Reflections for Black History Month: Liberation Must Be Shared, How Alice Walker Contributed to My Understanding of Liberation

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By: Paula Neeley, Contributing Reporter

I have been thinking about how liberation is freedom from both physical bondage and mental bondage. To demonstrate, below are three quotes by Alice Walker. Consider how each quote refers to some mental process as well as a physical action:

“The most common way women give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” 

“Hard times require furious dancing. Each of us is proof.” 

“Activism is the rent I pay for living on this planet.” 

My introduction to Alice Walker came through the movie, The Color Purple, produced and directed by Steven Spielberg in 1985. It is set in turn-of-the-century Georgia at a time when lynchings were common practice as a means for people in white bodies to terrorize people in black bodies and keep them in mental bondage since they could no longer legally keep them in physical bondage.

The Color Purple is a story about “liberation from enforced, male-dominant religion and thought. It also poses the question never asked by societies in which they occur:  what becomes of the children whose parents are lynched and assassinated?” 

At the time, I was dating someone in a white body and we went to see The Color Purple together. We were both deeply moved by it and deeply disturbed by it and we talked about it at length and for days and weeks afterward. We both saw echoes of its truths in our communities and in our extended families.

The Color Purple introduced me to the fierce courage of Celie, the protagonist, whose character arc reflects her struggle with being disrespected and humiliated, but ultimately a discovery of her own self-worth. Coming to know Celie made me want to know more about the woman who created the character. I started reading Alice Walker’s poems and stories and essays. Below is some biographical information about her and some of her accomplishments:

Alice Walker was born February 9, 1944, the eighth and last child of Willie Lee Walker and Minnie Tallulah Grant Walker, who were sharecroppers in Eatonton, Georgia. She grew up in an environment rife with racism and poverty. Alice attended Spelman College and earned a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College.

Walker is a novelist, short story writer, poet, and social activist who is internationally celebrated and whose works include seven novels, four collections of short stories, four children’s books, and volumes of essays and poetry. She won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 1983 for The Color Purple and the National Book Award. Her work has been translated into more than two dozen languages and her books have sold more than fifteen million copies. 

Walker continues to publish and is one of the most prolific writers of our time. She still posts regularly on her blog: www.alicewalkersgarden.com.

One of the ways Alice Walker’s work opened my mind is that her poems and essays often referenced other accomplished artists and activists of color, whose work I then researched and some of their views were incorporated into my own world view. For example, I learned of Zora Neale Hurston, a Black Anthropologist and Filmmaker, from Alice Walker. In researching Zora Neale Hurston, I made a decision to broaden my study of Linguistics to include Anthropology, Folklore, and Theatre. That course of study, led me to an Ethno-Musicology class at Indiana University where I first encountered the African proverb that became a life path for me: “Each one, teach one.” 

That phrase stuck with me and I remember walking back to my dorm pondering it … each one, teach one. In that phrase, there’s an expectation that I acquire information and that I pass on knowledge. My parents had taught me that concept, but I had never heard their lessons so concisely articulated as: each one, teach one. The entire ethos of a village is encapsulated in those four words.

As an 18-year-old, it was very liberating because at that moment, I decided that I would live my life in such a way that I would have something to share, something to teach. I decided to take advantage of random opportunities that presented themselves so that I could collect rich and vibrant life experiences. From those experiences, I would learn lessons that could be passed on.

In 1990, just before I graduated from Indiana University, I came across Alice Walker’s poem entitled, “Each One, Pull One.” You can imagine why those words struck a chord in me! The rhythm and melody is the same as “each one, teach one,” except there is an urgency in Alice Walker’s words … each one, pull one. 

Online, you can find an audio clip of Alice Walker reading a portion of this poem and in it, she speaks of being temporarily on the side of a grave and reaching in … to help others out. Interesting imagery: she’s in a place where death reigns and life is buried. Yet, she doesn’t accept death. She reaches into a grave to help people out. People who are still alive. People who want to get out!

It finishes with these words: Each one, pull one back into the sun. We, who have stood over so many graves, know that no matter what they do, all of us must live or none. 

