As is better known in California than in Rochester, New York, where I live, Alice Walker received California's official recognition last spring (1994) as a "state treasure." The resulting controversy reached us out here in the boondocks, and an official note was made of Ms. Walker's reception of the award by our local newspaper, the
Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, which is called "the D&C" by everybody around here. Now, what exactly was the controversy?
Every Saturday the D&C prints a set of short editorials, each of them headed "Thumbs up" or "Thumbs down", summarizing the D&C's view of some of the more striking events of the week.
Here is their editorial of April 30, 1994, exactly as printed, except for their "Thumbs down" symbol (where I have written out the words) and the inset picture of Ms. Walker:
Thumbs down for the insensitivity of an award to Pulitzer Prize winning author Alice Walker. She was recognized last month as a "state treasure" at the fifth annual Governor's Arts Awards in Los Angeles.
Walker, the author of The Color Purple, whose latest work is about female mutilation, said she was horrified when she received the award statuette -- a foot-tall sculpture of a nude woman's torso -- without arms, legs and a head.
"Imagine my horror when, after four years of thinking about the mutilation of women, I was presented with a decapitated, armless, legless woman, on which my name hung from a chain," Walker told the San Francisco Chronicle.
"Though these mutilated figures are prized by museums and considered 'art' by some, the message they deliver is of domination, violence and destruction," she said.
Walker said she was going to keep the gilded statuette out of sight, packed in a box.
After thinking about all this for a while, I sat down and wrote the following Letter-to-the-Editor of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle:
To the Editor:
Thumbs down on your "Thumbs down" of April 30 regarding the statuette presented to Alice Walker in Los Angeles in token of her recognition by the Governor of California as a "state treasure." What should have been an honor for the author of The Color Purple was, according to Ms. Walker's complaint, "a decapitated, armless, legless woman, on which my name hung from a chain." This, to a woman whose most recent work concerns the horrors of women's mutilation, was a "message...of domination, violence and destruction."
The D&C agreed, deploring the "insensitivity" of the award. But isn't
this a case of the mote in their eye and the beam in your own?
Consider: Inset in the D&C's editorial page article about all this was a
photo, about one by one and a half inches, labeled "Walker" and presumably
intending to picture the famous writer. But what it shows is most of her
head, and part of a right hand under her chin, as if she had been to the
Guillotine and the rest of her body discarded. Even the top of her head was
missing, sliced clean off in a straight line. To call such a mutilated rendition
"Walker" reveals a lack of taste and sensitivity at least equal to that of the State
(signed) Ralph A. Raimi
The paper did not print my letter. They have known me over there for
forty years, and have printed innumerable letters of mine, even op-ed pieces, and indeed articles about me -- but this time they sent a form postcard, viz.
"... Though we value every reader's opinion, we regret that we are unable to print your letter... We encourage you to write again... Try to make a single, clear point... We look forward to your next letter."
I therefore wrote a personal letter to the Editorial Page editor whose name had decorated the postcard, asking him to reconsider. I hoped he hadn't rejected it for its irony. Newspapers often distrust irony, I acknowledged, because it is sometimes taken literally by an unwary reader; but I had tried this one out on some of my unwariest friends (I told him) without mishap.
Still, if he really thought it would be better, I went on, I was willing to write him a deadpan, solemn-ass professorial exegesis of the esthetics of incomplete effigy, thus explaining to even the most literal-minded person what was so disingenuous about the Walker allegation of having been dissed via artistic mutilation.
This time I did not even get the postcard.
So I figured that if Rochester didn't want to hear about the way its own newspapers dismember the treasures of the State of California, the clean-cut truth should at least be told in San Francisco. I sent the comment as one can see it above, ready for printing, to the San Francisco Chronicle, which had featured Ms Walker’s complaint at some length. I acknowledged that the “story” was by then a week or two out of date, but for a matter of such importance ...?
Again no postcard.
Rochester, New York
2 June 1994