One Burning Question: A Conversation with Evelyn C. White


In 2004, Evelyn Corliss White published Alice Walker: A Life, the only official biography of the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for The Color Purple in 1983. White wouldn’t write a biography for anyone who would “make warrior work” for her. Walker was far from warrior work, since they revered each other, and shared artistic and political attachments, and positions as Black women writers.

As a journalist, White wrote profiles of icons such as Aretha Franklin, Angela Davis, and Nikki Giovanni. She wrote Chain, Chain, Change: For Black Women in Abusive Relationships (1985), The Black Women’s Health Book (1990), and Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone: A Photo Narrative of Black Heritage on Salt Spring Island with Joanne Bealy (2009).

As her relationship with Walker deepened, White sent her graduate seminar paper from 1991, “Fashioning Ourselves: The Womanist Ethics of Alice Walker” to demonstrate the “spirit and voice” she could bring to a full-length biography. She’d written, “I have no memory about reading more vivid than that of the evening I began to read The Color Purple. The opening sentence of the book… made me bolt upright. I was riveted and indeed read the 251-page book in a few hours, alternately weeping and laughing uproariously along the way.”

I first interviewed White in November 2016, after initially encountering her writing and personal correspondence through the Seal Press papers at the Oberlin College Archives and Special Collections. Her voice—deliberate, candid, and consistent—compelled me. Almost two years and much research and thinking later, we spoke again about Seal Press, her relationship to Alice Walker, and to feminist publishing.


The Rumpus: Could you tell me a little bit about your life growing up?

Evelyn C. White: I was born in Chicago, in March of 1954, and I was born in a historically Black hospital in Chicago called Provident. Back in the day, while there wasn’t official segregation, there were these different institutions. My parents both migrated from the South; they were part of the Great Migration. They left the South because of the lynchings and the terrorism there and for better jobs and the industrial Midwest. I assume they met there—they both worked for the Campbell Soup Company, and one of my pains is that they both died before I could ask them any questions about their background, so I know very little about their upbringing.

But anyway, not long after I was born my parents moved to Gary, Indiana. At that time, Gary was a vibrant city, and its major industry was the steel mill. I didn’t know anyone who was unemployed; all the Black families I knew had stability, and everyone had a job. I went to a public school named after Alain Locke, the first Black man to be a Rhodes scholar, and was taught by very dedicated Black school teachers until grade ten, when I went to a Catholic school. So my upbringing was very much rooted in an extremely stable, supportive, Black working class community, where it was understood that I had potential and talent. The world was opening up to Black folk, and we felt the gains of the Civil Rights movement. So I grew up with this chant from Jesse Jackson: “I Am—Somebody,” and we’d go to school and chant, “I Am—Somebody,” and that was a very, very stable, supportive, nurturing childhood.

Rumpus: Could you tell me a little more about all the interviews you conducted with so many prominent feminists of the time?

White: The major common denominator is that they are very hard workers. And part of the American culture is this sense of becoming an overnight success, and one of the reasons I wanted to write about Alice Walker was because I understood that success of The Color Purple—the novel and movie—had erased her history of struggle and hardship. When you become a success in the US, nobody is really interested in hearing about your hard times, and there’s very little space to traffic in that realm of your life. And so part of the reason I’ve been drawn to the people I’ve written about is because I understood that there was pain and hardship and sorrow in their lives that was probably never, ever properly addressed, or spoken about with someone who could listen and be with them with a sense of compassion. That issue of a life that has some unexamined pain, some unexamined sorrow, some unexamined grief has drawn me to most of the subjects I’ve written about.

Rumpus: Did you use your position as a journalist, particularly writing many book reviews about Black women’s books, to communicate with other Black feminists?

White: I liked to read, and book reviews were then and, in my view, now, an easy way to get access to print journalism. So I would go to this used bookstore in Seattle, A Different Drummer, and spend five, six dollars, and buy a used book, and I would review it. I wouldn’t ask for an assignment, pay for the book out of my own funds, and send it off to Seattle Gay News, or The Weekly, to these alternative free papers. I never asked for permission, I never asked for an assignment. I would just read a book, write a review, and send it. And I understand now the pressures on editors, and if you can send them something halfway decent, and I can say with humility that my work was more than halfway decent, and not begging for any money, then it would get printed.

The work was good, and it made the editor’s job easier. After doing that, I started getting small amounts of money, maybe thirteen dollars for a review. I began to build up a clip file, and those clips, those early reviews, helped me get into Columbia Journalism School. When I got to the San Francisco Chronicle, I met the book review editor, who was a feminist, who I showed some of my clips, and she went through them and asked me what I wanted to review. It was an extra job that brought more visibility and more opportunity to write about books on subject matters that interested me—political issues, feminism, arts, culture.

Rumpus: In regards to feminist publishing, what were the ideals of Seal Press?

White: The philosophy and practice was to give voice to women on the margins. To see their voices and experiences as valuable, and to employ women. One of the things that I understood instantly about Seal Press is that they had a very high commitment to women’s affirmation and women’s voices, and they were also very astute businesswomen. In a way, that has not been given full breadth. Their first major publication, Getting Free, was written by Ginny NiCarthy, who had shopped it around and not gotten it picked up. She was told “there are no battered women, and if there are battered women, they’d be too afraid to go into a bookstore to buy this book.” So she found Seal Press, who agreed to publish the book. The book flew off the shelves.

