Like many people, I studied Alice Walker’s most famous book, The Colour Purple when I was at school, and remained haunted by its harrowing content there after. Consequently I took a keen interest in American history – particularly the Civil Rights Movement and the segregation of black people. Thus, when in the final year of my degree I decided to combine my love of books with my interest in black history and wrote a dissertation of the depiction of black men in literature.
In addition to the works of Toni Morrison, The Third Life of Grange Copeland – Alice Walker’s debut novel – was also recommended to me as a prime example of how black female writers wrote about men Published in 1970 the novel set in rural Georgia and traces the life of three generations of crop farmers. She received much literary praise for shattering a number of literary taboos, but there was much fury from African American critics who objected to the savage-like characterization of Brownfield.
Such writing came as a result of Walker’s childhood, in which she witnessed both shootings and beatings in Eat-onton, the small town in Georgia in which she was born. And unlike many of her contemporaries who shied away from writing about violence in the black community, Walker’s writing is deliberately full of controversy. So much so that along with Toni Morrison, Walker was credited by Henry Louis Gates Jr as being one of the ‘two central figures in the renaissance of black women’s writing.’
The Third Life of Grange Copeland explores themes of violence, degradation and oppression with both tenderness and tenacity. The depiction of Brownfield, who is imprisoned for the murder of his wife, is undeniably brutal, and while it is easy to see why Walker received much criticism for her portrayal of black men, in a time where many chose to glaze over issues of slavery, it is condonable that Walker took it upon herself to write these untold stories.