Read Living by the Word Online

Authors: Alice Walker

Living by the Word (8 page)

Here is Jolson, a white man. He is on stage before thousands of people, and, since television, before millions. He has blackened his face with burnt cork; he wears a black wig of coarse corkscrew curls. Out of his thin, made up to look fat, white-lipped mouth, as he bends theatrically on one knee, comes…

But you remember.

When he sings, there is a kind of jazzy chorus and the backup singers strut and yell. We understand that Jolson is not serious, that his “Mammy” is a joke, and a trivial one. It is as if he’s murdered our true grandmothers (Fannie Moore’s mammy) before our very eyes.

And yet, because we love the people’s voices, and understand why they spoke the way they did, we can see and hear a different mammy, no matter what Al Jolson presents. We can see and hear Fannie Moore’s mammy (I imagine her thin, brown, rarely smiling, her eyes red from lack of sleep and sewing all night in poor light). We can see and hear Frederick Douglass’s mammy. We can see and hear the longing when she is sold down the river, or Fannie is or Frederick is. We can see and hear the loneliness and the daydreams.

Africa must have seemed a million miles away to the black children who were kidnapped and brought here, as distant as the moon. But even so, many of them tried to walk back, right into the sea. And in America they regularly risked their lives to walk back to, or to find, the woman who brought them into the world and loved them, to whom their return was the essence of “holding up the light for her to see by,” through the long dark nights of slavery. Just as to them, the light was her smile. And because the light was held up for the “mammy,” light also covered the child. For when we hold up a light in order to see anything outside ourselves more clearly, we illuminate ourselves.

Change Al Jolson into Fannie Moore, or any black enslaved person, and see what happens to his song.

But as of now “mammy” is a used, abused, disposed-of word; and the person to whom it applies has met the same fate. This was emphasized for me when a colleague was telling me about the horrors of the recent Republican convention, one of which was the presence of black entertainers who sang.

Who were these entertainers, I asked. “The Mammies and the Pappies,” she replied. She then elaborated on the personalities Reagan’s staff had chosen to represent black people at the convention. Her harshest words were reserved for the mammy figure, whom she imagined consoling Ronald Reagan with johnnycake and clabbered milk in the “classic” mammy tradition. “Now don’t you worry none, honey,” this modem mammy would say, her sequined gown now replacing her apron of old, “them bombs you settin’ up in Europe ain’t botherin’ nobody. And them shiftless shines you cuttin’ off of welfare ought to find them some good white folks to work for like I done.”

And yet, we can learn from what has happened to “mammy,” too. That it is not by suppressing our own language that we counter other people’s racist stereotypes of us, but by having the conviction that if we present the words in the context that is or was natural to them, we do not perpetuate those stereotypes, but, rather, expose them. And, more important, we help the ancestors in ourselves and others continue to exist. If we kill off the
of our ancestors, the major portion of us, all that is past, that is history, that is human being is lost, and we become historically and spiritually thin, a mere shadow of who we were, on the earth.

How fortunate, then, that many of us love memories. That we understand we are who we are largely because of who we have been. And who we have been has come down to us as the vibration of souls we can know only through the sound and structure, the idiosyncrasies of speech. This is especially true for black folk who had no access (especially as slaves) to the visual documentation of painting and later of photography.

Actually I am wrong to think, as I sometimes do, that this love of memories is peculiar to any race or clan. I believe it is a human trait—and for all I know, even a nonhuman animal one—and that what the black, the Native American, and the poor white share in America is common humanity’s love of remembering who we are. It is because the language of our memories is suppressed that we tend to see our struggle to retain and respect our memories as unique. And of course our language is suppressed because it reveals our cultures, cultures at variance with what the dominant white, well-to-do culture perceives itself to be. To permit our language to be heard, and especially the words and speech of our old ones, is to expose the depth of the conflict between us and our oppressors and the centuries it has not at all silently raged. It is to realize that behind the back of the man who insisted on being called “master,” the “slaves” called him “redneck,” “devil,” and “peckerwood.” It is to learn that every time the real Tonto said “How” aloud to the same racist Wasichu, under his breath he added “stupid,” “childish,” “asinine,” or “unintelligent.”

