We are very excited to have with us an old friend of this show, Pulitzer Prize winning author, Alice Walker. Alice Walker has a list of credits and wonderful creations that goes very long and could take up half the time listing them. She is the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Mahmoud Darwish Literary Prize for Fiction, just to mention a few. Alice also has a delightful new children’s book, Sweet People are Everywhere. And it’s illustrated, illuminated, lovingly by Quim Torres.
Dennis: Welcome Alice Walker. Let’s start with the good news which is that you have a new children’s book, Sweet People are Everywhere. And with a lifetime of travel under your belt, you’re convinced; the research is compelling, you are sure – that there are in fact sweet people everywhere?
Alice: There are. They absolutely are. And I wanted younger people to know that before they travel, because then they might not want to kill the people when they get there. That’s kind of the short answer.
Dennis: Oh, you can go on a little longer, yeah.
Alice: Okay. Well a friend brought a young man to my house some years ago, a musician, who was on his way to China, and he’d never been out of the country. He didn’t have a passport, and he was getting a passport, and I wanted to write something for him to help him feel comfortable in China. And one of the things I said to him was that there are musicians, many, many musicians, in China. And so right away you have your own group in a way.
And also not to be concerned about the government who is actually quote, “leading the people” because they will be usually so unlike the rest of the people as to be almost unrecognizable. And that’s one of the things we really need to teach our young about traveling the world before they go there as soldiers, you know, that the people wherever you are, are pretty much, you know, like the people you leave behind.
Dennis: Yeah. And the more you get to know these other people you realize they aren’t really others, that they’re variations on us, they have lives that are deeply valued by their family members and their communities and they don’t – they’re not interested in sort of being blown up or being saved, oftentimes by the west. And obviously, you know, it is – it is a beautiful book. I did see the reading that’s on the website that you did, the visualizations, the colors, are exquisite. And children really do appreciate books, don’t they?
Alice: Yeah, well I did.
Alice: When I was a child. I lived in the ones that we had. We didn’t have many, but I definitely found a home in them, and I got to live in the 18th century and the 19th century, I mean the 17th century, just by reading. And I realized what magic it was, and that too is what I would like us to, you know, give to our children and our grandchildren.
Dennis: It is so interesting. I spent a number of years teaching, and teaching very young children, and really, a lot of teaching is reading with children.
Dennis: And I can tell you that these kids did not like to have their stories interrupted [laughs].
Alice: Would you? [laughs]
Dennis: No, [laughs] absolutely not. And you know, I made them memorize poems too. The sixth graders hated it until they loved it. But so it is a special thing to write for children, huh, and that’s something you really enjoy.
Alice: I do. But also, this was really just a – not just a poem. It was a poem in my last collection of poetry, and I had envisioned it as a children’s book. In fact, the publisher, Tra, which I’d never heard of, approached me for, you know, to make this into a book, and of course, I said yes because I wanted to just work with someone, an artist, to see what he would paint, he or she would paint. And it became such a beautiful collaboration, and I think we’ll be doing another book together soon based on yet another poem.
Dennis: Nice. And again, it is so simply beautiful and essentially you take us on a little journey around the world to meet all the different people who are sweet. And it is a model because we’re taught to hate – what’s that song – theater – ah, God, where you have to learn how to hate. It’s not coming to mind.
Alice: I know.
Dennis: Anyway, I’m sorry about that. Let me tell people, it’s true, we are speaking with Alice Walker. You’re listening to her on Flashpoints on Pacifica Radio. Alice, we’re happy to have you with us. I want to talk to you if I could, sort of to split the interview, not that it’s a good thing to split one part of life from another, but I want to talk a little bit about what’s been going on with Assange.
And then I want to maybe move it a little bit more to literary and talk about some of the work you’ve done, extraordinary work you’ve done, including helping to rediscover Zora Neale Hurston, which the world will never get over and thanks to you again and again.
But you have been very outspoken about Julian Assange. You’re on, I believe, a national committee or an organizing committee to call attention. You’ve written publicly in major places about Assange. Tell us what you see as the heart of the matter. What’s at stake? Why are you out there fighting for this man’s freedom?
