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Book Review: Overcoming Speechlessness by Alice Walker

Alice Walker Quote

(This week PBS honors Alice Walker’s remarkable life in their American Masters series.  This article was originally published in July 2011.)

Alice Walker’s recent book Overcoming Speechlessness: A Poet Encounters the horror in Rwanda, Eastern Congo, and Palestine/Israel weaves  a collection of horrific tales with the lifelong activist’s wisdom and  words of hope. This thin 75 page book (or booklet) is published by Seven  Stories Press in 2010.

Walker (no relation to me) starts the reader off with an account of  her 2007 visit to Rwanda and Eastern Congo. Working for the non-profit  organization Women for Women International, Walker went to the war torn  area to provide aid to the survivors, write their stories, offer some  hope, and pay her “respects to the hundreds of thousands of infants,  toddlers, teenagers, adolescents, young engaged couples, married people,  women and men, grandmothers and grandfathers brothers and sisters, of  every facial shape and body size, who had been hacked into sometimes  quite small pieces by armed strangers, or by neighbors, or by  acquaintances and “friends” they know.”

Walker recalls several accounts of meeting women survivors who openly  shared horrible accounts of rape and mutilations. This little book  provides some graphic details and is not for the faint of heart. Walker  explains, while in her twenties in college, she had written a thesis  paper on the “Belgian” Congo. She goes on to provide a brief history of  the colonization of the Congo and recounts the tale where King Leopold  of Belgian had instituted a policy of cutting off the hands of the  enslaved Africans who were unable to fulfill their rubber quotas.

Walker goes on to recount a meeting with a young women who had been  made a sex slave during the recent conflict in Congo and had been become  limp because she was “forced to carry loads that bent her double.” The  poor women had been virtually struck blind, and yet she was still able  to smile and openly share her tragic personal story. Walker asks, “How  can she smile?”  Walker then explains the realization she gained from  meeting her new “Congolese sister.”  Walker writes, “She understood the  importance of speech, speech about the unspeakable, and is a source of  my ability to share the following story, a story that had propelled me  into a period of speechlessness.” This statement becomes a recurring  theme in the book.

The other recurring theme seems to come from her Buddhist belief in  oneness. Walker recounts another Rwandan woman’s horrific story of rape  and murder and the hope that her daughter was still alive and can be  reunited with her mother. Walker writes, “My understanding that  Generose’s lost daughter belongs to all of us. It is up to all of us to  find her; it is up to us to do our best to make her whole again. There  is only one daughter, one father, one mother, one son, one aunt, or  uncle…that one right in front of you.”

After flying back to the United States, Walker gets an email asking  if she would like to go to Gaza with the women’s anti-war group  CODEPINK. Walker recalls a time back in 2003 when she found herself side  by side with members of CODEPINK as they were arrested in front of the  White House while protesting the start of the war against Iraq.

Just days later, Israel began its twenty-two-day bombardment of Gaza.   Walker writes, “Houses, hospitals, factories, police stations,  parliament buildings, ministries, apartment buildings, schools went up  in dust. The sight of one family, in which five young daughters had been  killed, was seared into my consciousness. The mother, wounded and  unconscious, was alive. Who would tell her?” After consulting with her  partner, they conclude, “The sooner we reach the people of Gaza, the  sooner they’ll know not all Americans are uncaring, deaf and blind, or  fooled by the media.”

The remainder of the book Walker guides her readers as she journeys  to Gaza for the first time. During the trip, Walker flashes-back to  moments in her life, especially during her twenties and thirties, as a  civil rights volunteer and writer. Walker recalls the dark times growing  up in the Jim Crow south. While arranging her passport to Gaza, a U.S.  embassy official questions Walker as to why the Palestinians couldn’t be  more like the civil rights movement in America.  Walker responses with  what are clearly the most controversial statements made in the book.  Therefore, I will provide an extended excerpt in order to provide the  full context. Walker responds:

“She- a white woman with a Southern accent – mentioned the success of  “our” civil rights movement and asked why the Palestinians couldn’t be  more like us. It was a remarkable comment from a perspective of  unimaginable safety and privilege; I was moved to tell her of the effort  it took, even for someone so inherently nonviolent as me, to contain  myself during the seven years in Mississippi when it often appeared  there were only a handful of white Mississippians who could talk to a  person of color without delivering injury or insult. If we had not been  able to change our situation through nonviolent suffering, we would have  most certainly, like the African National Congress (ANC), like the  Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), like Hamas, turned to violence.  I told her how dishonest it seemed to me that people claim not to  understand the desperate, last-ditch resistance involved in suicide  bombing, blaming the oppressed for using their bodies where the Israeli  army uses armored tanks.

I remembered aloud, we being Southerners, my own anger at the  humiliations, bombings, assassinations that made weeping an endless  activity for black people for centuries, and how when we would finally  get to a courtroom that was supposed to offer justice, the judge would  likely blame us for the crime done against us and call us chimpanzees  for making a fuss.”