Like with the African Proverb, in Alice Walker’s words again I heard the message of something I must do … position myself on the side of the gravegrasp the hand, the elbow, the ankle of another … to lift them out because … Liberation     must be shared. When I get free from whatever is holding me, I must try to help someone else get free. Liberation     must be shared.

So, fast-forward 16 years to 2006. I had returned to the States, after living on two continents in Europe and South America, and I met my newborn nephew for the first time. My younger sister and her husband had named him A. Phillip Randolph after a Civil Rights leader. I was like … who is A. Philip Randolph? Somehow, I had never heard that name in connection with Civil Rights personalities. Each one … my sister and her husband … teach one … through their son’s name.

I did some research and found out that A. Philip Randolph’s non-violent resistance work in the 1920’s and 1930’s preceded the work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and that A. Philip Randolph was the 1st nationally prominent Civil Rights leader to invest funds in and send support to Reverend King (not Dr. yet) during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In fact, history tells us that A. Philip Randolph organized the 1963 March on Washington and strongly urged Dr. King to give the Keynote Address, which today we know as the “I Have a Dream” speech. 

In my research for this article, I came across a quote from Mary Frances Berry in her book, “History Teaches Us to Resist,” she said, “A. Philip Randolph believed that the future of the Negro was entirely dependent on his own actions, yet the individual cannot act alone.”  

Apparent contradiction in those words? I thought so: There’s an imperative to do for myself, but I should not act alone? 

Suddenly, it dawned on me! A. Phillip Randolph’s beliefs referred to the entire contingent of Negros! Not just me, but all people who are in black bodies. Only when I thought of it from that perspective did that statement make sense to me:  any success I experience from my own initiative could only be accomplished because of what collectively has happened and what collectively is happening to others and for others who look like me

The struggles are shared, and so are the advances; so are the victories. I-am-you-are climbing up out of the grave that Alice Walker referred to … and like with Alice Walker’s words, I hear in A. Phillip Randolph’s work an emphasis on social responsibility! There’s something I must do alone and then, there’s something I contribute to the larger community for a collective liberation just like with “Each one, pull one.”

Part of liberation is physical –standing at the side of the grave, reaching out a hand, working to lift others out– but other parts of liberation are emotional and mental and psychological. So I’ve been doing that work, my liberation work. Most of that is dealing with trauma that I’ve experienced in my life: racialized trauma, religious trauma, military trauma, gender-based trauma, cultural trauma, historical trauma, and national trauma. Doing that work alone and in groups over the past three decades has opened my heart and cleared my mind to recognize and engage in the broader work I’m called to do in this life. 

On dealing with trauma, Alice Walker said this, “If you lie to yourself about your own pain, you will be killed by those who will claim that you enjoyed it.” 

What is the message? If you continually put on a false front about what’s actually going on that is harmful, you are deceiving others. Putting on a false front is a trauma response. To deny the truth of your pain is a lie and it keeps you in bondage. 

Speak the truth! Speak the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable. You can say it politely, but you must say it. Speaking the truth is part of the healing. Speaking the truth gets you up out of the grave. Speaking the truth helps the entire contingent of us who have been wounded by lies; buried by lies.

Here’s my final quote from Alice Walker: “I think we have to own the fears that we have of each other, and then, in some practical way, some daily way, figure out how to see people differently than the way we were brought up to.”  

Alice is referring to the outward evidence of liberation from mental and physical bondage. The interior work –the process I take myself through regularly– impacts the exterior work, or how I treat people as I move through the world. We have to do both the internal and the external for true liberation.

So here’s my call to action: let’s challenge ourselves and the narrative we’ve been indoctrinated to hold about “other people” who are different from ourselves. 

Let’s help each other find our way to physical and mental liberation. 

Additional References:

  •  The poem, “Each One, Pull One” from “Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful” by Alice Walker.
  •  “Who is A. Philip Randolph? 5 Things You Need to Know,” The Washington Informer, April 15, 2016. 
  • “History Teaches Us to Resist,” Mary Frances Berry, Beacon Press, March 13, 2018.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not The Uptake.




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