Alice: Well because he’s telling the truth about things we need to know and things that can actually help us save our own lives. If we know what our military is doing we may possibly decide not to join it, either in activity or in thought. And that’s major. And he has a right to do that. He has the right to expose. He and Chelsea Manning, they have the right to expose these awful quote “secrets” that we’re not supposed to know about, even though we’re sending our children, you know, far away to places they never heard of, to be slaughtered. So, I very much appreciate what he’s done.
Dennis: And –
Alice: And Dennis, the other thought about him that I had just today about why they hate him so much, I mean the ones who try to, you know, kill him, basically. You know, Julian is very, very white looking, and he looks like the archetype in a way of this image of the white man that they think of as the one who would never turn evidence against them. And somewhere in that heart of theirs or whatever is passing for the heart, realizing that this is such a shock. You know, here’s this person that looks like he is really one of them, and yet he’s not.
I mean he is someone who sees what they’re doing and is courageous enough to tell the world. Now this is really wonderful, and it’s really huge. And it’s a part of this puzzle about why they’re so set basically on killing him. They want to just put him out of sight, out of mind, because they do not want to think that someone who looks so much like them is so not like them.
Dennis: Well they certainly don’t like him, and he has, based on a certain kind of genius, journalistic genius, he devised a structure that they hate because he managed to make information available without putting the people who want to get it out at risk. Chelsea Manning was a case apart, but it wasn’t Assange in that situation. But it is – to think of the two of them together and what they stand for, and the kind of courage they’ve shown to celebrate the truth and make it available, it’s just – it is unparalleled. He’s a publisher of unparalleled capacities, and he’s being punished for it.
Alice: Yes, and I do think of them together because she, when she was not a she, gave him the information. And he ran with it, and I think this is exactly what we need to do. We need to share our insights and our, you know, sources and our courage, and pass that along to whoever can take us on the next link of the, you know, the race.
Because actually it is a race. It’s a race to secure our freedom of speech and our lives, and without people like Julian, with the courage and the smarts, I mean he is incredibly intelligent, which is great. Without that we have little chance to actually know what is happening. I mean how many people could actually gather all that information, make sense of it, and pass it along in a form that we can use?
Dennis: It becomes – and it – when you think about these two together, when you think about Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning who became a woman in solitary, but never lost focus of the meaning in life and what she was there for, it is – it is so troubling to me, Alice, that these two extraordinary people, that this woman, that Chelsea Manning, has demonstrated her commitment to truth.
Dennis: And these are the people that are vilified, and these white guys, you know who I’m talking about, I’m not going to even mention any names, are still, you know, they can kill as many as they want and they’re still walking around free, exercising their Constitutional rights.
Alice: Right, because they think they own them, just as they think they own us. But they don’t, and that’s what, you know, Julian and Chelsea are demonstrating, you know, even though their lives are threatened. It’s an incredibly beautiful thing that they are doing for us and for themselves because when you stand in your own truth there’s a light. I mean this is shining, and it’s very good for us.
Dennis: Yes, indeed…I just want to let people know that for those of you listening in the Bay Area, and actually there are going to be actions all over the country and all over the world because Julian Assange has a hearing coming up next week, in about a week or 10 days, and this is going to determine whether he lives – essentially really whether he lives or dies.
So, people are gathering in different places and they’re celebrating, they’re remembering, they’re learning. People don’t even – are just beginning to understand the impact. A lot of journalists know the impact because they all used his material, and then they forgot about him.
Alice: It’s how much we do forget, you know, and it’s not all our fault. We’re basically fed more things than we can hold in our minds and in our memories, so of course we forget. But some things are very crucial to actually being able to live here and breathe as human beings, and being able to speak your truth is a major thing that we must not let go of, and we must not let go of Julian because he has really accepted, you know, that this could happen to him.
You know he – that’s part of his courage and his bravery, that he was not fooled. He didn’t think that he’d just, you know, pull the covers off these people and then he’d be fine, no. I mean there is a history and he knows it, and so that’s part of what I really truly admire about anyone that you see what is, you know, daunting, you see what is a challenge, you see what they’re doing, and you keep going and you stand up.
Dennis: Well people are going to be standing up again. Alice, I want to shift to the Trump era of white supremacy in America. It’s not like it’s new. We know – it’s always been there, but what’s going on now; you are a product of the south.
