Previously in Literary Trysts It Gives Me Great Joy To Think About: Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman totally did it.
There are precious few things in life worth knowing; the fact that celebrated American novelist Alice Walker and legendary folk singer Tracy Chapman had a romantic relationship in the middle of the 1990s is one of them. What. Yes. Hi. What. No. Yes. In a way, somehow I think I have always known. For a period of several years, the woman who wrote “Fast Car” and the woman who wrote The Color Purple regularly held hands and made out and arranged their dinner plans together, because we live in a world of great joy that delights in presenting the sorry, tired masses of humanity with improbable, perfect combinations.
This is the sort of fact that is not nearly as widely known as it ought to be. Tracy Chapman, it is true, in addition to looking like the lady fox from Robin Hood come to grinning, blushing life, is also a reserved and private sort of person, who does not go about regularly trumpeting the fact that she has known a Pulitzer prizewinner biblically, but it is nonetheless true and we ought to wake our own romantic partners up with a reminder of it every day. “Wake up, my love,” the partnered among us should whisper with every dawn. “Remember that Tracy Chapman and Alice Walker were once united in love and companionship and did the Jumble together on weekends.”
Right now a tumult of questions and feelings are fighting for ascendency within the labyrinth of your confused bowels; allow them to have it out. At some point in human history Alice Walker asked Tracy Chapman out on a date, and then they went steady. If they gave letterman jackets along with the Pulitzer (and I have no reason to believe they do not), Tracy would have worn Alice’s all through the winter of ’96.
“Where’s Tracy?” people who knew her would have asked at the time. “Where’s Tracy Chapman, who has the voice of the whole earth in her throat?”
“Tracy’s with Alice,” people who knew would reply. “Tracy’s with Alice Walker, who has written great and glorious words and has an intellect and a spirit of white-hot and dancing fire, her girlfriend, and they are eating frozen yogurt together.”
From an interview in The Guardian a few years ago:
I tell her people are still fascinated by her love affair with the singer Tracy Chapman in the mid-1990s. Moments earlier she had said firmly but politely that she didn’t want to answer any questions about her family life. (Her daughter Rebecca, from her marriage to Levanthal, published a frank memoir in 2000 in which she criticised the self-absorption of both parents after their divorce.) So I was surprised to see her face light up at the mention of Chapman. “Yeah I loved it too. Absolutely.”
Why was it kept so quiet at the time? “It was quiet to you maybe but that’s because you didn’t live in our area,” she answers with a throaty laugh. She has written about the relationship in her journals, which she plans to publish one day. So why did they decide against using their relationship to make a big social impact like other celebrity lesbian couples, such as Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche, have in the past?
Laughing throatily, Alice Walker put down her giant ostrich quill and closed her Relationship Journal — the cover was a color of jewels that hadn’t been discovered yet — and closed her eyes. Her throat laughed some more. “Someday I will publish this,” she announced to her lovers’ reminiscences stenographer. He clapped, also with his throat. It sounded like a flock of flamingos taking to the sky all at once.
She — they — were right to do it, of course, but imagine just for a moment if the face of celebrity lesbianism in the mid-90s had not been Ellen and Anne (oh, Anne) but motherfucking Alice Walker and Tracy goddamn Chapman. Imagine the men’s hats; imagine the tortoiseshell glasses; imagine the poetry readings and the matching, understated silver jewelry. It would have been a glorious world. I would have lived in it gladly and with my whole heart.
The idea seems to amuse her. “I would never do that. My life is not to be somebody else’s impact – you know what I mean? And it was delicious and lovely and wonderful and I totally enjoyed it and I was completely in love with her but it was not anybody’s business but ours.”
“Our love is our own business, Tracy Chapman,” Alice Walker — the woman who invented Shug and Celie with her own brain — said quietly one evening in 1995, after they had finished wrapping one another in linen and reading Rilke aloud in their Hummingbird Maze. “It is the business of none but Alice Walker and Tracy Chapman.”
Tracy only gave her a smile, but there was a world within it.
“Tracy Chapman,” Alice Walker said, “Let us go and have dinner together, and hold hands, for we are in love. Let us go out and get muffalettas, and then let us return home again and make transcendent love the likes of which even the dead cannot ignore, and then you can accompany me while I receive the Lillian Smith Award from the National Endowment for the Arts.”
Tracy nodded. “Let us do so. Let us take a fast car,” for Tracy could not resist the occasional topical joke. And Alice smiled, to see Tracy so pleased with herself. “Let us go get muffalettas.”
And they did.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.