"Timeless People": The Development of the Ancestral Figure in Three Novels by Alice Walker

Jana Heczková

"[E]ven though today everybody talks about ancestors in a somewhat lofty way—ancestor this, ancestor that—they are actually very much like one's siblings. […] Some of them need to be negotiated." (Walker, Time 97)

One of the defining elements of African American literature is without any doubt the importance of the ancestral figure. Some African American writers perceive the concept of ancestry as crucial, and the presence of an ancestor in the text is at times as heavily laden with meaning as is its marked absence. The ancestral figure is an abstract category which gains its particular and unique manifestations differently in each text. Though the presence of the category in various African American literary texts is frequent and conventional, the actual imagery representing the ancestor is not; it is constantly questioned and redefined. The emphasis African American writers place on the ancestral presence in literature stems from the accentuation of the ancestral figure in both African American and some African cultures. In the realm of African American cultural studies, the term ancestor signifies "a singular entity" created of "the family members […] blur[ring] into one historic body" (Wardi 40). In other words, the ancestor is an abstract figure concocted from erstwhile concrete subjects. In order to visualize the general concept, each African American writer who employs the category in his or her texts works with it distinctly, depicting it in highly idiosyncratic imagery.

I will demonstrate the different figurations of ancestral imagery in three works by Alice Walker, namely in The Color Purple (1982), The Temple of My Familiar (1989), and Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart (2004), with special attention to its modifications in each successive text. The ancestral figure in these works is, among others, represented by Africa in The Color Purple, by the transcendent female character of Miss Lissie in The Temple of My Familiar, and by the former slave Remus in Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart. I argue that in The Color Purple and The Temple of My Familiar, the ancestral figure is a sublime entity which excites admiration and respect in the subjects living in the present. In contrast, in Walker's latest novel, the author transforms the ancestor into a human being whose personal problems are emphasized and can be settled only by an intervention from his / her present-day counterparts.

Alice Walker admits that she extensively emphasizes the ancestral figure both in her texts and in the creative process of writing. She dedicates The Color Purple "To the Spirit: / Without whose assistance / Neither this book / Nor I / Would have been / Written" (n. p.). In her contribution to a collection on African American women writers edited by Mari Evans, Walker reveals a very personal account of her creative process when she depicts the writing of The Color Purple:

I gathered up the historical and psychological threads of the life my ancestors lived, and in the writing of it I felt joy and strength and my own continuity […] that wonderful feeling writers get sometimes, not very often, of being with a great many people, ancient spirits, all very happy to see me consulting and acknowledging them, and eager to let me know, through the joy of their presence, that indeed, I am not alone. ("Writing" 453)

It is apparent that Walker understands the spirit and the ancestor as one and the same being which informs her writing to a considerable extent.

Walker's words corroborate the fact that in African American aesthetics, there is a general tendency to perceive the ancestral figure as one of the central components involved in the writing process. Apart from its presence on the level of the creation of the text, ancestors are also much accentuated in the works themselves. In her famous essay "Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation," Toni Morrison asserts that the ancestor is one of the "distinctive elements of African-American writing," and it can be "a grandfather as in Ralph Ellison, or a grandmother as in Toni Cade Bambara, or a healer as in Bambara or Henry Dumas" (343). In other words, the concept is embodied in various, distinct forms. At the same time, Toni Morrison reaches beyond the close family relations of grandfathers and grandmothers and terms the ancestors the "timeless people" (343). The timeless status implies the ancestors' abstractness and their ability to transcend both time and space, diachronically as well as synchronically. In Morrison's understanding, the particular ancestors coalesce into an abstract mass whose influence on the present is marked, regardless of the times or eras the individual ancestors originate in.

Accordingly, critics and writers perceive the term "ancestor" in this broad and general sense, or to employ Annisa Wardi’s expression again, as a "historic body." Via its abstract interpretation, the writers demonstrate the reconciliation of the past and the present, and/or the complex relationship between the two, employing for instance the imagery of ancestors reaching from the past to the present. Sandra Pouchet Paquet, in her analysis of Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and Tar Baby by Toni Morrison, emphasizes the necessity of "know[ing] [one]self in ancestral terms" (508). Along the same line of argumentation, Ikenna Dieke maintains that the characters of The Temple of My Familiar "betray a peculiar passion to reconnect with their past […]. For them, without a principle of continuum of the past merging with the present in a constantly shifting melange, it becomes meaningless to speak of the self" (509). Apart from the ancestor's abstractness, what is also obvious in Walker's texts, particularly in The Color Purple and The Temple of My Familiar, is a distinguished notion of the ancestors' superiority over the characters existing in the present. The respectable position of the ancestors is never explicitly stated by the author or by the characters themselves but is implied through the admiration by the present-day characters the ancestors receive. In other words, the ancestors' superior position is only projected on them by the subjects living in the present. The characters perceive their ancestors as supreme entities who are to be honored and who will provide guidance. Toni Morrison asserts that the timeless ancestors "are benevolent, instructive, and protective, and they provide a certain kind of wisdom" for the present-day subjects (343). But, as I will show in the following, the glorified status of ancestors as one's superiors, demonstrated in Walker's early texts, undergoes a definite change in her latest novel.