You grew up in rural Georgia. You know this from the bottom up and from inside-out. You’ve been deeply engaged. What have you been thinking about as this stuff continues to surface where we see all the actions around, you know, going back to places we couldn’t imagine we’d be in terms of voter restriction, you know, and the whole – that whole movement against rights for all people and white supremacy reigning. I mean it’s hard to, you know, believe that we are where we are now.
Alice: Well you have to remember though that not all white people think they’re superior, you know, not all white people think they’re supreme, and they’re right. You know, they’re just human beings, like the rest of us. And we’re all struggling to survive. I think the people who are, you know, charging this, again, charging up this mountain again are people who really are using it – this is a – I mean there is, you know, hatred and there’s been disdain, but there’s also the need to shift our attention from some of the other things that are happening.
And this is a tactic. They’ve used it before. When we seem to be, you know, getting closer to understanding some major shift that’s happening in society that we’re not a part of, they start integrating and sometimes lynching black people or claiming that black people are doing whatever. And when they do that, your attention, in this country anyway, tends to go back to the track that it knows, which is racism and white supremacy.
But what will happen, and you will see that eventually everybody will wake up and they’ll realize that while they’ve been shooting black people, so many things that they thought they had nailed down, you know, like security, have been washed away. And that is what I see happening. So, you know, it’s a tactic. They’ve used it over and over, you know, the people, some white people, do have a lot of insecurity about, you know, how good they are as people, and so they think black people are somehow making them feel bad. But actually, it’s deeper than that.
Dennis: Please say more.
Alice: [laughs] Like what? How much more? I mean, you know.
Alice: Just try to think of it this way, really, that when these things come up, it’s a plan, you know, it’s a plan. It’s like somebody has a plan that says now we’re going to be doing all this over here on the right side, and we need you to distract the people so we can get it done without interference. Like, for instance, maybe 5G say.
And if you just can’t keep everybody focused on, you know, white supremacy and black people and all of that, they won’t even think about 5G. They won’t even think about the monopoly of the tech companies. They will not think about, you know, the government, which is who in the heck knows what is happening with our government. I mean really, who is leading it?
There’s so many things that, you know, people need to be distracted from, and we’re convenient. We’ve always been convenient. The sad part is that, you know, our people are humans, and we suffer. But often it really is a tactic, you know, it’s not even that some of these people believe what they’re doing as they kill you.
Dennis: Right. That is a fact. And the – I’m, I have to be honest. I’m more afraid than I’ve ever been before. I’m afraid for all of us.
Dennis: It seems like this could swing way out of control very quickly.
Alice: Well Dennis, it could, you know, that’s just reality, that’s America, that’s the certain mentality, you know, that’s in this case white supremacy hoping that it is going to escape, you know, whatever disaster is looming. But of course, it won’t. I mean the disaster that’s looming is so hard and hideous and huge that it’s very probable that nobody will escape it, you know.
I mean I was just posting a piece about the United States and China, you know, and how close they are to having a nuclear, you know, exchange. And if they really got going they would wipe out everybody. So, it’s, you know, it’s interesting, and I think it’s useful to try to keep our eyes on all the layers of this, you know, otherwise we get stuck thinking that it really is about race. It’s not really.
Alice: [laughs] You know, it is and it isn’t. But they, you know, we can get along fine. We proved that in the ‘60s, the late ‘60s and the ‘70s and we were having a really, you know, good, strong effort at coexistence. You know, not everybody falls in love. I mean some of us did, but you know, but now we have to look at, you know, where we are as a planet, and we are on the edge, and nature herself is just saying, you know, I’m really tired of these people. And so, yeah, there’s that too.
Dennis: It is the China bashing, and then, of course, you know, all these things, these flare ups or distractions, we’ve seen a very consistent policy. They call it the Pacific Pivot from the United States government. It’s been really through four administrations where they – the idea is to create a national security ring around China, you know, using the cruise, using Japan, and they are talking more and more about this concept of full dominance, you know, by land, air, sea, and space. I shutter every time I see another space ship go up because it feels like the war effort sometimes in disguise, not so much sometimes.
