Over the last 10 years, visiting scholar Evelyn C. White has had hundreds of interviews, sorted through thousands of letters, records, and photos, and spent countless hours pouring over the life of one of literature’s most famous authors. Her “journalist credo to interview first-person everyone I could” took her all over the country and the world, including Cuba, Japan, Brazil, and Kenya.
Now 50, exuding a calm and confident air with her thin neat dreadlocks pulled back and wide-rimmed black circular glasses adorning her face, White showed no signs of the anxiety she said often troubled her over the decade of research as she sipped a caramel latte and casually dangled her shoe off the end of her foot.
“It was a very loving, holistic, productive journey,” White said of Alice Walker: A Life, published in September to admirable reviews. “I consider it a humble gift to ancestors gone and children left to come.”
Writing the biography of someone as well known and controversial as Alice Walker was a daunting task, one that White tackled by combining meticulous research with her veteran reporting skills.
The 500-page authorized biography chronicles Walker’s life from the age of eight in 1954 until 2002, weaving in both the history of the South, and the writings that largely stem from her life.
Like countless others, Walker’s work has been extremely influential on White. The first black woman awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for 1983’s The Color Purple, Walker is also known for resurrecting the legacy of writer Zora Neale Hurston, and facing head-on the racism that still deeply divided the South in the post-segregation ‘60s and ‘70s.
Calling it a great privilege for Mills, President Janet Holmgren said she finished the book a few days after White hand-delivered it. “It represents a new standard, I think, in combining personal, political, cultural and literary history into one beautiful narrative.”
Confirming student and faculty rumors, Holmgren also said she is extending a formal invitation for Walker to be the commencement speaker.
White said she felt impassioned to write the 60-year-old Walker’s life story after attending a luncheon honoring her, where Walker had to defend her use of “vagina” and “clitoris” to a college official worried about offending donors.
“I understood immediately, that my task was to chronicle the life of the woman who’d instantly transformed an insult (and a wholly unoriginal one at that) into an impassioned paean to the disposed,” White wrote in the prologue.
Walker’s life has certainly had its share of controversy. Her activism and interracial marriage (still illegal in 1967) to a Jewish civil rights lawyer touched off a firestorm. Her work for Ms. magazine, seen as a white feminist magazine, brought criticism from Essence editors, and there continues to be debate over the portrayal of black men and lesbians in The Color Purple. But through it all, she has been highly regarded for her writing since she was very young.
White spent a year composing the letter that not only offered to write the biography, but attempted to express her appreciation of Walker’s work.
“I wanted to have in my life an experience where I had said everything I wanted to say to someone who mattered to me,” White said of the process that was, “very much influenced by my experiences as a black woman, having people die suddenly and grief at not having said what I needed to say to those close to me.”
Walker’s decline came about a week later, in the form of “a very terse note,” White said, “very unlike her actually.” Another week passed and she received a second, much friendlier letter from Walker, who said she’d been cleaning her desk and found the whole five page letter. She had originally read, and responded to, only the cover letter.
Still declining the biography, Walker wrote that if she ever decided to have one written, “you will be among those considered.”
The two began corresponding and meeting occasionally for meals, walks, and social gatherings. At lunch one day, they discussed White’s projects at the time, none of which were coming to fruition.
White recalled Walker turning to her and saying, “Well, let’s do this biography,” and musing that it was the reason the other projects were struggling.
White, who’d never told her publisher about her letter to Walker, remembered when she called to say she’d been authorized as Walker’s official biographer. “I can still hear her voice, ‘You’re kidding (in a dead flat tone),’ she said, and the sun and elation when she said, ‘I look forward to receiving it!’” The project was bought shortly afterward by W.W. Norton publishers.
Walker not only gave access to her personal archives, she didn’t require manuscript approval. She simply gave White an authorization letter, some credible contacts, and said go.
Sharing stories with Walker during walks, or over dinner, White said she never took notes around her, knowing the change that often occurs when reporters whip out a notebook and recorder. Instead, she would often scribble them afterward in her car to remember important details.
Though she said no one really pressured her to complete it, White still had “waves of anxiety, guilt, and shame.” She called prayer lines, found emergency counseling services, and increased her physical activity to deal with the depression, working a warehouse packing job in addition to regular walks around Lake Merritt.
