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Call to Love at the Heart of Alice Walker’s Steve Biko Memorial Lecture

Alice Walker

Report by Liesl Jobson

The 11th Steve Biko Memorial Lecture, given this year by literary icon Alice Walker, was warmly received last week by a capacity crowd, including poets, writers, academics and public intellectuals. In a somewhat unanticipated note of ceremony, the evening commenced with the national anthem ringing out in UCT’s Jameson Hall. The diminutive Walker appeared visibly moved, standing with her hands crossed over her chest, she tapped her fingers lightly in time to the rhythm.

The reason for the author’s request for this formality soon became evident. Like a call and response spiritual, her stirring address was structured lyrically around Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrica. In a true, clear voice she sang the opening stanza of the national anthem, recalling how at the age of five, her sister Mamie Lee taught it to her on her return from college to the racially segregated Eatonton, Georgia. Walker was the only child of colour in the town who knew these mystical, powerful words that so profoundly shaped her life.

Walker sang again the phrase that had propelled her curiosity about Africanness and her own essential connection as a daughter of the continent while on a visit to Uganda. In a linking braid, she wove strands of poetry (her own: We have a beautiful mother/ Her hills are buffaloes/ Her buffaloes, hills, and Galway Kinell’s: Sometimes it is necessary/ to reteach a thing its loveliness) to the words of Steve Biko (“Once your consciousness changes, so does your existence”).

She counterpointed tender observations (“You are so lovely. So lovely. It is this loveliness who you deeply are… as so many of us have forgotten that we are beautiful”) with stern rebukes (“I am unable to comprehend how you now have a president who has three wives and twenty-odd children”) and hard questions (“… that Bill Clinton, who could not respond to the genocide of 800 000 Rwandans, and even De Klerk are going down in history as more honorable, more smiled-upon, by many South Africans than Winnie Mandela. How can this be?”).

The melody of Nkosi interlinked with her words on gender (“The African way with women leaves much to be desired. And I am not faulting only the men, some women are content to be ‘potted plants’”); her consternation about the planet (“We have entered a period of such instability and impoverishment of spirit that even though charged with our soul care, our ministers, our teachers, our spiritual guides, are themselves also in a state of fright. Never before has humanity faced losing the earth itself, which is exactly what we are losing as global warming increases, and as greater climate disasters affect us worldwide”); and her exhortation, despite all of this, to dance.

Noting how our governments don’t not hear our cries for a better way to exist, Walker offers practical advice. She wants to see people gathering together in small groups, meeting monthly to remedy the suffering that afflicts the country: “…the old methods of protest have left a great weariness and disappointment. It is time to circle… There appears to be magic simply in the willingness to tackle life’s hardest problems from the humble position of simply being one among many in a circle of individuals caring for the common lot.”

Her talk, which she introduced as “Coming to See You Since I was 5 Years Old: A Poet’s Connection to the South African Soul” received a resounding standing ovation.

Alice Walker

At the press conference that followed, Walker spoke of her research into FGM (female genital mutilation) over a ten-year period. She heard from a woman who performs the procedure that she “doesn’t hear the children scream” and from the men she interviewed, that it didn’t happen, that she, Walker, “was making it up” and was “delusional”. This practice affects over a million women and children and is extremely destructive to women’s health.

She spoke of women’s collusion: “There has to be in woman, herself, her resident rebel that claims her life as sacred; that no-one can abuse and misuse. We must fight for that. We must hold that really dear. It could be that a lot of that fight has been beaten out of women. That happens, but I would like to see much more resistance.” She referred to her novel, The Secret of Joy, which asks what the secret of joy is. On the final page, the narrative offers the answer: resistance. Walker said, “All people have to simply resist whatever is denying them their humanity, and their joy. This planet is for joy, if for nothing else. To miss out on all of that because someone is standing on you is simply not acceptable.”

She spoke about Women for Women International, an organisation that (amongst other things) supports women in the DRC to rebuild their lives. Referring to the appalling incidence of violence against women, she pointed out the communal responsibility and opportunity for the individual to attend: “To not be involved, if you have any feeling for what is happening, is really bad for all women. We can stop it, but we have to be present to it.”

Walker claimed literature as a tool for activism. She extolled the value of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Victor Hugo and expressed the desire to see young teenagers read the classics, dictionaries in tow, “to instil in them a sense of just what justice might look like, and what the struggle between the rich and poor means. Art removes it for us, so beautifully. If you have a story, you can sit there and you can bear it, whatever the tragedy is. All great literature is at its root, teaching stories, often about some kind of liberation.”

