In July 1944, the Rev. Primus King attempted to cast a vote in the local Democratic primary in Columbus and was promptly arrested. His crime was being black; primaries were “white only.” Georgia’s last lynching, the infamous Moore’s Ford Bridge incident in Oconee County, was still two years away.
That is the world Alice Walker was born into on Feb. 9, 1944, the youngest of eight children raised by sharecroppers in Eatonton.
The likelihood that Walker would grow up to become the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize — as well as the National Book Award, both for her novel “The Color Purple” — would have seemed like a long shot back then. But Walker has spent a lifetime defying the expectations of others.
On Saturday, July 13, Eatonton will host Alice Walker 75, a daylong celebration of the author and poet on the occasion of her 75th year. Presented by the Georgia Writers Museum, festivities include a showing of the PBS American Masters documentary “Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth” and a tribute by authors influenced by Walker, including Tayari Jones, Pearl Cleage, Daniel Black and Walker’s daughter, Rebecca Walker.
But the highlight of the event is sure to be the evening program featuring Walker in conversation with author Valerie Boyd, a journalism professor and writer in residence at the University of Georgia, who is curating and editing a collection of Walker’s journals for publication next year.
The event has the potential to be a turning point for both Eatonton and Walker, who lives in Northern California.
Historically, Walker has had a complicated relationship with her hometown. “She had some painful experiences in segregated Georgia, so she had not spent a lot of time in Eatonton, especially since her mother died,” said Boyd.
Yet, the town left an imprint on the author that shaped her character and her work, says her biographer Evelyn White, who will speak at the event.
“I believe that Alice’s childhood under the scourge of Jim Crow in Eatonton fueled her unalterable dedication to and passion for justice — qualities and characteristics that course through all of her art and activism,” White said in an email. “Alice was also shaped and nurtured by the beauty of the landscape of rural Georgia, a beauty that countered the cruelty of the racism blacks endured.”
For the city of Eatonton, the birthday celebration is “a real opportunity to begin a more meaningful relationship with Alice Walker,” said Lou Benjamin, event co-chair and board member for Lake Country Arts, the nonprofit organization of which the Georgia Writers Museum is a part.
And for the nascent Georgia Writers Museum, Alice Walker 75 marks an opportunity to debut its recent face-lift and increase its visibility as a tourist attraction.
Located in a storefront in downtown Eatonton, and spurred by a partnership with UGA’s Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, the Georgia Writers Museum opened in 2014 as a way to jump-start economic growth in the area.
“At the time we started the museum, there were 55 authors in the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame,” said Benjamin, a retired recruiter. “Nine of them were from within 20 miles of Putnam County, so that epicenter created something marketable.”
Before the museum, “there was no such place as the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame,” he said. “It was just an idea they rolled out of the closet once a year for induction. Well, there is a place now.”
The newly refurbished and reconfigured museum, which celebrated its grand reopening June 27, has four galleries, three devoted to the area’s most prominent authors — Walker, Joel Chandler Harris and Flannery O’Connor — and one dedicated to members of the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, which includes such luminaries as Sidney Lanier, Natasha Trethewey and Alfred Uhry.
Originally the museum consisted of static displays of text, a few photos and some books, but now it has audio listening stations and video displays so visitors can see and hear the writers read and talk about their work. The Alice Walker room has the added bonus of a new exhibit provided by Emory University, where her papers are archived. Plans for the museum include the addition of holograms, and two adjacent buildings have been purchased for future expansion.
It’s a far cry from the Eatonton Walker left in 1961 after she graduated from segregated Butler Baker High School and moved to Atlanta to attend Spelman College on a scholarship. A prolific writer of novels, essays, short stories, magazine articles and poems, Walker’s most recent book is “Taking the Arrow out of the Heart,” a collection of poems published just last year. But her best-known work remains “The Color Purple,” an epistolary novel comprised of letters written to God by Celie, a teenage girl who is physically and sexually abused by her father in 1930s rural Georgia.
“The Color Purple” has consistently captivated audiences since its debut 37 years ago. Published in 1982, it won the nation’s top literary prizes. Three years later, it was adapted for film, starring Whoopi Goldberg and directed by Steven Spielberg. The movie was a critical and box office success, although none of its 11 Oscar nominations resulted in a win. But it also elicited protests and threats targeting Walker over its depiction of black male violence, which some believed perpetuated racial stereotypes.
Still, Celie and her story of love and redemption prevailed. In 2004, a musical adaptation premiered at the Alliance Theatre and opened on Broadway in 2005. Between the original production and the 2015 revival, it won three Tony Awards. And the musical continues to be staged in regional theaters around the country and in touring productions both here and abroad.
Lauded for the beauty and power of her words, as well as the fierce passion she brings to political and social activism, Walker has been the recipient of the nation’s highest literary awards, including the PEN/O. Henry Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Lillian Smith Award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Still, her rural Georgia roots run deep.
In recent years, Walker has been visiting Eatonton with more frequency, said Boyd.
“Her relationship with Eatonton is evolving. As she’s gotten older, she feels drawn back to Georgia in some way,” she said. “I think this tribute is going to make her feel more at home there.”
White, the biographer, recalled visiting Eatonton with the author one day and driving past Alice Walker Drive.
“I asked her what it was like to have a street named after her. She just shook her head and said it was unbelievable,” said White. “I imagine Alice is grateful to have lived long enough as exactly who she is to bear witness to Eatonton embracing the message that she has always espoused. Namely, love is possible and preferable.”
Schedule of events
10 a.m.: “Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth” screening and discussion
10 a.m.: Alice Walker bus tours — sold out
2 p.m.: Words & Music: Tribute to Alice Walker
3:45 p.m.: Book readings and signings, Georgia Writers Museum
3:45 p.m.: Alice Walker bus tours
6 p.m.: Cocktail reception and cake cutting
7:45 p.m.: An Evening With Alice Walker
Events are held at the Plaza Arts Center unless otherwise noted.
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