Spring/Summer 1992, Volume 9.2
Critical Essay

RUTH D. WESTON

Who Touches This Touches a Woman:  The Naked Self in Alice Walker

In The New York Times Book Review for March 9, 1986, Alicia Ostriker celebrates American women poets who refuse to be limited by the masculine ideal of "universal," meaning nonfemale, poetry. Ostriker believes that the writing of these women poets during the last twenty-five years constitutes a shaping force in American poetry. Their passionate, intimate poems "defy divisions between emotion and intellect, private and public, life and art, writer and reader," reminding us, she says, of the frank sexuality of Walt Whitman's poems, so aptly characterized by his own words: "Camerado, this is no book,/Who touches this touches a man." Such an impulse is alive today in both the poems and the stories of Alice Walker. Her work has been previously linked to Whitman's because of both poets' celebration of the common problems that unite and divide people (Gernes 93-94), yet hers is a uniquely feministWalker would say "womanist" (In Search xii)perspective.

Whitman assumed his personal experience to be the universal experience, but it was more precisely the masculine universal. Walker writes about black women with the authority of the universal female experience, an experience made complex and contradictory by the phenomenon of love. Although some black critics, like Ishmael Reed, charge that white feminists' interest in black women's writing constitutes "intellectual fraud" (qtd. in Watkins 36), which exploits black women and undermines the black community (Watkins 36; qtd. in Sharpe et al 149), Patricia Sharpe and her colleagues explain white feminists' ability for cross-racial identity. Initially recognizing the basis of such identity in anthropological theories of female "liminality" as a locus of power (See Mascia-Lees et al), they have recently refined their analysis by pointing out women's common experience of victimization. These critics argue that:

[W]e, as white feminists, are drawn to black women's visions because they concretize and make vivid a system of oppression . . . [and] abuse . . . . [And further, that] it has not been unusual for white women writers to seek to understand their oppression through reference to the atrocities experienced by other oppressed groups. Sylvia Plath, for example, likened her feelings of rejection . . . by her father to the treatment of Jews under Nazism . . . . (Sharpe et al 146)

Alice Walker's song of the self, although ultimately a celebration (Davis 38-53), differs from Whitman's not only in expected ways due to their respective genders, races, and eras. It differs more basically in the fact that, in Walker's fiction and poetry of the Black experience, many women are almost entirely ignorant of love, never having been allowed to share it. What is more, they do not know, much less celebrate, themselves. When they are abusedand they often arethey do not know the value of the self that has been violated. Celebrations, in such circumstances, are necessarily infused with an irony completely alien to Whitman's Leaves of Grass period, when he envisioned an ideal equality between men and women.

Even in relationships between women, Walker often shows the undervalued selves of women. In the story "Everyday Use," Maggie suffers psychological scars long after physical healing from burns in a fire set by Dee, her older sister. When the citified and condescending Dee comes to visit, Maggie feels ugly and hides behind the door, providing a graphic symbol of the physical and psychological disfigurement of women that is an important theme in Walker's writing. Similarly, low self-esteem also leads Roselily, in the story that bears her name, to marry the Muslim who will take her away from her home, promising her rest and freedom from the hard work she has always known. But Walker's narrative is laced with images of the new bondage that awaits Roselily in a culture which undervalues women, images which reveal the irony of her hope to be "Free! In robe and veil" (In Love 7).

Walker does not ignore the black man's search for self-worth, a theme she explores in The Third Life of Grange Copeland; but the casualties of that search are the wives of Grange and Brownfield Copeland. Not only because they are influenced by a macho male white culture (Wallace; qtd. in Sharpe et al 147), but because they are also frustrated in their own claim to manhood, Grange and Brownfield in turn deny their women's every assertion of self-worth. Thus, when Mem raises the family's standard of living, Brownfield systematically destroys first her health and then her spirit. Finally, he blows her face away with a shotgun (172), literally effacing her identity. That Walker intends the scene as an affirmation of the universality of female cultural effacement is clear from her statement in the "Afterword" to the novel that Mem, "after the French la mme, meaning 'the same,'" was so named because the actual murder victim Walker based the story on "in relation to men was . . . symbolic of all women" (344).

