The Color Purple
Although she is an accomplished writer of novels, short stories, essays, and poems, Alice Walker is best known for her award-winning novel The Color Purple. It is a story of physical and spiritual survival set in a black community in the rural South of the early twentieth century. While some of the characters must fight the racism and discrimination of the outside world, almost all of them must fight for their individual identities and worth within the black community as well. In turns heartbreaking and triumphant, hopeless and hopeful, The Color Purple examines the struggle and rewards of being true to oneself in an atmosphere of oppression and loss.
The Color Purple is an epistolary novel (a book written as a series of letters), telling the story of Celie, a damaged young woman who is able to transform herself despite considerable opposition and to find ultimate happiness and fulfillment. The ninety letters that compose the book fall into two categories: letters written by Celie to God and letters exchanged between Celie and her sister, Nettie. Thematically, the majority of Walker's work—including The Color Purple—explores the many challenges that African Americans have faced throughout history, while remaining centered on the preservation of black culture, spirituality, and heritage. More specifically, she focuses on the often-harrowing experiences of black women, who encounter internalized racism, sexism, and violence within their own communities. In her Page 173 | Top of Articlebook of essays In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983), Walker describes herself as a "womanist"—a term referring to a black feminist, or one who "[a]ppreciates and prefers women's culture, women's emotional flexibility,… and women's strength" and is "[c]ommitted to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female."
In The Color Purple, Walker's commitment to nurturing wide-ranging and versatile images of black people is revealed in her use of nonstandard diction. Celie, the protagonist of the novel, communicates in a manner that is consistent with her life as a poor, uneducated black woman in rural America near the turn of the century. The novel has none of the indicators usually provided by an omniscient narrator; instead, the reader must piece together seemingly disparate bits of information from the letters in the novel in order to build a larger picture. For example, it is not uncommon for long, unspecified periods of time to pass between the letters. In fact, the novel, which spans approximately forty years, relies heavily on the details Celie provides and her descriptions of the other characters as indicators of time shifts and change.
In 1983, The Color Purple won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and received widespread critical acclaim. Two years later, it was adapted into an Academy Award-nominated motion picture by director Steven Spielberg. In 2005, it was adapted as a Broadway musical, produced by Oprah Winfrey, who co-starred in the 1985 movie. Because of its sexually explicit subject matter, The Color Purple is sometimes associated with controversy. It is among the American Library Association's "100 Most Frequently Challenged Books" of the 1990s for middle school and high school readers. Nonetheless, readers over the years have found Walker's characters, themes, and subject matter to be moving and unforgettable.
Fourteen-year-old Celie begins writing to God after she is raped repeatedly by the man she knows as her father and is pregnant with his child. He tells her, "You better not never tell nobody but God. It'd kill your mammy." In the first few letters, she tells God how her Pa (who is often referred to simply as "He") took her baby away from her as soon as it was born and how she assumes that her child is now dead. Celie describes the circumstances surrounding her mother's death and the birth and abduction of her second child, a son, who she suspects has been sold to a couple in Monticello. The third letter ends with Celie's hope that her Pa will get remarried soon, as he has been recently eyeing her little sister, Nettie, suggesting that he might begin raping her as well.
Celie explains how Pa has brought home a teenaged girl, Mary Ellen, to be his new wife. Mary Ellen's presence temporarily halts Pa's sexual advances toward Celie, and in a letter to God, she mentions, "[Pa] be on [Mary Ellen] all the time." Celie's younger sister, Nettie, is being courted by a widower, who is referred to as Mr.______. Meanwhile, Celie continues to suffer, especially after Mary Ellen falls ill and the job of gratifying Pa's sexual demands returns to her. She stoically endures these rapes in order to protect her "new mammy" from harm and her sister from incest. She advises Nettie to marry Mr.______, "an try to have one good year out your life" before getting pregnant. Celie mentions that she has stopped menstruating and realizes that she will no longer be able to bear children.
