In the past couple of weeks, I read several responses to Alice Walker’s public letter on her blog to Alicia Keys, suggesting that Keys pull out of her scheduled Tel Aviv concert.
I have kept you in my awareness as someone of conscience and caring, especially about the children of the world. Please, if you can manage it, go to visit the children in Gaza, and sing to them of our mutual love of all children, and of their right not to be harmed simply because they exist.
(I can no longer find the letter on Walker’s website, but you can read its text here, if you’re interested: http://www.blackagendareport.com/content/open-letter-alice-walker-alicia-keys) In the end, Keys went through with the concert to a thrilled Israeli audience, publically affirming the healing power of song.
However, that outcome was less interesting to me than one of the recurrent themes in the discourse surrounding Walker’s letter–her own estrangement from her Jewish daughter and moral failings as a parent. In 2008, Rebecca Walker, an esteemed writer and third-wave feminist, wrote an article in the UK’s Daily mail which described her mother’s characterization of motherhood as enslavement, Alice’s ease in relinquishing parental responsibility, and her unwillingness to affirm Rebecca’s independent personal or professional choices. (I found a lucid discussion of Rebecca’s public rebuke of her mother on Salon: http://www.salon.com/2008/06/10/walkers_2/.) Apparently, the elder Walker found it difficult to match her feelings of universal sisterhood toward all women with the hierarchical relationship of mother to daughter.
Ordinarily, I would not dabble in reading public articles airing family squabbles (I feel very strongly that celebrity gossip is lashon hara–evil speech–that one should neither speak nor witness), but something draws me to read and re-read both Alice Walker’s letter to Alicia Keys and Rebecca Walker’s interview discussing her mother. Alice Walker takes it upon herself to put herself time and again in the position of a moral role-model. On her blog, she organizes content according to social issue. She has long been an advocate of women’s rights (she’s particularly known for her anti-female circumcision work) and Palestinian self-determination.
Alice joins with other artists in a “cultural boycott” (not performing or making public appearances) of Israel because she feels that nonviolent protest is an effective tool against prejudicial governmental and institutional policies. Fine. I’ve no problem with that choice, even if I disagree with her rather shocking characterization of pre-Civil Rights American “apartheid” as “less lethal than Israel’s against the Palestinian people.”
With love, younger sister, beloved daughter and friend
What upsets me is the way Alice signs off her letter. Alice Walker supposes Keys–a woman she has never met–is her “younger sister, beloved daughter and friend.” Apparently, personal relationships in which authoritative stances are hierarchical cause her discomfort, but Alice Walker doesn’t hesitate in positioning herself in such a superior stance to a stranger. She cares about the children of Gaza, but avoids meeting her own grandchildren with tender arms.
I really struggle with this, perhaps more than is necessary. I do not believe that artists need to be righteous people in order to appreciate their work, as long as the work is understood in its proper context and does not create grievious injustice through its appreciation. I have no problem watching Woody Allen films, even though I think he’s probably a schmuck, and I think it’s important to discuss his role in perpetuating Jewish stereotypes in America. I still think that Alice Walker’s literary work is important, and The Color Purple is worthy of its place in our American canon.
However, Alice Walker comes from a generation of feminists who declared that “the personal is political.” The ways in which people approach their personal lives–their relationships with loved ones, choices regarding their bodies, and the like–reveal much about their values and social roles. Alice Walker is clearly a broken person; she feels personal responsibility for everyone except her own family. She holds herself as a public moral exemplar (rather than discreetly sending a personal note to Keys, doing so in front of the whole world) without turning her lens upon herself.
I even wonder if this constructs her political stance supporting Palestinians rather than recognizing that mothers on both sides of the (literal) fence are in agony over the ongoing injustices and violence perpetrated by both Palestinian and Jewish-Israeli societies. Moreover, she trumpets the moral cause of the Palestinians without turning a critical eye to the ways in which Palestinian mainstream society has rejected feminist leaders’ attempts to further womanist causes such as equal educational access, curbing domestic violence, and bringing economic opportunities to women at all points in their life cycle. Alice clings to a bifurcated Israeli-Palestinian world view because she literally still sees her own family in terms of Black and White, unable to reconcile herself to Rebecca’s hybrid identity.
Which leads me to my question to readers: To what extent should we demand personal moral exemplitude from self-proclaimed leaders of social justice?