The relation of Alice Walker’s texts to the African American literary tradition has always been an ambivalent one. On the one hand, her texts can be perceived as deeply rooted within the tradition. In particular, her early novels such as The Color Purple make explicit reference to other African American texts, for instance to the already mentioned Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston, in terms of Gates’ critical framework of signifyin(g). In the context of the ancestral figure discussion, her compliance with the African American literary tradition becomes obvious in Walker’s very employment of the ancestral category. On the other hand, however, Walker’s texts are simultaneously perceived as extending the literary tradition and the so-called black aesthetic, which is consequently apparent in her questioning the concept of the ancestor in her latest novel.

The Color Purple: Ancestor as a Mythical Place

I will begin my analysis with The Color Purple, in which Alice Walker equals the ancestral figure with the geographical space of the African continent. The geographical location is first perceived by some of the characters as an intangible place of origin, or as something "lofty," to parallel the epigraph introducing this text. In these terms, Africa functions as a symbolic representation of the ancestor. The marked imaginative nature of the place is apparent in the comment pronounced by Nettie, an African American missionary to Africa, who says, "I never even thought about it [Africa] as a real place" (Walker, Color 137). Barbara Christian observes that Alice Walker is aware of a significant idealization of Africa in African American artistic production. Thus on the one hand, the continent is, in Christian's words, an "image, a beautiful artifact to be used by Afro-Americans in their pursuit of racial pride" (459). On the other hand, Christian claims that in Walker's fiction and poetry the author "does not romanticize it [Africa] or inflate it" and in a way hence "demystifies" the geographical region (458-59). A certain worship of Africa as the land of the ancestors is nonetheless evident in The Color Purple, particularly in a scene where a ship carrying missionaries to Africa reaches its coast, thus reversing the Middle Passage both temporally and spatially. Nettie, the African American character on board the ship writes in her letter:

Did I mention my first sight of the African coast? Something struck in me, in my soul, Celie, like a large bell, and I just vibrated. Corrine and Samuel felt the same. And we kneeled down right on deck and gave thanks to God for letting us see the land for which our mothers and fathers cried—and lived and died—to see again. (Walker, Color 149)

At the same time, Alice Walker indeed portrays some negative aspects of Africa, mentioning, for example, the people's attitude toward women, "[t]he Olinkas do not believe girls should be educated […] A girl is nothing to herself; only to her husband can she become something" (161-62), or the traditional rituals of "the facial scarification ceremony and the rite of female initiation" (247). In general terms, however, in The Color Purple Walker parallels the ancestral figure with the image of Africa which the present-day characters still perceive with admiration and esteem. Such glorification is, among others, related through the comparative knowledge of folk stories of Olivia, the African American girl, and Tashi, her African friend. When they share the stories, "Olivia feels that, compared to Tashi, she has no good stories to tell. One day she started in on an 'Uncle Remus' tale only to discover Tashi had the original version of it" (171). Some of the African American folk stories directly evolve from the African ones and in Olivia's perception are therefore inferior because they lack originality. In Olivia's view, African American stories are derivative and thus subordinate. The category of originality, consequently, is used to demonstrate Africa's superior cultural status and Walker's particular celebration of the region in this novel.

The Temple of My Familiar: Ancestor as Cultural Memory

The image of Africa as the ancestral figure undergoes an undeniable modification in Walker's next text, The Temple of My Familiar. The continent is still portrayed as the place of origin many African Americans long for and, like one of the characters in The Color Purple, strive to "see again" (Walker 149). On the other hand, Alice Walker devotes much attention to the depiction of Africans’ participation in the slave trade. She comments on the slave trade as being partly the responsibility of the Africans themselves also in The Color Purple, although she provides mere allusions to historical facts and does not dwell on details. In The Temple of My Familiar, however, such descriptions are more explicit and accusatory. The main character, Miss Lissie, recalls her capture into slavery:

it was my uncle who sold me. It was the uncle who sold a lot of women and their children, […]. There were four huge men squatting at the edge of the okra patch, […] they caught me and tied me up […]. My mother was just begging and pleading and calling for mercy, because she knew about slavers. (Walker, Temple 61-62)

After a naturalistic description of the hardships of the Middle Passage, Miss Lissie concludes her story about Africa claiming: "So I am very bitter about my old home, and who can claim I do not have a right to be? This is no heresy. I was there" (65). Africa thus loses its venerated status and at the same time ceases to be the embodiment of the ancestral figure.