When Mr.______ proposes to Nettie, Pa refuses to allow the union. Claiming among other reasons that the scandal of Mr.______ wife's murder makes Mr.______ an undesirable candidate for Nettie, Pa offers Celie's hand Page 174 | Top of Articlein her stead. After months of deliberation, Mr.______ accepts Pa's offer and the men discuss the arrangements. With Mary Ellen's assistance, Celie acquires a photo of Shug Avery, a glamour ous blues singer who is rumored to be Mr.______'s mistress. Celie says Shug is "The most beautiful woman … mama … bout ten thousand times more prettier than me." This marks the beginning of Celie's fascination with Shug.
For Celie, life with Mr.______ is no better than with Pa. In addition to caring for his four children, she must cook and clean the house, as well as help him on the farm. Mr.______ frequently beats her. Celie's seemingly endless list of household duties is interrupted only by her worry about her sister, who is now unprotected, and thoughts of Shug Avery.
One day in town, Celie sees a girl she believes to be her daughter with the wife of a local minister. When she inquires about the child, the woman, who is later identified as Corrine, tells Celie that the girl, Olivia, will be seven years old in November or December.
Nettie joins Celie and Mr.______ after running away from home when Pa begins to threaten her with incest. The sisters take refuge in the closeness of their bond while Mr.______, who is still attracted to Nettie from their courtship, tries to pursue her. When his advances are rebuffed, Mr.______ decides that Nettie must leave the farm immediately. Celie advises Nettie to seek help from the minister, whose wife she had previously met in town. The sisters part sadly, promising to exchange letters. Silently, Mr.______ Page 175 | Top of Articlevows to prevent any further communication between them.
After hearing no word from Nettie, Celie begins to believe that her sister might be dead. A visit from Mr.______'s two sisters offers some relief in the form of a new dress for Celie and some encouraging words. But when Shug Avery comes to town, Mr.______ stops working on the farm, leaving all the work to Celie and his eldest son, Harpo. The brunt of the labor falls upon Celie when Harpo's new love interest, Sofia Butler, becomes pregnant and the couple makes plans to marry. Mr.______ opposes the marriage, but after their child is born Harpo marries Sofia anyway, and the three of them live together on the farm. Headstrong Sofia disregards Harpo's demands upon her and when he asks for advice, both Celie and Mr.______ advise him to beat her into submission. When Sofia confronts Celie about her betrayal, the women share their past experiences of abuse and forge a close bond of sisterhood.
Shug Avery is sick and Mr.______ decides to take her in against his father's advice. Not surprisingly, the burden of her care falls to Celie, who hears Shug call Mr. ______ "Albert." Celie, though, continues to refer to him as Mr.______ until the very last letter in the novel. When bathing Shug, Celie reacts to the sight of her naked body, saying, "I thought I had turned into a man." Celie steadily nurses Shug back to health and the women grow closer despite the fact that Albert and Shug have resumed their sexual relationship.
Subsequent letters detail the erosion of Sofia and Harpo's marriage. Three children later, Harpo is still trying to find a way to control his wife. After unsuccessfully attempting to dominate Sofia physically, Harpo tries to gain weight in order to subdue his wife, who is built like an "amazon." Eventually, Sofia and the children leave Harpo. After Sofia's departure, Harpo opens a juke joint and Shug begins to perform again. When Shug tells Celie of her impending departure, Celie confides to her that Mr.______ has been abusive. Shug promises not to leave the farm until Mr.______ stops beating her. As the months pass, Shug helps Celie to explore her body and her sexuality as they share increasingly intimate moments.
Celie relates the story of how Sofia ended up in jail for "sassing the mayor's wife" and punching the mayor. When the mayor's wife, Miss Millie, asked Sofia to come and work for her as her maid, Sofia replied, "Hell no." She was beaten almost to death and imprisoned as a consequence for refusing a white woman's request. When Celie visits Sofia in jail and sees the extent of her injuries, she does not know how Sofia could still be alive: "They crack her skull, they crack her ribs. They tear her nose loose on one side. They blind her in one eye. She swole from head to foot." The reaction of the mayor and Miss Millie to what is perceived as Sofia's insolence is accentuated by the fact that Sofia is black and poor, while they are rich and white.