The theme of regressive violence within black families is seen even earlier in the poems that reveal how the exigencies of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s helped Alice Walker to come to terms with personal wounds. An example that she herself has pointed to is that of her poem "The Democratic Order: Such Things in Twenty Years I Understood":

My father
(back blistered)
beat me
because I
could not
stop crying.
He'd had
enough 'fuss'
he said
for one damn
voting day. (Once 43)

Although Walker's relationship with her father was not good, the matter of the poem is not strictly autobiographical (Walker Living 11), yet it creates an idealized father character that allows her to displace her anxiety about her own father while the poem speaks to the general cultural frustrations that are vented upon women.

In the novel Meridian, however, the field of anxiety is broadened to include anxiety about men as sexual "partners." The adolescent Meridian, like many of Walker's female protagonists, becomes afraid of males as soon as she is seen as fair game by boys at school. She submits to Eddie's sexual needs not because they respond to her own but because they

saved her from the strain of responding to other boys or even noting the whole category of Men . . . . This . . . was probably what sex meant to her; not pleasure but a sanctuary . . . . It was resting from pursuit. (54-55)

These women are ignorant of the joy of offering themselves as inherently valuable gifts, perhaps, because, as Barbara Christian points out, for such abused women "the body can become the tomb of the mind, [and similarly] the mind's anguish can diminish the body;" thus, Christian continues, Meridian's own guilt for "not living up to her mother's expectations about motherhood," combined with frustration at her sense of powerlessness, results in progressively more serious physical problems: "blue spells," then loss of sight, then temporary paralysis (Black Women 216). The world has touched women who have suffered similar experiences, perhaps indelibly marked them, but they are out of touch with themselves.

Celie, in The Color Purple, learns both psychological and literal touching of the self. Through her relationships with other women in the novel, she gets in touch with her moral and physical self. Jealous of Sophia's physical strength and sense of authority, and frustrated at her own lack of either quality, Celie strikes out at her by repeating to Harpo the advice his father had given him about how to make his wife obey him: "Beat her" (43). Celie rationalizes:

I like Sophia, but she don't act like me at all. If she talking when Harpo and Mr.____come in the room, she keep right on. If they ast her where something at, she say she don't know. Keep talking.

I think bout this when Harpo ast me what he ought to do to her to make her mind. I don't mention how happy he is now. How three years pass and he still whistle and sing. I think bout how every time I jump when Mr.____ call me, she look surprise. And like she pity me.

Beat her. I say. (43)

When Harpo tries to beat Sophia and gets beaten himself, Celie realizes her culpability but can only turn her guilt inward. When she is abused by her husband, Celie again internalizes her anger. She can't sleep, she feels like throwing up, and finally she feels nothing. Ironically, it is Sophia who calls her to moral responsibility, not only for allowing herself to encourage male brutality to women, but ultimately to responsibility for her own life. Celie's usual response to a beating from the man she calls only Mr.____ has been, "But he my husband. I shrug my shoulders. This life soon be over, I say. Heaven last all ways." Sophia advises, "You ought to bash Mr.____ head open . . . . Think bout heaven later" (47). It is only when Celie can externalize her anger, can dare to express herself in spite of the fact that her father has forbidden her to speak, that she begins her journey toward selfhood by writing a revised self, by literally touching pen to paper to release her creative energy.

But the rite of passage comes through a different sort of literal touching of the self, in Celie's sexual awakening by Shug Avery. Although Celie has been raped repeatedly by her father and has given birth to two children by him, and although she is now married to Mr.____, she is, according to Shug, still a virgin (79). In other words, she has never known, or even realized there could be, sexual pleasure for a woman. Thus her most significant initiation into human sexuality is by her husband's mistress, and the lesbian lovemaking that follows is Celie's first experience of erotic love. To Celie, "it feel like heaven is what it feel like, not like sleeping with Mr.____ at all" (110). At last she is put in touch with her own body and her own needs. She learns to associate pleasure, not pain, with human touch. Thus, although women's relationships with men have impeded female self-development, their bonds with women, even literary bonds (Sadoff 4-26), can provide positive correctives. And certainly Celie's rite of passage provides the kind of cultural deconstruction that is a symbol of "emotive power" like those used by African women "mythmakers creating viable and meaningful new images of and for women" (Sharpe et al 145-46).

