Now, hold up, brother — Toni Morrison did not blast
Alice Walker in the Massachusetts Review

By Nordette Adams   ||    8 February 2014

Morrison and WalkerToni Morrison, first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature, and Alice Walker, first African-American woman to win Pulitzer for fiction.

Prominent writer and cultural critic Ishmael Reed seems peculiarly outraged that novelist and Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker gets so much attention. More than likely, he'd say that his harsh criticism of Walker's work and political thought is not personal, but his critiques certainly feel personal when I read them.

Let me set it straight right here that I'm not powerful enough to box with either of these giants, so I'm not trying to pick a fight. However, while reading a Reed article published in 2013 at Counter Punch ("Of Black Men and White Middle-Class Feminists, Eve Ensler and Ishmael Reed Go At It"), I was confounded a moment by a statement he made about Nobel laureate Toni Morrison.

Reed asserts that in a 1995 interview with Cecil Brown for the Massachusetts Review, Morrison "blasted" Walker and feminist Gloria Steinem. That didn't sound right to me. I felt surely that if Toni Morrison had blasted another prize-winning, female author, especially Walker, I would have heard something about that, so I looked up the article.

On a separate page, I've posted screenshots excerpted from that article as published in the book Toni Morrison: Conversations. Unless I'm completely missing something between the lines, Toni Morrison did not "blast" Walker or Steinem. In fact, despite saying that she is "weary" of appearing to need white endorsement, Morrison defends her fellow novelist against the implication that Walker caters to white women. On page 120 from the excerpt, Morrison says the following to Brown:

"And I know Alice Walker doesn't do it [cater to what white men want to hear in literature], as far as white men are concerned, but you are suggesting that she plays to white women? And I cannot answer that, I don't believe it, and the evidence that you have is that Gloria Steinem has been very serious about promoting her. They were colleagues because Alice was her consulting editor on Ms. magazine. What magazine was in the position to do that? [push The Color Purple to a wider audience]. Essence didn't do it."

Does that sound as though she's "blasting" Walker? Morrison is fearless. If she wanted to lambaste Walker or anyone else, her censure would be unambigious. The discussion in the interview bounces between Morrison's novels and the portrayal of black men and women in literature. Morrison gives the side-eye to the tendency of whites to project onto all black men the pathology of one black man in one novel. For me, that side-eye may also be applied to black people who think one black woman's novel examining the dysfucntion of one fictional black family libels the entire black community or is evidence that the writer wants to destroy all positive images of blackness or every positive image of black men.

It's possible Reed misread the article. It's also possible that in his fervor to trounce Walker he sees criticism of Walker where there is little or none and unqualified praise or worship where there is merely a respect for talent and perseverance. Sometimes when people dislike other people, their vision clouds.

Reed's been troubled by Walker's ascent to literary stardom since the 1980s. (The opinions of feminists and womanists in general, many of whom he labels "man-haters," offend him.) However, this time, perhaps, he's gotten a bur in his boxers because of the PBS documentary that aired February 7. "Beauty in Truth," part of the American Masters series, reviews Walker's literary career, political activism, and her personal life, including her estrangement from her daughter, Rebecca. Overall, it presents her positively.

Anticipating the documentary's broadcast, the San Francisco Chronicle recently published an article by Meredith May, "A rigorous look at writer Alice Walker's life." In a section about the negative, often strident, criticisms of The Color Purple, May quotes Sapphire, the author of Push, who says something about Reed that he finds objectionable:

"I remember when 'Push' came out, a young man who owned an independent bookstore in Brooklyn called and said he loved the book," Sapphire said. "He said that he knew it was important for a black man to tell me that. Alice had black intellectuals like Ishmael Reed putting her down, trying to stop her film from being seen."

Reed says he never did any such thing because a negative review of a book is not necessarily an attempt to stop anyone from reading that book or seeing its associated film.

Coming to Reed's defense, poet and novelist J.J. Phillips is likewise ticked off at The Color Purple author. Phillips wrote a letter to May regarding the journalist's piece in the San Francisco Chronicle, and Reed says the paper refused to publish it. Consequently, he includes the letter in its entirety in his latest Counter Punch column, "2013: My Top Stories." Under number twelve, which begins, "White pathology is still ignored because the media can’t make money from it," Reed provides a little background first in which he makes sure to put down Sapphire and the reporter, and then he posts the letter:

[Reed writes] On Feb.4, an Alice Walker groupie posing as a journalist named Meredith May, writing about the “American Master’s” [sic] show quoted Sapphire, one of those responsible for raising the lynch mob hysteria against the Central Park Five, as saying that I tried to prevent people from viewing the film, The Color Purple, aired on PBS tonight. Of course, I did no such thing. The lie has been syndicated. I asked for a retraction. None forthcoming. I asked that they print a letter by the great novelist J.J. Phillips (Mojo Hand), a true American Master. They’ve refused. Here it is.
Date: Wed, 5 Feb 2014 10:46:19 -0800

Dear Meredith May,

Sad to see you so casually quote Sapphire’s shallow, self-serving indictment of Ishmael Reed vis-à-vis The Color Purple. Anyone with any sense knows that to criticize a work of literature or the tenets a writer holds isn’t the same as trying to stop people from reading a book, and it’s irresponsible of you to use another writer to get in such a dig, without any but prejudicial context. Are you one of the Alice Walker feminist/womanist fundamentalist jihadis for whom the slightest criticism of Alice Walker or her work is tantamount to blasphemy? I’m sure you’d agree that criticism is healthy and necessary; consequently, however one appraises Alice Walker’s writing and thought, it cannot be above scrutiny.

. . . Read the rest of Phillips's letter at Counter Punch

Defending Reed aside, Phillips has gone after Walker before. In a guest editorial at the Berkeley Daily Planet, "Go Ask Alice Walker," Phillips rips into Walker over Walker's admiration of David Icke. Phillips finds some of Walker's beliefs not simply objectionable but bizarre. Reading the piece it occurred to me that she gives Walker papal powers, more power than Walker actually has. It almost sounds as though she'd enjoy seeing Walker publicly castigated and confined the way Ezra Pound was for being sympathetic to Fascists. Both Reed and Phillips appear to think those who admire Walker have a cult-like devotion to her. In his interview with Goatmilk, for instance, Reed says Walker is a "saint" to white feminists who he believes use black men as whipping posts instead of confronting white men who perpetuate patriarchy.

As I said at the opening of this post, I am in no position to box with Reed, Walker, or anyone else in this fight. I was simply curious about whether Toni Morrison had "blasted" Alice Walker as Reed said she had. I confess that I am curious about writer feuds in general, past and present. I've contemplated the sparring of Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston, of George Schuyler versus almost every writer of the Harlem Renaissance, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and the disagreements between Percy Bysshe Shelly, Wordsworth, and Coleridge. I've noticed that animosities between African-American writers often turn on political positions, but I'm sure sometimes the root of the problem is professional jealousy.

Today, writer feuds don't make it to mainstream media as they once did. Our current big media platforms find disagreements between filmmakers more newsworthy (Tyler Perry vs. Spike Lee for instance). That's because more people watch movies than read books, and if the controversy is so deep that they involve the intersection of African-American history, the legacy of slavery, gendering, and the nuanced arguments between black womanists/feminists and white feminists, well, today's media is not equipped to handle anything that deep. This is the stuff of academic papers and independent blogs. Who,after all, ponders these things but poets, African-American and Women's Studies professors, and a few postmodern theorists?

To view screenshots, click this link.


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