The Common Good
June 2007

Eating Oranges in the Astrodome

by Rose Marie Berger | June 2007

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Alice Walker talks about Katrina, bubble baths, and the art of remembering.

Sojourners: What did Katrina, and the government's response, reveal for you about the state of America?

Alice Walker: I was introduced to the situation by television, as most of us were. Overlaid on the devastation itself was the media's notion that somehow the people deserved it, because look at how they were looting stores and rampaging and hurting people. I just knew it was a lie. I'm not saying that there weren't some people doing that, but I knew that to slander all of the people was just racist and wrong.

I decided that I would try to go there, to make clear to the people who were suffering so deeply that the slander of them was just insufferable. We couldn't get into New Orleans, but we got as far as the Astrodome in Houston. We took money, books, and things for an altar—we created an altar in the Astrodome.

That was my way of responding to the spiritual needs of the people in that situation. If that had happened to me, I would want people to come and say, you are very dear to me, and whatever they say about you that is hurtful and damaging, I am here to nullify that impression. And I know that I would want to read, so I brought books for the children and books for the grownups. And candles and dolls and whatever we could stuff in a trunk.

It was the joy of my life to walk around and hand out envelopes with money in them, because this is what you do with money—you give it to people who really need it. We had a wonderful time—in the midst of all the devastation—talking to people, hearing stories, eating oranges.

My feeling is that the government failed us. It failed humanity. Not just black people, not just poor people, but it's a failure of who we could be as a human family.

Now I see how poor people are having to fight to reclaim their housing in the housing projects. The government has been colluding with the developers to try to get rid of the poor people so that they can put up housing for "low- to middle-income" families. That will mean that many of the people, who now are scattered to the winds, would never be able to return. So the people have started taking back their housing. It is their right to live in their houses and not have them torn down so that, years later, fancy houses will spring up that they won't be able to afford to live in.

Sojourners: Did you see positive responses as well?

Walker: I saw many people of all races who rose to the occasion. The heartening thing is that there are individuals who responded with humanity, with love and with caring, out of the understanding that these people are not other people. These people are us. When you feel that, it's impossible to be calm and just accept their suffering.

Sojourners: You've identified education as an issue you are passionate about. Why?

Walker: It's just a shame—and a shame that we should absolutely refuse to endure—that people are allowed to sink into ignorance and unawareness of the basic knowledge that people need to live full, developed, beautiful lives. It is almost unbearable when you think of the loss that we endure because people are kept ignorant. We have the money to educate people. We have the money to fund schools. We have the money to help children be awake enough to learn. Society cannot possibly be healthy and strong if whole segments are kept ignorant and poor and their neighborhoods flooded with guns and drugs.

Sojourners: You've written about the importance of historical context and remembering. Why is that important, and what can we do to deepen our ability to remember?

Walker: I would counsel people to try to get enough distance from the nightly news, television—all distractions—to get really centered, to have some kind of practice that will support their ability to remember. I think many people are afraid to remember. It's just as horrible as they think. But unless we can fortify ourselves and train ourselves to remember—literally "re-member," to put ourselves back together—then there isn't any progress, because we'll all be fragmented, scared, and running in opposite directions away from each other. That's not going to be helpful, especially for the time that we have entered now.

Sojourners: What's something that people could do, either on their own, or in small groups, to do that practice of remembering?

Walker: At the moment, I'm waist-deep in a humongous book that is coming out in the fall, called The Slave Ship [by Marcus Rediker]. This is information that, for the most part, people don't really want to encounter. It's so horrifying and scary that I myself have to sit and meditate over it. I find myself trying to avoid knowing what it took to get so many million people here to lay the capitalist foundation of America, and of Britain, and the West. When you understand the underpinning of Western civilization as the literal bones and sinews and teeth and dreams of African people, then it's almost overwhelming because you realize the sacrifice was really not worth it.

If you have a practice that allows you some internal space, then what you need to do will come to you. This will get easier as the times get harder. There's still a feeling that some people are skating along the surface, even now, as global warming keeps going. But it will become easier for people to dip down and dip deep, just because they will have to. They will have to know how they came to this place. They'll want to know that there is some way of changing it. At least that is my hope.

Sojourners: In the various religious traditions, and in practices that people make for themselves, there are ritual or communal ways of trying to remember. Often communities do that as a way of reclaiming the memory of the place where they live.

Walker: I think people are doing that more and more. For instance, on my land in Mendocino (California), one of the first things that was found was a matate—the stone that the people ground their acorns on. But those people are not there anymore. Their descendents are the Pomo, and the Pomo are on a reservation. That carries you into a stream of understanding of how you came to be there, where they went, what happened to them, and what you can do now to change a situation that possibly is very hard for them.

One of the things that I do is have a peace camp every year. We have the privacy and the smallness to really talk about issues that are very hard. The last one was a group of African-American and Jewish women, because I feel the invasion by the Israelis of Palestine and Lebanon and the treatment of the people is so incredibly horrifying—and made more so by the fact that we in the United States pay billions of dollars to keep this machine of destruction going, and people who speak out about that are called anti-Semitic.

I have noticed a growing silence between Jewish women and African-American women. We've always been allies. I can't remember any struggle that I've been in where there was not a Jewish woman or two, holding her part. Now, for whatever the reason, there's a silence. That silence will eventually mean that we won't talk. When we don't talk, we lose.

I think everybody can think of some things to do. That is the wonderful thing about this period—there is endless stuff to do. You know, it's not like in the end you have to go find it.

Sojourners: Most opportunities are just knocking at your door.

Walker: Yeah, they're already in the house. I love that! Just dig in anywhere. Don't even be telling me "What can I do?" Just sit for five minutes and it'll come to you.

Sojourners: What do you do when you just feel overwhelmed? How do you handle that spiritually?

Walker: I take a bubble bath. I put on wonderful music. I understand that the beauty of the world is much more present than the evil of the world. The evil of the world is so big, but at the same time the beauty of the world overwhelms it. When you take the bubble bath and you play the music and you dance, or you look out the window to see that the acacia is blooming—you're not necessarily healed, but you're rebalanced.

Sojourners: I see you as an American mystic, in terms of being rooted in a particular African-American history and going to those places where there is a deep spirituality present and drinking deeply from those wells. One definition of mysticism is recognizing the interconnectedness and the spiritual oneness of life, of people, across time ....

Walker: ... of all life, not just people, but all life.

Sojourners: How does the mystic engage the social and political context of her time?

Walker: In my writing, my focus is often on heightening awareness of spiritual teachings that might not be so easily understood. One of the problems with a mystic is that you're often out there by yourself. People will read a book like my last novel [Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart] and have no idea what you're talking about. But I trust that as we go along—just as has happened in the last 25 years with The Color Purple—people will see it as a gift and not as a slander. The aim of the Buddhist or the Christian person's meditation is to open the heart. That's what Now Is the Time is basically about.

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