Marita Golden – teacher, lecturer, author and literary activist – is the co-founder and President Emeritus of the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation, an institution founded in 1990 with the goal of fostering black writers and preserving the legacy of black literature. Her memoir "Migrations of the Heart" drew heavily on Golden's experience as an activist in Washington, D.C. in the 1960s, her time as a journalist in New York and her four years in Nigeria. Author and activist Alice Walker said of the work: "It is a book all women will find useful and compelling and all men who love women will find disturbing."Now, Golden's focused her attention on what she calls a "uniquely ugly and challenging" aspect of family life: the prevalence of Alzheimer's disease. Her newest book, "The Wide Circumference of Love: A Novel," explores the ways in which one family grapples with the destructive effects of early-onset Alzheimer's. I talked with Golden last month ahead of her appearance Thursday, April 27 at Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, 6:30 p.m. as part of the Arkansas Literary Festival.
You founded the Hurston/Wright Foundation over 25 years ago. Do any names or any shifts in attitude spring to mind for you as a sign of the foundation’s success?
I think I’m proudest of the fact that — even though our reach is pretty extensive — we have a summer writer’s workshop that’s hosted over 1,000 writers. We have an annual award that recognizes the international community of black writers, but I think I’m probably proudest of the award for college writers, which was our first program. We’ve been able to recognize very early in their careers dozens of writers who have gone on to be published, many of them to wide acclaim. So I think for me, the college award is probably closest to my heart, because of what it means to these writers very early in their career.
I read a phrase on your website, in which you say: “The writer is supposed to be brave and daring and to ask the questions others fear asking and to say if need be that the emperor has no clothes.” Because it was only this week that Congresswoman Maxine Waters and journalist April Ryan were ignored or denigrated for asking those kinds of questions on behalf of the public, your words immediately brought them to mind. How did our patriotism become so fragile that it cannot even be questioned by the press?
It’s many things. It is sexist, and it’s just politics. Politics is dirty. What you do when you don’t want to acknowledge the language or statements of your opponent — in this case, Bill O’Reilly didn’t want to hear what Maxine Waters had to say — so he put her down in a totally different area in a way that would garner immediate attention. So, her remarks get lost. Her remarks get completely corrupted. So, it’s an old game, it’s a sexist game and it’s nothing new. It’s a continuing fight. Same thing about Hillary Clinton. “Her hair is crazy.” It was implied that Bill Clinton should have had an affair because she was “so unattractive.” This is politics. And I think that people like Maxine Waters — they’re thick-skinned, or they wouldn’t have achieved as much as they have.
You have said you like to think of yourself as a “literary disturber of the peace.” Does that task feel more immediate to you now, in the shadow of this administration?
Sure, but when that happened, I made it clear; I decided what I was gonna do, and I had my own agenda that I was gonna stick to. I was gonna use my novels to talk about Alzheimer’s disease and African-Americans and Alzheimer’s. No matter what Trump did, I was gonna stay focused on that. So, I consider myself disturbing not so much the peace, but disturbing the silence around this disease.
Your latest novel, “The Wide Circumference of Love,” explores the turmoil and surprise that comes from having a loved one with Alzheimer’s. You wrote on your blog, “Even when their personality has been radically altered by the disease people with Alzheimer’s are still human and have human hearts and souls that are both a whisper and a scream. Those caretakers I met who experienced grace no longer asked why. They only asked how.” I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that there’s a lesson there whose substance extends far beyond Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s is an opportunity to discover who you are, how you are when you face a crisis. It could be cancer, it could be the loss of a job, it could be divorce. We think of Alzheimer’s in a particular way because it is a devastating disease; unlike most other diseases, there’s no prevention, there’s no cure. It’s the most impactful and most expensive. The least funded. The least talked about. And the way in which it impacts families — it takes down the person with Alzheimer’s, it takes down their children. It’s really a uniquely ugly and challenging disease. At the same time, the way we respond to it is the way we respond to all crises. The thing that I learned from talking to so many people and writing the book was that there can be grace in these very difficult moments, whatever they are.
Even in dealing with Trump, there’s a lot that people who are more progressive and who want to go in a different direction, there’s a lot that we’re gonna learn. The amount of organizing that’s going on under the radar around the country is just absolutely amazing. We’ve been here. We’ve been in this place before. Trump isn’t the first manifestation of the retrograde. And he’s part of America, his consciousness is a big part of America, so let’s acknowledge that, too.
So, life goes on. It continues, and for people who are committed to getting through these years, it’s just finding your focus. What’s gonna keep you strong? What’s gonna keep you feeling empowered? And for me, coming out of that novel and said, "Okay, I’m an activist on this." I’m still going to be talking wherever I can and to whomever I can about this issue. You find out how effective you can be in the midst of the storm.
You said in that same interview that you wish the black community supported serious fiction more. How do you see that happening? Where do we start?
Nothing happens in a vacuum, and serious literature has a real problem in this country anyway. A typical literary novelist may sell 6 or 7 thousand copies of a book, even after they’ve won a major award. It’s not unusual for those big major awards to still yet — maybe they sell 10,000 copies. They may sell 15,000 copies — in a country of 350 million people. So the challenge for the larger society is this appreciation of literary fiction, and among African-Americans, I think that since I wrote that, we’re actually moving in that direction. The work of the Foundation and other organizations are creating the next generation of writers.
You also have a lot of African-American book clubs around the country, and they’re growing in sophistication in terms of the types of books that they wanna read. The commercial fiction that was really popular about a decade ago was sort of overshadowing a lot of literary African-American writers, and some of that’s gone by the wayside. I think things are improving gradually, but we’re just not a culture, period, that really appreciates serious literary fiction and non-fiction, so those books that find a huge audience are really rare, given that there are millions of books published in this country every year. I’d like to see kids in school reading more literary books, more whole books. I did a presentation in a school one time, and a young man told me he got through high school without ever reading a whole novel. He’d read chapters, but never read a whole novel.
I wanna quote from your essay “My Black Hair,” part of a compilation called "Me, My Hair and I: Twenty-seven Women Untangle an Obsession." You say: “The process of losing the straightness of the hot comb was even called 'going back.' I got the message early on. I was not to face the world until my hair looked as near as it could to 'good hair,' also known as 'White girl’s hair.' Is it any wonder that I soon developed the habit of standing in front of my mother’s gilt-edged mirror with her silk scarves pinned on my head and imagining that those scarves were my real hair and that I had been transformed into Cinderella and Snow White? I spent countless hours alone in front of that mirror, hypnotized by what I wished for and what my imagination had made real. To have a White girl’s hair.”
How does that change? What does that look like? Where are companies — maybe Disney or Pixar or Marvel — falling short for girls? That is, how do black girls begin to have an appreciation of their own beauty that is not rooted in Disney-fied Eurocentrism?
Before we look at them, I would look within our own community. We need more diverse images. We need to define more widely what is beautiful; what is “good hair.” I think one of the reasons people like Maxine Waters will wear wigs - and they will tell you this — is that very often in the white corporate world, the white power world, they have to conform to a white standard of beauty. That’s just the reality, or they’re not taken seriously, or people are afraid of them. So I think that the more conversation about it, the more you see of it. That’s what you saw in the '60s, all of a sudden everybody was wearing their hair natural. You saw that. The frequency of it legitimized it.
And I don’t think every black woman has to have natural hair. The beauty of black hair is that it can be so many different things. It can be braided. It can be straightened. You can put weaves in it. You can wear it natural. But there still remains a dangerous belief about what is the best hair, and I don’t know that African-Americans can say to Disney, “Oh, you should do more.” Maybe, yes, but I’d like to look at ourselves first.