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Examining a Life: Reflections from Alice Walker’s Biographer

Examining a Life: Reflections from Alice Walker’s Biographer

Author: Evelyn White

February 16, 2014

Since the 2004 release of my book Alice Walker: A Life (W. W. Norton & Company), I’ve frequently been asked if I’ll write another biography. I find merit in the adage “never say never.” Still, it’s not likely that I (now pushing 60) will ever again take on the task of researching and writing a full-scale biography.

Contracted for four years by New York publisher W.W. Norton, Alice Walker: A Life (graced with the full cooperation of the author best known for The Color Purple) took nearly a decade to complete. As the years whizzed by like the fluttering calendar pages in old movies, I feared that I might never finish the project.

But just when my spirits reached a nadir from which recovery seemed nil, cosmic forces delivered Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay. In opening pages, author Nancy Milford reveals that she spent nearly 30 years on the volume!

She also makes mention of Millay (“my candle burns at both ends”) memorabilia to which she was granted access and artifacts that escaped her review, notably the poet’s cherished ivory dildo (which a Millay family member had destroyed).

And with that, dear reader, I rejoiced in a re-energizing mind jolt that helped to bring my journey, as the official biographer of Alice Walker, to a jubilant close.

In addition to Milford’s magnificent book, several other works provided inspiration as I labored on my manuscript. Among them: Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston by Valerie Boyd, For Freedom’s Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer by Chana Kai Lee, Anne Sexton by Diane Wood Middlebrook, and Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) by Stacy Schiff.

And while I’m disinclined to pen another biography, I continue to track releases that I’d like to read. Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics by Ruth Lewin Sime today stands as the sole title on my list.

Truth be told, I’ve never much enjoyed biographies. An avid reader since childhood, my disaffection with the genre always puzzled me. The fascinating lives of figures such as Florence Nightingale or Harriet Tubman seemed somehow flattened in biographical works that I read as a teen.

Still, during my junior year in college I rushed out to buy (with squirreled away work-study job money), an early biography of Carson McCullers. “Is that” (cue Miss Peggy Lee)  “all there is?” I wondered, after finishing the lackluster volume.

The author of powerful works such as The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, McCullers emerged, in the biography, as dull as dishwater. Disappointed, I bid the genre farewell.

That is until ancestral spirits (detailed in the prologue of Alice Walker: A Life ) tapped me to chronicle the life of the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Now a published biographer, I fully understand the perils of the enterprise. So much can (and usually does) go wrong. Indeed, I believe that most biographies are doomed, from jump street, by a mismatch between author and subject.

To wit, Aretha Franklin has long bedazzled me. But after my journey with Alice Walker, I know that I’m ill suited to craft a biography of the Queen of Soul. Why? In my studied opinion, Franklin (her soul-baring vocals notwithstanding) is not predisposed to meaningful self-disclosure. And that’s her prerogative.

As for me, a quick tally of the “opportunity cost” of writing a Franklin biography sparks sentiments that the famed singer expressed in her 1967 hit “Dr. Feelgood”: “I just don’t have time to sit and chit and sit and chit chat and smile.”

There are other “ignore at your own risk” factors that can easily derail even the most skilled biographer. Consider the high price of securing permissions (whether the subject is alive or dead, helpful or hostile). The few lines from a Nina Simone song reprinted in Alice Walker: A Life set me back a tidy sum. Add kith and kin of one’s subject with axes to grind (or favors to curry). In short, the potential landmines are endless.

Overall, my experience with Alice Walker: A Life  was a dream. Throughout the process, I lived within minutes of the San Francisco Bay Area author who, a staunch advocate for artistic freedom, did not request of me manuscript approval. Instead, Walker wrote a brief letter in support of my book that facilitated in-person interviews with folks ranging from Oprah Winfrey to her first grade teacher in rural Georgia to the Tokyo-based translator of The Color Purple into Japanese.

Amazingly, my Norton editor never once mentioned missed deadlines. And most importantly, a lifetime of  “living” on a writer’s salary lessened the sting of cost-cutting measures for a project that exceeded its delivery date by nearly six years.