In an effort to relieve Sofia of the unbearable conditions in jail, Squeak, the woman Harpo has taken up with since Sofia left him, conspires with other members of the family to manipulate the prison warden into releasing Sofia to the custody of the mayor and his wife. Before everyone can celebrate Squeak's return from her trip into town, she describes how the warden, who is Squeak's white uncle, raped and beat her during their brief encounter. Eventually, their plan to free Sofia succeeds and after three years in jail, her sentence is commuted. Sofia is allowed to serve the rest of her twelve year sentence as Miss Millie's live-in maid.
Celie writes to God about the changes in Sofia's personality after she is released from jail. Sofia openly expresses her newfound resentment of whites, and Celie remarks, "Sofia would make a dog laugh, talking about those people she work for. They have the nerve to try to make us think slavery fell through because of us." After relating an episode involving Sofia's failed attempt to visit with her family after five years away from them, Celie quotes Sofia, who says, "White folks is a miracle of affliction."
When Shug visits with her new husband, Grady, Celie and Mr.______ commiserate. Celie shares more of the details surrounding her Pa's sexual abuse and confesses to Shug that sex with Mr.______ has been unfulfilling. Shug tells Celie that because she has never experienced sexual pleasure, she is still a virgin, despite her marriage. Shug kisses Celie, and the two women make love. In retrospect, Celie writes, "It feel Page 176 | Top of Articlelike heaven is what it feel like, not like sleeping with Mr.______ at all."
The turning point of the novel occurs in this chapter, when Celie finally receives a letter from Nettie from Africa. Mr.______ has been hiding letters from Nettie since the sisters first parted. This realization makes Celie so angry, she has murderous thoughts about Mr.______.
With Shug's help, Celie finds and reads all of the correspondence that Mr.______ has been keeping from her over the years. The letters from Nettie fill in the gaps Celie missed in her sister's life. While Celie was afraid her sister was dead, Nettie had actually become a missionary in Africa after following Celie's advice to seek help from the minister, Samuel, and his wife, Corrine, whom Celie had once met. Nettie explains that Mr.______'s decision to make her leave the farm came after he attempted to rape her. Nettie's preparation for the trip to Africa is described, as well as how Celie's children came to be in Nettie's care. She reassures her sister that both Adam and Olivia are now safe with her in Africa.
Nettie's letters about the landscape and the people of Africa reveal parallels between the isolated sphere of the Olinka tribe that she lives with, and Celie's world back on the farm. Just as Sofia, Harpo, Squeak, Shug, and Mr.______ have become Celie's family in her sister's absence, Corrine, Samuel, Olivia, Adam, and Tashi, a member of the Olinka tribe, become Nettie's family. Nettie's letters about them familiarize Celie with the world beyond her reach. Through Nettie's letters, Celie confronts ideas of colonization, female circumcision, and indigenous religious traditions. Each letter shares more information on daily life in the Olinka village.
Five years after Nettie begins her missionary work with the Olinka, a road is built through the village, all but completely destroying the Olinka way of life. A forced relocation results in the Olinka having to pay the rubber company to use the same water, supplies, and land that was once their own. Meanwhile, stories of Adam and Olivia's friendship with Tashi reveal the various cultural differences, as well as the corresponding patriarchal (ruled by men) nature of African and American societies. After noticing how similar Adam and Olivia look to Nettie, Corrine becomes withdrawn and sick, which worsens as she worries that Samuel was unfaithful to her. Corrine dies peacefully after Nettie reveals to her that Adam and Olivia are in fact Celie's children, not her own.
