MOYERS: Heartbroken, angry and fearful. That's how Americans opposed to this war describe their emotions today. Many took to the streets once the bombing started, stopping traffic in Chicago, Portland and elsewhere.
Americans in support of the war also turned out and in San Francisco for one, there was violence. Reminiscent of how Americans turned on each other during the Vietnam War.
Some protesters I talked to expressed their solidarity with American soldiers the President has sent to Iraq, as well as with the civilians under bombardment tonight in Baghdad.
But none had an answer to my question, "What next?" Except Alice Walker. That's right, Alice Walker, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her big novel, THE COLOR PURPLE. In addition to her novels, poems and essays that have made her one of the country's foremost writers, Alice Walker takes sides as a citizen. She and a score of other writers were arrested in Washington two weeks ago protesting the impending war.
This week, on the very night the missiles started flying, Alice Walker was in New York, reading at the 92nd Street Y from her new book of poems. The title may be the most incongruous of the moment: ABSOLUTE TRUST IN THE GOODNESS OF THE EARTH and this in a time of war. I wanted to talk to Alice Walker about that trust.
MOYERS: Do words matter in a time of war?
WALKER: Oh, they matter perhaps more than anything else. First of all, they don't harm you no matter how strong they are. They don't necessarily make you cower, you know. Words are not exactly swords even though they can penetrate consciousness. We need them very much in times of war.
MOYERS: You were arrested recently in Washington protesting the invasion of Iraq, you and a score of other writers: Susan Griffith, Maxine Hong Kingston. Neither your words nor your witness stopped this war.
WALKER: No, but I had to put myself there because I'm a human being, I believe in a very different way of life than war and bombing people.
MOYERS: When you say, I had to put myself there, you're suggesting some kind of imperative.
WALKER: It is imperative for me to live up to my own expectations of myself. I couldn't live in a time like this without speaking out. It would be impossible. I couldn't even think of it.
MOYERS: But if your words and your witness don't touch the people in power, of what use are they?
WALKER: I think that eventually they will touch the people in power but until then they touch the people around me.
And that is my primary concern: that I am here to offer comfort, solace, some instruction perhaps, whatever I have, to the people around me and the people who need to hear poetry, the people who need to know that together we can still celebrate even though this is a very dreadful time.
MOYERS: Listening to you last night and reading your new book, words do leave a record of a kind. I mean, they speak for people who can't speak for themselves.
MOYERS: This one, for example. Would you read "Thousands of Feet Below You"?
[READ "Thousands of Feet Below You"]
MOYERS: Do you think that if people in power read poems like that they could exercise power?
WALKER: I think it would be more difficult to assault and kill people that you don't see because you would have some kind of sense of how they're connected to you, and you would be reminded that you yourself generally speaking in this country would come from a family that would have the same people that you're killing in your house for dinner.
I mean, in my culture that is certainly true. The people that we are bombing right this minute, if they wandered into Georgia and they wandered up to my mother's door, she would have no problem if she were alive accepting them as guests and trying to feed and take care of them. That's the human way. War is really a backward step for humanity. I always come back to something that my parents taught me growing up in Georgia when lynching was, you know, not uncommon and when black people were treated horribly.
They would always say to us, you must not consider all of them evil, because if they knew better, and this is a spiritual teaching if they knew better they would do better and so that prevented us from and for generations of black people from after the Civil War for trying to just kill all the white people we came across.
MOYERS: Listening to you last night I found myself wondering if poets and writers like yourself had extended your imagination, your moral imagination to, say, the victims of Saddam Hussein, might you have prevented some of the atrocities that he conducted, and could you write about those people the way you write about the victims of American power?
WALKER: Yes, of course, because I'm not saying that that's good, you know, I mean, I understand that there are people who are twisted and psychologically destructive and harm their own people. I mean, that happens in this country. So of course. I mean, I care about people who are, you know, in danger and in harm's way no matter where they are. For instance, when I was working on female genital mutilation and I did a lot of the work in Africa, I could see very clearly that the damage being done to those children was damage done by their parents often and by, you know, their governments and by all of the people who had been silent, for thousands of years.
And so, and America had nothing to do with that. But by bearing witness, by going there, I was able to join the people who have been against it for a very long time. And it's changing. It's changing slowly, but it's definitely changing.
MOYERS: What did you think of while you were waiting in jail?