She called for wariness around the “gadgets drowning out our inner voices”. The artist, potentially as influential with our children as our mothers, can speak to this and show how you lose yourself if you are constantly responding to something external. You can’t hold onto yourself. How would you? A lot of the confusion on the planet is due to our having lost inner direction. We don’t know where we are. The world, the earth is being stolen faster and faster because we’re not there to attend to it. We’re distracted. Young people can grasp this. As adults who know there’s an inner space for us, we have to be determined to have it, to do it.”

She spoke on TV: “If you develop a sense of yourself as ‘clean’, if you want cleanliness about your aura, your psyche, you don’t want to sit anywhere and have people throw all their madness, fantasies and craziness all over you on a daily basis, and this is what’s been happening to humanity. What’s scary is that people often don’t have a clue that their dreams are being stolen through distortion. When you soak up everybody else’s garbage, it goes into your psyce. Your psyche loses the way. It has no idea what’s happening because it experiences these fantasies as real. We aren’t really made to watch TV.”

  • Flickr Gallery

    Max Price & Alice Walker Alice Walker Alice Walker Max Price Dignataries Dignitary Alice Walker speaks truth to power Alice Walker & Garrett Larson Nkosinathi Biko SRC Chair, Nkosinathi Biko & Alice Walker Alice Walker Full house Receptive audience Garrett Larson Nkosinathi Biko Max Price, Nkosinathi Biko & Alice Walker Max Price Ntsiki Biko and Obenewa Amponsah Ntsiki Biko Naledi Pandor & SRC representative Prof Njabulo Ndebele and family

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    Recent comments:

    • Ben - Editor
      Ben - Editor
      September 13th, 2010 @14:42 #
       
    • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
      Helen
      September 13th, 2010 @22:15 #
       
      Top

      There's a wide range of opinions (from euphoric to underwhelmed) all over the interwebs. In Search of Our Mother's Gardens was one of several pivotal books I read when first discovering that there were others who articulated my chaotic thoughts as a young feminist. But maybe some icons are better at a distance.

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    • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
      tiah
      September 14th, 2010 @11:07 #
       
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      She sounds like a complex person with high intelligence whose childhood romantic notions of Africa have linked themselves into an identity that does not translate well when actually present in the real South Africa. A common problem for Americans. Ask the Irish how many Americans visit their country believing they'd come "home," too. Admittedly, not the exact same situation. But even so, it is a true part of the American psyche which always comes across badly when proclaimed outside of the United States.

      Which doesn't make Alice Walker 's work less amazing. But it makes her human. We all have unflattering sides.

      And while I have sympathy for Kevin Bloom, he could have shown a bit more sympathy from where she comes from, and that in America she deals with a press who marginalises Black African-Americans on a daily basis, sugar coating problems of the now by arguing that since Obama is president we are in a post racial society. Her wariness of the press, and being led down the Fox News garden path is entirely understandable. He suspected his first question would not go down well, then why did he start with that? Given what she deals with in her own country, would it not have been better to have started with a question that displayed that he'd done his homework? That he was not one of those "typical" jouros who have never done more than glance at a title of her work?

      His question was not wrong, but it was poorly planned. It should have been asked further into the interview. Was her response admirable? No. But there is some understanding of why she was put off.

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    • Ben - Editor
      Ben - Editor
      September 14th, 2010 @14:17 #
       
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      Jackie May had a reasonable interview with Walker; but Andrew Donaldson says her Biko lecture was rubbish:

      http://www.timeslive.co.za/lifestyle/books/article657324.ece/Short-but-not-sweet

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    • <a href="http://margieorford.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Margie</a>
      Margie
      September 14th, 2010 @17:44 #
       
      Top

      Womanism is kind of loopy - in a nice, warm womany way. But tricky for sound bytes. and it runs right up against rationalism. but it still does feel good. and makes a kind of emotional sense that disappears (as many things do) when the cold light of reason is turned upon it. It does also embrace contradictions. Ours and Ms Walkers it would appear

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    • <a href="http://www.darlingtonrichards.com/" rel="nofollow">moi</a>
      moi
      September 14th, 2010 @18:41 #
       
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      oy. for sure, hell hath no fury like a (white man by a black) woman scorned :-))

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    • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
      Helen
      September 14th, 2010 @22:12 #
       
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      Tiah, I think your transatlantic perspective makes a lot of sense. I'm less sure about the implication that Kevin was pitching a "man scorned" fit, which seems unfair. I've lived on US campuses for several years of my life, and there was something in Kevin's description of his reception that chimed with my initial experiences with some African-American (and sometimes Caribbean) scholars and writers, who made a LOT of assumptions about me on the basis that I was a white South African. I used to reckon fair was fair, given their history and the abysmal behaviour of many of my race, but what did get on my nerves was when the same folk who drawn back in disgust upon meeting me would approach me after hearing me speak or teach, and confide how amazed they were to discover that I wasn't a frothing bigot. I may be projecting, of course, but I couldn't help wondering whether this may have been a factor in Kevin's experience.

