purple won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction, later adapted into a film and a Broadway musical. And one of those involved with that musical, she just officiated over his marriage to his partner.

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