WALKER: Um, I thought that I was one of the happiest people on the face of the earth, because I felt that I had lived up to the ideals of my ancestors and to my own expectation of myself to stand for what I believe in and against something that I feel is detrimental to humankind.
MOYERS: Who did you think of while you were there?
WALKER: I thought of Martin Luther King, Jr. I really loved him very deeply as a teacher and I had met him when I was a student. And I followed him, you know, in many of his marches, and I was at the march on Washington in '63, and I went to Mississippi to live because he said to us, go back to Georgia, go back to Alabama, go back to Mississippi.
I mean, otherwise I would have lived in the north. So I was thinking about him and I was thinking how he was always so fearless, and how impressed I was with that fearlessness. And I was thinking, what all those years I used to think what was it, why was he without fear?
And then I remembered that line from, I think, the New Testament, "Perfect love casteth out fear." And it was the love that he had for humanity that made him fearless.
MOYERS: I want to believe that this spirit that you radiate is contagious and yet I look around and I see so much war now in Iraq, the cruelty, the violence, the images on television, and I have to say how can anyone write a book of poems today with the title ABSOLUTELY TRUST IN THE GOODNESS OF THE EARTH? Do you really believe in the goodness of the earth?
WALKER: I do. Absolutely.
MOYERS: What is that?
WALKER: Well, clearly you were not brought up as a farmer.
WALKER: See? Well, I was, and I had that connection to the reality that the earth is for us, for humans, basically all there is. You know, I mean you may want a god up in the sky, but basically you're here on earth. And it's earth that feeds you, earth that shelters you, earth that clothes you.
And in my experience that is good. How can you witness spring anywhere in the world where, you know, that's not being bombarded, you know, but just spring itself, how can you witness that without knowing that the earth is good?
How can you eat a watermelon, how can you, you know, smell a peach? How can you eat an ear of corn without knowing that the earth is absolutely fabulous?
MOYERS: But nature fights back. I remember what 15 years or so ago, you had Lyme Disease. You didn't even know there was such a thing as Lyme Disease.
WALKER: I know.
MOYERS: You had a very serious case of it.
WALKER: I know.
MOYERS: That little tick in the goodness of the earth struck back.
WALKER: It did.
And I thought that, you know, the earth had sort of turned on me. And it was a crisis of faith. You know, just as a Christian would have a crisis of faith or whoever, I had a crisis of faith in the earth.
MOYERS: How so?
WALKER: Well, if the earth had let these three ticks bite me and I became sick for almost five years, you know, gosh, I felt abandoned. You know, I questioned the goodness of the earth. But you know, I got over it.
MOYERS: You know, people have said of your new book that it affirms the power of nature and the beauty of the human spirit, but I'm beginning to have some trouble with language like that because as you just said, nature has a nasty side and the human spirit is capable of such great cruelty.
I read a story some years ago about the first South African black woman who declared that she had AIDS. And you know what happened?
WALKER: They stoned her.
MOYERS: Her neighbors stoned her.
MOYERS: Now, what does that say about the human spirit that you celebrate?
WALKER: Well, it says that there's a lot of suffering, you know, and the foundation of suffering is ignorance. I mean, we're talking about a village that was really incredibly ignorant. They had no idea what had befallen them. They had no idea really what had befallen her. And they just turned on her.
MOYERS: What do you try to do with your writing?
WALKER: I try to help people see. I try to help people see what is really there, to see with feeling. To see with feeling. Not just to gaze, you know, but when you see something, when you think of the pregnant woman, you know, pacing the floor, wondering if the roof is going to stay over her head, or whether something is going to drop through the roof onto her and her unborn baby. When you can help people to feel what that's like, then there's a possibility of changing them.
I can't tell you how many thousands of people I have talked to who've read THE COLOR PURPLE and who have said basically you know, I was drowning, you know, I was about to kill myself, or I thought I was the worst person on earth because this had happened to me, incest, wife beating, whatever. And this book came at a time when it changed that, it changed that feeling.
MOYERS: How so?
MOYERS: Made them see what?
WALKER: Well, it made them see their connectedness...
MOYERS: Not alone.
WALKER: ...to other people who had survived this, and who didn't stay in that corner.
See, if you think about people in that situation as people who just stay there, I know this bad stuff is happening all over the world, but sometimes people can come out of it and they do.
MOYERS: How did you learn not to accept what is unjust? Where did that come from?
