Critical Essays on Alice Walker

By Ikenna Dieke | Go to book overview

Who Touches This Touches a Woman:
The Naked Self in Alice Walker

Ruth D. Weston

In The New York Times Book Review for March 9, 1986, Alicia Ostriker celebrates American women poets who refuse to be limited by the masculine ideal of "universal," meaning nonfemale, poetry. Ostriker believes that the writing of these women poets during the last twenty-five years constitutes a shaping force in American poetry. Their passionate, intimate poems "defy divisions between emotion and intellect, private and public, life and art, writer and reader," reminding us, she says, of the frank sexuality of Walt Whitman's poems, so aptly characterized by his own words: "Camerado, this is no book,/Who touches this touches a man." Such an impulse is alive today in both the poems and the stories of Alice Walker. Her work has been previously linked to Whitman's because of both poets' celebration of the common problems that unite and divide people ( Gernes93-94), yet hers is a uniquely feminist--Walker would say "womanist" ( In Search xii)--perspective.

Whitman assumed his personal experience to be the universal experience, but it was more precisely the masculine universal. Walker writes about black women with the authority of the universal female experience, an experience made complex and contradictory by the phenomenon of love. Although some black critics, like Ishmael Reed, charge that white feminists' interest in black women's writing constitutes "intellectual fraud" (qtd. in Watkins36), which exploits black women and undermines the black community ( Watkins36; qtd. in Sharpe et al. 149), Patricia Sharpe and her colleagues explain white feminists' ability for crossracial identity. Initially recognizing the basis of such identity in anthropological theories of female "liminality" as a locus of power (See Mascia-Lees et al.), they have recently refined their analysis by pointing out women's common experience of victimization. These critics argue that:

[W]e, as white feminists, are drawn to black women's visions because they concretize and make vivid a system of oppression [and] abuse. [And further that] it has not been unusual for white women writers to seek to understand their oppression through reference to the atrocities experienced by other oppressed groups. Sylvia Plath, for example, likened her feelings of rejection by her father to the treatment of Jews under Nazism. ( Sharpe et al. 146)

Alice Walker's song of the self, although ultimately a celebration ( Davis

-153-

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