Valerie Boyd and Alice Walker: On the kinship and legacy of a literary union

Valerie Boyd Alice Walker Gathering Blossoms Under Fire
Valerie Boyd and Alice Walker

Illustration by Hsiao-Ron Cheng

Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker, 1965-2000 (Simon & Schuster) is the first of two books edited by Valerie Boyd that will be published posthumously in 2022. Her second, an anthology of essays, Bigger Than Bravery: Black Resilience and Reclamation in a Time of Pandemic (Lookout Books), will be released this fall.

I find the word “posthumously” difficult to write. Boyd—journalist, critic, teacher, and literary institution—died on February 12 of this year. She was only 58 years old. I first met Val (as we called her) 12 years ago when I was a relatively new writer still uncertain about my own publishing path. As she did with so many others, especially other Black and brown women writers, Val encouraged me and directed opportunities my way. While a shepherd to a large, diverse, and devoted literary flock, she still managed to produce three groundbreaking books.

Gathering Blossoms, Boyd’s second book, consists of half a century of Walker’s journal entries from more than 65 notebooks. Sifting through thousands of pages must have been a daunting task for Boyd and Walker. But the Georgia natives were kindred spirits whose partnership seemed fated—they both share a love for another Black woman author, Zora Neale Hurston.

In 1975, long after much of the literary world had forgotten about Hurston, a young Walker visited Hurston’s hometown in Eatonville, Florida, to write an article about her for Ms. magazine. (Walker chronicles this in Gathering Blossoms.) Walker’s piece, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” reestablished Hurston’s present-day place in the literary canon. Nearly three decades later, in 2004, Boyd published the award-winning biography Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston, a book Walker greatly admired. In the postscript to Gathering Blossoms, Walker writes: “Wrapped in Rainbows, [Boyd’s] perfect biography of Zora Neale Hurston, whom we both love and admire, was all the evidence I needed that she could be trusted to trim away hundreds of pages of my runaway journals and offer readers a form more easily transportable and understood.”

Walker’s papers (and, as of 2017, Boyd’s papers) and documents are housed at Emory University’s Stewart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, where they will remain out of the public view until 2040. Gathering Blossoms provides a thrilling glimpse into this literary gold mine, as well as a provocative look at the interiority of one of today’s greatest American writers.

The entries, especially the first two decades, are gems. They include the first page from what would come to be The Color Purple; accounts of Walker’s activism during the civil rights movement in Jackson, Mississippi; letters to writers Langston Hughes and Toni Cade Bambara; as well as ledgers of Walker’s income at a time when she was barely able to keep herself financially afloat.

Walker poignantly recalls her struggles with depression and parenting. She rues her obituary for writer Anaïs Nin, whose own diaries Walker greatly admired, but to whom she feels, ultimately, she did not do justice upon her death. Walker mourns the dissolution of her friendship with Tillie Olsen, author of Silences, after The Color Purple wins the American Book Award (now the National Book Award) and the Pulitzer Prize in 1983. At a dinner with Angela Davis and Toni Morrison, recounted as an excerpt below, Walker and Morrison trade barbs about the same critics who bash their books. Many of the passages in Gathering Blossoms feel as if we’re a fly on the wall at a salon of changemakers.

Walker’s meditations on romance include some of her great loves—Melvyn “Mel” Rosenman Leventhal, her husband and father to their daughter, author Rebecca Walker; longtime partner Robert Allen; and musician Tracy Chapman. She poignantly ruminates, too, on the decline and death of her beloved mother, Minnie Lou Walker, in Eatonton, Georgia, Walker’s hometown.

Valerie Boyd Alice Walker Gathering Blossoms Under Fire
Valerie Boyd spent eight years curating more than five decades of journals housed in Alice Walker’s archives at Emory, which will remain out of the public view until 2040.

Courtesy of Emory Photo/Video

Boyd’s footnotes are meticulous. Their insights add to the richness of Walker’s muses, introduce us to the people who shape Walker’s career, and explain the process of curating the selections for the book. Walker’s entries did not always appear in chronological order. During their eight years on the project, Boyd and Walker had to piece some of them together like a jigsaw puzzle.

It is evident in Gathering Blossoms that the two women formed a deep and trusting bond. In the acknowledgements, Boyd thanks Walker for “choosing me.” Walker offers, “I thank all those—many now in the spirit world—for whom I have stayed alive. And those—in this and in the Spirit World—for whom I would have died.”

Boyd now rests in the spirit world Walker envisions. Thankfully, we have this exquisite collaboration between two Black Southern women authors, one still here, the other gone, whose literary legacies will continue to live on.

