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The Alice Walker Cult

A novelist who spreads falsehoods about Black males and Jews is an object of white feminist worship

Ishmael Reed
March 15, 2021
Mark Sagliocco/Getty Images
‘I figured that something extra-literary was happening around Alice Walker when a woman calling into KPFA Pacifica addressed Walker as “The Living Buddha.”’ Alice Walker, December 2015, in New York CityMark Sagliocco/Getty Images
Mark Sagliocco/Getty Images
‘I figured that something extra-literary was happening around Alice Walker when a woman calling into KPFA Pacifica addressed Walker as “The Living Buddha.”’ Alice Walker, December 2015, in New York CityMark Sagliocco/Getty Images

In a recent February issue of The New Republic, the reviewer Jennifer Wilson includes a comment made about me by Salamishah Tillet in her book In Search of The Color Purple: The Story of an American Masterpiece. In her book, she makes insubstantial claims about my criticism of the film, The Color Purple. She writes about my novel, Reckless Eyeballing, that I “turned Walker into the fictional character Tremonisha Smarts, who gains fame for writing Wrongheaded Man, a play about a black man who goes around bashing and raping women that is so successful that the white feminist theater producer Barbara Sedgwick wants to adapt it into a movie.” No such character exists in my novel. Tillet provides no evidence that the character is based upon Alice Walker, nor does the character Ian Ball, despite his psychological problems, rape women. She says that the assailant in the novel is “unknown.” She hasn’t read the book.

Tillet repeats the canard that I called The Color Purple “a Nazi conspiracy.” This is the second time that The New Republic printed this accusation. It was first made by another Walker cultist, professor Victoria Bond. I wrote a letter to The New Republic seeking to set the record straight. At first, I was told by editor Chloe Schama that the magazine doesn’t print letters anymore, but that I could write an article. I did that, and was then told that the article wasn’t right for them. Surprise.

What we have here is cultish behavior, because what we have here is a cult. The cult of Alice Walker.

As far back as 1986, I was being dragged into discussing The Color Purple by cult members. That year, I was invited to appear on The Today Show to discuss Reckless Eyeballing, a satirical sendup based on a feminist’s remark that, for whistling at Carolyn Bryant, Emmett Till was just as guilty as the men who murdered him. Of course, before her death, Bryant said that she lied, but we already knew that because the FBI report of the murder noted that she had lied.

The weekend before my appearance, a Black woman who was working on the show called and said they wanted to talk about The Color Purple—the film. I agreed as long as my book was to be discussed, which my publisher at the time, St. Martin’s, said was the purpose for my appearance, and why I was flown in from California. I was accompanied by the St. Martin’s publicity director to NBC’s studio, where I was ambushed with a debating partner—the Chicago newspaper columnist Clarence Page, who told me that he had been flying around the country defending the movie. The host asked me about the film, which was up for an Oscar that very day, nominated by a board of governors that itself completely lacked diversity. I said it was an example of Hollywood’s war on ethnic America and cited how Italian Americans are depicted in the movies. I said that it was the kind of movie that the Nazis made about Jews. I had in mind the Jewish rapist and pimp in the Nazi film Jud Suess, cited in Reckless Eyeballing, and Nazi cartoons that show Jews and Blacks as sexual predators. I learned that Jewish men in Nazi Germany were regarded in the same manner as Black men in the United States when attending a showing of Jud Suess, sponsored by the San Francisco Holocaust museum. However, I haven’t run across a Nazi film that shows Jewish males or Black males committing incest.

Diane Johnson was prophetic when she observed, as quoted in a 1979 discussion of Toni Morrison by Colette Dowling in The New York Times, that among whites—Johnson said “largely White audiences”—there was a big demand for Black incest novels. Dowling notes:

Johnson alone raised the possibility that Toni Morrison’s largely White audience thrills voyeuristically to the black magic she invokes. … We press our noses to the window to see the black mama suckling her school‐age son, the black papa committing incest. “Perhaps what is exciting about the violence and depravity in ... Morrison,” she concludes, “is that they confirm white fears.”

