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Author joins the "freedom ride of this generation"
ATHENS – I first meet Pulitzer Prize winning author and civil rights activist Alice Walker in the Athens port while touring the American boat participating in the flotilla preparing to set sail for Gaza.
Along with the other U.S. activists, she is training and preparing for the voyage. Sitting stoically on the deck under a canopy of an American flag with The Audacity of Hope, the ships name written across the bottom, Walker’s description of the flotilla as, “the freedom ride of this generation,” comes to life.
She’s referring to the young Americans who put their bodies on the line to challenge Jim Crow segregation. Standing next to her, shaded by the star spangled awning, the moment strikes me as simultaneously ironic and abundantly optimistic.
Two days later we sit down for an interview in a hotel lounge in Athens, under a poster of Buster Keaton falling into an open sewer hole. A bandana tied around her head, Walker, the author of The Color Purple and a number of other novels and story collections, tells me about her recent trip to Ramallah and Bethlehem for the Ted X conference.
“It was so good to laugh and feel this wonderful spirit,” she says about a talk by Palestinian author Suad Amiry who discussed being trapped with her mother-in-law in a Ramallah apartment for forty days of an Israeli military curfew (the theme of Amiry’s book Sharon and My Mother-in-Law).
“In spite of everything, [it was good] to laugh at how silly and ridiculous the situation under occupation is, because the situation is so dire,” she adds.
Walker was part of the Gaza Freedom March in 2009 that attempted to go through Mubarak’s Egypt into Gaza, but her public commitment to speaking out about Palestinian rights dates back the 1982 massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps during Israel’s first invasion of Lebanon.
“I wasn’t so happy with the massacres. That was a marker [for me],” she says in a dry tone. However, for her, going to Gaza after the 2009 invasion was a turning point.
“This was incredibly disturbing. It was something that really caused me to want the world to waken to the seriousness [of the situation],” she says.
Reflecting on her years of activism, it is clear that Walker sees a connection between civil rights in America, liberation from apartheid in South Africa and the Palestinian cause.
“Without the international community coming to the aid of the South African people they may very well still be under apartheid, and [without the support of progressive white people] we might still be under segregation in the United States.”
The comparison doesn’t end there: “settlers are the Klan,” she says definitively, referring to the notorious white supremacist terror organization. “They don’t have their white sheets because I guess they don’t need them.”
I mention to her that the leaders of the Palestine’s Arab Spring are discussing a campaign of attempted freedom rides on settler busses in the West Bank.
“I’m very pleased to hear that,” she says breaking into a big smile.
She then returns to the freedom ride conversation from the previous day. “I think the tactic on the Palestinian side is to draw attention to the Klanishness. It’s been so difficult for the world to understand who the settlers are and the problem with them taking more and more of the land,” she says, arguing that it’s a modus systemically rooted in the way Israel was founded.
“That’s the history of the settlement of Palestine it started in 1948 and is continuing,” she adds connecting Israel’s creation of 750,000 Palestinian refugees in the founding of the state and current settler evictions of Palestinian families in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Although blunt and unequivocal in her analysis, Walker switches gears, once again displaying her optimism. In a recent article, she details commitments and sacrifices made by white Jewish Americans in the civil rights movement. She says she detailed these to send a message directly to Israelis.
“It’s a way to remind them that their Jewishness can stand for something else, it doesn’t have to stand for beating up people, taking their land and destroying their culture,” she says. “[Israeli’s Jewish identity] could actually be about something very fabulous.”
Jumping between her razor sharp critique and a boundless faith in people’s ability to change, it becomes clear what has made the legendary writer a central figure in artist circles, civil rights and the feminist movement.
“I come from a southern tradition of struggle and one of the sayings is that freedom itself is a constant struggle.”
Pointing to the poster behind me she adds “it’s like Buster Keaton over there. You never know when you’re going to fall in a man hole, or when someone is going to push you in. The point is to hold on, don’t give up even when it looks really dire. And for the Palestinians it’s been dire since 1947-48.”