Instead, Alice Walker elevates Miss Lissie to the position of the ancestor who represents the wisdom of the old times about which Toni Morrison speaks in her essay. Though there is a shift from the ancestor as a place to its representation through the corporal form of a particular character, Miss Lissie, as the epitome of the ancestral figure, still remains a very broad and abstract character. Some critics understand her as a representation of "race memory" (Dieke 508). Alice Walker portrays her as a person who "is a lot of women" (Temple 38) and whose name means "the one who remembers everything" (52). Her character functions as a reincarnating self who ceaselessly shifts through times and eras. She sees herself as a "traveler […] follow[ing] […] the ancient and pre-ancient paths" (366). In addition, other characters perceive her as "[t]his particular concentrated form of energy that was Lissie" (44) and as a person with "no certain definite form" (91). Her incarnations in different bodies and times help her understand the past, the present, and the future, as she declares connectedness "to all three planes—past, present, future—of life" (196). It can thus be argued that Miss Lissie's awareness of time together with her infinite corporal manifestations make her the very representative of the "timeless" ancestor Toni Morrison presents.

In Toni Morrison's definition of the ancestral figure in literature, the ancestor functions as a guide and advisor, which Miss Lissie indeed is. She urges another character to remember his tragically deceased parents and also assists him in overcoming his fear of remembering in general. Furthermore, Miss Lissie meets other criteria designed for the ancestral figure: she functions as the bridge between the present and the past, incorporating within herself all the experiences of her previous lives. She claims that the primary characteristic of the human mind is "to recall anything that was ever known" (65) and admits that she "swallowed past experiences all [her] life" (366). Some of her remembered stories happen "at about the same time the toucan was created," which again contributes to her timelessness (48). In Miss Lissie, the ancestral figure is no longer a place African Americans strive to absorb into their present existence but a living subject. Although the ancestor is a character and no longer a place, it has lost nothing of its sublimity, as Miss Lissie is a transcendent figure who encompasses the whole of the cultural, historical, and maybe even mythical, existence of humankind.

Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart: Ancestor as an Individual

In her most recent novel, Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart, Walker pushes the demystification of ancestral figure farthest by portraying the ancestors as relatives. In the novel, Alice Walker designates them in a familiar manner as the "old ones" (Time 15), and Kate, the protagonist, reveals she has "friends—the ones in her psyche" who provide her with advice concerning the future direction of her life (12). The ancestors who dwell in Kate's psyche are "from perhaps a century or so ago" (15) and they are always referred to in the plural, underscoring their collective nature. She refers to them as those "who'd lived and died miserably" (93) and as her "enslaved ancestors" who have to be honored (85). The implication that the ancestors are former slaves or their descendants marks a distinct shift in Walker's development of the ancestral figure. The ancestor is no longer associated with the geographical space of Africa or a transcendent character but rather with slavery as one of the defining experiences in African American culture and history.

Kate acknowledges being "plagued by those ancestors of hers," thus demoting the ancestors from helpers to obstacles in the subject's development (93). Furthermore, when Kate is prompted by a shaman to elaborate on her encounters with the ancestors she chooses one of them, "the man with no teeth," who is a concrete person living at the time of slavery (93). This representative of the ancestral figure is in stark contrast to the transcendent and timeless character of Miss Lissie. Walker distinguishes this character from the mass of nameless ancestors in the novel by the telling name of Remus. Contrary to the tradition, Remus does not understand himself as Kate's superior or as someone who possesses extraordinary knowledge Kate does not have. Instead, when Kate opposes his opinion, he reacts in an ironic but humorous way: "Who's the ancestor here? he joked" (101), thus deconstructing the presupposed ancestral superiority. In Walker's latest novel, therefore, the ancestral figure ceases to be the omnipotent guiding voice from the past as Toni Morrison understands it. However, designating the ancestor Remus, that is naming him as a classic African American storyteller figure, Walker still addresses the explicit connection between the African American ancestral past and the contemporary present. Yet, through the portrayal of Remus’s very real problems, Walker also refers to his human-like qualities.

