It was not the last official day of the American Library Association (ALA) annual conference, but the McCormick Center’s auditorium had an air of finality about it. (Perhaps it was the number of librarians carting luggage up and down the halls.) Public Library Association (PLA) president Eva Poole introduced Monday’s midmorning speaker, author Alice Walker. The audience settled into its seats.
When the author arrived at the podium, she sighed, saying, “I’m so glad to see you.”
Writer, activist, and feminist, Walker—whose novel The Color Purple (reprint. Mariner Bks., 2003) won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as well as the National Book Award and is for so many readers a book of paramount importance—spoke about segregation in her childhood hometown of Eaton, GA, whose public library she had never been inside until she turned 50. “That is one of the horror stories of segregation in this nation,” explained Walker. “Many people of color had no idea there was a public library. This has been a very terrible burden to feel.”
She spoke about her own experience in libraries. “That was what the library was for me; it was a grove of trees. It was a place to go for refuge, it was a place to dream, a place to travel.”
Walker talked about the role libraries play in education, their necessity for a fair democracy to exist. “I see the work that you do as essential for the teaching of fairness,” she told the librarians present. She knew her audience. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard a bad story about a librarian,” she remarked, continuing, “You hear terrible stories about people who fire librarians.”
The author spoke about Texas State Senator Wendy Davis’s 11-hour filibuster against the Texas bill to ban abortions after 20 weeks, emphasizing that, “Women must control our own bodies. Why is that so mysterious to understand?” She lamented the recent Supreme Court decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act, noting that, “I’ve seen rights come, and I’ve seen rights go”; drone strikes and surveillance, “I’m very fortunate that I’m a writer, so all of my secrets are already out”; and how the this country’s current system does not live up to its aspirations. For freedom to exist, she maintained, women and people of color must know that their rights will not, “must not, be arbitrarily be taken away.”
Walker read from two books, The Cushion in the Road:Meditation and Wandering as the Whole World Awakens to Being in Harm’s Way, a volume of essays, and The World Will Follow Joy: Turning Madness into Flowers, a volume of poems, both published by the New Press this past April. She recited from one of the poems, a piece about the Dalai Lama. “What makes the Dalai Lama loveable? His posture…is odd./ I am so happy to lay my eyes on one so effortlessly beautiful./ The Dalai Lama is cool. The modern word for divine.”
Reading an essay about Bradley Manning, she shared some aspirations with the audience. “I dream of the day that young white men rise up”, she said, and fight for justice. “Is there anyone who deserves [Manning’s] treatment?…. Who are we if we let this happen? Does this matter?” Continuing, she asked, “What is that gift we would want to receive on our own darkest day? What is that gift?” “Mercy,” she answered, “Mercy.” Paraphrasing James Baldwin, Walker also asserted that, “The world is kept going in a good way, by just a few people, who keep going, who keep the light.”
It seems no accident that she chose to say this in a room full of librarians.