When I finished writing
The Color Purple
I sent it first to a leading black women’s magazine, believing they would recognize its value better than anyone. The magazine declined to run an excerpt from it, however, because, according to an editor, “Black people don’t talk like that.” And I suppose in her mind they never did, and if they did, who cared? Yet Celie speaks in the voice and uses the language of my step-grandmother, Rachel, an old black woman I loved. Did she not exist; or, in my memories of her, must I give her the proper English of, say, Nancy Reagan?

And I say, yes, she did exist, and I can prove it to you, using the only thing that she, a poor woman, left me to remember her by—the sound of her voice. Her unique pattern of speech. Celie is created out of language. In
The Color Purple
you see Celie because you “see” her voice. To suppress her voice is to complete the murder of her. And this, to my mind, is an attack upon the ancestors, which is, in fact, war against ourselves.

For Celie’s speech pattern and Celie’s words reveal not only an intelligence that transforms illiterate speech into something that is, at times, very beautiful, as well as effective in conveying her sense of her world, but also what has been done to her by a racist and sexist system, and her intelligent blossoming as a human being despite her oppression demonstrate why her oppressors persist even today in trying to keep her down. For if and when Celie rises to her rightful, earned place in society across the planet, the world will be a different place, I can tell you.

How can you justify enslaving such a person as Celie? segregating or sexually abusing such a person? Her language—all that we have left of her—reveals her as irreducibly human. The answer is you cannot.

She has not accepted an alien description of who she is; neither has she accepted completely an alien tongue to tell us about it. Her being is affirmed by the language in which she is revealed, and like everything about her it is characteristic, hard-won, and authentic.

Bob Marley sings many songs in the black folk English of the Jamaican people. One of my favorites is among the last that he wrote; his mother sang it at his funeral. It is called “Coming In from the Cold.” In it he sings, “Don’t you let the system make you kill your brotherman,” and I can apply this to all of us who are writers and readers. Mrs. Green is mistaken in her belief that the “exposure” of turn-of-the-century Southern black folk language degrades black people, for the language is an intrinsic part of who we are and what has, for good or evil, happened to us. And, amazingly, it has sustained us more securely than the arms of angels. Nowhere is this clearer than in our seemingly illiterate, generally nongrammatical songs, songs that even our enemies admit give us the energy century after century to struggle on through. Mrs. Green apparently doesn’t understand yet that when you love people their warts take on a strange beauty of their own. She would be amazed by African and African-American folk painting and sculpture, in which the prettiest, most symmetrical, and correct subject is
the one presented. In short, I think what probably most upsets Mrs. Green—who also thought sex should be only heterosexual, and not pleasurable or God-inspired—is the discovery that there is definitely a world view different from her own.

Another line in Marley’s song is “Why do you look so sad and so forsaken? Don’t you know when one door is closed, many more is opened?” Every time I hear these words I see the old ones who spoke in ways that today means their exclusion from serious conscious life. I see the Jewish woman talking Yiddish, using her tongue but, especially, her hands. I hear the Italian-American putting an “a” on the ends of his words. I see so many of our old ones, like Mammy and Tonto, locked away from us and from reality, imprisoned in the easy stereotype of caricature so that even the real language they spoke by this time appears comical, odd, and more and more foreign and “degrading” to their descendants.

But though the system tries to make us kill our brother/sister humans, by distorting their present and obliterating and ridiculing their past, we are, all of us, those doors of which Marley sings. (And think of all the old ones, including the buffalo soldiers and even Natty Dread himself, Marley brought back in!) The system closed the door on people who sounded like Celie long before I was born. All of us who can
her today open wide the shut doors in ourselves, and in our society.

