Inspired by a biopic of Alice Walker, Huma Munshi reminds us we cannot deny race in feminist discourse
As a trade unionist and activist who is always looking for inspiration, I am drawn to figures like Alice Walker who campaigned to affect change in the face of extreme opposition and adversity in the racially segregated South of the 1960s. The opportunity to see Alice Walker live in conversation along with the London premiere of Beauty in Truth, a documentary about the Pulitzer Prize winning author and human rights activist directed by Pratibha Parmar of Kali Films, was unmissable. [The F-Word recently reviewed one of Pratibha’s previous films, A place of rage – AO]
The film provides a vivid narrative of Alice Walker’s life during the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s. She was brought up in Georgia by sharecropper parents who decided to send their children to school at a time when the children of sharecroppers were sent to work in the fields. This defiant position against what is expected of her is a theme that runs throughout Alice Walker’s entire life.
A number of interviews provide an insight into how Walker developed into the activist she was to become. Her protest about the way a professor was treated after he had opposed segregation led to her departure from Spelman College in Atlanta. She went to study at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. It was at this point that she became immersed in the civil rights movement challenging the Jim Crow laws.
She talks on film about how her relationship with a white, Jewish man, who she would later marry, became a political act as well. They went to motels and hotels together to challenge their refusal to allow entry to mixed race couples. They married at a time when it was illegal in parts of the US for mixed race couples to marry.
The soundtrack to the film lends a poignant voice to the struggles of African Americans in the 1960s. Nina Simone’s ‘Mississippi Goddam’ perfectly captures the spirit of anger as it plays in the background to the images of African American men and women being mauled by dogs and beaten by the police:
They try to say it’s a communist plot
All I want is equality
For my sister my brother my people and me
Walker’s writing is shown to exemplify the multiple forms of inequality she faced. She fought hard against the discrimination limiting her opportunities in the racially segregated South, but this could not be divorced from the struggle of her gender. The cross-cutting inequalities she experienced, the intersectionality of her gender and race, drove her to campaign and write. The film poignantly shows that race has always been, and must continue to be, part of feminist discourse.
This reminded me of the film Made in Dagenham, a screening of which I organised for members of my union during International Woman’s Day two years ago. It depicted the fight for equal pay by the Ford Dagenham sewing machinists, which proved to be a catalyst to pass the Equal Pay Act of 1970. It would be an understatement to say that the strike was not supported by the men in the higher echelons of the main trade unions.
In both instances, the entirety of a person’s experience is negated as part of their identity is denied. How can a movement claim to speak on behalf of or represent the masses, if it refuses to acknowledge the distinct issues that these diverse groups experience? What is racial or class equality without gender equality or vice versa?
Parmar’s film focuses on what became one of Alice Walker’s biggest achievements but also her biggest challenge – the publication in 1982 of The Color Purple, which won a Pulitzer Prize.
The film provides ample footage of how the book was received by some sections of the African American community, in particular African American men. It cogently poses the question, if a community is already marginalised, is there a justification to use art to openly criticise sections of that community? That Walker could not, or would not, divorce her gender from her race, is a testament to her tenacity.
We see demonstrations by African American men who took the story as a personal attack on them, because it covered taboo subjects like incest, rape, abuse and homosexuality. But this was her story to tell, based on her own ancestral background. This reminded me of reading Love by Toni Morrison, another renowned African American female writer and the furore that followed as a result of her depiction of the community. Morrison also strongly believes that the story of African American women must be told even if it criticises sections of the community. There is not one monolithic Black community – diverse experiences of African American women must be told as such.
The Q&A (which you can watch below) that followed the screening jarred slightly. The audience were very keen to express a sense of awe that they were part of this experience, the feeling touched upon by Zadie Smith’s mother who was present and who noted that Alice Walker had been an inspiration to her daughter. However, Mariella Fostrup as chair didn’t seem to quite pick up on this mood. She focused heavily on the thorny issue of Alice Walker’s estrangement from her daughter, Rebecca Walker. This was preceded by Mariella describing how difficult she found it not to be with her own daughter on Mother’s Day. It was strange that the focus would not be on Alice Walker’s achievements.
The dichotomy of being an activist (whether feminist or otherwise) versus an idealised concept of being a mother is often perpetuated by commentators in patriarchal societies. They do not take the nuanced approach required to pick up the sensitivities involved and this is not a debate we hear very often about successful men, likely to undertake the same single-minded approach in achieving their goals. As a strong, Black womanist, Alice Walker was a particular target for those who saw her dynamism and activism as a threat.
As a film, Beauty in Truth is both revealing and engaging, with a soundtrack that captures the anger of the time and the desire for change. The impact of showing a film like this, not only to the students of the civil rights era, is remarkable: it brings to life the experiences of those who took part in the struggles but also the need for activism in the face of injustice.
The evening ended as it had begun: with a buzz around the Queen Elizabeth Hall and a standing ovation. It is not often that you are in the company of one of the most influential women of our time and it was powerful to see the diversity of attendees in that room.
The event provided a much needed insight into the experiences of women subject to multiple forms of inequality. Not only did the film cover race but it also looked at how poverty and social class can obstacles to equality. The feminist movement must continue to provide opportunities for women from diverse groups to speak out on their specific issues, aspirations and challenges.
Both photos are taken from the film’s official website. The Q&A video is from Southbank Centre YouTube channel.