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    • <a href="http://www.darlingtonrichards.com/" rel="nofollow">moi</a>
      moi
      September 14th, 2010 @23:02 #
       
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      @ Helen: I dunno, hey. Bloom’s the one who pulls out the slipper for the fitting:

      “Might that have been the moral, then? That people who aren’t white and male, as I am, know far more about the condition of invisible nothingness than I ever will?”

      and the comment threads to his piece yield thought-provoking stuff:

      “Could it be that in foregrounding white people (even their blindness) in the context of current inequality that still positions most black people as victims, you (could have, might have) signalled a degree of self-obsession? Of centering 'whiteness' and decentering current issues which still centre the black experience?” Sarah Henkeman

      and:

      “Walker's oeuvre is rife with examples of intolerance for entitlement and assumption; why would Bloom assume Walker has to be tolerant of his assumption and sense of entitlement.” Hamish Hamilton

      also:

      “But I still stand by my assertion that the questions Bloom relates here seem poorly conceived and superficially interested in the subject, and so much more interested in displaying the so-called intellect of the interviewer.” Hamish Hamilton

      there’s lotsa more interesting readings in that comment thread than in the original piece, especially from the Hamish Hamilton who does not claim to be an AW fan

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    • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
      tiah
      September 15th, 2010 @10:19 #
       
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      Helen, it would be hard to say without asking her. But how we view people is shaped so much be experience and it isn't always fair or accurate.

      When I was at UCT I worked with a woman who I really respected. One day she started ranting about something and concluded with the statement: "And that's why I don't like white people."

      I didn't mean to, but I instinctively took a step back.

      The woman looked at me in surprise and said, "What? No. You're not white - you're an American."

      Perception of identity of others has much to do with emotional heritage of the person judging, rather than the actual person being judged - yes? And in Kevin's interview - there seems to be a bit of that going both ways. Both of them could have acted with more class. But I'll be the first to admit I've had my poor moments, too.

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    • <a href="http://kevinbloom.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kevin</a>
      Kevin
      September 15th, 2010 @11:04 #
       
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      As Walker's UCT address proved, she made no attempt to understand this country or its complexities. If I made a mistake, it was to assume that an invitation to give the Steve Biko Lecture presupposed a level of familiarity with South Africa's specific and unique set of challenges. Ariel Dorfman, who gave the Nelson Mandela Lecture, had done his homework in this regard, and - given that I'd spent some time with Dorfman - I thought Walker would have something to contribute in a similar vein. I was wrong. But I reject that I was wrong to ask questions about my country and not about her; I wasn't there to faun. I also reject the insinuation that the interaction was about race - for me, again, it went wrong because she expected me to praise her and not expose her lack of preparation. Hell hath no fury like a white man scorned? For that one, "moi," don't you think a full name is necessary?

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    • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
      tiah
      September 15th, 2010 @11:47 #
       
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      Hello Kevin! While not Moi, I want to clarify that I do not think the question was wrong. But yes, think it was not the best first question choice. Nor am I defending her view on "Africa" as she states it, only providing insight to the fact this is a common part of the American psyche. Which again, doesn't make it right.

      As to race. It may not be about race to you, but I suspect her guard was up. Is that fair to you? No. But given the context of her own history and where she lives, it would not be surprising. The US is not some nice fuzzy inter-racial utopia. And unlike South Africa, black women are not part of the majority. They are the minority. No US president has ever been a woman. When the first woman does become president - think she is going to be black? Highly doubtful, regardless of the woman's intelligence or merit.

      It had the potential to be a very interesting interview. I am sad it did not go well, as we all lost an opportunity to hear her insights to some interesting questions that went beyond the standard textbook softball boring interviews. It is also a lost opportunity for her to have seen a South Africa that is more complex than the view she seems to hold. So it is a shame.

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    • <a href="http://www.darlingtonrichards.com/" rel="nofollow">moi</a>
      moi
      September 15th, 2010 @13:42 #
       
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      I'm too lazy to bother with using my left hand or moving anything more than the fingers of my right when I type my name but for you, Kevin - moira richards xx

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    • <a href="http://liesljobson.bookslive.co.za" rel="nofollow">Liesl</a>
      Liesl
      September 16th, 2010 @06:30 #
       
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      Bloom wrote:
      I am angry, though, as impotently furious as a toddler, so it’s far from a given that this piece will exhibit the emotional distance necessary for a worthwhile and reflective moral tale.

      Seems to me that he has good hunches.

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    • Ben - Editor
      Ben - Editor
      September 20th, 2010 @10:07 #
       

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