Alice Walker’s visit is a learning opportunity in more ways than one | News


On May 5, the Hall Center and the Project on the History of Black Writing will host a virtual conversation with Alice Walker, in honor of the recent publication of her journals, Pick flowers under the fire. As an award-winning pioneer of black feminist fiction and poetry and a lifelong fighter for racial and gender freedom and equality, her visit to KU is remarkable, and I encourage anyone interested to attend. However, she has also sparked controversy in recent years, even in progressive circles where she is admired, drawing accusations of anti-Semitism. Rather than engaging in tired rhetoric of cancel culture, I think the KU community can see this visit as a learning opportunity. As a professor of religious studies, I believe my field has something to contribute.

Accusations of anti-Semitism come from two main sources. First, Walker’s repeated and enthusiastic endorsements of British conspiracy theorist David Icke, who claimed that world affairs are secretly manipulated by an interdimensional race of reptilian beings disguised as humans, and second, a poem by Walker from 2017 titled ” It’s our (awful) Duty to study the Talmud Debating Icke’s texts would lead us into a jumble of bizarre claims about the relative importance of Jews among Icke’s lizards, so let’s focus on the poem There, Walker names the Talmud, the ancient rabbinical text studied daily by millions of Jews, as the source not only of Israeli oppression of Palestinians, but of war and oppression in general.

To be clear, the problem is do not criticism of Israeli policy. Walker recommends that his readers research the Talmud by watching videos on YouTube, from which they will supposedly learn that this sacred Jewish text advocates the rape of children and the enslavement and slaughter of non-Jews. Jesus is presented as having been crucified for refusing Jewish election, and the Palestinians are reinterpreted as representatives of all non-Jews. Asked about this poem by a New York Times reporter last week, Walker responded that his criticism was “not about the Jewish people but about Israel, as well as the ancient texts and practices of all religions.” Whether for reasons of journalistic style or simple inability to push further, the reporter let this response stand. However, in my opinion, this defense of Walker should not be the end of the matter, but rather the beginning of a new discussion.

Walker’s characterization of the Talmud is outrageous and ignorant. YouTube is an unreliable source for researching the texts or practices of any religious community. More important than what is in the text, however, is the narrative of humanity represented by Walker’s effort to isolate and extract “problematic” passages. The same process is used by Islamophobes who say “if you want to understand terrorism, study the Koran” – as if the ancient text contains all the clues to otherwise inscrutable human behavior. Religious believers are not robots, controlled by their texts. And states are not computers programmed by religions. So why does Walker, a writer and poet renowned for her ability to evoke the human through words, think they are?

Walker understands himself as representing a more progressive and enlightened view than that of mainstream religion. She writes from the larger current of Western esoteric spirituality that includes New Age and Neo-Paganism, which hold that all religions are essentially the same, in their ethical core, but that the elite authorities within each religion impose foreign rules to strengthen their own power. ; therefore, we must attack and dissolve these rules with the overwhelming power of love.

What Walker may not realize is that this “spiritual, not religious” narrative is identical to the traditional anti-Judaic narratives of Latin Christianity. Following the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:6 (“the letter kills, but the Spirit quickens”), the Church portrayed the Jews as stubborn, fanatically clinging to their outdated law. This medieval image of Jews as frozen in time, having been superseded by Christianity, served as the model for European depictions of Native Americans, Africans, and colonized peoples as savages without a history. Christian supersessionism even inspired secular claims to have replaced Christianity. Walker’s poem, which simultaneously purports to interrogate Christian “programming” while hailing Jesus as “a committed revolutionary,” embodies this paradox. Walker may reject Christianity, but Judaism still represents the ultimate source of borders, and therefore of evil.

Walker’s amorous rhetoric isn’t innocent, and her neo-pagan spiritualism isn’t as different from the patriarchal monotheism she rejects as she’d like to think. In fact, he reconstructs the very gestures of exclusion that he denounces. I am not suggesting that Alice Walker should be “cancelled” or that this lack of imaginative sympathy vitiates all of her previous contributions to public life. However, we must understand religious literacy as a fundamental component of any project seeking to embody compassion for all. And such research should not be conducted on YouTube.

Samuel Hayim Brody is an Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies.


Comments are closed.