Even in the face of the painful disjunctions of life, Walker's emphasis is always on the inherent yearning for unity in all lifeof body and mind, of flesh and spirit, and especially of male and female. Thus in the title poem of Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful, the most important element of the poem is the "s" in "Horses," a fact which is evident from the incident that provided the impetus for the poem. Walker tells the story of a horse's wild suffering when deprived of his mate, and of his look that was "piercing, . . . full of grief . . . , [and] human" (Living 7). And the cruelty Walker sees in the humans who took away the mare after stud service seems an ironic reflection on the frequency of cruelty she notes among humans, who continually rupture their own intimate relationships. In the "Introduction" to her volume of poems entitled Good Night Willie Lee, I'll See You in The Morning, she states the basic need for human touch, a need which will, she says, "call out [one's] own heart for review" (vi). The complex theme common to the poems in this book is that of the perennial conflict of woman's two basic needs, which have historically been mutually exclusive: the need for intimacy with a man but also the need for mental and physical integrity. By "call[ing] out [one's] heart for review" in these poems, Walker shows us the state of the heart of woman. We see the continuing vulnerability of heart and body, but we also see hints of an emerging awareness of woman's equal need, and increasing ability, to resist abuse. It is as though Walker's book, published in 1979, is her answer to Adrienne Rich's call to action in her 1972 essay "When We Dead Awaken": a call not only for women writers to express anger at their victimization by men, but also a call for women to stop permitting the abuse, to take responsibility for their lives, to exchange the imposition of pain for what Rich calls the self-actuated "birth-pains [of] bearing ourselves" (25). And indeed, as Barbara Christian has shown, Walker's work contributes to, and perhaps represents the epitome of, a rapidly-developing theme in Afro-American women's writing: that of female self-development and self-definition ("Trajectories" 233-248).

The destructive results of a woman's need for a love relationship with a man are seen in Walker's poems through images of pain and death, suggesting the physical and mental stress on a woman in this double bind. Her conflicting needs cause "a painful knot in her back;" or they come up like weeds.

Through cracks in the conversation.
Through silences in the dark.
Through everything you thought was concrete.
Such needful love has to be chopped out
or forced to wilt back
poisoned by disapproval
from its own soil. (Good Night 2-3)

A reviewer of Walker's first volume of poems, entitled Once (1968), noticed the juxtaposition of images of the world's brutality with images of great tenderness (Walsh 20). In that book, however, the contrasting expressions were not often identified with sex; and sometimes they did not even appear in the same poem. Compare, for example, the soft eroticism of "The Smell of Lebanon," from the sequence of "impossible love" poems, with the following bitter passage from the long title poem "Once":

I remember
seeing
a little girl,
dreamingperhaps,
hit by
a
van truck
"That nigger was
in the way!" the
man
said
to
understanding cops . . . . (Once 35)

Perhaps the volume's most emphatic ironic contrast comes in "Karamojans," where the poet suggests the inherent native African beauty and dignity, which has been spoiled by poverty and disease. Throughout the poem, images of the fineness of human beings are undercut by those of the world's brutal realities, as stanzas two and eight will suffice to show:

The Noble Savage
Erect
no shoes on his
feet
His pierced ears
Infected.
. . . .
How bright the little
girl's
Eyes were!
a first sign of
Glaucoma. (Once 20, 22)

The simple, perhaps even clichZd, vocabulary is elevated by the poem's sustained technique of ironic negation, a technique that also occurs in the title poem "Once," where the reality of the Southern jailer "in grey" negates, for the Civil Rights demonstrators, the "Green lawn/. . . picket fence/flowers/. . . [and] the blue sky" (Once 23). The continual juxtaposition of positive and negative images produces an overriding antiphonal style in both the poems and the prose, a style apparent, for example, in the title poem of Revolutionary Petunias; in the structure of the stories "Roselily" and "The Child Who Favored Daughter" (In Love); and in the alternating voices of Celie and Nettie, which "encompass and interconnect all the characters" in The Color Purple (Fifer 156).