Excerpts from Gathering Blossoms Under Fire

Boyd writes that she retained Alice Walker’s—AW’s—original spellings, punctuation, and dating styles, even when inconsistent, to stay true to her original journal entries. “I also have sought to be as inconspicuous as possible, to make myself your invisible friend, leaning in only occasionally to whisper an important fact, clarification, or recollection in your ear: Hey, you remember this person, Alice’s boyfriend from her teenage years. Ah yes, this movie came out in 1976, to critical acclaim. Oh, you know Langston Hughes—the legendary poet of the Harlem Renaissance. And, yes, this person seeking a favor is the same person whose bad behavior you remember from fifty pages ago.” Boyd continues, “These contextual notes aim to serve the larger narrative, to quietly inform you, dear reader, so that you can stay with the story.”

Southbound → June 13, 1965

Valerie: In this entry, AW, now a student at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, chronicles her return to the South—and specifically to Atlanta, where she’d attended Spelman College before transferring to Sarah Lawrence.

Alice: The Atlanta skyline was like a stranger glimpsed again after several days have passed. I noted the newest buildings with some curiosity but no feeling. The Atlanta I knew began on Hunter Street—the southern portion of the Negro section. From the bus I could see the historic spire of Morris Brown—the oldest Negro college in Atlanta—rising from its hill, visible from numerous points about the city. Its spire visible to all, its body hidden like a tree root, deep in the soil of the Negro community. Off the bus I ran into many arms and kisses from old friends—all met at one time or another during the past five years—on walks, marches, pickets, etc. All over the North and South. “Brother!” and “Sister!” followed by all kinds of swings in the air— all accompanied by a freedom song in the background, “This Little Light of Mine,” I believe, let me know that I was finally in “the Movement” and that what this one had here in the Delta that the ones in the North did not was “soul!” Even while restrained by the usual “ick” of registration I felt more or less home and comfortable with the kind of soldiers I had volunteered to work with. That was the first day. Monday morning began with grits.

Looking For Zora → Undated

Valerie: AW had traveled to Eatonville and Fort Pierce, Florida, to look for the grave of Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960), a writer she greatly admired, who had been buried in an unmarked grave, despite a stellar career as the most prolific Black woman writer of her generation. Passing herself off as Hurston’s niece, AW found the grave in a weed-choked, segregated cemetery and, with her own money, bought a small gray headstone to mark the grave. Because of Hurston’s persistent mendacity about her age, AW placed the wrong birth year—1901 instead of 1891—on the marker. Scholars later learned that Hurston had lopped 10 years off her age in a radical act of reinvention that enabled her to finish high school after a decade of “wandering” following her mother’s death.

Alice: Seeing Zora’s grave in its field of weeds made me thankful that I love Mel. All she had, at the end, was her dog Sport. And her “friends.” Really just Sport.


Early Motherhood → January 16, 1970

Valerie: Alice and Mel decided to have a child partly as a way for Mel to avoid the draft and not go to Vietnam, AW recalls. The couple wanted “to keep our work going in the civil rights movement as well,” she says, noting that Mel’s legal skills were crucial to Black advancement.

Alice: Tomorrow my daughter will be two months old. She does not seem real to me yet as my daughter. But she is the compact, warm, squirming bundle I love to rouse from sleep—holding her against the warmth of my body so that waking will be pleasant, will not jar her. And her eyes, already when she smiles, a bit mischievous. How she blooms and blossoms day by day.

It is still strange having a baby that is all my own (and Mel’s) and I think the amazing thing about one’s baby is that you’d love it regardless of the father. Although when you love the father as I do, the love is more perfect, a blanket love, inclusive, warm.

• • •

Did I ever write anything here about the pregnancy? Long, with strong bouts of nausea, spitting. Unable some days to face my black literature class. Then, in the middle, better, so to Mexico and a long buying spree. Rugs (para mi nino!)—mostly Mel’s buying and the Tamayo which I had to have. I realized during pregnancy how much I love Mel, how glad I was to be carrying his child. Mama says a man like Mel, so full of love, should have 50 children. So actually if we stop at one it will be a poor return. The last 3 months difficult, heavy, lonely. The last few weeks unending . . . The labor long, hard—36 hours—beginning the day after Mel & I planted roses. Mel in Texas most of the first day, but then with me the rest of the time. How he suffered I guess I’ll never really know, but it was very hard for him. And how happy he was when it was over and how he grinned when he first saw Rebecca!

I thought, what a lot we’ve been through together and how strong & sure I felt about us.

A page at least belongs to Mama, who came & stayed 4 weeks. She did everything for me, for us. How she loved to hold Rebecca against her and folded in those big fat arms. Nights she took her & rocked her all night when she cried. I knew how much my mother loved me by her love & patience with my child. My mother was unflappable, even if she didn’t know newborn babies can’t perspire!

Mel’s mother, here for Thanksgiving, made me more nervous than I needed to be at the time, but she meant well and her help with the washer-dryer was more thoughtful than I’d ever dreamed. Rebecca uses diapers, diapers!