While waiting for her passport Walker looks at a series of  illustrated postcards. The first card depicts a few scattered Jewish  villages in the Palestine from 1946, prior to the U.N partition. The  next, a few years later, after the U.N. had partition the area depicts  about half owned by Israel, and after 1967 the Israeli portion of  territory had doubled its land mass again. Walker notices that on the  back of one of the cards, “were words from former Israeli president  Ariel Sharon, known as the ’Butcher of Sabra and Shatilla’ (refugee  camps in Lebanon where he led a massacre of the people), where he talked  about making a pastrami sandwich of the Palestinian people, riddling  their lands with Jewish settlements until no one would be able to  imagine a whole Palestine. Or would know Palestine ever existed.”

Walker then goes on to compare how in the U.S., during the Trail of  Tears, the Cherokee were forcefully removed from their homes. Walker  writes, “Just as the Israelis have wanted and have taken by force,  Palestinian land. Like Americans they have attempted to hide their  avarice and cruelty behind a mountain of myths: that no one lived in  Palestine, that the Palestinians are savages, that there’s no such thing  as a Palestinian (Golda Meir’s offering), that the Israelis are David  and the Palestinians Goliath. Which is ridiculous.”

As Walker boards the bus to Gaza she comments, “I had not been on a  bus with so many Jews since traveling by Greyhound to the 1963 March on  Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. John Lewis, and other spoke so  passionately of black Americans’ determination to be free.”

Walker goes to ask some of the Jewish passengers why they had decided  to make the journey. Walker writes, “It was moving to hear the stories  of why the Jews on our Gaza-bound bus were going to Palestine. Many of  them simply said they couldn’t bear the injustice, or the hypocrisy.  Having spoken out against racism, terrorism, apartheid elsewhere, how  could they be silent about Palestine and Israel? Someone said her  friends claimed everyone who spoke out against Israeli treatment of  Palestinians was a self-hating Jew (if Jewish) or anti-Semitic (though  Palestinians are Semites, too). She said it never seemed to dawn on the  persons making the anti-Semitic charge that it is Israel’s behavior  people are objecting to and not its religion.”

Once again Walker flashes back to the civil rights movement and  recounts the story of the “three civil rights workers” as they have  become to be known.  One of the civil rights workers was a young black  man, named James Chaney, and the other two were white Jewish men, Andrew  Goodman and Michael Schwerner, from the North. In 1967, while driving  down the back roads of Mississippi, their car was firebombed and the  three were beaten, shot and buried under a bridge. For months the young  men’s bodies were missing and every week the black churches throughout  the country prayed for the three young men.  Walker explains that  because of their sacrifice, the white Jewish men and their families had  become part of the black community’s family. Walker explains Schwerner’s  widow still to this day attends gatherings held civil rights activists.

Walker compares Goodman and Schwerner’s story to Rachel Corrie’s  story.  Rachel was a young Jewish activist that attempted to stop  Israeli tanks from demolishing Palestinian homes. While wearing a bright  orange vest and screaming through a blow horn, Rachel stood in front of  an approaching tank. Evidence has shown the tank driver clearly know  the Solidarity activist was present. However, he moved forward anyway  and crushed Rachel to death. Walker notes, in Palestine, Rachel’s Jewish  parents are treated with the same reverence the black community holds  for the Jewish civil rights workers.

As Walker arrives in Gaza she first notices that under close  inspection many of the buildings standing are actually in ruins. “I  realized I had never understood the true meaning of “rubble.”  Such and  such was “reduced to rubble” is a phrase we hear. It is different seeing  what demolished buildings actually look like.”  Walker goes on to ask,  “Where are the World Parents of All Children? The World Caretakers of  All the Sick?”

In bouncing back and forth between her expressed love for her Jewish  brothers and sisters and  her love for her new Palestinian brothers and  sisters, Walker makes it clear she is not focused simply on the plight  of one group over the other. However, Walker has spent a great deal of  her life’s activism on the plight of women.  Certainly, one can’t fault  her for that.

One of the main purposes Walker’s trip to Gaza was to visit a  Palestinian center for women, on International Women’s Day in 2009.   Walker spends a good deal of the remaining chapters on the book on her  conversations with Palestinian women and their tragic stories. Many of  the women had lost family members or their entire families to the  ceaseless bombardments and siege. One of the most heart wrenching story  comes when Walker finds herself embracing a young Palestinian woman who  was holding a photo of her six year old daughter wearing a white tutu  and dancing. During a recent bombardment the poor child was hit  throughout her body and bleed to death in her mother’s arms.  This is a  very powerful scene in the book.

While Walker’s concerns are clearly focused on humanity, she shows no  real affection for Islam as a religion.  In fact, she spends more time  praising Christianity, Buddhism, and Judaism than she does on Islam.  What she does say about Islam is fairly critical. Walker spends a good  chapter in the book on the headscarf. Walker writes, “I have learned of  the prophet Mohammed’s demand that his own wives be veiled, to protect  them from the gaze of visitors and strangers, and of course the ongoing  discussions regarding hijab wearing in England and France have  been much in the news. There is also the brutal insistence in some  Muslim countries that women cover themselves to demonstrate submission  to religious, and male, authority. However, I am curious to know what  grassroots Arab women thing about the scarf.”