Alice: Well yeah, and also, when you realize that they really don’t know what they’re doing, I mean that’s the most basic response that I have, that they really have no idea what they’re doing, and they never have, and so, you know, they blow up, you know, people and they blow up countries – uh, as if we’re not the same people in the same country, you know, the country of earth. I mean it is – it’s just – it boggles the mind. Sometimes you wonder if they’re actually from here, and I do wonder that….I was just going to say there’s an amount of wealth that you can have, I think, that makes you feel impervious to whatever the blowback is. You know, you don’t feel that you’re going to be blown back, just the millions of other people who don’t have your, you know, little hiding place. But I think the planet is basically so tired of, you know, being abused that even the ones with safety hatches will find that, you know, life will find you wherever you are. You can run, but you can’t hide. I think we used to have a spirit about that.
Dennis: Alice, I’d like to talk to you about Zora Neale Hurston and tell people – I’m sure there are many people listening to this show who have never read a single thing by Zora Neale Hurston, and I want to help change that. So –
Alice: That’s hard to believe, isn’t it? After all this, all these years, it’s really hard to believe, but you know, if that’s the reality, let’s deal with it.
Dennis: Let’s talk about Zora and Their Eyes are Watching God. I don’t think I could ever be the same person after reading it. I didn’t know that somebody could write a book like that, that there was that experience, and of course, it brought me diving deeply into Zora Neale Hurston, the whole history of the discovery of how somebody could be sidelined and forgotten until somebody such as yourself comes along, and you – for people that don’t know you, maybe you could just briefly tell the story she was hurt – she was in modern terms, cancelled.
Alice: She was cancelled. Zora was cancelled.
Alice: And there you have it. She was cancelled. Now how did they do that? They did that by planting a story in a newspaper that she had abused a seven-year-old boy. Meanwhile, the boy was in I think somewhere in New York, and she was in Honduras, so, you know, I don’t know how she was supposed to be doing that, but that’s the lie that they used to basically cancel her. And this is, you know, this hasn’t let up. I mean this is what people do, and so today we look back and we read her and we go oh, my God, how could they do that? Well that’s how they do that, they do it today.
But yeah, so she was heartbroken, distraught, disturbed, half-mad, you know, with grief and just, you know, how would you feel if someone just said something that was just outrageously wrong about you. So, her work went, you know, downhill, I mean in terms of the public and she ended up at some point, not ended up, but at some point she had so little money that she was working as a maid down in Florida for this white family.
Alice: Now it’s not a sin to have to work for your living, I don’t care what you’re doing. But a bright, black intellectual writer said that that was probably what she deserved. Now that’s when your heart breaks.
Dennis: Indeed. Given the power of the spirit, I will never forget how you – you marked an unmarked grave with the mark of ‘Zora Neale Hurston, a genius of the south, novelist, folklorist, anthropologist’. She was a genius and she was extraordinary in the sense that she grew up in an all-black township. She grew up with all positive images of black people before they were degraded and destroyed by various levels of racism. She created images –
Alice: Well hold on –now hold on, that’s not quite so. She grew up seeing the full spectrum. There were some terrible people in her community. You know, there were some, you know, I mean it was a community. It was like it had everybody, and that’s the truth, and that’s the reality of life, and so she – I mean, for instance, oh, the guy who owned the store, you know, was horrible to his wife, I mean in real life, and that’s what she observed and that’s part of the reason in her book she made sure that the wife, you know, let him die, and left. [laughs] I mean it’s a true, you know, her work is so true, and that’s the beauty of it.
And actually, the, you know, what we should remember is that she was so cancelled that nobody knew where she was buried, you know, that nobody knew where this woman was buried. And trying to find her grave, and finding it by basically falling into it was an experience. You know, it was an experience that has taught me, you know, just what adulation means, you know, just what people’s praise means and what their censure means. All of it means very little because it can be taken away very quickly by somebody’s, you know, false word, and that is partly, you know, what happens to people. And it’s something that we should not accept.
Dennis: And in this case … it was so devastating because the, you know, the work that she was engaged in that both, you know, that idea of studying with Franz Boas at Columbia, being an anthropologist, you know, telling – making discoveries that were really revolutionary and, you know, she really pushed the limits in terms of the kind of shared experience.