And when Celie comes through those doors, buffalo soldiers on one side, Shug and Natty Dread and a clutch of dread-locked Rastas perhaps on the other, and only when Celie comes through those doors; when Celie comes in from the cold of repression, self-hatred, and denial, and only when Celie comes in from the cold—do I come in. And many of you as well. And when all of us and all of the old ones are hugged up inside this enormous warm room of a world we must build very quickly, really, or die of a too shallow mutual self-respect, you will see, with me, through the happy spirits of our grandchildren, such joy as the planet has never seen. And until that day, let us grow to understand a paraphrase of another of our brother Marley’s songs. Let us understand that to keep alive in us the speech and the voices of the ancestors is not only to “lively up” the old spirits through the great gift of memory, but to “lively up” our own selves, as well.

And I can personally deliver the message that the old spirits are more alive today than anyone thought.

When I was a little girl, there was a song that was very popular on the gospel station of the radio. It was called: “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” It is about how death breaks the circle of loved ones on earth, but how, in heaven, “in the sky, Lord, in the sky,” this will not be the case. In heaven neither father nor mother will die. Nor little sister, brother, lover, or husband or wife, either. Heaven, according to the song, is different from here.

It is a mournful song, which was written specifically, I think, about the loss of the songwriter’s mother, and it used to make me sad and fearful of losing my own. Over the years I have worried about losing not only my mother and other members of my family, but also poets, singers, philosophers, prophets, political activists. And many of these we have all lost, sometimes to sickness, accident, or disease, sometimes to assassination. But I have found that where there is spiritual union with other people, the love one feels for them keeps the circle unbroken and the bond between us and them strong, whether they are dead or alive. Perhaps that is one of the manifestations of heaven on earth.

After I had finished
The Color Purple
and it was winning prizes and being attacked, I had several extraordinary dream-visits from people I knew before they died and from people who died before I was born, but whose names and sometimes partial histories I knew. This seemed logical and right. But then, at my most troubled, I started to dream of people I’d never heard of and never knew anything about, except, perhaps, in a general way. These people sometimes brought advice, always excellent and upbeat, sometimes just a hug. Once, a dark, heavyset woman who worked in the fields and had somehow lost the two middle fingers of her right hand took hold of my hand lovingly, called me “daughter,” and commented supportively on my work. She was only one of a long line of ancestors who came to visit and take my hand that night, all apparently slaves, field workers, and domestics, who seemed to care about and want to reassure me. I remembered her distinctly next morning because I could still feel her plump hand with its missing fingers gently but firmly holding my own.

Since I am not white and not a man and not really Western and not a psychiatrist, I get to keep these dreams for what they mean to me, and I can tell you that I wake up smiling, or crying happily, as the case may be. It seems very simple: Because they know I love them and understand their language, the old ones speak to me. It feels too good to be true!

I wrote this poem the morning after my dream, which I feel was not so much my dream as ours, and which I feel would sustain me forever, though Mrs. Green were joined by millions and my book banned from the planet itself.

The old ones

visit me

in dreams

to thank me for

The Color Purple;

They tell me,


it’s the best

you’ve ever done.

I can’t tell you

how many rough

old hands

I’ve shook.

Since this dream I have come to believe that only if I am banned from the presence of the ancestors will I know true grief.


* “Ancient Ghanaians were said to have referred to the moon, a maternal symbol, as
and to the sun, a paternal symbol, as
Children of the moon, who were the stars, were said to have been called
When some of the Ghanaians were brought to the New World as slaves their masters wouldn’t let them keep old traditions. But the terms didn’t change much. They began calling the father of a slave child pappy, and the mother mammy. The pickens, of course, became pickaninnies.”—Carroll Simms, artist, telling a story told to him by another artist, John Biggers, after his return from Ghana in the 1960s. In
Black Art in Houston: The Texas Southern University Experience,
edited by John Edward Weems, introduced by Donald Weisman (College Station: Texas A
M Press, 1978).

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