I don’t want to give away the entire book, but some of the women’s  responses might surprise Western readers.  Walker’s little book is  filled with many powerful little stories like the few I have highlighted  in this review. Never does the reader get the impression that Walker  feels a sense of self-importance, a person of self realized grandeur on a  grand mission to save the world. Rather, one can only conclude Walker’s  only mission is to tell the stories of the people who are suffering  throughout the world.  Walker seems to want to offer a little bit of  hope to each person she meets. She encourages nonviolence, but she is  not perplexed by why an oppressed people might retaliate with violence.  She knows why, she has lived the experience of being an oppressed  person.

Recently, Walker participated in the Freedom Flotilla Two campaign to  Gaza. There were several writers that criticized Walker for her  participation. Most notably, distinguished writer and Zionist activist  Howard Jacobson.  In an opinion piece  Jacobson wrote for CNN:

“But beyond associating her decision with Gandhi, Martin Luther King  and very nearly, when she talks about the preciousness of children,  Jesus Christ, she fails to give a single convincing reason for it  (flotilla).”

You may want to argue that had Gaza been treated differently it would  have responded differently, but if the aim of the flotilla is to ensure  that one child will not be set above another it is hard to see how  challenging the blockade will achieve it. All an Israeli parent will see  is a highly charged emotionalism disguising an action that, by its very  partiality, chooses the Palestinian child over the Israeli.

The Israeli response is thus already an act of unprovoked murder, no  matter that the flotilla is by its very essence a provocation.”

Another young white writer foolishly went so far as to suggest Walker  had delusions of being a Christ figure and quipped, “Actually I’m  surprised she needed a ship at all. Surely the waters would part before  this modern Grandma Moses as the Red Sea parted before, well, Moses!”  This shameful writer is essentially suggesting Walker believes she is a  “Grandma Moses” and in some way the leader of the flotilla or a  mass of  people and therefore better than the rest. The writer calls Walker  “sanctimonious.”  Of course, anyone that knows a bit of the history of  the Jim Crow South would know this type of suggestion was also commonly  made about civil rights workers by the racist white Southerners. This is  essentially known by most people of color in America as the “uppity  black” argument.  Walker would call this most foolish statement by, an  otherwise talented (intentionally unnamed to protect the ignorant)  writer, as a “doofus” moment.

In one of Walker’s civil rights movement flashbacks, Walker does  speak of how the gay civil rights strategist, Bayard Rustin, introduced  the Gandhian nonviolence approach to MLK Jr.’s Christian tradition which  created the spiritual essence of America’s civil rights movement.  However, nowhere in Walker’s writings do you see her claim to be the  heir apparent to Gandhi or MLK Jr. Rather, you see Walker consider  herself more like a foot-soldier with a microphone. It is obvious to  anyone that reads her book Overcoming Speechlessness that  Walker is far too concerned with telling the stories of the people she  meets, than she is of telling her own personal story.

Finally, as to Jacobson’s point about the flotilla being provocative.  Hell yes it was provocative! That was the whole point. Just like the  Freedom Riders bus rides into the deep South were provocative. If you  don’t know about the Freedom Riders check out this  PBS Video.  Essentially, during the Jim Crow era which Walker was raised in, blacks  had to sit in the back of the bus throughout the South.  However, in  1960 the U.S. Supreme Court began  overthrowing the separate but equal  laws. To test the South’s adherence to the law, black and white civil  rights activists started sitting next to each other on interstate buses  traveling in the South.

In Anniston and Birmingham Alabama  as the riders exited the bus,  white mobs, supported by the Birmingham police department,  attacked the  passengers on the buses with baseball bats, iron pipes and bicycles  chains. Of course, the whole purpose of the Freedom Riders was  provocative. It was meant to provoke an awareness to the injustice. The  fact that the Freedom Riders mission was to be provocative, didn’t give  the Alabama police and white mobs permission to brutalize the activists.  In fact, most people of good conscious were repulsed by the vicious  beatings of the Freedom Riders.

That is the whole purpose of nonviolent civil disobedience. Being a  former employee of Greenpeace, this is something I’m no stranger to  myself.  There is a wonderful Christian tradition, strongly supported by  the Quakers, known as “bearing witness.” Walker’s book Overcoming Speechless is in the tradition of this great Christian value. Overcoming Speechlessness  is a must read for all writers and activist who wish to provide a voice  for others and, in their own small way, some good for the planet.

Below you will find three videos by Nina Simon.  Songs written  before, during, and after blacks were finally given equal rights in  America. Nina Simon’s songs express musically the landscaped in which  Alice Walker was raised in.

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About the Author:

Dean Walker is a freelance writer of articles, essays, short-stories, and poems. In one way or another, he has worked as an environmental and human rights activist. Dean is the publisher of Expats Post.
  • I’m putting this on my book list. Nicely done, Dean.

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