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Alice Walker: On being African American (Lessons for Malaysians?)

Sometimes it is healthy and necessary to break ranks with the herd, to stand outside our own communities in order to assess situations justly


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Rereading Alice Walker’s collection of essays titled In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens during the recovery movement control order, I am once again struck by her deeply reflective observations on what it means to live under discrimination.

Her honesty, her ability to be both in her community and yet outside and so be able to bravely reveal African-American shortcomings, reverberates in my own mind as I observe Malaysian civil and political society. We all need this kind of occasional self-examination, even as we must look around and scrutinise our own communities. 

The first theme that struck me in her riveting essays is the theme of “home” and belonging. Who indeed are we? Where is our “home”? Even as we may patriotically answer that we are Malaysians, we also celebrate our Chinese, Indian and diverse racial-cultural affiliations. Rightly so, for identity and belonging is multi-layered and multi-faceted.

Alice Walker takes us through a range of feelings as she contemplates her own African-American heritage while remembering her Georgia childhood. She further transports herself with an artist’s imagination to Africa, that distant continent from which her ancestors came.

Racial discrimination does engender a drifting of the soul as it seeks the affirmation of an earthly home. Some of my church friends may say, “Hello, you got it the other way round. It should be soul first, then earthly home”.  

Both soul and body require the nurturance of home. Alice Walker does not spell out her religious affiliation, even though she does speak frequently of the faith her mother and others in the community followed. I believe that for her the sense of self and home was deeply affected by Rev Martin Luther King Jr’s speeches.

In her own words: “And when he spoke of ‘letting freedom ring’ across ‘the green hills of Alabama and the red hills of Georgia’ I saw again what he was uniquely able to make me see: that I, in fact, had claim to the land of my birth. Those red hills of Georgia were mine, and nobody was going to force me away from them until I myself was good and ready to go.”

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Our own Poet Laureate in his poem Anak Jiran Tionghwa (My Chinese Neighbour’s Child) echoes Walker’s sentiments by linking the green rice fields and rubber estates to the birthright which both Iskandar and his Chinese friend Ah Chew share. And the same right of homeland should apply to our Orang Asli (arguably more so) and to the many diverse ethnic groups in East Malaysia.

Sadly, the spirit of belonging to a land so that its hills and fields are etched in our memory is precarious and often under threat. In this season of rising ethnic nationalism in many parts of the world, it is violently challenged by rabid, unthinking racism.

It is therefore incumbent on each of us to rethink terms like “insider” and “outsider”, “inclusion” and “exclusion”. Binaries of black and white thinking will not do. Politicians may use this kind of shallow thinking to win votes. We refuse to let them manipulate our minds.

We do not need to use deep theoretical or philosophical learning to do so. I remember how at an Aliran annual general meeting years ago, Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj, a long-time Aliran member, defined concisely the spirit of inclusion: “Try to walk in your Malay-Muslim brother’s shoes”. So too, our Malay-Muslim friends, with whom we share this beloved land, must try to walk in ours.

Sometimes it is healthy and necessary to break ranks with the herd, to stand outside our own communities in order to assess situations justly. This calls up the second theme which recurs in Alice Walker’s essays: the need to relook at the past, to revisit not only our own history but the histories of all communities. It takes courage to do so; it takes a genuine interest in those with whom we share so many aspirations even if, at a distance, they seem very different from us.

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This curiosity led Alice Walker to read widely the works of white Southern writers, even while she did not neglect her African-American heritage. Her insights on William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, for example, are birthed by a sincere desire to understand.

In Malaysia, honestly, how many of us really want to find out about our multi-ethnic cultures? We have no choice if we are working for our PhDs, but outside those hallowed halls of the academe, how many of us read our Malay writers even if in translation? Or, vice versa, how many Malay readers would look for translations of vernacular writers who write in Tamil, Chinese and even Kristang?

The past comes to us in scholarly histories whose value is immeasurable, but it also reverberates vividly in the creative works of writers. The key, as Alice Walker shows us, is honest depiction of various sides to an event or to a person. Nuances and alternative perspectives open up a wide vista which unilateral, racist conclusions dangerously block out.

When we look at our own community’s history, do we do so only to praise and valourise our ethnic heroes and so, inevitably, make villains out of others? Painting our race’s history as uniformly glorious generates self-deception. Hence, in writing about his Ibo-African past, Chinua Achebe reminds us that his own Ibo past was not a “technicolour idyll” of heroism. Only in recognising the wrongdoings of our own leaders do we have the courage and honesty to question their crimes.

In her essay on the civil rights movement, Alice Walker has this to say: that even as the march on Washington was taking place, politics was at play in the shadowy offices of the powerful. “Later I was to learn that the March on Washington was a dupe of black people, that the leaders had sold out to the Kennedy administration, and that all of us should have felt silly for having participated. But whatever the Kennedy administration may have done had nothing to do with the closeness that day to my own people.”

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Walker has no qualms pointing out how African-American leaders betrayed their own people. If we are to get rid of the feudal, unquestioning loyalty some of us still practise, we need her courageous honesty. How many of us, for dollars or some promise of power, are prepared to look a crook in the face and call him a “hero”?

Equally important, Walker “decouples” or separates the people from the powerful. Sure, some leaders may have betrayed the cause, but this did not and shall not diminish the people’s call to justice, to an end to discrimination.

We do well to learn from this and not allow the powerful to drive wedges between us or to twist justice so that double standards operate, or worse, no justice at all. No one has the right to say that his or her race deserves more justice than others. All great religions teach us that human beings are created equal.

Finally, Walker’s theme of fairness and reconciliation when assessing ourselves and others is nowhere more poignantly conveyed than in her praise of the white Southern writer, Flannery O’Connor, of whom Walker says: “But essential O’ Connor is not about race at all … it is about the impact of supernatural grace on human beings who don’t have a chance of spiritual growth without it”.

You do not have to believe in any religion to feel what Walker sees as O’Connor’s “supernatural grace”. It is simply the mercy that we all, as fallible human beings of all races, have received in our own mortal, mistake-laden lives. May we therefore accord the same mercy, fairness and compassion to others as we strive to create a unified, better Malaysia.

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