This ironic antiphony underlies what are perhaps Walker's most striking images of negation: those which occur in poems which express love's mental anguish in terms of physical pain or danger: Loving a man is analogous to bearing a "knife that presses/without ceasing/against [a woman's] heart" (Good Night 10); to being "in limbo" (11), to being "afflicted" to the point of "murder[ing] the man" (13); to having one's life "shredded/by an expert" (15). Often, however, a woman endures sexual pain that has nothing to do with love. A recurring reference in Walker's poems is to the rape her great-great-grandmother suffered at age eleven. A poem entitled "The Thing Itself," from the volume Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful, is the poet's vision of that experience. It includes these lines:

There was no
pornography
in her world
from which to learn
to relish the pain.
(She was the thing
itself.) (62)

Nowhere is the body of the poem more at one with the female body than in Walker's "Early Losses: A Requiem," in which the poet, in the persona of a nine-year-old African girl sold into slavery, mourns the loss of her childhood friend but also the loss of her own childhood:

. . . Omunu vanished
down a hole that
smelled of blood and
excrement and death
and I was "saved"
for sport among
the sailors of the crew.
Only nine, upon a ship. My mouth
my body a mystery
that opened with each tearing
lunge. (Good Night 28)

In this volume of poems we touch a woman in pain.
But mitigating the pain expressed are also flashes of the spirited woman that is Alice Walker. For example, in "Janie Crawford":

I love the way Janie Crawford
left her husbands the one who wanted
to change her into a mule
and the other who tried to interest her
in being a queen
a woman unless she submits is neither a mule
nor a queen
though like a mule she may suffer
and like a queen pace
the floor. (Good Night 18)

We also see a "moody woman/[with] temper as black as [her] brows/as sharp as [her] nails" (19). We see her trying to survive with a dream different from that of her grandmother, who longed only for some comfort in her poor life, and yet trying to maintain some connection with her heritage, as she says in "Talking to my grandmother . . . ,"

I must train myself to want
not one bit more
than what i need to keep me alive
working
and recognizing beauty
in your
so nearly
undefeated face. (Good Night 46-47)

And there is the resurgent good humor in poems such as "Every Morning," the poet's rebuke to a sleepy, complaining body:

"Don't you see that person
staring at you?" I ask my breasts,
which are still capable
of staring back.
"If I didn't exercise
you couldn't look up
that far . . . . (Horses Make 16)

Although the volume Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful received mixed reviews, some readers alleging its "pathos" ("Private Voices" 19), banality (Publishers' 71), "forced" quality (Virginia Quarterly 57), or even racism (Disch 6), such poems as "Every Morning" speakboth for Walker and her readersto the subject that Adrienne Rich said she herself addressed in writing "Planetarium": "the relief of the body/and the reconstruction of the mind" (30).

Contrary to charges of her insensitivity to black men, typified by the comments of Tony Brown (2), of her sexist polemic, according to Charles Johnson (107), or of both and more (Cheatwood; qtd. in Walker Living 88), Walker, as she herself has reminded us (Living 80), extends that same opportunity for relief and reconstruction to her male charactersto Grange Copeland, to Harpo, to Albert, and even to Mister. Yet there is no more false (that is, sexless) "universality" in Alice Walker's writing than there was false modesty in Walt Whitman's frankly sexual poems, notwithstanding even Walker's own cogent claim that all races suffered (and by implication still suffer) from the experience of slavery: "We are the African and the trader. We are the Indian and the settler . . . , the slaver and the enslaved . . . (Living 89). To admit these common human afflictions is not to deny Chikweyne Okonjo Ogunyemi's claim that "black womanist writers . . . are committed to the survival and wholeness of their entire people, female and male" (qtd. in Sharpe et al 143). Yet in her fiction and poems, it is nevertheless the nerves and bodies and minds of Walker's female characters that are laid bareto each other, to themselves, and to the reader. On the page in black and white (pun intended, in the spirit of Walker's own use in "African Images" {Once 7}), the complex self of woman is naked and exposed, in the misery of its pain or the celebration of its worth. Alice Walker's writing will never be mistaken for that of Whitman; for who touches this touches a woman.