Morrison, however, wasn’t obligated to feminist groupthink. She was on her death bed when we discussed the neglect by feminists of her classic, Tar Baby, in which women are as susceptible to human foibles as men. Her antecedent is Zora Neale Hurston, a political conservative and nonfeminist, who wrote a minstrel show in which Africans are depicted as cannibals.

There’d been Black incest novels before, but they didn’t have the powerful backing accorded Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, which has become a sacred American text, and its film adaptation by Steven Spielberg, a sacred film. There was then a sacred musical with a book by feminist Marsha Norman. Comedian Paul Mooney has wondered why there hasn’t been a Color Purple On Ice. Yet Salamishah Tillet, says I’m “obsessed” with The Color Purple. Maybe The Color Purple, marketed by the white male patriarchy, is obsessed with the stereotype of the Black predator—for profit.

Some years ago, I appeared on a panel that included two famous feminists, none was Black. They were talking about how great it was that three Black women appeared on that week’s New York Times’ bestsellers list. I told them that most of the Black women writers I knew were broke or had to take teaching jobs to survive.

I based my remarks on having read hundreds of manuscripts. I’ve been editing anthologies since 1969. I’ve published a lot of Black women, living in the United States, England, Nigeria, and South Africa. I published the novelists Kate Trueblood, Terry McMillan, and Mona Simpson back when they were students. Dorit Rabinyan, called the Wonder Woman of New Israeli Lit, a former student, says she’s been influenced by me. One of those neglected writers I had in mind when appearing on the panel is J.J. Phillips, author of the classic novel Mojo Hand, which is undergoing a revival as a result of its being “exhumed” by Lucy Scholes in the Paris Review last April. I published her metafictional novella The Passion of Joan Paul II: a Pasquinade. It received no reviews.

The feminist movement has singled out Black men to take the rap for misogyny.

Phillips is one of those Black writers whose criticism of the Alice Walker cult has been minimized by her supporters who, like Tillet, want to cast Walker’s critics as a group of unreasonable Black males led by me. That’s how Ms. magazine put it in an outburst from writer Barbara Smith in 1991. At the time, Ms. was being bankrolled by Lang Communications—i.e., a bunch of white men. For corporate feminists, male chauvinists are alright if they invest funds in their projects. Even Henry Louis Gates Jr. thought that my being hammered by Ms. was over the top, but having been chosen by higher-ups as King of Black Culture, he has over the years called me an anti-feminist. Gates’ idea of a feminist presumably is Harvey Weinstein, to whom he awarded a DuBois medal at Harvard in 2014. Harvard has rescinded the award, and when asked to comment, the Times reported that Gates “could not be reached.”

I figured that something extra-literary was happening around Alice Walker when a woman calling into KPFA Pacifica addressed Walker as “The Living Buddha.” Before that, in 2014, Ms. Phillips sent me an email claiming that Walker was supporting some guy who believed that Lizards on the Moon were directing human affairs. At the time, I dismissed it as a joke. But she was right. She writes:

I went down the rabbit hole and did quite a bit of research into David Icke to write “Go Ask Alice Walker,” and I can substantiate every word. I know she rakes in a lot of money for KPFA (God knows, they need every penny) so I’m sure it’ll always be an Alice Walker lovefest at the station; but even if she weren’t such a supporter of KPFA, to the progressive / multiculti / feminist / womanist communities in general, anything less than abject adoration of Alice Walker is considered as blasphemous as criticizing Israel is too pro-Israel zealots. The other gratuitously anti-Semitic statements Alice Walker has made are equally odious and inexcusable, and I say that as someone who supports Palestinian self-determination, but most certainly not the extirpation of Israel or the Jewish people. The last thing the movement for Palestinian rights (or any kind of human rights/civil rights/liberation movement) needs is a spokesperson who believes and says these kinds of ugly and dangerous things, whether it’s about rapacious, shape-shifting ET Rothschild lizards who need to drink the menstrual blood of Aryan women or that she “knows” just how perfidious Jews can be because she married one. But I’m sure she’d protest without a hint of irony, “Why, some of my best friends are Jews.”

