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Friday, July 24, 2009

Rummaging through other people's things: on Alice Walker

“People are known by the records they keep. If it isn’t in the records it will be said it didn’t happen. That is what history is: a keeping of records.”

Rudolph Byrd, the director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute and the curator of the Alice Walker exhibit at Emory, began his remarks by reminding us of this quotation from Walker—a quotation that was found scribbled on a piece of scrap paper in her basement and which inspired the exhibit’s title, “A Keeping of Records.”

Byrd, who is also a professor of African-American studies at Emory, was speaking to 27 members of “4EU” (Emory-Educated, Emory-Employed), who visited the Schatten Gallery in Woodruff Library this past Thursday, July 23, for a guided tour of the Walker exhibit (and a delicious lunch from Alon’s!). A personal friend of Walker’s, Byrd called her archive a “national treasure” and drew upon the idea of a palimpsest—evocative of layering, complexity, the passage of time—as descriptive of the gallery.

As an English major myself, I was thrilled to be spending part of a workday learning about the behind-the-scenes work that went into assembling the archive of one of the most important figures in contemporary American literature. Elizabeth Russey, manuscript processing archivist and director of the gallery, told fascinating anecdotes about her experience working on the project, which she called “probably the greatest privilege of my life thus far.”

Russey flew out to Walker’s home in Berkeley, CA to pack and ship 125 boxes of papers and other personal belongings to Emory in December 2007.

“Let me tell you something,” she said, “it’s a bit of an odd experience. You are invading their space. It’s their stuff. And you start rummaging through their things.”

One of the first things Russey found in the house was a letter to Walker from Gloria Steinem, written on an airplane after Steinem read a draft of The Color Purple: “It reads, ‘I just finished reading The Color Purple. Alice, it is wonderful. I mean, full of wonder. You wrote the people straight off the page. I believe you are a medium, but only a complicated, magical medium, bringing forth complicated, magical people.’ So this—literally, I’m not making this up!—this is one of the first things that I saw.”

Items on display include everything from a wedding card from Langston Hughes to the quilt that Walker made while she was writing The Color Purple. I spent about half an hour in the gallery and saw only a fraction of the “shrouds of her life,” as Walker calls them—and the gallery is only a fraction of what’s contained in the archive up in the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Books Library (MARBL)! If you’re in the Atlanta area, you can still catch the exhibit through Sept. 27. If not, check out the archive’s site, where you can view some of the more interesting memorabilia from Walker’s life and literary career.

-- Erin Crews 09C 09G, communications intern, EAA

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