Martin Luther King at Highlander Folk School
Gifts of Spirit: Thoughts On Being Canceled
©2021 by Alice walker
‘The Color Purple’ author Alice Walker to deliver keynote address at HVCC despite controversies
Pulitzer-winning writer and activist’s remarks will be about ‘speaking your truth, whatever that may be, even if provocative’ (At no time did I say I would talk about this. I rarely know what I will say until I open my mouth. ~aw)
Several months back I was invited to give a virtual graduation talk to students at Hudson Valley Community College. I taped a ten minute talk only to be informed weeks later that because anonymous persons’ charged that a book* on my nightstand – that I mentioned over a year ago in the New York Times – was written by an anti-Semite, my offering to the students of this school was canceled.
I resolved to find the pieces of the corpse of my experience and to share them with readers of my blog. But also, I wanted my intended student audience to have a video of my thoughts. Alas, the taped talk is gone, and even the article that goes with the title posted above has vanished.
Now the story, see above, is that in spite of the controversy, Hudson Valley Community College bravely forged ahead. Kept me close to its heart, not caved.
If only it had! What a fine lesson for its students and for those of the faculty who stood up as long as they dared in defense of their graduating students’ right to hear from me, an elder they should be hearing from. She said modestly.
In any case, I regret not being able to share a ZOOM view of the talk. But I can tell you a bit of what I spoke about:
The need to take this Pandemic time as a gift. A time to dig deeply into what is truly of value in your life. To study with grateful concentration the offerings pouring out from brilliant minds and caring hearts that this period of forced reflection has produced. I am grateful for what is being offered for our delight but more importantly for our support and guidance.
Assuming there were writers in the graduating class I thought of Ken Burns’ recent documentary on Ernest Hemingway. Maybe students no longer read Hemingway, but in any case his biography is rich with teachings about what is important in life. There are questions of substance. For instance, Why did Hemingway, the beloved writer, kill himself? Why did his father before him? What made some of the successful “settlers” of this land so unhappy? Was it because even though the true lives of Indigenous Americans were canceled, to keep misinformed and land hungry Europeans streaming in, Hemingway’s father, a doctor, couldn’t help knowing what was happening to them? He was sometimes required to deliver the babies of dispossessed Native women out of doors, on the ice.
There is such a thing as knowing too much and feeling what you know too deeply. Which is why canceling information seems attractive to the faint of heart. And most hearts are faint. But. Now is the time to make the heart stronger, which it can be made with an honest confrontation with the truth, or with another’s ideas about the truth. Now is the time to have the courage to think beyond your fear.
I probably said something about meditation, since I see it as perhaps our only hope for clarity in the mush of “information” and salesmanship we are, for the most part, forced to inhabit. Take back your mind, I’m sure I said. I hope I did. It is the most important part of you, next to your heart. Let it guide you to what is truly important. Not the killing of countless, uneaten, “game” animals – Hemingway shot and killed more “big game” animals than any small village could eat in many years – death was forever riding him. But what did shooting so many beautiful beings lead to: perhaps to the shooting of his own, at times quite beautiful, self. As a young writer, I loved his stories, his flat, descriptive sentences; but not his killing of everything wild and beautiful and then his proud standing by it for a photo of himself. As master.
This is not happiness.
The reality of my present cruise through this part of the Universe is that I’ve been canceled and banned many times. There is even a book by Patricia Holt: Alice Walker Banned. I was banned and canceled before most of you were born! And I am not alone. Many of my ancestors and elders were banned and canceled before me. Wonderful people! Crazy Horse, Paul Robeson, Black Elk, W.E.B.DuBois, Chief Seattle,and Billie Holiday, Lame Deer, Langston Hughes. And later: Winnie Mandela. Leonard Peltier. Assata Shakur. When I went to Mississippi in the Sixties there were billboards announcing Martin Luther King’s presence in a “communist” classroom. These billboards were meant to turn us against someone who deeply loved us. There was even an attempt to cancel Lena Horne! A black though Caucasian looking entertainer who seemed to play by all the rules. And of course there are those who were assassinated outright. Canceled, but never really gone. Martin, Che, Lumumba. Thomas Sankara, first president of Burkina Faso, someone I will always admire, for being for so long the lone African male voice against FGM. The list is long and amazing.
I wonder if you realize the purpose of banning and canceling people? An illustration can be found in the present Lee Daniels/Andra Day movie about the life of Billie Holiday. You will see that the U.S. Government’s main object was to make her so poor she would end up back on the street, addicted to drugs, an embarrassment to black people rather than a “Lady” as Lester Young described her, and an eternal example of how we must not talk (in her case, sing) back.
It is in our music that much of our medicine is stored, as most black people eventually realize, and there is a Movement song that says “I’ve got to do what the spirit say do.” With this directive in our very marrow, as Leonard Cohen sings “you’re going to hear from me.”
Learn from this experience to stand up for your right to hear whatever it is you feel you need to hear. There is a lot you need to hear. That’s why the television and radio and phone are all constantly chattering, to keep you from listening even to what you think you hear.
I send you my love, and an elder’s encouragement to trust yourself, your own perceptions, as you live what I hope will be a free and glorious life.
Know this: being banned, and “canceled,” maligned, generally, may indeed make life more challenging. Ironically perhaps, we, the canceled, the banned, the maligned, live by our offerings, which are, usually, gifts of spirit. Some of us banned and canceled and lied about were also born materially poor; returning to poverty is not something we look forward to. But. The best part of comprehending how blessed we are, as Earthlings, regardless of obstacles, is that we are not immobilized by the fear of not having what is not necessary.
In my novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, the old sharecropper grandfather, poor as dust, says “We own our own souls, don’t we?” He learned before he died what it meant to be, and to remain, rich. And free.
Thank you for inviting me.
.*..and the truth shall set you free, by David Icke. There is much information in this book about the assassinations over the decades that have traumatized and burdened us. Information too close for comfort, perhaps, for the powers that be, and have been. The information about the Kennedy tragedy both horrifies and heals. There is something in the psyche that needs to know how the circle in a family’s life is completed. This is why Greek tragedies, for instance, have such a hold on us.
Recommended: Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson. An extraordinary look into the life of the Kennedy daughter whose traumatic birth and eventual lobotomy meant being hidden away from the family, and the public, most of her life.
Published on: Jun 19, 2021