And I guess when I was thinking about her and growing up, I think the powerful part is that for better or worse, all the imagery was black, you know, the mayor, the police chief, she had, unlike most black people in America, she grew up in a black township, so it was for better or worse, she had a whole community, a whole community, that she could see.
Alice: And that was very important. Yeah, it was very important for her. And in that way, she was also a medicine for us. I mean she was a medicine because she had that one ingredient of having lived that kind of life, and she could share that with us. And then we could go, oh, yeah, then that’s possible. Otherwise, how would you know, you know, how would you know in this country that has done everything to keep black people from having agency of that sort?
Dennis: Well, I just – highly recommend that people pick up about 10 books, and if you haven’t read Zora Neale Hurston, and again, I know this is sort of surprising to some, but, you know, I get in discussions and I say, you know, so who are you reading or whose your favorite reader or, you know, whatever, and have you ever heard of Zora Neal Hurston, and I’m surprised.
And maybe they’ll say, “Oh, yeah, I heard something about that.” Have you ever read – well how would you – how would you rate or recommend, if you will, Their Eyes are Watching God? Well what do you say about a book like that to people?
Alice: I taught it first at Wellesley, and you would think – I mean where I created a whole course on black women writers and with a few white women writers thrown in, but I was determined to figure out and to discover whether, you know, these white upper-class students basically could really hang with the language, and guess what, they hung beautifully. And they got it; they loved it, you know.
And see, that’s the other problem we’ve had I think as people of color. We often feel because we’ve been made to feel that the way we express ourselves well there’s something just wrong with it and nobody will understand it. Well that’s ridiculous. I mean if you – if it’s beautiful and beautifully done and offered with this incredible flare and flourish and love that she had and just freedom of being, of course, anybody who is free and alive will respond. You know, they may have to work for the first three pages, but after that, you know, they’re flying.
Dennis: Yeah, I mean it’s just – it’s natural as breathing. I’ll tell you, it was a lot easier for me to read Their Eyes are Watching God than James Joyce’s Ulysses. [laughs]
Alice: [laughs] I’m happy to hear that, Dennis. I had that my own self.
Dennis: [laughs] The amazing part of discovering Zora Neale Hurston is that it was, you know, it was the thing about the writing and those short stories and, you know, all – there’s so much incredible stuff, but then the politics got me, and as you lay it out that somebody like this could be treated like this and I, you know, and you know, my friends say, “Why are you surprised? What’s surprising about this? Where have you been for the last 200 years?” But I still – I think maybe that’s a bit of my saving grace that I’m still vulnerable. [laughs] And I’m still thinking and hoping that it wouldn’t be as bad as it is.
Alice: – the surprise though is that people did this, you know. The white people, you know, kind of laid in the cut and they were kind of waiting, but it was basically the black people who for whatever reason, you know, embarrassment, that she, you know, said we didn’t talk like white people, you know, we didn’t do stuff, I mean we didn’t – she didn’t think that integration was all that great either. I mean she was very much in favor of black people having their own everything, and you know, and really honoring their own traditions.
And they hated her for that because how dare you be so backward, you know. We – the other, you know, people were saying, “Oh, no, we want to integrate because, you know, they got all the good stuff.” Well they had the stuff, but they didn’t have the soul, and that’s why she was –
Alice: She said, “Okay, they do have, you know, they’re taking all the everything, the land, the buildings, you know, the workers, you know, the desks, and we could join all that, we could sit up in their stolen properties. But actually, they don’t have soul.” And why do we want to go and lose our soul in order to sit up there where they’re –
Dennis: Yeah, she was sort of a segregationist. In a way she came down politically with some of the southern senators that we love to hate.
Alice: No, no, no, but it’s not the same, Dennis, and that’s why people –
Dennis: I understand.
Alice: They were confused.
Dennis: They were confused, right.
Alice: They thought just what you’re saying, but that’s not what she was saying. She was rather saying – she had white friends, you know, who loved her death, and she loved them back. But she was saying that this is ours, we have something that is ours, let’s keep it. And if we dilute it by going where we’re not wanted and having our heads and hearts broken, what good does that do.