The warehouse job lessened the most anxious periods for White: the hyperventilating, the fear that she’d never finish or worse, might die alone writing and her neighbors accustomed to no noise, wouldn’t even notice for days.
“Alice would say, ‘It will take as long as it takes. You are creating art.’ At some point I relinquished the guilt of it being late, and moved to the paranoia that it would never be published, fear that I would not live to see the book published, or that I would never be able to face myself if Alice’s sister Ruth died before it was published.”
“I understood I needed to interview the elderly first,” she said. “Second, find out how The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize, and third, interview everyone related to the movie.”
So while she began immediately interviewing family, she also began the arduous process of getting interviews with people like Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Whoopi Goldberg.
The answers were essentially the same from everyone: “Yes, of course, anything for Alice, but we’re not sure when.”
White kept checking in every year, waiting for time slots to open, and it was a Monday in the spring of 1997 when someone from Winfrey’s Harpo Studios called and said, “Oprah will see you Wednesday at 2:30.” White said she dropped everything to make it.
“A stunningly beautiful woman,” White remembered Winfrey wearing both an exquisitely tailored apple-green suit and a look that said “I agreed, but let’s get this done.”
But in this case, White said whipping out her notebook and recorder to get down to business changed everything for the better and Winfrey’s whole demeanor changed when she realized she wasn’t there to fawn.
A scheduled 20-minute interview lasted nearly three hours, occasionally interrupted by phone calls that she recalled Winfrey answering firmly, “I’m not finished yet.”
She found out the studio was receiving bomb threats because of Ellen DeGeneres’s appearance on that day’s show, shortly after her coming out episode. White, a lesbian, then found herself in an unexpected and heartfelt discussion with Winfrey about homophobia.
“By the time I left I was on cloud nine. I didn’t believe I had actually interviewed her until I had walked outside and turned on the recorder and could hear her voice.”
It would be the interviews on female genital mutilation that brought her face to face with some of the anger Walker herself has met with.
At an international women’s health conference in Brazil, White was scheduled to show “Warrior Marks” Walker’s documentary about the practice, and hoped to interview a large delegation of women from Africa about it.
But she said it soon became clear that many of the women had “huge issues with Alice’s work on FGM” and saw her as advocating that work. Numerous women walked out when she began showing the film.
But, she said, the night was worth it because of a young woman from Uganda who, believing she has AIDS because of FGM, came forth to thank her.
Though White never talked to Walker about that night, she said, “it gave me perspective on what she has endured. Alice’s desire to get to the truth can be threatening and people under threat can be vicious.”
From a blue-collar family in Gary, Indiana, White has a bachelor’s in psychology and theater from Wellesley, a master’s in journalism from Columbia, and a master’s in public administration from Harvard, and was also a visiting scholar at Radcliffe.
Her first book, Chain Chain Change: For Black Women in Abusive Relationships, was published in the summer of 1985, while she was interning at the Wall St. Journal. She spent nine years as a city reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, before leaving in 1995 to write the biography.
Tracking the history, it was that book that eventually led her to Mills.
After Chain Chain Change was released, a publishing house in Seattle contacted her about writing another book.
With a few hundred dollars in “exploration money,” she attended a black women’s health conference at Spelman College in Atlanta. “What struck me was the diversity of black women in the country, located there in the middle of this gritty urban neighborhood.” Seeing upper-class black women next to women from the projects, White realized “the issue of black women’s health crossed a bridge,” and the idea for her second book was born.
Though she didn’t feel she could write the book, she remembered telling her publisher, “I believe I have the skills to edit one,” and began work on The Black Women’s Health Book: Speaking for Ourselves.
It was that work that first brought her to Mills, in the late ‘80s, for a conference on black women’s health.
“I remember thinking what a beautiful, hidden place,” White said, “a place to pay attention to.” It was before the strike, when Mills was known to her through her work at the Chronicle, but “still pretty low-profile.” Looking back, White knows it was fortuitous that she was led to Mills.
Years later, former Provost Faith Gabelnick contacted White about contributing to Mills’ media studies program, after reading one of her articles. While her work at the Chronicle prevented it for about a year, White said, “It was significant to me that a white woman had done the outreach to me, a woman of color.” So when Alice Walker authorized White to write her biography, she knew who to call.