While Love Is Unfashionable

While love is unfashionable
let us live unfashionably.
Seeing the world
a complex ball
in small hands;
love our blackest garment.
Let us be poor
in all but truth,
and courage handed down
by the old spirits.
Let us be intimate with ancestral ghosts
and music of the undead.
While love is dangerous
let us walk bareheaded
beside the Great River.
Let us gather blossoms under fire.

—Alice Walker

Over Dinner → November 7, 1987

Valerie: Called “Literary Conjure Woman,” the 3,700-word piece was published in the New Republic on Oct. 19, 1987. In it, Black critic and contrarian Stanley Crouch focused on Toni Morrison’s most recent novel, Beloved, dismissing it as “trite” and “sentimental.”

Alice: Angela & Toni Morrison came to dinner Monday night. Toni’s hair is quite gray, and very beautiful and soft. When they were leaving & we were discussing hair, I touched it. “Angela, feel Toni’s hair, how soft it is!” And the evening was like that. I’d made soup and vegetables and there was bread & butter & fruit and wine. Toni talked about the critics of her book—actually she talked about our critics, since some of those who don’t like her work don’t like mine. Apparently, there’s a horrible review in The New Republic & reprinted in The Village Voice by Stanley Crouch. Someone handed it to her just before she went on a television or radio show. She says she’s called “Aunt Medea” and that there’s a funny/weird caricature of her.

She talked about being able to erect barriers, psychological ones, to protect herself. She feels she has a power to protect herself from crazy people and from dogs. She says she mentally choked a dog someone was holding & it shat in their hands.

I think Toni does have a brilliant, dark power, that she is more comfortable studying evil than I. I can study confusion, which most times only looks like evil, & I’d have a hard time even mentally choking a dog.

She was also very kind in her remarks about Ishmael Reed, saying she could never take him seriously. She seems to have known him for a long time and recently had dinner with him. She explained that when Ishmael was a little boy, around 5, his mother took him to meet his father, “a successful businessman” who threw them out of his office. This was Ishmael’s first meeting with his father. I said this story explains I’s hatred of black women writers: we keep taking him to meet his father.

We talked of whether Tar Baby would be made into a movie; she thought not, but later when Quincy called about Warner’s decision to offer me my 3%, he said plans for it were indeed moving along. Euzhan Palcy’s husband is to direct, not Euzhan! This is not good news. He said Toni would be hearing soon.

Anyway, he also commented on the fact that Toni and I were having dinner together. “Anyone would expect you to be enemies,” he said. But why would “anyone” expect that? Even when I’ve felt bad about something Toni allegedly said or did against me—for instance keeping Bob Gottlieb from taking me on at Knopf when I was trying to leave Harcourt—I’ve always also felt that if I did my work things would be okay.

I explained my absence at her big (City Arts & Lectures) reading. That I was in Boston doing a welfare women’s benefit. And I congratulated her on the success of Beloved, which I pronounced Be-Love-Ed. I said I had it but hadn’t read it yet because I was working on something and knew when I did read it “it would blow me away.”

She has been offered a substantial position at Princeton.

I feel glad for her success. It isn’t my kind of success. There doesn’t seem much laying up for days with her lover in it, but perhaps there is. I hope so. I know I couldn’t stand Princeton for a day.

And to end on an uplifting note …

The Inner Voice → December 31, 1979

Alice: And so, to end the Seventies . . . My life here is so full & rich—and I’ve found God! God is the inner voice that speaks up for what is the best/right course to pursue in any situation. It is the voice of the universe as it must have been when all was perfect. “Om,” which is harder to hear today because of congested living & noise pollution & the hurried life.

I have cramps today—from doing yoga incorrectly, I think, and it is raining. Still, I am aware of sunshine in my heart. Because I know what love is. And I love so much. My most recurring expression is “I love . . .” Trees. Sky. Colors. Food. Everything that is in harmony with the soul of the universe (“om”). I meditate. I pray, in meditation. I talk to myself & converse with my inner voice. And I understand things . . . what Sojourner Truth meant by “God.” The inner voice.

• • •

I want to write a different kind of book. Will I? Welcome back, Zora. Welcome all the citizens of all our Eatonvilles. You’ve survived!

I am more optimistic this year than ever before. Even the threat of a 3rd world war doesn’t kill off the optimism. I think there is amazing stuff in the universe. That maybe human beings are working toward some inevitable perfection. Who knows? In the meantime—I am thankful for my life. For the world, for love & friends & child & work. I stand midway in my life. But only if I live until I’m seventy.

From GATHERING BLOSSOMS UNDER FIRE: The Journals of Alice Walker, 1965–2000 by Alice Walker, edited by Valerie Boyd. Copyright © 2022 by Alice Walker. Compilation and Introduction copyright © 2022 by Valerie Boyd. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

This article appears in our May 2022 issue.

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