And I think today there are people, black people, people of color, who understand this perfectly. We want to keep what we have. We have soul, we have heart, and we have damn good music. And I really feel that some of the struggles that we’ve been through in order to integrate have really hurt us deeply, and I’m not saying let’s not have any. But I’m saying acknowledge that, that we have been at war trying to be whole in this country, wholeness meaning being a whole human being situation, you know. I hate the word ‘integration’ and the word ‘segregation’ because they’re so clumsy.
Alice: I much prefer words that speak to unity, you know, and heart and growth. You know, and beings who are, you know, halfway worthy of being on this planet. And that’s where she was coming from. And she knew that we – we had everything in our quote “race” you know. Did you know that we used to call ourselves the “opposite race” or “them, the opposite race”? [laughs]
Alice: You people of the “opposite race”.
Dennis: No, I didn’t know that.
Alice: Well that’s how it can get. I mean that is how it can get. It can get to the point where people are actually thinking that there is such a thing as an opposite race.
Dennis: Where do you think this goes now?
Alice: I hope you have a sense of humor. Without a sense of humor it’s straight downhill, but with a sense of humor you can actually take some flight, you know, into a different kind of reality, such as in living well, you know, seeing to your own soul, you know, and your own peace and what you would like to see in the world and working on that. But it doesn’t help to despair, it really doesn’t. There’s just no point. We will either survive or we won’t, and I every day I’m just thankful that we live on this planet. It’s incredibly gorgeous. I love it.
Dennis: You know, when I first saw the title of the children’s book, you know, you probably know I have profound dyslexia, and I still struggle with it all the time. But when I saw the title my first read was Sweet Potatoes are Everywhere. And I thought yeah, that’s – no.
Alice: If only, you know. Nowadays there are things you see and you read that you just can’t bear to see and you can’t bear to read, like I just saw something that said, “The babies of Yemen are so hungry they’re eating their hands.” You know.
Dennis: Oh, right.
Alice: And how are we supposed to live with that? You know. Or my friend my Israel who works in the peace movement sent me something today they call, Hunting and Killing Children, and with a long, you know, list of, you know, hunted and killed children. Now what are we supposed to do with that, you know? I mean just emotionally it’s devastating.
But on the other hand, I feel that we have to remember that even with all the evil in the world and whatever struggle we’re in, this place is still so incredible that, you know, we owe it our allegiance, our love, our dedication and everything, and we have to just really keep going and trying to make it, you know, a place for everyone.
Dennis: I really believe that. I – you know, Alice, I love to write poetry. Every day at 5:00 I wake up in the morning and try and do three hours before the first person calls me up and makes me cry, but –
Dennis: – in the process of that I’m trying to hold – if I can’t make something beautiful, I’m trying to hold something beautiful, you know, let the texture rub off on me to find a way to feel good enough to try and make change, to try and do things. I mean we – we’re both very interested in, among other things at the moment, trying to free Julian Assange. He’s done wonderful things. He’s helped to stop wars. That’s an incredibly beautiful mission that he took on, and the way he went about doing it was extraordinary. I think that’s why I can’t sleep nights when I’m thinking about the fact that we could lose this person who was such a truth teller, who really made a difference, who helped to end a war. And you know, it’s sometimes hard to really keep it front and center.
Alice: Dennis, we will not lose him. We will not lose him, no matter what happens. I mean, and just in the way that you get up in the morning and you write your poems and you send me one every once in awhile, that keeps me going, that and Julian, you know, I’m sure he is as busy as they can let him be in that prison. He hasn’t stopped, and his spirit, that spirit, you know, as in your poetry writing spirit, it will never die, it will never go. And we can hold onto that, you know. And when I leave here in this body I feel certain that the spirit that is me will not be going anywhere. And so, that is really reassuring.
Dennis: I can hear that, especially coming from you. Alice, is there anything else you’d like to say to our audience? We have been delighted to have you with us.
Alice: Likewise. Dennis, guess what?
Alice: It’s raining. It’s raining.
Dennis: Yes, yes, I see, you know, here in the city too.
Alice: I’m so happy.
Dennis: What does rain mean? You know, you’re living in the country, you’re growing stuff, I guess.
Alice: It is so beautiful It is so wet. It is so extraordinary. I just can hardly stand it, it’s so great.