by Alice Walker
(New Press; 2006)

While Alice Walker is a strong advocate for social justice and the environment, her rhetoric has the sensibility of the poet and novelist rather than the activist or politician. In this latest collection of non-fiction essays and speeches, she shares intimate parts of her past and present as well as her passion for a wide range of topics such as Buddhism, writing, race, civil rights, feminism and Native American spirituality.

In many ways, Walker’s book is about trying to make sense of the confusing times we live in. The sense of both empowerment and ineptitude seems to be a peculiar condition of our times. Walker suggests that the silver lining of this era is our ability to communicate freely and share information like never before. She says, “ We may feel helpless but do not feel ignorant.”

Walker suggests embracing the opportunity for personal empowerment in our lives. She explores some of the simple pleasures, such as her dog Marley (named after the reggae musician), harvesting potatoes with her daughter on their farm in Mendocino County, or learning the basics of caring for orchids. This “following one’s own path” parallels her writing career as well. Instead of churning out serial novels after The Color Purple, she has settled on an eclectic mix of non-fiction, poetry and fiction.

Walker has always been interested in the environment and often presents it from the perspective of the Native American. At a time when American environmentalism seems increasingly preoccupied with green consumerism Walker focuses more on the earth, animals and future generations. Instead of advocating building more new green buildings she tries to imagine what cities looked like 100 years ago when there was more open space.

While her success has certainly brought a certain level of material comfort, I give Walker a lot of credit for openly exploring issues of class and inequality. For example, in a talk entitled “Three Fates” (about the birth of three different children with whom she is connected), she worries not only about the poverty of a child born into modest circumstances in Mexico, but also that the upper class Mexican child will live a life of isolation disconnected from the majority of her country’s citizens.

One of Walker’s greatest strengths as a writer is her ability to make connections and to share insights based on her personal experiences. For example, in a speech to a Korean audience, she recalls her brother’s military service there and explores the concept of sending young men to fight in foreign lands they know nothing about. The book’s essays are strengthened by the inclusion of a few relevant poems which help further explore the topic at hand, whether it is childbirth, aging, or ecology.

The talks were given over the course of a decade. It’s great to see Alice Walker navigating her own course as a writer, essayist and, of course, advocate for change. In a time when commercial values usually triumph, we have at least one cultural icon who is not ready for the age of the sound byte and talking point. That doesn’t mean that We Are the Ones is a completely optimistic or upbeat book. Its goal is to explore and understand where we are and what possibilities exist. After al, the subtitle is: Inner Light in a Time of Darkness. In other words you take what you can get.

Review by Brad Johnson