A Life

By Evelyn C. White

Norton. 538 pp. $29.95

Evelyn C. White's new biography contains a hazy snapshot of eight black women. Dressed in 1970s-style winter coats and wearing soft Afros, they smile for the camera. Behind them is a portrait of blues queen Bessie Smith, who looks down upon them like a protective ancestor. The caption beneath the photograph reads, "The Sisterhood. A group of black women writers in New York who met informally during the 1970's." Among those pictured are Toni Morrison, June Jordan, Ntozake Shange and a petite, demure-looking Alice Walker.

Like Bessie Smith before them, these women have given voice to the longings, desires, struggles and triumphs of generations of black women. And, like Smith, they've done so in language that is both provocative and beautiful. The photograph memorializes one of the most creative, productive and controversial periods of African American -- indeed, American -- literary history. Black women had been writing and publishing for centuries but never had they received the kind of mainstream attention this group of writers would garner. These smiling women offered new images of black women, exposed aspects of black life considered taboo and revealed the emotional inner lives of black women in ways rarely seen in works of fiction. For better or worse, their serious and well-written fiction helped pave the way for today's commercial black fiction, too much of which is neither well-written nor serious and is certainly not as artistically, politically or intellectually ambitious.

In 1970 when Alice Walker, best known for "The Color Purple," published her first novel, "The Third Life of Grange Copeland," she had already emerged as a poet and short-story writer of great promise. Walker's novel was joined by Toni Morrison's first novel, "The Bluest Eye," and editor Toni Cade Bambara's "The Black Woman," a revolutionary collection of essays, poems and short stories. These works were both the products of and responses to the social movements of the 1960s, especially black power and feminism.

White captures the excitement of this moment, reminding us of its exuberance but also of the harsh, near-violent reception met by these authors. They were accused of collaborating with white racists in creating propaganda against black men, of not being feminist enough because they dared to express sympathy for and solidarity with black men, and of being talented but provincial because of the attention they gave to black female characters. And yet their work sparked dialogue and debate about gender, sexuality, incest, domestic abuse and myriad other issues that plagued black communities. As a prolific writer and influential editor of Ms. magazine, Alice Walker was at the center of this storm, always emerging as a serene woman with the courage of her convictions, a fierce pride in her southern heritage and an abhorrence of injustice.

White's attentiveness to personal stories as well as their historical context is the greatest achievement of this important work. She presents the life of Walker -- the precious, precocious and cherished eighth child of sharecroppers -- from her birth and childhood in the Jim Crow South to her politicization and involvement in the civil rights movement, her years at Spelman and Sarah Lawrence colleges, her interracial marriage, and her celebrity as a world-famous writer.

In narrating Walker's early life, including the incident that left her blind in one eye, White reveals much about the South that produced her: the callous cruelty of some whites and the enormous poverty of blacks who daily experienced humiliating encounters with racism and white supremacists. However, the book also reveals much about the devoted family and community that loved and nurtured this gifted child: a mother who encouraged her daydreaming and writing; a father whose leadership helped to build the school his children attended; a black teacher, Mrs. Reynolds, who allowed Alice to enter school at age 4 in part to keep her out of the cotton fields; and a bevy of doting siblings, one of whom described his little sister as "the icing on the cake and the ice cream too." The absurdity of southern racism, the complex family dynamics relating to gender and the dignity and resilience of poor black people became major themes in Alice Walker's writing.

The book has its flaws. The primary one may very well be the consequence of trying to write a fair biography of a living author. Too often, instead of analyzing a situation after she has presented it, White allows Walker to have the final word. This is most troublesome in White's treatment of Walker's relationship with her daughter, Rebecca. The demands of conventional motherhood pose a problem for many artists, often resulting in hurt children and relationships in need of repair. Clearly a loving mother, Walker nonetheless often made choices that favored her art over her child. During one of Walker's absences, the unsupervised 14-year-old became pregnant. While White gives some attention to Rebecca's ambivalence about her mother by quoting her at length, Alice Walker's version colors our understanding of their relationship, and she claims that she wasn't as absent as her daughter suggests. She also asserts that Rebecca's misunderstanding has led to ingratitude. Here, as elsewhere, we long for White to intervene.

In recent years we have seen the publication of several important literary biographies of black female writers, such as Alexis De Veaux's "Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde" and Valerie Boyd's "Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston." Despite its partisanship, White's "Alice Walker: A Life" is, like those earlier books, an invaluable contribution to our understanding of a major author.

Walker's early works caused controversy.