(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.