After my appearance on The Today Show, the cult struck back. The late author Vance Bourjaily (The Man Who Knew Kennedy), who had invited me to appear at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, warned me that there’d be a feminist boycott of my reading there. The boycott, organized by white feminists with no Black participation, collapsed when a professor asked these scholars and professors whether they had read any of my books; they hadn’t. The outcome of feminist censorship of my work has liberated me. I studied Japanese and wrote Japanese By Spring, a novel, which earned trips to universities located in Japan and China. The book was a national project in China, supported by the National Social Science Foundation from 2011-2016, which means that this government agency paid for the study of my book. So I made out much better than the distinguished critic Trudier Harris, a contributor to the Oxford Guide to African American Literature, who received such a backlash after her criticism of Walker’s book from white feminists that she stopped talking about it.

During her “research,” Tillet missed Harris’ case, which caused one of the first casualties of the cult. Harris said:

I met many vocally articulate white women in 1982 and 1983 who loved The Color Purple and who are still singing its praises. Because I do not automatically assume that white women have my best interests at heart, I kept wondering why they so favored the novel when I had so many questions about it. In Gloria Steinem’s article on Alice Walker and her works, especially The Color Purple, which appeared in Ms. Magazine in July of 1982, Steinem reflects her surprise at Walker’s achievement; her response is condescending at times to a degree even beyond that latitude than might be expected in such works. She praises Walker for generally being alive, black, and able to write well. The article is reminiscent of Helga Crane’s visit to Sweden[*] in [Nella] Larsen’s Quicksand: Like, wow, it moves and grooves and crawls on its belly like a reptile. Those writing in the wake of Steinem’s article and not supportive of the novel had to double-check to see if they could consider themselves.

As far as I know, there are two biographies of Alice Walker. One is the previously mentioned book by Salamishah Tillet and the other is Alice Walker: A Life, by Evelyn C. White, which is a balanced reading of Walker’s career. White interviewed me for the book. The Berkeley branch of the Walker cult at the time, led by the late June Jordan, had charged me with joining an effort to ban The Color Purple from public schools. White quoted my newspaper comment in which I was opposed to its banning. June Jordan apologized to me in a publication called Poetry Flash, edited by Joyce Jenkins. This controversy was ironic because, before the publication, Walker had criticized an excerpt from my novel Flight To Canada, for which I coined the term “Neo Slave Narrative” during both of our appearances in 1975 at the 6th Annual UND Writers Conference held at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, North Dakota. Poet Wendell Berry joined in the criticism. Ken Kesey, who was also a guest, defended the work. After the publication of the complete book, Walker suggested that my book be boycotted.

Neither White’s biography nor Tillet’s new book mention Walker’s threat to boycott my book. In Tillet’s book, I am cast as the heavy. I’m “spiteful.” Tillet has a column in The New York Times. Given her slavish obedience to cult leader Alice Walker, why doesn’t the Times give a column to a Scientologist? Tillet claims that I called Alice Walker Gloria Steinem’s pawn. Steinem is accused by psychologist Harriet Fraad, writing in Tikkun, as someone who usurped the feminist movement from its grassroots and integrated origins. Well, she may not be her “pawn,” but Steinem’s name comes up among Black feminist critics.

Tillet, who is a professor at Rutgers University, at least included this comment from Toni Morrison in her book:

they were very enthusiastic and fearful that Alice Walker’s book would not get a lot of attention. They were right. It got bad reviews in the beginning and there was a consistent intention to dismiss the book on the part of publishing. That was real. I know that was real. And it was only through such people [as Gloria Steinem] that it got attention. They used to put flyers on the seats. Now somebody could say that their motives were suspect, you know.

