Even from a young age, author Alice Walker was keeping a record.
The Georgia native began storing her notebooks, journals and photos as a teenager, creating a personal archive spanning 40 years that paints a vivid picture of her development as a writer. The yellowing letters and fading photographs tell a story of a woman who found a mentor in activist and writer Howard Zinn, doodled short stories in between her college class notes and was the first black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction writing.
Now, that catalog is open to the public at Emory University in Atlanta, where Walker is placing her archive.
“My father taught me that you have to keep records, because if you don’t, it can be said nothing happened,” Walker said Thursday in an interview with The Associated Press as she wandered through an exhibit of her belongings. “I took that to heart.”
The exhibit opened Thursday with a two-day symposium featuring feminist Gloria Steinem and Zinn, among others, discussing the impact of Walker’s writing. Her work has spotlighted the struggle of Southern blacks, particularly women, and she has traveled the globe speaking out for human rights.
The collection at Emory starts with a picture of Walker at age 6 taken where she grew up in rural Eatonton, Ga., before the accident two years later that made her blind in one eye. And it travels through her days at Spelman College in Atlanta and Sarah Lawrence College in New York, her time as a civil rights worker in Mississippi, her marriage to a white Jewish attorney and her work on “The Color Purple,” for which she won Pulitzer and a National Book Award in 1983.
The archive includes notes from poet Langston Hughes, writer Tillie Olsen and Oprah Winfrey, all of whom Walker befriended over her career.
But the collection’s crowning jewels are the original handwritten copy of “The Color Purple” and a bright red and purple quilt that Walker made while she wrote the novel. Nearby sit photos of Walker’s family dating back generations, her Pulitzer Prize and memorabilia from the Steven Spielberg-directed movie version of her famous novel.
“For the reading public, it means that for the first time, we will have access to one of the richest archives in the nation by a living writer,” said Emory professor Rudolph Byrd, co-founder of the Alice Walker Literary Society. “From her 14th year to this present moment, she has saved everything from her life as a writer.”
Walker’s archive is the latest addition to an extensive collection of literary papers housed at Emory from such writers as James Weldon Johnson, Seamus Heaney, Salman Rushdie and Flannery O’Connor.
Walker said she chose Emory because Georgia is her home and she likes Emory’s progressive attitude toward the study of other cultures and religions. The university’s relationship with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, who is a visiting professor, also helped convince her that Emory would be a place her archives would “find themselves always in the company of people who care about many of the things I do.”
“It’s a comfortable and high quality institution that treats people of all kinds very decently,” she said. “It matters to me to have my papers in a place where the kind of people I come from can come here.”