They say never meet your heroes...but given the chance to meet Alice Walker, the 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Color Purple, we’d wager most of the writers we’ve featured on The Root Presents: It’s Lit! would choose to meet her. Since we launched last September, Walker has been the most influential writer cited by our guests.
So, when we learned that educator, author and advocate Salamishah Tillet had been granted the unique privilege of not only meeting but interviewing Walker for In Search of the Color Purple: The Story of an American Masterpiece, a deep dive into the making, influences, and response to the seminal work, we had to speak with her about the experience. Tillet did not disappoint, placing us squarely in the legacy Walker immortalized with her words, telling us:
“We’re in his moment in which Black women are being celebrated and recognized in unprecedented ways—and so, we are all part of ushering in that moment, she said. “We’re also, in some ways, able to be seen differently because of this moment—but these moments don’t come by chance and they don’t come because people haven’t worked really hard to create them. So on one hand, I would like people to understand the ’80s as probably the most similar to our period right here; there’s a blossoming of Black women culturally and artistically, and there was a recognition of their efforts.”
I want us to understand our present...We are the children. We are the daughters of those authors and those activists and artists from the 1980s who were really having to explore what it means to be a Black woman in literature, on stage. And so that’s part of it. But also, I think we’re still wrestling with lots of the questions and concerns that this novel presented to them and then presents to us. We’re at a moment of Me, Too, and Black Lives Matter, right? And so, what The Color Purple can teach us in this moment is, one: What does it mean to recognize the voices and experiences of Black girls and Black women who’ve experienced sexual assault? Two: How Black women work in community with others—and how their healing also creates the possibility for others to heal? And then, three: I guess, also would be a deep recognition of the Black south and Georgia in particular, and the ways in which Alice Walker really was trying to give us an understanding of how culturally rich her life was, even as she grew up in segregation...and just understand the beauty that Alice Walker grew up in terms of the landscape—despite the poverty, the violence and the racial brutality that she and her family had to navigate. So there’s a lot of things, I guess, that I think this book can teach us today. But mostly I’m just excited to think about a Black woman as an author of an American masterpiece.
Hear more from the ever-inquisitive Salamishah Tillet in Episode 24 of The Root Presents: It’s Lit!: Searching for The Color Purple With Salamishah Tillet, now available on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, iHeart Radio, Google Podcasts, Amazon, NPR One, TuneIn, and Radio Public. Also available is a transcript of this week’s episode.