By Michael Archer
Next week, Alice Walker will be among the passengers aboard “The Audacity of Hope” when it sails from Athens to Gaza to challenge Israel’s naval blockade. (The boat will carry letters from Americans to Palestinians, not aid.) The 67-year-old, Pulitzer Prize winner took a moment to discuss her impending voyage, along with some thoughts on the “Slutwalk” protests (and her understanding of the word “slut”), and the incredibleness of chickens.
—Michael Archer for Guernica
Guernica: You just returned from a trip to Palestine a few weeks ago. What’s changed since your last visit to the West Bank? You worked a lot with Palestinian children there. What were your impressions of that experience? What did you leave knowing that you didn’t know before?
Alice Walker: My first trip to Palestine was to Gaza, in 2009, shortly after “Operation Cast Lead,” during which the Gaza strip was bombed for twenty-two days and nights, with airstrikes every twenty-seven minutes. There was enormous devastation: Over 1400 people killed, including over 300 children, and countless people, many of them children, injured and of course terrorized for the rest of their lives. I tried to get into Gaza a second time to help deliver aid but was denied entry through Egypt. This most recent visit was to the West Bank (for a TEDinspired event and a few days with the Palestine Literary Festival) which friends had told us was quite different than Gaza. They were right. There was the feeling of a more intact people, though frazzled and suffering every day from racist oppression which includes witnessing the theft of their land by construction of Israel’s apartheid wall, which is amazingly huge and oppressive: simply gobbling up all the good land to be had, with the wall built right in people’s faces in many instances.
I discovered that artists everywhere are a frisky lot, that we will raise our voices and our songs and our dances and our poems in the face of any oppression, and that we will maintain apparently to our dying breath a sense of humor about the craziness of other people’s actions. This is brilliantly demonstrated in the talk by the writer Suad Amiry, (available on Youtube) who closed out the TEDxRamallah evening by talking about her experience of being put under curfew by the Israelis at the same time that she was being visited by her mother-in-law. She had everyone rolling in the aisles with this story of how important it is to see one’s dilemma, whatever it is, with humor and grit.
Guernica: You’re leaving later this month to join the international flotilla sailing for Gaza to challenge Israel’s blockade. Your boat has been named “The Audacity of Hope,” taken from President Obama’s book. What made you decide to join?
One of the things so painful to remember about the segregated south is that no matter what white people did to them black people were not allowed to fight back, not even with a word or a glance…
Alice Walker: While I was being interrogated in April by a young Israeli who found all my activist history vis-à-vis Israel on his computer, we actually experienced a near humorous moment when he said I’d agreed to go on this Flotilla and I said I had not! I had not intended to go, but many of my friends are going and especially a Jewish American friend, Medea Benjamin of CODE PINK, a women’s peace group. I said to her at some point when she invited me to join the Flotilla: I don’t think so: but then again, how can we let you sail on the boat without us? She is very brave, and good. She reminds me of more brave and good people than she will ever know. To be on the boat with her and with others who see beyond their own comfort and affinities to reach out to the Palestinian people who need us—they need the whole world—is an honor, whatever the consequences.
The boat is called the “Audacity of Hope” because hope is audacious, that is part of its energy for change; but I will also be flying the colors of Andrew Goodman, James Cheney, and Michael Schwerner, two Jewish young men and one Christian black man who died trying to help us end American apartheid, injustice and brutality, in the South, in Mississippi. What we learn from helping each other free ourselves is that liberation, in order to remain in force, must be used constantly to help free others. Not only humans, but other animals, plants, water, mountains, the earth Herself. Saying “Never Again” must mean never again will we let it happen, whatever the atrocity is, because we understand our duty to stand against it, to the extent we can do this. And we grasp the importance of not singling out only our own nation or tribe for our protection. It is freedom itself that we protect; justice itself that we stand up for. We support the common good because we are all, after everything is said and done, children of the same planet. We are earthlings, whether we live in Occupied Palestine or in Tel Aviv. Or Northern California, where the abuse and destruction of Native peoples a hundred and fifty years or so ago was similar to what is happening now in Palestine.
Guernica: A year ago, nine people in a flotilla of six boats were killed by Israeli commandos. Some pundits from major media outlets, including the BBC, argued that the commandos’ actions were justified, done in self-defense, and the protest did little or nothing to help those suffering in Gaza. What’s your take on that and what do you hope is gained from this year’s trip?
Alice Walker: I believe the people on the Mavi Marmara were attacked and that the people who were killed were massacred. We know that the Israeli forces confiscated virtually all of the footage of what transpired from the passengers on the boat. Then they sent out their own video, framing the fuzzy images in ways that support their narrative of having been attacked by the people on the boat! As I’ve written elsewhere, this fraudulent action on the part of the Israeli military brought to mind the old Redd Foxx joke about a man’s wife catching him in bed with another woman: he says to her: “All right, go ahead and believe your lying eyes.”
