A few weeks ago, a Chicago poet and activist that I very much admire, Eve Ewing, tweeted out a picture of a typed letter from Gwendolyn Brooks with the caption “Your faves are problematic.” Immediately my heart sank. What had beloved writer Gwendolyn Brooks done? Did she espouse some awful belief that we didn’t know about, revealed in this letter?
Well, as it turns out, Gwendolyn is problematic because of this heinously awful recipe she shared in a letter dated 1961. It’s a classic bad 1950s/1960s recipe for “Frozen Fruit Salad” that features an unacceptable amount of mayonnaise, plus cream cheese, PLUS whipping cream, maraschino cherries (vile), and, inexplicably, this monstrosity is dressed with watercress. I don’t see how it’s possible that anyone admired this recipe and actually asked Gwendolyn for a copy of it, but it was 1961…
The point is that we’ve probably become pretty used to this sinking feeling by now of learning that artists and writers we admire hold beliefs and ideas that we don’t. And in the age of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, it’s easier than ever to find out what those impossible-to-admire beliefs and ideas of our heroes (or maybe former heroes) might be.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because a recent book that I read, right after the quirky and lovely British gems at the end of last year, was the debut novel of Alice Walker, The Third Life of Grange Copeland. The Color Purple is one of my all-time favorite books (I had even put it in my Women’s Lit Starter Pack), but I had never read her first novel.
The novel follows Grange Copeland, a sharecropper, and his son and granddaughter through their lives in Georgia during the 1930s through the 1960s. If I were to summarize its main themes, I would say that The Third Life of Grange Copeland is a novel that explores the ways in which the hardships of being poor and black weigh on families and prevent them from thriving, and also how pain and the weight of poverty is passed down from generation to generation.
While it doesn’t match The Color Purple for joy or strength of characters/plot, there are hints of what’s to come in this debut novel. Pieces here and there glimmer with a spark of the current that is consistently running through her magnum opus. And the pain and suffering of the characters in Grange Copeland matches similarly what she managed to create in The Color Purple. Walker has always understood pain.
As it happens, Alice Walker found herself in the news around the time I was working my way through Grange Copeland. Walker had been asked to recommend books by the New York Times for their “By the Books” column and one of the books she mentioned was David Icke’s And the Truth Shall Set You Free.
For those who are blissfully unaware of Icke’s work, he’s a well-known conspiracy theorist and deeply paranoid anti-Semitic writer whose work should not be bothered with by anyone, let alone a writer of Walker’s caliber. The internet was, not surprisingly, shocked and saddened to learn of this development.
The incident left me thinking a great deal about how problematic your faves can end up being. And what to do about them? I have occasionally scoffed at the concept of “separating the art from the artist” as being just an excuse to maintain the status quo (and being an excuse to allow the artist to continue with their problematic-ness while they continue to enjoy money and fame without consequence).
I’m particularly not a fan of the “let’s separate the art from the artist” approach when the prejudice or problematic issue with the artist bleeds into the art itself. For example, the overt racism in Joseph Conrad’s depiction of Africans in Heart of Darkness can’t be ignored – that’s not a personally held belief of the writer that’s separate from the “art” – it’s a prejudice included in the book you’re reading that can’t be ignored.
And Alice Walker’s work has begun to reflect these abhorrent views – for example, she has posted a (poorly written) poem on her website reflecting this worldview that was quickly unearthed after the By the Books piece.
Then again, I can see what Roxane Gay, the great feminist essayist/novelist/Tweeter/all-around human is coming from when she takes a stand against “canceling” artists for their problematic views. Gay’s argument is that canceling an artist (dropping their work abruptly) effectively shuts down the public conversation about what the problem was in the first place, which precludes growth and development for everybody.
What was particularly interesting about Walker’s case is that her anti-Semitic impulses seem rooted in her fraught relationship with her Jewish ex-husband and her estranged daughter. It’s interesting for me, reading The Third Life of Grange Copeland, because at the time that novel was written, she and her ex-husband, Mel, were still together.
She dedicated The Third Life of Grange Copeland to him, and her afterward (I have a later edition) talks about the support he lent to her while she was working on her debut novel. It paints a very different portrait of her attitude and relationship to Mel than her other later beliefs.
I don’t really know that I was any closer to dealing with where I land with Alice Walker. I can’t cancel her when her work has been so brilliant and so important to so many women. At the same time, I also can’t accept her current repulsive views as okay by any stretch. So I’m just currently living in the tension between those two realities. What else is there to be done?