 

WORKS CITED

Brown, Tony. "Tony Brown's Comments: The Color of Purple is White." The Herald 1 Jan. 1986: 2.

Christian, Barbara. Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976. Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1980.

---. "Trajectories of Self-Definition: Placing Contemporary Afro-American Women's Fiction." Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition. Ed. Majorie Pryse and Hortense Spillars. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1985. 233-248.

Davis, Thadious M. "Alice Walker's Celebration of Self in Southern Generations." Women Writers of the Contemporary South. Ed. Peggy Whitman Prenshaw. Jackson: U P of Mississippi, 1984. 38-53.

Disch, Tom. "The Perils of Poesy." Book World 30 Dec. 1984: 6.

Fifer, Elizabeth. "Alice Walker: The Dialect & Letters of The Color Purple." Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies. Ed. Catherine Rainwater and William J. Scheick. Lexington: U P of Kentucky, 1985. 155-71.

Gernes, Sonia. America 152.4 (2 Feb. 1985): 93-94; qtd. in Pratt, Louis H. and Darnell D. Pratt, Alice Malsenior Walker: An Annotated Bibliography: 1968-1986. Westport, CT: Meckler, 1988.

Johnson, Charles. Being & Race: Black Writing Since 1970. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1988.

Mascia-Lees, Frances E., Pat Sharpe, and Colleen B. Cohen. "Double Liminality and the Black Woman Writer." American Behavioral Scientist 31 (Sept.-Oct. 1987): 101-14.

Ostriker, Alicia. "American Poetry, Now Shaped by Women." New York Times Book Review. 9 Mar. 1986: 1, 28-30.

"Private Voices." Books and Bookmen Sept. 1985: 19.

Publisher's Weekly 24 Aug. 1984: 71.

Reed, Ishmael. Reckless Eyeballing. New York: St. Martin's, 1986.

Rich, Adrienne. "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision." College English 34:1 (Oct. 1972): 18-25.

Sadoff, Dianne F. "Black Matrilineage: The Case of Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston." Signs 11.1 (Autumn 1985): 4-26.

Sharpe, Patricia, F. E. Mascia-Lees, and C. B. Cohen. "White Women and Black Men: Differential Responses to Reading Black Women's Texts." College English 52:2 (Feb. 1990): 142-53.

Virginia Quarterly Review 61: 2 (Spring 1985): 57.

Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. 1982. New York: Washington Square, 1983.

---. Good Night Willie Lee, I'll See You in The Morning. 1979. Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984.

---. Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984.

---. In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974.

---. In Search of Our Mother's Gardens. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984.

---. Living By the Word: Selected Writings, 1973-1987. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.

---. Meridian. New York: Harcourt, 1976.

---. Once. New York: Harcourt Brace World, 1968.

---. Revolutionary Petunias & Other Poems. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.

---. The Third Life of Grange Copeland. 1970. Rpt. New York: Pocket Books, 1988.

Wallace, Michele. Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman. New York: Warner, 1979.

Walsh, Chad. "A Present Rooted in the Past." Book World 3 Nov. 1968: 20.

Watkins, Mel. "Sexism, Racism and Black Women Writers." New York Times Book Review 15 June 1986: 1, 35-37.

Whitman, Walt. "So Long." Leaves of Grass. 1860. Rpt. Eight American Writers: An Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Norman Foerster and Robert P. Falk. New York: Norton: 1963. 1137-38.

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Mly and hides behind the door, prov

Mg a graphic symbol of the physical

M† psychological disfigurement of wo