Nettie tells Celie that the man they called Pa is not their real father, but their stepfather. At this point, Celie stops writing to God, saying, "My children not my sister and brother. Pa not pa. You must be sleep." Instead, she begins addressing her letters exclusively to Nettie. After Shug learns of the letters and the information in them, she tells Celie to pack her things because she wants Celie to move to Tennessee with her and Grady.
After discovering that Pa (Fonso) is not her biological father, Celie goes to visit him. Fonso confirms Nettie's story and recounts the events that led to her biological father's death. Celie learns that her father was lynched by white townsmen for having property and a successful business of his own. Fonso tells Celie,
The trouble with our people is as soon as they got out of slavery they didn't want to give the white man nothing else. But the fact is, you got to give 'em something. Either your money, your land, your woman or your ass.
After Celie's visit with Fonso, Shug restores Celie's confidence by telling her that the two of them are family now. Shug and Celie discuss Celie's decision to stop writing to God. Shug tells Celie to relinquish her image of God as a white-haired, blue-eyed, white man and to begin to look at God in a more inclusive way. Shug tells Celie to try and appreciate life and all of God's creations, saying, "I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it."
Sofia is released on parole six months early, and the family arranges a gathering to celebrate her return. In the midst of dinner, Shug announces that Celie will be returning to Memphis with her. When Mr.______ objects, Celie asserts years of pent-up anger, saying, "You a lowdown dog…. You took my sister Nettie away from me … [a]nd she was the only person love me in the world." Squeak decides to go with Shug and Celie, and then the party is interrupted by Eleanor Jane, the mayor's daughter. Because Sofia is on parole, she must "act Page 177 | Top of Articlenice" and accompany Eleanor Jane back to the mayor's house to help with some problems there. Sofia tells Squeak that she will look after Suzie Q, Harpo and Squeak's daughter, while Squeak is in Memphis.
In Memphis, Celie writes to Nettie about her new life. When Shug is on tour, Celie begins to sew pants and soon opens her own business, Folkspants, Unlimited. She continues to receive letters from Nettie in Africa, who has married the widowed Samuel. Nettie tells Celie about their struggles to aid the Olinka people, who are being forced further and further from their land. Meanwhile, back on the farm, Mr.______ has had a dramatic change of heart and is working hard in the fields, cleaning his own house, and even taking care of his children. Celie writes to Nettie to tell her that she has received word that Fonso has died, leaving the sisters a sizeable inheritance due to them from their biological father, including a house and a dry-goods store.
Celie goes home to look at the house she has inherited. When Shug confesses to Celie that she has fallen in love with a young man, Celie takes up residence alone in her new house and devotes herself fully to her pants business. Mr.______ breaks his years-long vow to prevent Nettie and Celie's correspondence and gives Celie a telegram saying that the ship carrying her sister, brother-in-law, and the children, was sunk off the coast of Gibraltar. All are assumed drowned. The same day, all the letters that Celie wrote to Nettie over the years come back unopened.
In her last two letters to Celie, Nettie describes the ever-increasing hardships of the Olinkas, who are dying from malaria as a result of the sudden change in diet and lifestyle brought on by the rubber plantation. She also summarizes the dramatic events leading to Tashi and Adam's marriage. She tells Celie that she looks forward to returning home in a few weeks.
In Celie's last two letters to Nettie, she talks about the radical changes in Mr.______'s personality. Since her return from Memphis, the two of them have come to terms with their past difficulties and reconciled. Mr.______ even suggests that they get back together. Celie also relates the end of Shug's love affair with the young man and her subsequent return to Celie. Shug moves into Celie's house, while Sofia renegotiates her relationship with her former employers so she can work in Celie's store.
In her last letter, which is addressed, "Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything. Dear God," Celie gives thanks for her sister and children's return after being separated for more than thirty years. The telegram she had received about their death was wrong. As Shug, Albert (Mr.______), and Celie sit on the porch of Celie's house one evening, they see a car arriving, and wonder who it could be. Celie nearly faints when she realizes it is her sister and her family. Everyone reunites to celebrate each other at the family reunion on the Fourth of July, and the book ends with Celie expressing her incredible gratitude, happiness, and feeling of youth.
