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Alice Walker Residency Explores Connection Between Art and Activism

October 2016

blue-quote-leftHer trilogy is the epitome of world making. Her truth aesthetic is anchored blue-quote-rightby a moral and spiritual center. -- President Mary Schmidt Campbell, Ph.D.


Alice Walker Visits SpelmanAward-winning author, activist and alumna Alice Walker returned to her alma mater Oct. 3-5 as a Mellon artist-in-residence, inspiring a new generation of Spelman women with exhortations to speak their truth, pursue their passions and unapologetically be themselves.

While her discussion on the role of the arts in activism resonated with students, so did her kind spirit, warm hugs and unblinking candor in sharing the trials and triumphs she faced on her professional and personal journey.

The Visit That Changed Lives

Alice Walker Speaks to Spelman Students

“Meeting Alice Walker is arguably the most memorable and impactful experience in my life thus far. Her wisdom extends past the pages of her novels, poetry, essays, and other works,” President’s Reading Circle participant Kailah Covington, C’2018, English major and political science minor, later wrote of her visit. “Besides her clear genius in writing and speaking, Sister Walker maintains a cool confidence, which is incredibly impressive and reassuring. I hope that one day I can emulate Sister Walker’s peacefulness and self-assuredness.”

Walker’s residency was the culmination of the Common Reading Experience, a literary program launched last fall by President Mary Schmidt Campbell, Ph.D., in collaboration with senior team members Drs. Myra Burnett, Darnita Killian and Desiree Pedescleaux.

The goal is to provide Spelman students with an opportunity to think critically, examine ideas and explore social justice themes by underscoring the critical role of the arts in exploring new ways of thinking and knowing. The initiative also supports the College’s mission to foster a unique coming-of-age experience for students, and to promote interdisciplinary learning essential to a top-tier 21st century, liberal arts education.

Students Receive Sage Advice From the Word Maker

Alice Walker Speaks At Spelman Convocation

In her Oct. 4 convocation speech before a packed house at Sisters Chapel, Walker, who attended Spelman from 1961 to 1963, urged students to focus on their purpose instead of impediments. “As you change, you change the world,” she told the attendees.

Throughout her three-day residency, the author discussed truth telling, freeing oneself through forgiveness, love and self-acceptance during classroom visits, a dinner and conversation with the President’s Book Circle, and a lunch and dialogue with women’s studies students at the Women’s Research and Resource Center.

“Writing is not separate from your life. You live your life as if you can endure the consequences — for standing on convictions,” she told students in an English class. “That is part of what it means to take care of the truth. Let everybody be who they are and love them anyway,  and love them for who they are.”

Spelman Scholars Share Love of Reading With Walker

Alice Walker Visits Spelman Literature Classes

In addition to Book Circle members, students in English professor Opal Moore’s “Twentieth Century Black Women's Writers” class and Dr. Donna Akiba Harper's “Seminal Writers in the African American Tradition” class read works by Walker in advance of her class visit.

“Spelman students who interacted with Alice Walker during her residency at the college had the rare opportunity of engaging in dialogue with perhaps the most influential writer/activist of our generation,” said Beverly Guy Sheftall, Ph.D., founding director of the Women’s Research and Resource Center and Anna Julia Cooper Professor of Women's Studies. “What they learned, I believe, was the importance of reading broadly and regularly; the urgency of resistance to injustice; the necessity of developing sharp critical thinking skills; and the joy of developing loving, compassionate ways of being in the world.”

The Common Reading Experience began last fall with 30 students selected to participate in the inaugural President’s Book Circle. As part of the program, the group read the biography “Hamilton,” engaged in discussions on politics and freedom, completed writing assignment and went to New York City to see the award-winning Broadway musical based on the book.

This fall, with support from co-sponsors Dr. Guy-Sheftall, the Women's Research and Resource Center, the Office of the Provost, and the Division of Student Affairs, Dr. Campbell hosted her second Book Circle with 25 participants who read a trilogy of Walker’s novels – “The Color Purple,” “Possessing the Secret of Joy,” and “The Temple of My Familiar.” After their dinner and book talk with the author on Oct. 3, the participants traveled to New York City on Oct. 8 to see “The Color Purple” on Broadway.

The Community Reflects and Remembers

Alice Walker Visits Spelman

“Meeting Alice Walker was a really wonderful experience, and it reinforced my desire to focus on her works in grad school,” said English major Sydney Tunstall, C’2018, who met Walker in her “Seminal Writers” class. “I was also surprised at how open and giving she was despite her status as a prominent literary figure. This openness served as a personal reminder to me that empathy and kindness is possible at all levels.” 

Dr. Harper knows firsthand the positive impact a renowned writer can have on a student’s college experience. When she was an undergraduate at Oberlin College, she met poet Gwendolyn Brooks, the first Black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize. The encounter, she recalled, changed her life.

“Spelman is remarkable in that writers such as Alice Walker, Pearl Cleage, Tina McElroy Ansa, and Tayari Jones are all alumnae,” said Dr. Harper. “Students clearly felt empowered by meeting Alice Walker – fully aware of her international acclaim, yet feeling that she was in some ways like they are. Thus, her success could be something achievable for them. Meeting a renowned author is a powerful experience, but meeting a great author who attended one’s own college is almost like seeing one’s own reflection in a mirror. As Ralph Ellison wrote in ‘Invisible Man,’ one can begin to see ‘infinite possibilities.’ ”

Read more reflections on the impact of Alice Walker’s visit.

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