Be Nobody’s Darling – Alice Walker on Being Yourself
At the end of 2013 a fierce debate erupted in Brunswick County, North Carolina USA, over whether Alice Walker’s legendary, Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Colour Purple” needed to be taken off the shelves of the County’s high-school libraries on account of its reported “ immorality, the filth, the F. word and the N. word.” On reading this, and feeling like I was in some kind of demonic time-warp, I checked the date of this news item: Yes, it was truly 2013, and yes, this book-banning demand took place in what (according to Wikipedia at least) appears to be a fairly progressive, urban, not populated with “Deliverance-style” banjo-playing hillbillies kind-of place.
And yet, there it was – the demand to rid society of the evil that is “The Colour Purple.” To me – and many others of my generation – “The Colour Purple” signalled the beginning of a new era of literature, a new way of reading, and a new way of thinking about the world and the POSSIBILITIES of how to respond to it. “The Colour Purple” was one of the first books I read as an adult, where I cried and cried, and then finished the book with a real belief that all that crying was useful and worth it.
Meeting Alice Walker – who was in town for the Auckland Writer’s Festival last week – I tried to convey my feelings about “The Colour Purple” to her (just in case the mere winning of a Pulitzer Prize didn’t give her a heads up about how people felt about the novel). Feeling entirely tongue-tied and inarticulate I did come out with some garbled, half-baked explanation, and she very kindly responded that she was very glad. What I noticed most about this seventy year old, slight, and very feisty woman – who had just packed out three levels of the Auckland Aotea Centre during her talk on life, philosophy, and of course, “The Colour Purple” – was that now, more than ever, Alice Walker refuses to be anyone’s darling. “I have a right to be this self,” she calmly states as a way of explaining her poem “Be Nobody’s Darling,” from her 1973 collection “Revolutionary Petunias.” In other words, unlike many of us, Alice Walker does not tip toe through the quagmire of social interactions – Ms Walker simply, and wonderfully, does not give a damn about being “nice”, or being liked. She does give a damn about a whole range of other things, however.
In response to the North Carolina book-banning incident she questions whether there would possibly be better things to ban than “The Colour Purple”. She mentions nuclear power, or the wholesale destruction of the planet as some of the issues that people may want to think about, adding that “I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but we are not evolving. I’m not sure about you down here in New Zealand, but in the States we are not evolving. We have been following the wrong star.”
The right star, in Alice’s Walker’s philosophy, is to be in the world as yourself, and know that you have work to do. She describes this as the revolution “in your own heart” – which means feeling your own pain, and being able to feel self-love. “Each of us has this charge to do some specific work that we are uniquely prepared to do, and some of our unhappiness comes from running away from this,” she states. I absolutely know the kind of unhappiness she is talking about, which is knowing what you should be doing (the kind of “should” that comes from your innermost being, not from external expectations or conditioning), and yet using every excuse in the book not to do it – not to follow your own particular star, and then watching it fizzle away inside of you.
It’s easy to choose not to hear the charge within us when we live in a society which has become centred on what Alice Walker calls “the soup of communication.” “Stop being distracted,” she counsels, “it’s the fracturing of the mind that has led us to this precipice – the mind is assaulted all the time, and by now we are used to not having even ten minutes of silence.”
“You hear your own call, because it comes from the deep self,” she continues, and goes on to tell the story of how from the time she was a small child, writing stories in the dirt with a small stick in a racially segregated south, she knew that writing would be a part of her destiny. “Writing has always felt natural and it connects, this love of stories. Writing is magic, with just these little squiggles you can do all kinds of things.”
For Alice Walker metaphors provide a way of explain her life and her commitment to do what she is meant to do. “My garden is the planet – I have a responsibility for weeding it,” she says, affirming her commitment to activism and making the world a better place. Her advice on feeling sadness and pain is genius: dance like there is no tomorrow. “Hard Times Require Furious Dancing,” is a collection of poetry she wrote during a time of feeling overwhelming grief and sadness. She eventually hired a dance hall and a band, invited her friends with the proviso that there would be no talking at this party, and then proceeded to dance until “we were wet with sweat and tears.”
So: Weed your garden, dance like a maniac and be nobody’s darling.
But let me tell you this, being nobody’s darling is hard, head exploding, heart pounding, on the edge of your seat kind-of work. Some people are naturally better at it than others. Some, like Alice Walker, already know that life is too short, and integrity too fragile to risk not honouring our individual truths. Even if that means saying no, and disagreeing. Even with the people you want to impress. Especially with the people you want to impress.
Be nobody’s darling;
Be an outcast.
Take the contradictions
Of your life
And wrap around
You like shawl,
To parry stones
To keep you warm.
Watch the people succumb
With ample cheer;
Let them look askance at you
And you askance reply.
Be an outcast;
Be pleased to walk alone
Or line the crowded
With other impetuous
Make a merry gathering
On the bank
Where thousands perished
For brave hurt words