Sometimes the medicine we bring to others isn’t tangible. Hope itself isn’t a tangible thing. What is it? Not even gossamer. But it has infused the lives of oppressed people everywhere they suffer on the planet. South Africa is perhaps even a better example than the American South. Or India. Or any of the old colonial outposts where the people thought they’d never breathe a free breath again. One poem, one song, can unlock the prison door because the strongest prison is the one oppressed people inhabit, after years of being ground down, in their own minds.
Any boat that leaves the shore in order to help others has already landed, whether it ever docks or not.
Guernica: Noam Katz, minister for public diplomacy at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, told the New York Times, “We see this flotilla as a political statement in order to support Hamas in Gaza. Hamas is a terror organization that took control of Gaza and its people and is committed to the destruction of the state of Israel. We have a blockade, and we are going to enforce this blockade.” Your response?
Alice Walker: I am reminded of something Bernice Johnson Reagon of SNNCsaid once: that the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee participants (of the 1960s) understood that the white supremacists of the south had a job, which might include abuse and murder of the students. But that the students had a job as well; which was to dismantle segregation and break the chain of fear that bound all people of color. The racists would do their job as they understood it; we would do ours.
I had never seen as much blatant terrorism as I witnessed in Gaza. Israeli-made; American-made. It is unfortunate that officials of Israel appear to know so little about what their government is doing in the terrorism department. In fact, Israel has a long history of terrorism as does the United States. Both countries were founded on acts of terrorism against the indigenous populations. What a breath of fresh air it would be to have leaders who honestly acknowledged this and then went on to lay down even a tenth, a quarter, half, of their weapons. No one else on the planet is as well armed as Americans and Israelis. Or as vicious in the widespread use of arms.
One of the things so painful to remember about the segregated south is that no matter what white people did to them black people were not allowed to fight back, not even with a word or a glance, hence the expression “reckless eye-balling” which led many a black person to be beaten or killed. The idea that the people of Palestine are not even supposed to fight back, after everything that’s been done to them, is cruel and inhuman, since protecting one’s self and family and land and livelihood is an instinct we share with all creatures on the planet. To collectively punish them (by bombing and starvation) for electing their own government in a democratic election acknowledged by most observers to have been fair, is sadistic as well as internationally condemned as illegal.
Guernica: Have you been following the “SlutWalk” protests, the international movement borne out of remarks made by a Toronto police officer that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not be victimized?” What are you thoughts on the movement?
We have lost the peace we once shared with the other animals and with it our peace with ourselves on the planet.
Alice Walker: I’ve always understood the word “slut” to mean a woman who freely enjoys her own sexuality in any way she wants to; undisturbed by other people’s wishes for her behavior. Sexual desire originates in her and is directed by her. In that sense it is a word well worth retaining. As a poet, I find it has a rich, raunchy, elemental, down to earth sound, that connects us to something primal, moist, and free.
The spontaneous movement that has grown around reclaiming this word speaks to women’s resistance to having names turned into weapons used against them. I would guess the police officer who used the word “slut” had no inkling of its real meaning or its importance to women as an area of their freedom about to be, through the threat of rape, closed to them.
Guernica: Your new book, The Chicken Chronicles is described by the New Press, your publisher, as a “document of personal discovery, political commitment, and the joys of relating to animals” and by the Los Angeles Times as “a book-long spell—hypnotic.” What inspired the chronicles and what do you hope readers take away from it?
Alice Walker: I experience the world as truly wonder-ful. Its creatures are endlessly marvelous to me. Its air, its colors, its winds and its seas, all astonishing. Chickens are no less incredible than elephants or moose. Or giraffes or rabbits. And I would want young children especially, who join grown-ups in eating a million chickens an hour, to realize they are eating something precious, beautiful, rare. And that they have a say in changing the way chickens are thought about and raised. Most chickens are raised under horrible, torturous conditions unworthy of the good heart that exists in many of the small children eating them. Children can become great activists when they understand their solidarity with other living beings: they can learn to be a force against the dehumanizing practice of torture early in life, by fully understanding, while they are still young, what they’re putting into their mouths.
I also reconnected with an ancient meditation that I believe all peoples who have lived close to animals, especially chickens, have experienced; I also believe this meditation—sitting with animals, chickens in my case—has been part of the foundation of cultures that have managed to sustain hundreds of years of peace.
We have lost the peace we once shared with the other animals and with it our peace with ourselves on the planet. They are earthlings too, just as we are. The mother of chickens is also our own mother. We belong to her and to each other in ways beyond factory farming and the mindless eating of a “product.” To reclaim an honorable relationship with the other animals of the planet will make all of us humans begin to feel at home again.
Copyright 2011 Michael Archer
Alice Walker is one of the most prolific writers of our time, known for her literary fiction, including the Pultizer Prize-winning The Color Purple, her many volumes of poetry, and her powerful nonfiction collections. Her advocacy for the dispossessed has spanned the globe. She lives in Northern California.
Michael Archer is a founding editor of Guernica.
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