Race and God
Critics have often focused on Walker's unapologetic portrayal of the black experience as seen through Celie's narrative. Yet one of the most overlooked themes in The Color Purple is Walker's exploration of God and spirituality. The first forty-nine chapters of the novel are letters from Celie to God. As Celie's only confidant, God allows Celie to share the experiences that define her troubled existence. God is a character in the novel, whose absence or presence signifies major changes in Celie's character. After discovering that the man she thought was her father is actually her stepfather, Celie writes to God, "My daddy lynch. My mama crazy. All my little half-brothers and sisters no kin to me. My children not my sister and brother. Pa not pa. You must be sleep." From this point to the penultimate (second-to-last) chapter in the novel, Celie addresses her letters to her sister, Nettie, who is a missionary in Africa.
The transition between God as confidant and God as the remote "white man" who must be sleeping occurs when Celie must confront her notion of God in terms of his physical appearance and apparent race. Celie tells Shug that "the God I been praying and writing to is a man. And act just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgitful and lowdown." Shug, who helps Celie Page 178
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negotiate this exploration, tells her that "this old white man is the same God she used to see when she prayed." She encourages Celie to look beyond the limitations of God's "blue eyes" and "white lashes" to see that "God love everything you love—and a mess of stuff you don't." This advice comes at a time when Celie is ready to give herself permission to go against the establishment—thereby developing into a more resolute and independent character.
Nettie's experience as a missionary in Africa contributes to the discussion when Celie notes, "Nettie say somewhere in the bible it say Jesus' hair was like lamb's wool," to which Shug responds, "The last thing niggers want to think about they God is that his hair kinky." With this exchange, Walker moves beyond more traditional concepts of God and Jesus, toward a more inclusive God, to whom Celie addresses her final letter. It seems that Walker is also suggesting that, like a mirror, the dominant physical representation of the Christian God reflects the white artist's view of himself.
This questioning of God's appearance, and the apparent manufacture of the popular image of God as a grandfatherly icon by white society, is further complicated by the Olinka creation myth that Nettie shares with Celie. Celie tells Mr. that according to the Olinka, Adam and Eve were not really the first humans as the familiar story goes, but the first white humans to survive to adulthood. She notes that to the Olinka, "naked" is the same word as "white" and those naked children (albinos) that were born to Olinka women were often discarded. This suggests that Adam and Eve's whiteness is derived from their original blackness. This inversion of the Judeo-Christian creation myth asserts the primacy of blackness, as opposed to the traditional notion of the primacy of whiteness.
When Celie begins to make peace with the men in her life who have so hurt her, she opens up a place for God to return. When he does, his nature has developed into a more complex concept. At the end of the novel, Celie writes, "Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything. Dear God," acknowledging the fullness she feels now that she is surrounded by the family that she had once lost. In this moment, the reader sees that Celie's spiritual connection with God has deepened far beyond the outpouring of secrets that "would kill [her] mammy."
Concepts of Beauty
The idea of beauty is a powerful one in The Color Purple. As Celie comes to see her own worth and beauty, she is able to love herself and consequently declare her independence from Mr. _____. In comparison to Nettie, Mr. ______ says of Celie, "She ugly. Don't even look like she kin to Nettie. But she'll make the better wife. She ain't smart either…. But she can work like a man." By the age of twenty, Celie, affected deeply by her environment, perceives herself similarly. Celie's evolution is only complete after she learns how to re-envision herself beyond Mr. _____'s estimation of her: "You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman…. [Y]ou nothing at all." By the novel's conclusion, Celie has gone beyond her physicality to define herself, her life, and her experiences.