Nevertheless, the myriad demands of the biography taxed me completely. Without the loving support of my partner Joanne, mental health counseling, a 1-800-prayer line (for real!), and arthroscopic knee surgery (for injuries exacerbated by lengthy plane flights), I might not have survived.

Grateful to now be on the other side of Alice Walker: A Life , call me a biography retiree. So here’s my pitch (with a nod to Black History Month) for major biographies not yet published that I pray others will write. First up? Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000).

Mentored by (among others) Langston Hughes, Brooks, in 1950, became the first black writer to win a Pulitzer Prize, for her poetry release, Annie Allen.

I was honored to interview the trailblazing poet, on April 21, 1997, for my Walker biography.  Later that day, I attended a reading she gave to a packed house at the University of California at Berkeley (UCB).  Throughout her life, Brooks exuded a grandmotherly demeanor that belied a bold and biting edge. Taking her place at the podium, she trained her eyes on the crowd with a steely gaze that said, “Don’t let the staid suit, tam, and sensible shoes fool you, I can hang.”

She then let loose with “The Ballad of Pearl May Lee.” Included in her 1945 collection A Street in Bronzeville, the poem turns on a sexual liaison between a white woman and a black man. An excerpt reads:

But you paid for your dinner, Sammy boy,

And you didn’t pay with money.

You paid with your hide and your heart, Sammy boy

For your taste of pink and white honey ….

The piece evoked impassioned  “Teach” and “Tell it” cheers from a stylish group of black women in an audience that, not atypical of UCB, showcased numerous interracial couples. Brooks acknowledged the response with a sly grin.

In a life marked by quiet rebellion, Brooks left her mainstream publisher (Harper & Row) to sign, in the 1960s, with upstart black-owned publishing companies. Taking a page from the “sisters are doing it for themselves” trend, she later self-published, an anomaly, to be sure, among Pulitzer Prize-winners.

And disheartened by the gang violence that had plagued her gritty South Side Chicago neighborhood, Brooks welcomed the “hoodlums” to her home for writing workshops. Her iconic poem “We Real Cool,” endures as a poignant paean to marginalized youth.

Brooks’ literary achievements have been explored in hundreds of scholarly texts and George Kent offers a serviceable overview of the poet in his academic release The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks (University of Kentucky Press, 1990). But Brooks deserves a “full-tilt boogie” biography in the tradition of Milford’s Savage Beauty. I await its publication.

Born Chloe Wofford, in 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, the writer later known as Toni Morrison is sure to be the subject of a commercial biography aimed at a global market.

Among other accolades, in 1993, she became the first African American woman to be named a Nobel Laureate in Literature. As such, Morrison stands with writers including Albert Camus, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Alice Munro, and Wole Soyinka, as a member of the world’s most exclusive literary club. As of this writing, she is the last American to be honored with the Nobel Literature Prize.

In addition to obvious reasons (The Bluest Eye, Beloved) and more obscure ones (a little known Morrison poem “Black Crazies,” her short story “Recitatif”), I’m itching to read a well-crafted biography of the author because of Sula (1973). Four decades after the novel’s release, the saga about a complex friendship between two black women ranks (in my view) as one of the most subversive prose works in the English language.

Indeed, in her groundbreaking 1977 essay “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism” activist/scholar Barbara Smith declared Sula  “an exceedingly lesbian novel in the emotions expressed, in the definition of female character, and in the way that the politics of heterosexuality are portrayed.” The assessment triggered a fiery debate in feminist literary circles.

As for Morrison’s response (if any) to Smith’s still controversial theory? Note to future biographer: Do tell.

About evaluations of her life and art, Morrison schooled a journalist who, in 1979, profiled her for the influential New York Times Magazine.  As the reporter tells it, she and Morrison arranged to travel together from Grand Central Station to Yale University where the author was then teaching.

Morrison arrived late, about a minute before the train departed. The journalist recounted their exchange in her article: “Once we’d pushed through the crowded train and found seats, I said, ‘I waited for you at the information booth.’”

“A dark look flashed from [Morrison], ‘To tell the truth, I wasn’t thinking about you at all this morning.’”

