Alice Malsenior Walker was born in Eatonton, Georgia, the youngest of eight children, to Willie Lee and Minnie Lou [Tallulah] (Grant) Walker. Her father, who was, in her words, “wonderful at math but a terrible farmer,” earned only $300 a year from sharecropping and dairy farming, while her mother, who helped him in the fields, supplemented the family income by working as a maid.
Living under Jim Crow Laws, Walker’s mother had struggles with landlords who expected the children of black sharecroppers to work the fields as soon as possible. A white plantation owner once asserted to her that blacks had “no need for education.” Mrs. Walker’s response to him was ‘You might have some black children somewhere, but they don’t live in this house. Don’t you ever come around here again talking about how my children don’t need to learn how to read and write.” At the age of 4, Mrs. Walker enrolled Alice into the first grade, a year ahead of schedule.
Growing up with an oral tradition, listening to stories from her grandfather (the model for the character for Mr. in “The Color Purple”), [Walker] was writing—very privately—since she was 8. “With my family, I had to hide things,” she said. “And I had to keep a lot in my mind.”
In 1952 Walker was accidentally wounded in the eye by a shot from a BB gun fired by one of her brothers. Because they had no access to a car, the Walkers were unable to take their daughter to a hospital for immediate treatment, and when they finally brought her to a doctor a week later, she was permanently blind in that eye. A disfiguring layer of scar tissue formed over it, rendering the previously outgoing child self-conscious and painfully shy. Stared at and sometimes taunted, she felt like an outcast and turned for solace to reading and to poetry writing. Although when she was 14 the scar tissue was removed—and she subsequently became valedictorian and was voted most-popular girl, as well as queen of her senior class—she came to realize that her traumatic injury had some value: it allowed her to begin “really to see people and things, really to notice relationships and to learn to be patient enough to care about how they turned out,” as she has said.