Alice Walker's Earth is a womanist goddess of many colors.
In The Color Purple, Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, the blues singer Shug is the sassy, sensual, bounteous woman who awakens the brutalized and silenced Celie to her own strength and sexuality. With loving song and tender touch, she opens Celie to her own loveliness and possibility and reveals a God who is not the "big and old and tall and graybearded and white" stern codger of Celie's old-time religion but, instead, an expansive God of trees, air, birds, people an erotic God who "love all them feelings," who "love everything you love," and "love admiration . . . just wanting to share a good thing."(1)
This same Shug reappears in The Temple of My Familiar as matriarch and high priestess of the academic-turned-masseuse Fanny's womanist religion. Fanny, the granddaughter of Celie, propagates "The Gospel According to Shug," a series of twenty-seven macarisms, beatitudes, which all begin "Helped are those who. . . ." Fanny elaborates these maxims of "Mama Shug" into a womanist ethic of inner strength, generosity, resistance, inclusiveness, prayer, laughter, and love of stranger, Earth, and cosmos. She also willingly provides a summary, the shema or first great commandment of Shug:
"Rule number one: Don't ever mess over nobody, honey, and nobody will ever mess over you."(2)
Alice Walker's womanist credo seems exemplified in the words and the passions of Shug. Walker's literature and life work have been an expression of splendor and love of life. But they have also arisen from Walker's immersion in the stuff of lamentation, outcry, blues. Since the 1960s, when she was a civil rights activist, to the 1990s, when she has become a spokesperson for women subjected to ritual genital mutilation and Earth subjected to waste and depredation, Walker has spoken for life and flourishing and loving kindness through poetry, short stories, novels, essays, journals, feature film, and documentary. As critic Donna Haisty Winchell has written: "Walker has indeed come to see her work as prayer. She still believes, as she did when she wrote Once [her first book, poems], that poetry saves lives."(3) For Walker, life is art is political statement is rescue mission is prayer. It is all, in some way, lovemaking - and earthy.
A plethora of themes emerge as Walker's words make flesh, flesh makes words, thoughts make breath, flowers and southern dirt and African drums and Native American incantations make spirit and sustenance. Prominent among Walker's themes or motifs are eros, activism, and pantheism. It is these three themes which I explore here to describe Walker's ecospirituality, a womanist spirituality which proposes what might be called not a realized but a realizable eschatology.
With the 1983 collection In Search of Our Mother's Gardens: Womanist Prose (ISMG), Walker introduced to the American lexicon the term "womanist." Among the writers and theologians who have expanded upon and explicated what it is to be a womanist have been Katie G. Cannon, with Black Womanist Ethics (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988), and Emilie M. Townes, in her In a Blaze of Glory: Womanist Spirituality as Social Witness (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), and the earlier collection she edited, A Troubling in My Soul: Womanist Perspectives on Evil and Suffering (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1993). Perhaps the simplest way to summarize what a womanist is, from an ethical and spiritual perspective, is to borrow from Gretchen E. Ziegenhals, who says that a womanist is one "who speaks out, speaks up, speaks against or in defense of something important - a woman who loves herself, her culture, and who is committed to survival."(4) She is also, by definition and by common usage, a woman of color, a woman who inevitably has viewed life and society from the underside. She is, Walker says, purple - purple with rage, purple as restored royalty, purple blossoming wild in an open field. …