Author and activist Alice Walker received a standing ovation soon after taking the stage during her Auditorium Speakers Series appearance on July 1 at the 2013 ALA Annual Conference in Chicago. Walker, best known for her Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Color Purple, thanked an estimated 2,000 attendees for their warm introduction by crossing her arms in a symbolic embrace.
“That is the sound that I would like to go around to all the people who are standing, especially our sister down in Texas,” she said to applause, referring to Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis, who recently filibustered for 11 hours to temporarily block a controversial anti-abortion bill in the state. Women must control our bodies, Walker said. “Why is that so mysterious to understand?”
Throughout her talk, Walker also commended the work of other activists and leaders, such as Nobel Peace Prize–winners Aung San Suu Kyi, Wangari Maathai, and the Dalia Lama, and she expressed her deep disappointment with President Barack Obama, who also received the global award in 2009. In a reference to Edward Snowden she singled out the president for veering from the pro-whistleblower stance he took during his 2008 presidential campaign, when he had said government whistleblowers are part of a healthy democracy and must be protected from reprisal.
Walker has often talked about not being aware that there was a public library in her hometown of Eatonton, Georgia, until she was 50 years old. She said that many people of color had no idea that there was a public library, and if they had stumbled upon it and gone inside, they would not have been welcomed. “This was a terrible burden to feel, that to even gain knowledge by reading was not something that people of color were expected to want, to deserve, or to have,” Walker said.
She did, however, have access to her high school library, which she said was a “haven” for her, “a place to go for refuge. A place to dream.”
When Walker wasn’t reading from her two new books—a poetry collection titled The World Will Follow Joy: Turning Madness into Flowers and an essay collection titled The Cushion in the Road: Meditation and Wandering as the Whole World Awakens to Being in Harm’s Way—she discussed current events such as the National Security Agency’s spying program, the Supreme Court’s recent 5–4 decision on the Voting Rights Act, the anti-abortion legislation in Texas and elsewhere, and other events that she said represented a “sliding backward” of the country.
Yet Walker remains optimistic, she said. “Librarians offer so much to this culture and to the world.”