The Gap Band put it this way: “Oops upside your head.”

Add to the heady mix of Toni Morrison’s life story her rarely mentioned marriage (and divorce). Blend in her work as a Random House editor, with figures including Muhammad Ali and Angela Y. Davis. Consider the trauma of the December 1993 fire that gutted her spectacular Hudson River home and the death of her son Slade, at age 45.

And finally, it’s not been lost on me that the Nobel laureate has, in recent years, taken to sporting stingy brims in public appearances. Bring. On. The. Biography.

Distinguished actors Diahann Carroll and Denzel Washington will next month take to the Broadway stage in a highly anticipated revival production of A Raisin In the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry (1931-1965). Inspired by true events in the playwright’s life, the classic drama recounts the struggles of a black family poised to integrate a previously all-white Chicago neighborhood.

Hansberry is rightly celebrated for the play that takes its name from the Langston Hughes poem “Harlem.” (“What happens to a dream deferred? /Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? / … or does it explode?”). With its premiere in 1959, the drama became the first written by a black woman to debut on the Great White Way. The work also garnered Hansberry the prestigious New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for the best play of the year. She had not yet reached age 30.

But nearly fifty years after the playwright’s death, I’m not thinking about her landmark achievements. Instead, I find myself meditating on the white rabbit fur coat, matching cap and muff that she received from her socially prominent parents, as a Christmas gift, when she was five.

Legend has it that Hansberry feared that her less affluent friends would resent her lavish attire and resisted wearing the ensemble to school after the holiday break. But her parents insisted. The future playwright was promptly pummeled in the schoolyard, her gleaming fur soiled with ink. She later counted the incident central in shaping her political consciousness.

I first learned of an “impending” Hansberry biography in the late 1980s from Quentin Easter and Stanley Williams, the founding co-directors (both since deceased) of the Lorraine Hansberry Theater in San Francisco. Over a raucous lunch, the pair told me that a professor then on the faculty at UCB was at work on a manuscript but had been “stopped cold” by revelations of Hansberry’s homosexuality.

In 1953, the playwright married Robert Nemiroff, a white activist she’d met on a New York picket line. Having lived separately for many years, the couple secretly divorced in 1964 but maintained close ties until Hansberry’s untimely death, at age 34, from cancer.

Nemiroff would champion his ex-wife’s work for the rest of his life.

A scholar quotes him as saying that “Hansberry’s homosexuality was not a peripheral or casual part of her life but contributed significantly on many levels to the sensitivity and complexity of her view of human beings and of the world.”

Back at the restaurant, Quentin and Stanley beseeched me, as an out black lesbian, to contact the stymied Hansberry biographer. I reached out to the author but never received a reply.

The 1990s brought news of another writer reputedly contracted by a commercial publisher to deliver a definitive Hansberry biography. No book, to date.

Meanwhile, the Hansberry papers at the New York Public Library Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture offer a treasure trove of material about the creative genius that never wavered in her commitment to justice and equality. It’s my understanding that the collection also includes proof positive of the playwright’s lesbian love affairs.

The mercifully short-lived reality television show Being Bobby Brown delivered an indelible portrait of the late Whitney Houston (1963-2012). Ditto for her 2002 “crack is whack” smack down of Diane Sawyer and her breathtaking 2009  “he spit on me” tête-à-tête with Oprah Winfrey.

Now come memoirs by Narada Michael Walden (Whitney Houston: The Voice, The Music, The Inspiration) and Bebe Winans (The Whitney I Knew) in which the respective record producer and gospel artist detail their liaisons with the supremely talented (and troubled) singer.

As for the long-standing rumor that Houston once found solace in a lesbian relationship, Cissy Houston, writing in her book Remembering Whitney: My Story of Love, Loss and the Night the Music Stopped dismisses allegations that her daughter was gay.

But in the absence of a full-scale biography crafted with the depth, diligence and dignity that Whitney Houston deserves, the question lingers: How will I know?

Evelyn White photo

About: Evelyn White

A former reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, Evelyn C. White has been published widely. She is a columnist for Herizons, the national feminist magazine of Canada.

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