Celie establishes a self-deprecating tone early in The Color Purple. When she describes herself in relation to Shug, she comes out "ten thousand times" less attractive than the blues singer she idolizes and describes as "[t]he most beautiful woman I ever saw." Celie's view of Shug stands in contrast to the mainstream aesthetic bias toward lighter skin and Euro-centric features: "Under all that powder her face black as Harpo. She got a long pointed nose and big fleshy mouth. Lips look like black plum. Eyes big, glossy. Feverish. And mean." These descriptions of Shug resonate with the reader precisely because they avoid the exaggerations one might expect from a lover and are deliberately candid.
Celie's idea of beauty is linked both to her sexual naivete as well as to mainstream beauty ideals. Only on occasion does Celie describe Shug in a manner that leans toward objectification. For example, when Celie describes Shug as "wearing a long white gown" with "her thin black hand stretching out of it to hold the white cigarette," it is clear that the emphasis is on the contrast between the whiteness of the gown and the blackness of Shug's hand, which Celie regards as "just right." These idealized notions are complicated by Celie's frank depictions of Shug: "She got the nottiest, shortest, kinkiest hair I ever saw, and I loves every strand of it." Celie thinks Shug is the epitome of beauty, despite other's reactions to Shug as being "black as tar,… nappy headed … [with] legs like baseball bats." In this way, Celie's descriptions of Shug enhance the authority and believability of these two characters. By suggesting, with less-than-"ideal" descriptions, that Celie and Shug's relationship exists beyond the realm of idealized beauty, Walker is able to infuse the text with the authority it needs for Celie's voice to go beyond tragedy into triumph.
After years of oppression, abuse, and mistreatment at the hands of men, Celie makes a extra ordinary bid for freedom and independence. Upon learning that her sister Nettie is not only alive but has been writing to her all these years, Celie's anger toward Mr. _____ becomes a motivating force. Combined with Shug's encouragement and love, Celie finds that she possesses a proactive spirit that had been dormant most of her life. When Celie announces that she is leaving for Memphis with Shug, Grady, and Squeak, Mr. _____ tries to hobble her self-confidence: "[W]hat you got? You ugly. You skinny. You shape funny. You too scared to open your mouth to people. All you fit to do in Memphis is be Shug's maid." In response to Mr. _____'s tirade, Celie calmly confronts him about Nettie's letters, showing a bravery Mr. _____ has never seen. She curses Mr. _____, telling him that for every hardship he has given her, he will suffer the same. As she drives away from Mr. _____'s house for the last time, Celie states her victory: "I'm pore, I'm black, I may be ugly and can't cook…. But I'm here."
Once Celie has escaped the abuse of her life with Mr. _____, she is able to achieve more than she had previously thought possible. One day, to keep her idle hands busy, Celie begins making pants that turn out to be popular among her friends and Shug's band. Shug suggests that Celie start selling them at a profit as a way to make a living. This endeavor becomes Folkspants, Unlimited, which Celie runs out of the dry goods store she and Nettie inherit from their biological father. She also inherits a house, so that she no longer has to depend on a man or even Shug in order to live—a tremendous accomplishment for any woman, black or white, at the time. For the first time in her life, Celie is free, and she writes to Nettie: "I am so happy. I got love, I got work, I got money, friends and time."
Jim Crow Laws
The Color Purple is set in Georgia over a period of forty years, including the era of legalized Jim Crow racism and white terror attacks on African Americans in the South. Jim Crow laws (named after a blackface minstrel character) came about in the wake of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which created "separate but equal" facilities for blacks and whites in many Southern states. These laws were only struck down through the efforts of civil rights activists, who made significant inroads to fighting legal racism and segregation during the 1950s and 1960s.
