Alice Walker was born in rural Eatonton, Georgia, USA, in 1944. She was the youngest of eight children born to Willie Lee Walker and Minnie Tallulah Grant. The family were sharecroppers and had to cope with both the oppressive sharecropping system and the attendant racism of the American South. Such experiences influenced Walker’s writing and led to her involvement in the civil rights movement and her dedication to campaigning and political activism.
An incident that shaped her life occurred when she was eight years old: one of her brothers accidentally shot her in the eye, leaving her half-blind. Walker was ashamed of the injury, and it led to a sense of isolation from other children, resulting in her reading and writing to pass the time. A few years later the same brother earned enough money for her to have corrective surgery to reduce the scarring.
Walker enrolled in Spelman College, Atlanta, in 1961 and earned a scholarship as a disabled student. At the college she became highly active in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Two years later, Walker transferred to Sarah Lawrence College in New York. She moved to Uganda as an exchange student, returning to New York for her senior year. On arriving home, Walker was shocked to discover that she was pregnant. Afraid of her parent’s reaction, she considered suicide. A classmate helped Walker obtain a safe abortion and she was able to graduate in 1965. At this time Walker’s first short story, 'To Hell with Dying', was published alongside Once: Poems, her first volume of poetry.
After graduation, Walker continued her involvement with the civil rights movement and volunteered in the voter registration drives in Georgia and Mississippi. In 1967 she married Melvyn Leventhal, a Jewish civil rights lawyer. They had one daughter, but divorced in the mid-1970s.
Walker’s second novel, Meridian, published in 1976, explores the controversial issue of sexism in the civil rights movement. Walker discussed these experiences in an interview with Democracy Now!:
In 1982 The Color Purple was published, arguably her most famous book. The novel was filmed in 1985 by Steven Spielberg and later became a musical backed by Oprah Winfrey. The Color Purple generated a storm of controversy, stirring up a heated debate about black cultural representation. Critics accused Walker of focusing more heavily on sexism in America than racism. But the novel had many ardent supporters, and the debate it sparked opened up a discourse on cultural and racial issues in the United States.
Two characters from The Color Purple also appear in a later novel, Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992). It deals with the marriage of Adam and Tashi and the consequences of Tashi’s decision to undergo the traditional African scarification rituals.
Walker continues to write novels, poetry, essays and criticism, and she still explores the unique problems faced by black women both in the United States and Africa.
Her personal life hasn't been without controversy: there was a very public split between Walker and her daughter, Rebecca Walker, over a published memoir.
Justifiably, Alice Walker describes herself as “a Renegade, an Outlaw, a Pagan”.