The youngest of eight children born to a sharecropping family in rural Eatonton, Georgia, Alice Walker is best known for The Color Purple, the 1982 novel that garnered her the first Pulitzer Prize in fiction awarded to a Black woman. Last fall, I was invited to join a group of high school students in Alice’s hometown who’d come together to honour her art and activism. The 72-year-old, globetrotting author sent her best wishes, but was unable to attend.

The powerful event — held in an auditorium that Blacks, restricted by segregation, could not have entered during Alice’s youth — marked a milestone for me. For 20 years earlier, I’d made my first trip to Eatonton to begin research on my book, Alice Walker: A Life. As I listened to the brilliant, racially diverse students discuss the societal problems that Alice had motivated them to fight, I felt the completion of a circle in my journey as her biographer. Before my flight home, I visited the cemetery where generations of Alice’s relatives have been laid to rest, including kinfolk that inspired characters in The Color Purple.

At the lovingly tended burial ground, I reflected on Alice’s acclaimed novel and the 1985 Steven Spielberg-directed film version that I’d seen numerous times. I thought about my attendance at the 2004 Atlanta preview of The Color Purple musical and then later, that year, at the rousing premiere of the show on Broadway.

I’ve read reviews of the scaled down revival of the musical that opened, again on Broadway, last  December, and hope to see it. “Throw a hearty hallelujah,” a New York Times critic raved. “The Color Purple has been born again.”

But after the splendour of my fall trip to Eatonton, I was convinced that I’d reached a plateau from which I could disconnect  — with eternal gratitude and satisfaction — from The Color Purple chapters of my life, as a writer.

And then Prince Rogers Nelson died.

A slew of tribute concerts, books, movies, etc., are sure to come. But I’m hard-pressed to imagine a salute to the legendary musician that will top the one delivered by The Color Purple musical cast at the close of their performance last Thursday, the day that Prince sailed on.

Following brief remarks by Jennifer Hudson (who plays Shug Avery in the production), Cynthia Erivo (who plays Celie) led the ensemble in a soul-stirring rendition of “Purple Rain” that prompted gospel wails of joy and sorrow from the audience. It was not lost on me that the brainchild of Alice Walker had given rise to an “off the hook” homage that epitomized a musician who refused to be anything other than himself.

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Prince’s death also evoked memories of the deluge of criticism that Alice suffered for her purported “negative” depictions of Black men in The Color Purple — namely Mister —as played by Danny Glover, in the film. Many of Alice’s most virulent critics publicly admitted that they’d never read (and did not intend to read) the work in which Mister, by the novel’s end, has undergone a profound  transformation.

Having come to understand the generational reach of the abuses he endured as a child, Mister softens. He makes a shift in the book that, unfortunately, Spielberg did not develop in the movie. In an interview, Alice put it this way:  “There is a section in my novel where Mister starts to bring Celie seashells. He and Celie sew together. They have long discussions and embrace under the stars. People need to ask themselves why they are blind to that as male behaviour. Why is it that when a man can sit with a woman and interact with her like a human being, he becomes invisible as man?”

Alice’s insights underscore the importance of Prince’s career and the revolutionary shape-shifting of his music, gender expression, fashion, and overall presence in the world. He was a man in full.

More attuned to the mid-1980s resurrection of Tina Turner than the triumph of “Purple Rain,” I’m indebted to the friend who first schooled me on Prince. Perpetually at odds with her white, suburban upbringing, Amelia Smith one night played for me a tape of the musician’s performance at the 1991 MTV Music Video Awards.

Singing “Gett Off,” Prince rocked the house in a yellow, lace-patterned outfit that revealed his taut derriere to the world. I was floored.

Amelia later secured a pair of VIP tickets for us to attend a Prince concert, outside of San Francisco. By then, I’d been privileged to see mind-blowing live performances by James Brown, Nina Simone and Stevie Wonder. To say nothing of a tinsel-adorned George Clinton and his madcap Funkadelic crew bumping “Flash Light” so hard that the building vibrated.

But Prince? He was possessed. Game Over (no pun intended).

As for Alice Walker? Her dedication to art as a personal and collaborative practice has brought forth the many iterations of The Color Purple — book, movie, musical, musical again — that have inspired people around the world for more than 30 years. She kept faith that the dose of healing medicine embedded in her book would one day be fully received, as it was, when a soaring chorus of Black voices on a Broadway stage bid farewell to Prince.

On that note, Alice offers in The Same River Twice (1996), an engrossing meditation on “how difficult it is for a creative person to stick to one way of doing things.” I’d wager that the embattled Halifax film industry would find the book of use.

Prince’s support of other artists has been well-documented and stands as an enduring part of his legacy. I’ll forever groove to “Round and Round,” the tune that His Purpleness wrote and produced for a young Tevin Campbell. Peep his laid-back cameo in the music video.

The author of Alice Walker: A Life, Evelyn C. White is a freelance journalist in Halifax.

Evelyn C. White is a journalist and author whose books include Chain, Chain, Change: For Black Women in Abusive Relationships (Seal Press, 1985,) The Black Women’s Health Book: Speaking for Ourselves...

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