Southern Cultures 10.1 (2004) 5-24
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"I know what the earth says."
William R. Ferris
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"You cannot separate yourself ever from the earth. . . . If you understand that, you lose all fear of dying. You may be grass, you may be a cow, but you'll always be here, in fact even if they shoot you." Alice Walker, Rowan Oak, Oxford, Mississippi (1994). Unless otherwise noted, all photographs were taken by William R. Ferris and are used courtesy of the William R. Ferris Papers in the Southern Folklife Collection at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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My friendship with Alice Walker began in the fall of 1970 when I taught in the English department of Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi. At that time Alice lived in Jackson and had just finished her manuscript of The Third Life of Grange Copeland. She shared with me encouraging comments that Ernest Gaines had written about the manuscript. During that time Alice also published her impressive volume of poetry Revolutionary Petunias and did an important interview with Eudora Welty that was published in the Harvard Advocate.
When I taught at Yale in the mid-seventies, Alice visited the campus and gave a moving seminar with faculty and students. Our lives crossed again when I served as a consultant on her film The Color Purple. When I worked at the University of Mississippi's Center for the Study of Southern Culture, Alice wrote me that she was coming for a visit. We arranged a reading and book party for her at Square Books in Oxford and a tour of the Blues Archive at the University of Mississippi during that visit in the mid-1990s. We also met in my home, where I recorded these reflections about Alice's work as a writer and her love for the blues.
On Women's Lives
If you think of the early stories, it's true that the women end badly, but it's because they belong to the generation of my mother and grandmother, when they were suspended because they had nowhere to go. All of them couldn't be Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday, so they ended up doing all kinds of destructive things. Most of that generation didn't have any fame or glory. But notice that all of those women are much older than I am. They exist in an historical place that is removed from my generation of women. It's not until The Third Life of Grange Copeland that I got my generation of people. It starts so far back because I wanted to have a really good understanding of the historical progression. I wrote about those women in In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens. The women who have not had anything have been, almost of necessity, self-destructive. They've just been driven insane. And the ones who have managed have been the ones who could focus their enormous energies on art forms that were not necessarily recognized as art forms—on quilting, on flowers, on making things. It's a very human need, to make things, to create. To think that women didn't need that—that by having a baby you fulfill your whole function—is absurd and demeaning.
On Encountering Zora Neale Hurston
When I was in Mississippi, there was a woman named—what was her name?—someone who had read Their Eyes Were Watching God, and we were talking about it, and she loved it. And I got it, and I read it, and I loved it. That was when I connected really with Zora. The oddest thing is that in that same anthology that Langston Hughes did—where he put "To Hell With Dying"—there's a story by Zora. But at that time I was so convinced that only men wrote literature that I [End Page 6] had to read, that I read that anthology without really noticing. It's terrible, but I think it's true. Then...