HBJ, 1981

You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down is Alice Walker’s second collection of stories.

It was published seven years after Walker published “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” in Ms Magazine.

(Walker, with Charlotte D. Hunt, had finally found Hurston’s unmarked grave and marked it with a modest headstone.)

When the stories were written, therefore, their author was well aware that her literary ancestors would have to be actively sought out, that she was making her own way.

But shortly after the collection was published, The Color Purple was published, her novel which won the Pulitzer Prize.

Alice Walker was making literary history; she was the first black woman to win this award, proving that she could make her way.

The fourteen stories are strident. They range from the one-page “Petunias” to the works of 15 to 20 pages, like “Nineteen Fifty-five”, “Coming Apart”, and “Advancing Luna — and Ida B. Wells”.

They do not read with the can’t-put-it-down quality that The Color Purple has for me (but I’ve read it three times: it is a true favourite of mine).

They can be read as reflections of their time, of the energy that characterized activists like Alice Walker, who pursued justice on-the-page and off-the-page alike.

One of my favourite stories in the collections is “Fame”, which tells of the accomplished black writer who has won 111 literary awards. Well, at the beginning of the tale, she has won 110; the story is rooted in the events surrounding her having been awarded one more.

Andrea Clement White is simultaneously impatient with the event and the accolades surrounding it, and grateful for it.

“But now there came in front of the audience — with a slight bow to Mrs. Clement White — a small girl the color of chocolate. But really the color of chocolate. Hack-writers always said black people were chocolate-colored; this saved them the work of looking. Andrea Clement White was amused that the child really was the exact shade of brown of a chocolate drop.
She opened her mouth and began to sing with assurance an old, emphatically familiar song.
A slave song. Authorless.”

If you have, in the interim years, read Angela Davis and bell hooks and Patricia Collins and Toni Morrison and Audre Lorde, these tales may feel a little straight-forward.

There are some very sophisticated storytellers who are sculpting stories of personal and political justice, their tales nuanced, and thematic and symbolic meaning subtly layered.

But the stories in You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down are stuffed with passion and there is no expiration date on that, is there.

I would have read some of these short stories on the pages of Ms Magazine, and I would have used words like ‘bold’, ‘daring’, and ‘revolutionary’; I can still see why I’d’ve chosen those words as a young woman finding tales like these for the first time.

Selected Quotes:

You can’t sleep through life if you wants to live it. “Nineteen Fifty-five”

Like many thoughtful women of the seventies, she had decided women were far more interesting than men. But, again like most thoughtful women, she rarely admitted this aloud. “Porn”

We understand when an attempt is being made to lead us into captivity, though television is a lot more subtle than slave ships. We will simply resist, as we have always done, with ever more accurate weapons of defense. “A Letter of the Times”

What of Alice Walker’s have you read? Or do you plan to read?