Opinion: The controversy surrounding Alice Walker

The Pulitzer Prize winning author was disinvited to the Bay Area Book Festival for her endorsement of a controversial author, who espouses antisemitic conspiracy rhetoric.

Alice Walker, the author of In Love and Trouble — a collection of stories, and many other works of fiction and nonfiction— is in trouble. It’s not the first time. Her big breakthrough novel, The Color Purple, which won the Pulitzer Prize in Literature in 1982, generated an abundance of positive reviews and some controversy about the depiction of Black men. Now, the issue isn’t Black men, but Jews and anti-Semitism. The Bay Area Book Festival, which will be held in Berkeley May 6-7, canceled an invitation that was extended to Walker.

The festival recently issued a statement: “Our decision to rescind our invitation had nothing to do with comments or positions she may have taken on Israel; nor did it have anything to do with her support of Palestine. We took this action due to her repeated endorsement, in The New York Times and elsewhere, of the work of David Icke, an anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist.” 

In addition to his antisemitism, Icke argues that humans have been ruled since antiquity by an intergalactic race of reptilians. The New Yorker accused him of “crackpottery.” 

The controversy has snowballed rapidly and with no end in sight. A local Berkeley issue has taken on national significance.

Fans of Walker and advocates of free speech are lamenting the banning and attacking the book festival. Rabbi Avi Shafran recently noted in an opinion piece published in The Jewish News of Northern California: “As a former resident of Northern California, I wouldn’t have expected a Berkeley book fair to deny a platform to a celebrated human rights advocate just because she happens to be an antisemite.

“But it did, and that gives me hope that perhaps there may be a greater sensitivity these days to the evil of Jew-hatred than there was in 2013,” he added, referring to a time when the University of Michigan invited Walker to speak at a public forum on campus.

In a piece published online in April in Workers World, Monica Morehead quotes from a “petition in solidarity with Alice Walker.” It has been signed by more than 2,500 individuals, including Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander, Marc Lamont Hill, Cornel West and Chris Hedges.  

Also, on Sheerpost, Hedges writes: “The public and presenters are complicit in her blacklisting if they attend.”

In a review of Walker’s new book, New York Times reporter Elizabeth A. Harris, notes that Walker “has been an outspoken critic of Israel, joining a flotilla to challenge Israel’s blockade of Gaza in 2011.” In the piece, Harris also explains that Walker’s “criticism is not of Jewish people but of Israel, as well as of the ancient texts and practices of all religions, including Christianity, Islam and Buddhism.” 

The brouhaha, if you can call it that, probably won’t damage Walker’s literary reputation or hurt the sales of her new, aptly titled book, Gathering Blossoms Under Fire. Walker’s publishers are promoting it as though it’s a work of genius that must be purchased and devoured instantly. 

Over the past 40 or so years, Walker, who has lived for years in Mendocino County, has been a tireless self-promoter. She has also repeatedly struck a nerve with the reading public and not just with Ishmael Reed. In 1994, two of her stories, “Roselily” and “Am I Blue?,” were removed from an exam for students administered by the California State Board of Education Learning Assessment System. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Book Review editor, Pat Holt, rushed to Walker’s defense. The two stories and an excerpt from The Color Purple were published in a slim volume titled Alice Walker Banned, with an essay by Holt. 

Ban an author or a book, and you arouse instant curiosity. Not long ago, the words “Banned in Boston” guaranteed big sales for a novel. That happened with James M. Cain’s noir fiction, The Postman Always Rings Twice, which recounts the steamy sex between a drifter and a married woman. The lovers murder the husband and then turn against one another. The film, inspired by the novel, starred Lana Turner and John Garfield. Banning the book didn’t hurt their Hollywood careers or Cain’s, either. 

“I want a year of not being ‘Alice Walker,’” Walker writes in an entry in her recently published journals. That’s not going to happen anytime soon. Alice Walker can’t not be Alice Walker.  

I’ve read Walker’s work and written about it in newspapers and scholarly publications for more than three decades. I’ve always regarded her as enigmatic and even problematic. Her views on race, sex, ethnicity and gender, which are displayed openly in her journals, have long struck me as thorny. The recent controversy reaffirms my sense of puzzlement, though I also believe that much of her art and her personality ought to be looked at through the prism of her birth to poor Black sharecroppers in the South, her escape to the white world in the North, her links as a student to Howard Zinn, the lefty Jewish historian, and her marriage to Melvyn R. Leventhal, a Jewish civil rights lawyer who recently stated that he never knew Walker to be antisemitic. In fact, in Blossoms, she notes her attraction to Jews. 

As a Jewish intellectual and a long-time political activist, I don’t think that Walker’s comments about Icke, Israel and Palestine ought to have led the Berkeley Book Festival to uninvite her. Great writers ought not to be censored or banned because of their views. T. S. Eliot, the author of The Waste Land, was antisemitic. Nobel Prize winner, William Faulkner, wanted southern Blacks to stay in their place at the bottom of a racist society. Scratch a writer and you’re bound to find flaws and even reactionary views.

Disinviting Walker hasn’t helped the image of the book festival or Berkeley itself, which has long been associated with freedom of speech. I say, don’t bury books and don’t exclude writers and artists because they don’t think the way we’d like them to think and act. Examine the details and the big picture, especially the contradictions in their lives and work.

The way to address provocative and unpleasant expressions should be to open the gates to more speech and allow all points of view to be expressed, though hate speech ought not to be tolerated. Use of the “n” word or calling someone a “k—” really hurts. I know from my own experience. I’ve been a target of antisemitic remarks. Every person doesn’t have to talk in public, but it greatly helps a community if all perspectives are aired.

In a journal entry, Walker wrote: “Why do I keep trying to figure out what’s wrong with me?” Deep inside there seems to be something about herself that she has never figured out, though she has tried again and again. Like many of us, she’s a pilgrim on a journey. Like us, she’s an imperfect human being. We ought to stop treating our beloved writers as though they’re gods and goddesses. Should you sign the petition in defense of Walker. That’s a matter of your own conscience and not for a committee to decide.

CORRECTION: This opinion piece has been updated to remove content that attributed a subhead to acclaimed author Ishmael Reed. Reed did not write the subhead to his column in Tablet that read in part “A novelist who spreads falsehoods about Black males and Jews.” The subhead was written by an editor. Berkeleyside regrets this error.

Jonah Raskin, a professor emeritus at Sonoma State University where he taught literature, law and marketing, is the author of books and essays about Jack London, Allen Ginsberg and Alice Walker.