WALKER: My mother. My mother once cleaned the house of a white woman who owned the land all around. And she cleaned the woman's house, she washed her windows, she scrubbed her floors, she cooked dinner, she raked the leaves, the magnolia leaves in the yard.
She did this from sunup to sundown, and the woman paid her 75 cents.
MOYERS: For the day?
WALKER: Um-hmm. And my mother gave it back to her.
MOYERS: She just handed her the money for the pay and your mother said...
WALKER: "No, thank you. No, thank you." I mean, you have to know your own worth. You have to understand what it is, what your gift is and what you're giving and to put a value on it. You know, and to just say no to injustice. And that was so unjust.
MOYERS: Well, you make me think of, who is it, Tashi?
MOYERS: Tashi in that novel the...
WALKER: POSSESSING THE SECRET OF JOY.
MOYERS: When she said the secret of joy is resistance.
WALKER: Yes. Well, it is resistance to tyranny, yes.
Now, for instance, about this war, I'm very upset and sorry, but on some level my happiness is the same because I have done everything I could do, you know, short of becoming a violent person myself, which I choose not to do and which is not my nature. But I've done everything else that I could do. And so I feel that my happiness is fine.
MOYERS: When I think of the space you have created for yourself I think of this, I'm not sure which poem this came from, but it says, "Despite the hunger we cannot possess more than this, peace in a garden of our own."
WALKER: Yes. Well, that's true, I mean, you can take over people's lands, you can steal their water, you can do all the things that people do, you know, acquiring more and more. But really you can't possess more than peace in a garden of your own.
MOYERS: Your mother's garden keeps reappearing in your mind and in your work, doesn't it?
WALKER: Yes. Well, because it was so indelible. Imagine, I mean, you don't have to imagine because you're from the south also, but a very impoverished situation that through my mother's art and great heart she turned into a magical place by planting flowers, so many that the poverty was obscured.
She understood this profound thing, which is that food is okay for your body but that for the mind and for the soul you have to have beauty. If you don't have beauty, your soul cannot thrive.
MOYERS: Have you made your peace with the world that keeps waiting for another COLOR PURPLE?
WALKER: I never cared that they waited. You know, really. I was always writing something else. I mean, after THE COLOR PURPLE I wrote THE TEMPLE OF MY FAMILIAR, which I love, you know, and each of my books I feel very happy with.
So that other people want another COLOR PURPLE, why would they want another one? They have one.
MOYERS: Doesn't this also go to the source of creativity? I mean, one couldn't create THE COLOR PURPLE again. Where did that book come from?
WALKER: It came from a lot of love of my grandparents who were so... talk about ignorance. My grandfathers were mean, both of them. They were so mean to their children, they were mean to their wives. And this was brought down to us, you know, through stories, because by the time I knew them were they mean? Were they horrible? No. They were totally sweet. They couldn't do enough for me. They adored me.
And so you know, I mean, I wanted to write in such a way that people could see how you can transform. And that is what happens in that novel, there's transformation. And beyond that there is the transformation of Celie from someone who believes in a totally inaccessible deaf God to the God of her sister, herself and nature. So you know, I was working on those two levels, specifically.
MOYERS: Even as you talk I can see Shug and Celie walking through a field of purple flowers at the end of the film.
SHUG: More than anything, God loved admiration.
CELIE: You saying God is vain?
SHUG: No, no, not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field and don't notice it.
MOYERS: Those are enduring words. Are there still... is there still any color purple left out there in the world?
WALKER: It's everywhere. That's the point. You know, the reason it's called THE COLOR PURPLE is that we used to think that purple was rare. I mean, just like we thought incest was rare, or we thought that a certain kind of beauty was rare, or that we thought whatever was rare. Gay people, we thought that was rare.
In fact, it is everywhere, it is in everything.
MOYERS: Then let's close with this poem. It's not new but it endures. Tell me about that one. That seems to be pure Alice Walker.
WALKER: Oh, I know. Yes. This is "Expect Nothing."
MOYERS: Thank you, Alice Walker.
WALKER: Thank you.
MOYERS: Coming up on most PBS stations, continuing coverage of the war on Iraq following our broadcast. And in a time when, like Alice Walker, we are thinking about what it means to be an American, I invite to you join us in a special documentary series, called BECOMING AMERICAN: THE CHINESE EXPERIENCE. Whatever your own roots, this will remind you of the struggle that has shaped our country. It airs on PBS next Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Check your local listings.
That's it for NOW. Thanks for watching. I'm Bill Moyers.