Journal of Transnational American Studies
“Ancestors We Didn’t Even Know We Had”: Alice Walker, Asian Religion, and Ethnic Authenticity
- Author(s): Garton-Gundling, Kyle
- et al.
Recent debates about the ethics of identity in a global age have dealt with how to prioritize conflicting local and global allegiances. Guided by these concerns, the fiction of Alice Walker develops a distinctive view of how local cultures and global movements can fruitfully interact. This vision depends on concepts from Asian religions, a major influence that critics of Walker have largely overlooked. Walker promotes Hindu and Buddhist meditation in a context of widespread African American skepticism toward Asian religions. According to widespread notions of cultural authenticity, Asian religions cannot nourish an African American connection to ethnic roots. In response to this challenge, Alice Walker’s fiction portrays Hindu and Buddhist mystics as African Americans’ ancestors, thus positioning these faiths as authentically black.
By creatively enfolding Asian religions into her sense of African American heritage, Walker builds a spiritual cosmopolitanism that relies on claims of ancestral affiliation even when these claims are not literal. This strategy is Walker’s effort to create a new paradigm of cultural authenticity, one that allows individuals and groups to choose their ancestors. Walker’s approach seeks to incorporate disparate global influences while still valorizing the figure of the ancestor. This innovative approach places Walker at the forefront of a growing number of African American artists and intellectuals who promote Asian religions to American minorities. Walker’s work vividly dramatizes larger concerns in transnational American Studies: Eastern philosophy’s relevance to identity politics, the tensions between universal ideals and cultural specifics, and the ethics of cross-cultural appropriation.