But Tillet’s book also omits comments from former Black Panther leader Elaine Brown, who was offended by Walker’s homophobic remarks about the group that brought political power to Black Oaklanders, despite their faults:

“Revolution really must occur within,” Alice writes. What happened to the business of racism in Alice’s America? That’s the question that needs resolution through revolution. And capitalism? What happened to that two-headed hydra, which produced the oppression of our entire people? How shall black people liberate our whole selves from the monstrous ravages of poverty, indignity, self-hatred? This question goes begging in the wholesale condemnation of Black Panther men. Or it is deflected by the refrain of Gloria Steinem’s ‘revolution from within.’ “Cast off these mass ravages through self-revolution,” Alice writes, presumably suggesting that black people hold our revolutionized breath through the next century while the chiefs of capitalism and their brother racists raze our natural selves until they magically make their self-evolution, disarm and embrace our breathless corpus.

To stage some three-hankie criticism, in which Walker is bullied by me and my posse of disgruntled Black males, the dissent of prominent Black women has to be ignored. Citing awards that reward tokenism, Tillet wrote: “Though The Color Purple earned Walker a National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the novel also generated much criticism, mostly from well-known Black male writers and community activists who were offended by the depiction of abuse by Pa and Albert and by Celie healing from that violence in a romantic relationship with Shug.” What she left out was that it was a patriarch, Peter S. Prescott, who led the effort to Walker’s receiving the Pulitzer. According to Evelyn C. White’s biography, Audre Lorde said of the lesbian relationship in the book that the establishment preferred dealing with Alice Walker instead of with herself, a real lesbian.

Because of the film version of The Color Purple, made by Steven Spielberg, an honorary Black feminist who has never made a film about the oppression of women who are members of his ethnic group—yes, I read Lilith—Black men have become international symbols of misogyny. In a fox-guarding-the-chicken-coop effort, powerful white men, filmmakers, publishers, network executives, and critics have formed a Friends of Black Feminism club. One of them, an honorary Black feminist, tried to pit me against my friend, the late Ntozake Shange, in The Washington Post. I was the first to publish an excerpt from “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf” in a 1984 edition of a magazine edited by Al Young and myself called Yardbird Reader. Ntozake Shange’s family corrected this honorary Black feminist and the Post apologized.

But the apology came too late. The accusation had been syndicated, with a reprint in the U.K. Guardian.

And because of the Spielberg film The Color Purple, feminists in China and India hate Black American men. Bizarre, but true. One Indian filmmaker, Pratibha Parmar, made a typical worshipful film about Walker called Beauty Is Truth, in which I landed the role of the unwoke Black man. In India, women are still slaves! Child prostitution is rampant. I cite some Indian and Pakistani feminist authors about the condition of women in India and Pakistan in my novel Conjugating Hindi.

In the San Francisco Chronicle’s adoring review of Parmar’s film, Meredith May, who wrote more as a Walker pushover than as a journalist, said that I was the Black bogeyman. The author Sapphire, whose book Push was the basis of the worst film ever produced about Black life, Precious, quoted an unnamed bookstore owner as saying, “Alice had black intellectuals like Ishmael Reed putting her down, trying to stop her film from being seen.” Meredith May, like other members of the Walker cult, didn’t fact check this statement with me. It was a lie. Sapphire became famous by putting the Central Park Five at the crime scene and placing vile speeches in their mouths, but she never apologized when they were exonerated. She was so offended by my negative review of the film Precious that I wrote for The New York Times that she went to the St. Louis Post Dispatch and told the patriarchal owners that I was “mentally ill.”

