Happy Solar Return to Mother Alice Walker! We wish her many more! I am grateful for the range of work we have received from such a radical force across many dimensions. Alice Walker has impacted the industry of literature and contemporary academia with prolific skill to transcend collective mobility for the African diaspora. She also coined the integral term ‘womanism.’
Alice Malsenior Walker was born on February 9th, 1944 in Eatonton, Georgia. She is the eighth child of Willie Lee Walker and Minnie Tallulah Grant. At eight years old she sustained an eye injury that left her completely blind in her right eye. At that time, she ironically committed to consistent reading and writing. In 1961, she graduated as valedictorian from Butler Baker High School and enrolled in Spelman College on a full-ride scholarship.
In 1965, Walker received a Bachelor’s in Arts degree in English from Sarah Lawarence College in Bronxville, NY. Three years later, her writing career gained steam with her first poetry collection Once. In 1970, her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland was published. Walker would go on to publish many works of short stories, non-fiction, and poetry. In 1982, The Color Purple was published. The book became a bestseller and was adapted into a critically acclaimed 1985 movie directed by Steven Spielberg, featuring Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg. The plot captures 40 years of young Celie’s survival story through abuse and bigotry, exposing the divisive constructs of colorism, sexism and anti-Black socialization in the American South. Walker’s potency in authorship and activism contributes to the longer list of Black writers who impact Black representation with raw intersectionality, connectedness, and cultural progression.
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In her collection of essays, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Walker coins the term womanist and womanism. They have roots in the term womanish which has historically been used within African American vernacular to describe a young girl “acting grown.” Acting grown is often related to a youth’s interest in adult activities such as responsibility, permanence and intimacy. In the prologue, Walker provides a loaded discussion with the following definitions:
- “From womanish (Opp. of “girlish,” i.e., frivolous, irresponsible, not serious.) A black feminist or feminist of color. Interested in grownup doings. Acting grown-up. Being grown-up. Responsible. In charge. Serious.
- Also: a woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women’s strength. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or nonsexually. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically, for health. Traditionally universal. Traditionally capable.
- Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.
- Womanist is to feminist as purple to lavender.”
Through the discourse of struggles faced by Black women within violent social structures, the term womanism was intended to unite Black women and the feminist movement at the intersection of race, class and gender oppression. Walker’s definition faces many criticisms; one of which being the abstract poetic language. While Walker’s eloquence may offer a beautiful foundation for intersectionality to thrive on, it is not exempt from improvement. Deciphering who is allowed membership in a womanist community can be complicated. Debates seek common ground between those who may not identify as women or do not share the same intersections as the identities at the forefront which is disproportionately presented by feminine gender expression. The language may originate in inclusion, but gender identity, sexuality, and human expression has become largely fluid since womanism’s inception. Global tolerance and acceptance is only phase one in global shifts toward protecting vulnerable identities and collecting narratives that accurately translate our experiences. Phase two is sharing safe space for opposing polarities to accept accountability for locating the core of healing, then distributing responsibility accordingly.
Monica A. Colman connects Chikwenye Ogunyemi and Clenora Hudson-Weems in contrast to Alice Walker’s definition. Ogunyemi defines her concept of womanism as a philosophy that “celebrates black roots [and] the ideals of black life, while giving a balanced presentation of black womandom [and] concerns itself as much with the black sexual power tussle as with the world power structure that subjugates blacks.” Weems, on another hand, establishes priorities in Africana womanism, stating, “Africana people must eliminate racist influences in their lives first, with the realization that they can neither afford nor tolerate any form of female subjugation.” Colman’s analysis draws inspiration from Sojourner Truth’s renowned address at a women’s rights gathering in Akron, Ohio. Truth posed a poignant question in 1851: “Ain’t I A Woman?” Her critique of the default understanding of ‘ideal womanhood’ remains relevant in a post-binary present-day with patriarchal projection still at the core of many social imbalances. Colman further explains the powerful process of naming and identity politics by referencing Layli Phillips’ viewpoint who stated, “Self-labeling is a psychologically and politically valuable process, yet labels and identities are socially negotiated through dialogue.” This vital step to embracing long-term justice reinforces the general acceptance of evidence-based change already completed by marginalized communities.
One main characteristic in the identification of womanism is departure from the predominance of racism and classism in white feminism. The theological scholarship of white feminism, Black feminism and womanism has undergone great evolution through the decades.
“The value of the cultural and gender identity of African American women and Latina women (and all women of color) must not be narrowly viewed from a deficit perspective, but instead, as an asset and contributor to meaning, identity, and strengths.”Bryant-Davis and Comas-Diaz
Psychospirituality honors links within the field of psychology, as well as theology, cultural studies, gender studies, sociology, and cultural anthropology. The emerging frameworks of womanist psychology and mujerista psychology explore interdisciplinary foundations that facilitate inclusion and innovation from theory to sustainable practice. Emotional healing is welcomed with thorough transpersonal thought; an understanding and respect for the critical provision of culturally congruent treatment and ethical multicultural research.
In addition to centralizing global survival, womanism does not create a hierarchy between the opposition against racism and sexism, but views both as necessary battles toward socio-political redemption. Womanism is holistic in its recognition and celebration of the various aspects of Black liberation and self-determination which ultimately elevate collective consciousness. According to Walker, womanist agency is courageous, audacious, and willful. Despite the realities of oppression, a womanist recognizes her Divine identity as a living reflection of powerful nourishment on Earth. In theology, academia and mind/body wellness, womanism embodies recovery fulfilled and indissoluble triumph. Black women, women of color, trans, non-binary, and genderless folks are the blueprint. This community of energies depend on one another to birth concepts and organize flexible capacity for variety to respectfully coexist and create with pure intention and diverse design.