I did my book [Chain, Chain, Change: For Black Women in Abusive Relationships], and then there was one for Latina women, lesbian women, kids whose parents were in an abusive relationship—Seal milked it in the best sense of the word. They provided sustenance in terms of understanding that there was a market and a hunger for this series, this New Leaf series about domestic violence. They pushed it into the arena because they saw the market and the need for it. It not only got these voices out, but also provided writers with solid employment and benefits. They lifted as they climbed.

Rumpus: How did you first meet Alice Walker?

White: I, like a lot of people in the early 80s, read The Color Purple. I understood it immediately to be landmark achievement in American literature, not just African American literature. Then when she won the Pulitzer Prize, I knew it was monumental—the first Black woman to win the prize in fiction. I always make that distinction, because Alice Walker was not the first to win the Pulitzer Prize; that was Gwendolyn Brooks in 1950 for a poetry collection.

Walker won that prize when I was still in Seattle, and had not yet left to go to journalism school. But I was writing for the gay press there, so I wrote a brief essay about The Color Purple, and somehow I managed to get her phone number. When I phoned her, she said, “How did you get this number?”

We had a nice conversation, and I wrote the piece and went off to journalism school. Then, later, at the San Francisco Chronicle, I was one of a handful of Black reporters. It was the paper of record for Northern California, where Alice lived then and lives now, and she would read my writing.

I taught at a writing center in Oregon, and unbeknownst to me, one of my writing students had lived up in the country where Alice had a house. My student crossed paths with Alice, and I was told, Alice Walker wants you to call her. I just completely ignored it, because it just made no sense to me whatsoever. I don’t know, maybe two or three weeks later, I was at home, the phone rang, and the voice said “Evelyn?” And I said, “Speaking.” And she said, “This is Alice Walker,” and I literally almost fainted. I couldn’t speak. And she said, “Did Elizabeth”—that was the name of my student—“give you my message?” And I said “Yes, ma’am.” And then she extended an invitation for me to visit her, which I did, for one weekend, in the country.

Rumpus: What made your experience with Alice Walker work? What was the match?

White: Alice Walker and I were perfectly suited as biographer and subject at the perfect time in our respective lives. I went from age forty to fifty, writing and researching my book. Alice went from fifty to sixty. I couldn’t have done it before age forty, and I don’t think Alice could’ve have done it before age fifty. I couldn’t do it now, and I don’t think Alice could’ve done it now. It was a confluence of events and timing.

I understood her as the epitome of artistic freedom. I could see, from a close examination of her life, that she would not be someone who would want to exert control. I could see that from having read her work, her interviews, and attended many public events as a spectator. I think similarly, Alice Walker could see my work up close and personal in the Chronicle, and she could see what kind of journalist I was and am. She had read my work and probably heard things about me. She understood that I could be the biographer I turned out to be.

People have said to me, Alice Walker must trust you a lot. And I have said, Yes, I belive that’s true. But the more salient issue is that Alice Walker really trusts herself. Alice Walker has fully, in her own quiet, self-loving way, done an assessment of who I am, what I was about, my work, and was fairly certain that I was going to turn out as she had expected.

Rumpus: Did you make an argument about her life?

White: I entered the project because I had one burning question that I wanted answered for myself, as a journalist, as a Black woman, and as an activist. I felt intuitively that there was some major story involved with how The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize. That was the question I wanted answered because I was curious about it. I knew enough about the world of literature and publishing to answer the question, which gets at the importance of writers coming to their writing with some sort of expertise, some intuition, some experience.

So I entered the project wanting that question answered. It wasn’t so much an ‘argument.’ It was a personal interest to me. I wasn’t, as it often motivates biographers, interested in Alice’s sex life, bank account, or wealth. I wanted to know how a novel like The Color Purple won the highest literary award in the United States, when it did.

Rumpus: Did you write yourself into the biography?

White: Not really. I didn’t bring in my background. As I said to some people along the road that there may be similarities between our political and artistic interests, I was not a product of the Jim Crow South. I did not grow up in the harsh circumstances that Alice Walker did. I had never really spent a sizable amount of time in the American South until I started working on the book. I was mindful of our different upbringings. I didn’t bring any of that into it, but what I did bring was my skills and expertise as a trained journalist.

Rumpus: What is your relationship like today with Walker?

White: It’s wonderful, as it has been from start to finish. One of the things that Alice and I did was an official release ceremony amongst a group of friends. Somebody had brought a beautiful woven tie, and we had our wrists joined together and then separated. And I believe that that tie, that cloth, is in my archive.

We officially separated as biographer and subject. Something that we both believe was important as a ritual ending of that configuration. We’re in touch whenever it’s true.

Rumpus: Was writing Walker’s biography restorative?

White: Absolutely, because Alice’s life is monumentally triumphant, even though it clearly had its pains and hardships. But I knew that the end of the story, at that time, was one of triumph and victory. Because Alice had authorized me to write this project, the whole world opened up to me. I understood in that moment when Alice said yes, that she would permit me to do it and permit me to do it in my own way, I understood in that moment that my life had changed forever. And it has.

Natalia Dubno Shevin is a writer and educator in New York City. She earned a bachelors in history from Oberlin College in 2017. Her document collection about Mary Church Terrell is forthcoming in Women in Social Movements this fall. More from this author →