Some Black men can be crude and stupid when it comes to women. Dumb, even. I’ve been dumb. My point is that the feminist movement has singled out Black men to take the rap for misogyny. Alexis Soloski writes: “Women of color, who are more likely to experience sexual violence and less likely to report it.” This assertion is contradicted by a study conducted by Lois Weis, a professor of education at the University at Buffalo, and Michelle Fine, a professor of social psychology in the Graduate Center, City University of New York. The headline was: “Study Suggests White, Working-Class Women’s Lives ‘Saturated’ With Domestic Violence.” These scholars report that unlike Black women, it’s white women who are reluctant to report domestic abuse. Soloski is the Times’ theater critic and can be excused, but what about academic feminists who depend upon white patriarchs to provide them with advancement? Bell hooks agrees that Black men are especially targeted by them:

Fundamentally, Reed is critically on the mark when he calls attention to a differentiation in reactions to black and white male sexism within the feminist movement. Contemporary feminists do tend to act as though black male sexism is more heinous than white male sexism of much of the feminist movement, it is not surprising that the early radical focus on rape tended to project the racist stereotype that the male most to be feared was black.

She continues,

Listening to mature feminists make similar comments about Reed and other black male writers, I call to their willingness to pass judgment on black male writers when it is rare to hear such condemnation of white male writers. Within literary studies, racism often shapes this response. White women who study racism often shape this response. White women who cannot imagine excluding Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Joyce from their reading list, even though their works reflect sexism and racism) easily use this criterion to defend their ignorance of writing by black men. Currently, in the academic world, the trend among women interested in critical theory, or post-colonial discourse, is to overlook as much as possible the sexism and racism of white male thinkers

—Derrida, Foucault, Jameson, and Said, for example.

It’s because of her critique of the white-led feminist movement that bell hooks doesn’t receive the kind of cult imprimatur that Walker receives.

The cult led by Tillet is now shielding Walker from criticism for her alliance with neo-Nazi David Icke. Why has it taken so long for the cult leaders to mention that Walker is cool with the Protocols? Why hasn’t Gloria Steinem commented on Alice Walker’s alliance with a neo-Nazi? Does Steinem also believe that Lizards on the moon, the Archons or Anunnaki, are directing human affairs and that the Holocaust never happened? Do Steinem and Tillet belong to a Lizard caucus within the Walker cult? What about Barbara Smith, Gloria Steinem’s surrogate, who implied in a scholarly magazine that I hated Black people, women, and Black women, a lie that reached Martinique, causing an icy reception on my second trip as a university lecturer? The Walker cult plays for keeps.

All that Tillet could say about Walker’s being condemned for supporting a Holocaust denier, is that it was an example of her being “stereotyped as a black woman filled with hate and consumed by anger.” What? Doesn’t the scholarly Tillet have sympathy for the millions of her sisters, Jewish and non-Jewish, who were victims of the Holocaust? Would Walker support a Holocaust denier, and Tillet excuse her for doing so if they were aware that Blacks and Africans were placed in German concentration camps? That the Germans murdered African women in Namibia and sexually assaulted thousands? They have no feelings about the fate of Black African women who were experimented upon by future Nazi “doctors?”

Namibia provided the Germans with a laboratory where they practiced techniques that would be used later in the European Holocaust. Chief among those practitioners was Dr. Eugene Fischer: “His conclusion was that children born out of bi-racial unions were ‘inferior’ to their German fathers. His research inspired Adolf Hitler and in the 1930s, Fischer taught his racist theories to Nazi doctors. One of his students, Joseph Mengele, was responsible for the medical experiments in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.”

No wonder global feminists have problems with American feminism, which ignores poor women and casts successful academics and public intellectuals who make over $200,000 a year as “doubly oppressed.” When I visited Nigeria, a leading feminist there told me that she wished American feminists would stay home.

*Helga Crane visits Denmark, not Sweden, in Nella Larsen’s ‘Passing.’

Ishmael Reed is a Distinguished Professor at California College of the Arts. He runs Konch magazine.