Welcome back for another post from the Monday Inspirations series. Today’s post is by Aaminah Shakur. You can check out previous posts here.
I grew up in the 80s, graduating high school in 1992. My white adoptive father says the first words out of my mouth to him at two years of age were “Can I tell you a story?” He was a writer who encouraged me from a young age to read everything I could get my hands on. It’s a good thing he introduced me to the library because schools were not interested in diverse reading and by halfway through the fourth grade I had gotten all the way through the school’s reading curriculum with my best friend.
In the fourth grade I discovered Phyllis Wheatley and we read Langston Hughes in February. In the fifth grade I read Richard Wright’s Black Boy and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. In the sixth grade the librarian of our tiny neighborhood library handed me a copy of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. I knew of Maya Angelou only because she was on The Cosby Show one time. I must tell you all of those were life-changing experiences. But I still got to my junior year of high school before I knew there were other Black writers, when we read Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. I took a Jewish literature class that same year. I did not hear of or read a single Native American, Arab, South American or Asian writer while in school. The Jewish writers we read were all men.
I was accepted into a Creative Writing program at a school in my state and also into my dream school in Ohio where I would have majored in Creative Writing and minored in Women’s Studies. I had no means whatsoever to actually attend either school and therefore did not. If I had gone to college my awareness of women writers would have grown, I know this because I see all those fabulous book lists young college-type feminists post all over the internet. But while I know college would have introduced me to many women writers, I’m afraid the diversity would still have been lacking just as those lists are.
Fast forward to me at 26 years of age, mother to a four-year-old son, buying books in a Goodwill thrift shop. I stumbled upon two gems in one visit: the fourth book in Maya Angelou’s autobiographical series and The Temple of My Familiar by Alice Walker. The Temple of My Familiar is a big book. In paperback form it is over 400 pages. I read it all on one long Sunday while someone I had just begun dating was over with a friend to watch an important fútbol game on my mother’s tv and my son hung out with them. I sat on the couch just feet away from the alternating cheering and booing completely engrossed in the book. It was a good introduction to my intensity and love of books for my new lover. This is a good test of the worthiness of potential lovers, by the way (though it does not guarantee they won’t suck in many other ways.)
I had heard of The Color Purple but not been allowed to see it when it came out and didn’t know it was based on a book. My parents were concerned about the ideas we kids, abused as we were, might get from the scene where Celie is supposed to shave Mister. I have a vivid memory of coming into the room while that scene was on the tv and it being turned off. I now know why… that moment was about taking one’s freedom. Violent and bloody as the shaving scene could have been, I find the scene where Celie leaves with Shug, throwing a curse upon Mister, to be no less powerful. I have seen that movie now at least 100 times and it still gives me chills. It’s unlikely that we would have leapt to that kind of violence, but to see Celie take her power like that may have given us some ideas… No, my parents could not have us getting any ideas from such a film.
The Temple of My Familiar is a continuation of but something altogether different than The Color Purple. It was my introduction to Alice Walker, and it was my introduction to a magical world I had seen in my dreams and visions but didn’t know others believed in as well. I have since read everything Walker has written and while I love them all, Temple remains my favorite. It would not be inaccurate to say finding The Temple of My Familiar was like finding God. For the first time in my life, the Goddess I had found in Miriam Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon was presented to me with African and Indigenous faces, with rich history I could relate to.
Beyond how the one book meant (still means) the world to me, it also opened me up to a whole world of Black, Indigenous and Latin@ writers. This eventually led me to finding Arab and North African women writers, Vietnamese and Chinese, Tibetan and Indian. I am now, at 40, reading everything I can get my hands on by Aboriginal and Maori women. It started with one Alice Walker book. First I went to the library and systematically read all of her works. While doing so, I kept a notebook to write down every writer she referenced and went and looked up their books too, which is how I found June Jordan and Bessie Head. I repeated that process with every writer, looking up who else they referenced until I had read everything by Audre Lorde, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Lucille Clifton, Octavia Butler, Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, Joy Harjo, Sandra Cisneros, Ana Castillo, Isabel Allende and so many more. I have many a time surprised Women’s Studies graduates when they realize I have read most of what they paid to read but also have a much more varied and nuanced reading list than they do.
I have read and re-read most of Alice Walker’s books. My favorites remain The Temple of My Familiar and By the Light of My Father’s Smile. Alice Walker changed my life not only with her own writing but by opening the doors to a vast universe of literature and culture. Beyond literature it led me to art and artists like Frida Kahlo and Shirin Neshat. Walker’s essay collections, in particular In Search Of Our Mother’s Gardens, and poetry collections (my favorite is A Poem Travelled Up My Arm) have impacted me as a thinker, writer, poet and artist.
Although I am able to critique her now and look at her from a distance that considers she is just one voice and an imperfect being, the importance of her work cannot be minimized. I have been proud to introduce her to others, and I have been shocked to find The Temple of My Familiar called “difficult” or “weird” by other women I thought would enjoy it. I realized perhaps part of Walker’s writing power, and my relationship with her work, is a sacred and secret affair. Others must find the writer who speaks to them and breaks them open the way Walker did for me.