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Alice Walker comes home

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Influential writer celebrates birthday in Eatonton

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    Alice Walker, Bobby Baines and Deputy Thaddeus Dennis (security) greet each other as the famed author enters the Alice Walker Box Seats at The Plaza Arts Center.
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    CASEY PARRISH/Staff Alice Walker reads an excerpt from her Pulitzer prize winning novel “The Color Purple.”
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    CASEY PARRISH/Staff Ending the birthday celebration, Alice and Valerie Boyd begin to dance before the audience joins them on stage.
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    SHANNON SNEED/Staff Visitors and guests begin to fill The Plaza Arts Center Theater to celebrate the Alice Walker homecoming.

Alice Walker, famed author and activist, returned to Eatonton last weekend for a hometown celebration that brought community and visitors together by a common theme spoken throughout the event – love.

Hosted by the Georgia Writers Museum – where Walker and her works are memorialized year-round – the Putnam County native was welcomed with open arms by childhood friends and new admirers.

RELATED: Walker says she feels ‘grounded in this town’

Event coordinators, including co-chairs Lou Benjamin and Valerie Boyd, provided occasions for everyone to enjoy the party celebrating the author’s birthday, including bus tours of Walker’s birthplace, family home, church and childhood school, Butler-Baker, along with the Pex Theater, where the award winning film “The Color Purple,” adapted from her Pulitzer prize winning book, premiered in 1986.

"Where your friends are, that’s where home is. I feel very welcome. – Alice Walker"

Planning Committee members Larry Moore, Janet Kelhoffer, Vonda Dickerson and Alison Law also helped spearhead the celebration.

With most of the bash happening at The Plaza Arts Center, ticket-holders filled the seats of the theater Saturday morning to watch a screening of the American Masters Documentary “Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth,” concluded by a discussion with the film’s producer/writer/director Pratibha Parmar and scholar Salamishah Tillet.

Parmar noted that, while building the film, through Walker’s journals she could see the process of a writer and how a writer’s mind unfolds on paper.

Boyd, a critic and writer, spent several years editing those journals to release a compilation titled “Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker,” which records 50 years of the artist’s thoughts as she fought for human rights and penned her many literary works.

That afternoon, the theater was filled again for readings and performances for the honored guest.

As Walker made her first public appearance from the elevated Alice Walker Box Seats at The Plaza, a crowd rushed over to greet her, the love and admiration shining up at her through their smiles.

From her seat, Walker was entertained by acclaimed violinist Dr. Melanie R. Hill and other authors and poets reading her work, including Daniel Black, Tayari Jones, Kamilah Aisha Moon and Evelyn C. White.

As she read some of her favorite poems written by her mother, including Eagle Rock, which she read in dedication to Moore, daughter Rebecca Walker announced that she was happy that her father, Melvyn Leventhal, was in the audience.

“This is super intense,” Rebecca said to her mother, “because I can hear you reading them. They are in my blood.”

Looking at Walker with a loving and confirming smile, she read the poem “We Have a Beautiful Mother.”

“I love you, Mama,” Rebecca said through teary eyes.

With a grand fianle for a proud grandmother, Walker’s grandson, Tenzin, performed a piano piece he wrote for his mother.

After the performances, Walker greeted her family on stage with a hug. “I’m so happy looking at all of us,” she said to the audience.

“When Rebecca’s father and I went to mission, it was to create this,” Walker said, speaking on her days as a young civil rights activist. “To sit together and listen to beautiful music and poetry together without embarrassment, without shame. Many people made the ultimate sacrifice, but we felt it was worth it. Every day we saw incredible heroism and love. It was all for this.”

After visits to downtown Eatonton, where she and guests toured the GWM and Artisans Village Art Gallery, Walker returned to The Plaza for an evening reception with birthday cake and a champagne toast.

After everyone sang “Happy Birthday” to the honoree, guests again filled The Plaza Theater for a Q&A with Walker and Boyd.

“How does it feel to be back home?” Boyd asked.

“This is not the Eatonton I knew,” Walker said, noting how pleased she was to see childhood friends Doris Reid and Bobby Baines.

“Where your friends are, that’s where home is,” she said. “I feel very welcome.”

Capturing the audience in a surreal moment, Walker then read an excerpt from her novel “The Color Purple.”

“Dear Nettie,” she began, noting it was her grandmother’s name.

Closing the evening with a fervor of exhilaration seeming to fill the air, Walker invited those in the seats to join her on stage to dance to some of her favorite tunes.

The guests surrounded her in loving celebration as they moved to the music.

See more coverage of Alice Walker’s birthday celebration in next week’s edition of The Messenger.

“This program is fueled by love, Boyd said as she and Benjamin opened the ceremony. “Love for Alice and love for the written word. That love is reflected in the music you will hear.”