Curating the journals of Alice Walker

Alice Walker will visit UGA for the first time in 26 years on Oct. 14 & 15, 2015. She will give a public lecture at the UGA Chapel on Oct. 14 as the 2015 Delta Visiting Chair for Global Understanding, a major program administered by the Willson Center. Walker will also participate in a public conversation hosted by Valerie Boyd on Oct. 15 at 6:30 p.m. at the Morton Theatre in Athens, an event that is sold out.

Those who attend a talk by Alice Walker may leave with a glimpse of who the revered writer is, what she cares about and maybe what motivates her to write. Others may have read several of her books—including the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Color Purple”—and may even know about her Georgia youth.

But for Valerie Boyd, the study of Alice Walker is a highly intimate, unique and immersive experience.

Alice Walker and Valerie Boyd met while Boyd was writing a biography on Zora Neale Hurston (submitted photo)

Boyd, an associate professor of journalism and the Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer in Residence at UGA’s Grady College, was personally selected by Walker two years ago to curate and edit the author’s journals for a book, due out in fall 2017. It is called “Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker” and will be published by 37 Ink, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Her work on the journals is supported in part by a 2015-2016 Willson Center faculty fellowship, one of the university's critical supports for research in the humanities and arts.

“I feel honored that Alice Walker is entrusting me to read her journals—and to edit a selection of them for the world to read as well,” Boyd said.

Sifting through the journals has been no small task. In 2007, Walker turned over her personal archives to the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University. The personal journals begin in 1962, when Walker was a student at Atlanta’s Spelman College, and span more than 50 years, consisting of about 65 notebooks. Walker is now 71.

“Can you imagine journaling consistently for 50 years,” Boyd asked. “The journals allow you to see the whole arc of her life in the day-to-day recording of it. Everything is there—her development as a woman, a mother, a daughter, a writer, an activist and an artist. My job is easy in some ways; I just have to assemble all of this raw material into a cohesive book, following the narrative threads that naturally emerge in the journals.”

According to Boyd, Walker writes about a range of topics over the years, including her first trip in an airplane to study abroad, when she was 18, teaching herself to write a novel, and everyday subjects like gardening or making dinner.

Alice Walker turned over nearly 65 journals to Emory University in 2007 (photo by Miriam Phields/Phields Photography)

“To see the daily walk of human life is really interesting,” Boyd said of her work in the archives. “These are personal journals, which means they can be quite intimate, so doing this kind of research is really like inhabiting someone else's skin for a while and getting to look behind someone else’s eyes. It’s been quite fascinating and emotional in some ways.”

While most of the Walker Collection at Emory is open to visiting scholars, the journals—due to their personal nature—are restricted until 2027, or after Walker’s death, whichever comes later. Walker has given Boyd (and her graduate student assistant) exclusive access to read the journals.

“It’s pretty cool to be the only person in the world to have access to the journals,” Boyd admitted.

Boyd has been a fan of Walker’s work since she was in high school, but it was through Boyd’s first book, “Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston,” that she met Walker. Walker, too, was inspired by Zora Neale Hurston, and Boyd reached out to Walker during her research on Hurston, who Boyd describes as “the most significant black woman writer of the first half of the 20th century.”

“Alice wrote a beautiful endorsement for ‘Wrapped in Rainbows’ and that solidified our relationship,” Boyd recalled.

Valerie Boyd was chosen by Alice Walker in 2013 to curate and edit her journals (photo by Miriam Phields/Phields Photography)

Boyd describes the relationship between Hurston, Walker and herself as a sort of family tree.

“I think of Zora Neale Hurston as a literary grandmother. And Zora was certainly a literary mother for Alice and her entire generation of black women writers. So, in many ways, I see Alice as a literary mother,” Boyd said. “But, in terms of our relationship, she’s really more like a super-cool, favorite aunt.” 

The task of transcribing the journals is nearly complete. Boyd and Walker have met in person several times to talk about the journals and discuss the contents. For “Gathering Blossoms Under Fire,” Boyd will organize the book decade-by-decade, publishing select journal entries that reflect the tenor and times of that particular moment of Walker’s life. Boyd will write an introductory essay for each decade, providing context on Walker’s life and relevant world events, and Walker will write a reflective essay on each decade.

“It will give readers an opportunity to experience 70-something Alice Walker in conversation with her 20-year-old self, her 30-year-old self, or her 50-year-old self,” Boyd said. “It's going to make for a really interesting and dynamic book.”

Working with an iconic, long-admired author can be intimidating, but Boyd says Walker’s collaborative stance and trust in her as an editor makes it less daunting. “I have to say I don't feel so intimidated by it because the bulk of the book will be Alice Walker's words—her actual journal entries. I can fall back on the beauty of her words, the beauty of her language, the honesty of her reflections. She has made the work easy for me because of the honesty and beauty of her reflective journal entries and the consistency with which she recorded them.”

Boyd said it’s been an incredible experience to go through the material with Walker.

“It’s pretty cool to be the only person in the world to have access to the journals.”

–Valerie Boyd

“She is very detached from her previous self,” Boyd said. “She sometimes seems to read the entries as if she’s reading about another person’s life. She has said to me more than once: ‘The journals are my memory.’ It's fascinating to watch her read the journals, because she is revisiting those memories sometimes for the first time in decades.”

One key to unlocking those memories has been Boyd’s decision to transcribe the journals in their entirety—rather than to transcribe only the entries selected for publication. The full transcriptions make it possible to search the journals electronically, giving Walker access to specific memories. In a recent phone call, Boyd told Walker that she could now look up any name mentioned in the journals over the years—even her dog Marley—and access all relevant entries.

“She said, ‘Oh my God, that is magical,’” recalled Boyd. “This gives her access to her own past in a way she hasn't had. She was so pleased to hear that. She now has access to these memories in an organized, searchable way.” 

Boyd is pleased with the progress on the book so far and expects to have the manuscript completed and delivered to the publisher, Simon & Schuster, by fall 2016.

“It means everything to have the opportunity to work with her,” concluded Boyd. “Alice changed American literature in significant ways and has had a major influence not just on me but on many writers of my generation, and subsequent generations, and on American literature itself. It’s a wonderful gift to have the opportunity to walk side by side with her.”

Date: October 13, 2015
Author:  Sarah Freeman,
Contact:  Valerie Boyd,