Remus, in addition to not claiming superiority over the characters living in the present, also requests Kate’s help in facing the said problems. In consequence, the situation is reversed, with the past needing the present for its very existence. In a psychological perspective, such reversal is indicative for the extensive degree of interconnectedness between the past and the present, confirming Erik Erikson's observation that "the past is reconstructed in the relation to the present just as the present is explained by the past" (Piaget qtd. in Le Goff 16). Historical scholarship, especially in the French tradition of Marc Bloch, also advocates the importance of the present for the past: "In [Bloch's] opinion history must not only make it possible for us to 'understand the present by means of the past'—a traditional attitude—but also to 'understand the past by means of the present'" (Le Goff 107). Both of these views, psychological and historical, emphasize the importance of the past for the present and vice versa. Only by reciprocal interaction of the two planes can they form a continuum, with inevitable gaps and silences, but a continuum nonetheless. In the text, the coalescence of the present and the past is expressed through Kate, symbolizing the present, who provides assistance to Remus, personifying the past. When Kate's support is accomplished, the present and the past, Kate and Remus respectively, merge into a whole:

When Remus looked into her [Kate's] eyes and saw himself, his beaming new smile, his happiness seemed to make him weak. He stumbled and began falling forward, into her. She felt the heaviness of him, his hard head, his broad shoulders, even his scratchy hands, passing into her chest. They seemed to be falling into a place just coming into view […]. Though he was inside her, she no longer felt his weight. (102-03)

The hierarchical relationship between the past and the present is thus re-evaluated; the past does not assist the present, but quite on the contrary, the present supplies aid for its own past. Thus, with Kate and Remus, Alice Walker establishes some limits to the excessive praise and over-idealization of one's ancestors and the past they represent, which is evident in her two previous novels.


The epigraph to my paper, uttered by Armando the shaman in Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart, encapsulates the development of the ancestral figure in the three texts under discussion. In the course of the novels, the ancestors cease to be supreme beings advising and guiding the present mortals. Instead, they are perceived as human beings that once existed and, similarly to the individuals in the present, had to face difficulties, some of which have remained unresolved. Undoubtedly, the present needs its specific past for the sole purpose of constructing its identity but at the same time, the past needs the present in order to manage potentially unresolved issues. This is what Armando refers to when he describes the ancestors as "one's siblings" who have to be negotiated (Walker, Time 97). While Alice Walker does not belittle the importance of the ancestral figure for the present, she questions uncritical and blind devotion to it, abandoning mythical Africa and transcendent Miss Lissie for Remus who, despite still without tangible physical form, reveals characteristics of present day individuals. Thus in her latest novel, Walker unfolds further dimensions in the discussion of the interaction between the past and present and of the importance of the ancestral figure in such an interaction. Her latest text thus acts as a highly relevant contribution to the refiguration of the concept of ancestry in African American literature. What is more, even in her latest novel Alice Walker retains her ambivalent relation to the African American literary tradition. On the one hand, her novel explicitly employs the classic African American conception of temporality which collapses linearity of the past and the present and conflates the two planes into one continuous flow. Both Remus and Armando are embodiments of such a conflation. Remus can be viewed as the present-day individual but simultaneously, according to his name, as the storyteller figure and thus as a repository of African American collective memory and of the past itself. Analogously, Armando, being himself a shaman, is endowed with the ability of connecting the past and the present while communicating both with the subjects of the present as well as with those of the past, that is with the spirits of the no-longer-living ones. Yet, on the other hand, as I have attempted to demonstrate in my analysis, Walker’s refiguration of the ancestral concept also marks a certain break with the literary tradition and presents thus potential new platform for further redefinitions of thereof.

Works Cited

Christian, Barbara. "Alice Walker: The Black Woman Artist as Wayward." Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Ed. Mari Evans. New York: Doubleday, 1984. 457-77.

Dieke, Ikenna. "Toward a Monistic Idealism: The Thematics of Alice Walker's The Temple of My Familiar." African American Review 26.3 (1992): 507-14.

Le Goff, Jacques. History and Memory. Trans. Steven Rendall and Elizabeth Claman. New York: Columbia UP, 1992.

Pouchet Paquet, Sandra. "The Ancestor as Foundation in Their Eyes Were Watching God and Tar Baby." Callaloo 13 (1990): 499-515.

Morrison, Toni. "Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation." Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Ed. Mari Evans. New York: Doubleday, 1984. 339-45.

Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. New York: Pocket, 1982.

—. Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart. London: Phoenix, 2005.

—. The Temple of My Familiar. New York: Pocket, 1989.

—. "Writing The Color Purple." Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Ed. Mari Evans. New York: Doubleday, 1984. 453-56.

Wardi, Annisa J. "Inscription in the Dust: A Gathering of Old Men and Beloved as Ancestral Requiems." African American Review 36.1 (2002): 35-53.


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