Gabelnick arranged the 1995 meeting that would lead to White becoming the first women’s studies visiting scholar at Mills.
“I just said yes. It was a no-brainer,” said Libby Potter, director (then and now) of the women’s studies program, “and the smartest thing I ever did.”
Calling White a “wise woman,” Potter said, “I felt it then, and I know it now, we were lucky [and] privileged to be, literally, a part of making history.”
“The deal was, I would make myself available to students, schedule permitting, speak in classes, and just be a resource on campus,” White said. Given full library privileges and a small stipend, the original agreement was for four years.
And true to her journalist training, four years later White turned in a manuscript. “It was probably a 48-page manuscript, but it was delivered on deadline.”
“This is what I believe to be the beauty of being a rookie — I think I was the only person who thought it would be done in four years.” Neither her agent or editor ever said it, but Walker later told her she’d known it would take longer.
“If I had been told I’d need 10 years, I probably would’ve taken 20,” White said, laughing.
She extended her agreement with Mills to retain facility privileges, but no longer accepted a stipend from Mills.
In fact, she estimated she lived on “about 14 thousand a year for 10 years.” Relying on mainly good budgeting, along with royalties from her two books and some savings from the Chronicle, her other income from writing articles and reviews was minimalized, and “never earned more than two to five thousand max” per year.
“What this biography has given me is a very clear sense of where my power lies and what it takes to get from A to Z,” she said, lamenting on the capitalist society that “seduces you into thinking you need all of these things to survive.” Too many people buy in, she said, “without understanding what power you have to begin with and what power you can achieve with rigorous investigation of the self.”
In her acknowledgements, White readily praised many at Mills for their support in the project, in particular research librarian Carol Jarvis. “Anything I wanted, she found,” White recalled.
“There was a kind of symbiosis I guess,” Jarvis said, “working together for an amazing outcome.” Jarvis helped research some details of the book, rechecking facts and finding citations, and remembered the mountain of material White sorted through over the last decade.
“She had files and files, photocopies of all kinds of things,” Jarvis said, alluding to the extensive research White did. “It was interesting not getting the whole picture, but very specific details about what she was working on at the time,” Jarvis said. “And she was always very generous and warm and appreciative. You want to try and do your best when someone’s so great.”
Friend Moira Roth supported the project with lavish dinners and champagne.
“I was struck by the fact that, although she worked passionately, it was intuitively,” said Roth, an art history professor at Mills who first met White in the fall of 1995. “She has an amazing sense of timing and knowing when things are finished,” recalling that White waited to start on some aspects of Alice’s life, “with an almost mystical sense of when it was right.”
Having invited White to lecture in some of her classes over the years, Roth also remarked on White’s “amazing ability of hers to engage ideas in people, not just talk but think.”
One of the criticisms of the book has been its ending, but with Walker still very much alive, White said she handled it how she felt best.
“As it happened in the organic process, the essential story that I’m telling ends when Alice has her 50th birthday and not by design,” referring to the epilogue’s close.
But the chapters end with an experience soon after 9/11, when Walker was invited to speak in New York. She declined because of travel difficulties and summer traditions, and a white man whose daughter was graduating offered to fly her out on his private plane.
Because the book begins in 1952 with Walker being blinded in one eye, accidentally shot by her brother, denied a ride by a white man and then swindled by a white doctor, White saw the experience 50 years later as the full circle for her biography of Walker’s life.
“I felt, when Alice told me that story, I had the ending,” noting that if she’d finished in 1999 as planned, “I never would’ve had that story to tell.”
“What a chuckle for the ancestors,” says Walker at the end of the book. “They saw the airplane coming for me as the car in Milledgeville sped away.”
With Walker still very much alive, White said she was never attempting to tell her full story. She believes Walker’s life is a two or three volume story, and though she doubts she’ll write the next volume, she’s honored to have opened the story.
“The smart biographer would be there on opening night,” she said, referring to the Broadway stage production of The Color Purple, “and see the lesbian soul kiss that 20 years ago wreaked havoc.” The musical debuted in Atlanta in September, with Walker and White in attendance.
Soon heading to her second home in British Columbia for a long rest with her partner of seven years, White said she’s not sure what the future holds for her now, “Maybe I’ll learn to play the piano,” she mused, “if that’s what’s meant to be, it’ll be.”