Civil War historian Ronald Davis recalls in his article, "From Terror to Triumph: Historical Overview," that Jim Crow laws worked to deprive "African Americans of their civil rights by defining blacks as inferior to whites, as members of a caste of subordinate people." These laws affected every facet of life in the South, including education, religion, public transportation, and the use of other public and private facilities including bathrooms and restaurants. For Southern blacks, the former Confederate states were marred by hopeless violence and terror that saw "the imposition of a legal color line in race relations, and a variety of laws that blatantly discriminated against blacks" (quoted in Davis). This is evident in The Color Purple when Sophia receives a heavy sentence for "insulting" a white woman by refusing to become her maid. She is beaten by a white mob and thrown in jail, an experience that would never have happened if Sophia had been white.
Not only were public and private institutions under the governance of these "separate but equal" laws, but even personal relationships and marriage were legislated at this time. In many Southern states, blacks and whites were not legally allowed to marry. (Alice Walker and Melvyn Leventhal became the first legally married interracial couple in Mississippi when they wed in 1967). During the Jim Crow era, African Americans were also restricted in their economic mobility, being relegated to mostly lower- and working-class jobs like sharecropping. The penalty for violating any of these laws, which existed only to sustain the racial inequality that originated during the time of slavery, was sometimes death at the hands of angry lynch mobs of racist whites. Such a fate befell Celie's biological father, because he refused to pay off white men to compensate for his business's success. As Davis notes,
It is impossible to know … how many of the nearly 4000 (recorded) African Americans lynched (mutilated and burned alive) from 1882 to 1968, were men and women who had challenged Jim Crow by some overt act of defiance. Studies by Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the great anti-lynching crusader in the early twentieth-century, suggest that most of the lynch victims were random subjects of white rage.
Resisting Jim Crow Legislation
African Americans resisted the circumstances under Jim Crow legislation in a variety of ways. Davis recalls that "many southern blacks resisted Jim Crow by hoping for the day when they could escape the Jim Crow South—much as their ancestors had used the Underground Railroad to escape slavery by going to the North." Monica Maria Tetzlaff writes in her review of Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South for the Journal of Southern History that Southern blacks often "protected one another, hiding men in danger of being lynched and laboring on the farms of families with too few able-bodied hands to make their crops." To provide a quality education for their children, communities often "pooled their resources to provide for black teachers who would teach longer than the four or five months allotted to them by whites in power."
For the most part, blacks were made to bear these conditions and often resorted to what Davis refers to as "accommodationist and appeasement tactics … in which blacks assumed positions and the appearances of non-confrontation." Celie's stepfather, Fonso, gives Celie useful advice to this effect when he warns:
I know how [white people] is. The key to all of 'em is money. The trouble with our people is as soon as they got out of slavery they didn't want to give the white man nothing else. But the fact is, you got to give 'em something. Either your money, your land, your woman or your ass. So what I did was just right off offer to give 'em money.
When Celie inherits her father's store, even though she hires Sofia, she keeps the white clerk who worked there before as a security measure against the Jim Crow acts of violence that led to her biological father's death by a white mob lynching.
Sofia, who responds "Hell no" when a white woman offers her a job as a maid, is Walker's example of Jim Crow resistance. This "insubordination" was punished by three years of hard labor and nine more of involuntary servitude to the mayor and his wife. African Americans mounted other forms of resistance against Jim Crow policies. This resistance, in whatever form, was often met with harsh violence from whites. Davis recalls that a friend of the great antilynching activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett—like Celie's father in the novel—was murdered for the crime of "owning a prosperous grocery store."
In The Color Purple, incidents like the rape and battery of Squeak, Celie's father's lynching, and the brutality of Sofia's twelve-year prison sentence are all examples of the living conditions for blacks during the time of Jim Crow. With the advances of black organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP), by the 1960s and 1970s, prominent black leaders had emerged. These leaders and their supporters were able to effect change, thereby achieving victories in law and on the level of public policy. Jim Crow was all but defeated as the problem of racial discrimination in the United States garnered worldwide attention and the civil rights movement was named.
Anyone looking for criticism on The Color Purple will soon realize that in many ways, the book has been overshadowed in the public arena by Steven Spielberg's 1985 film adaptation. When the book was originally published in 1982, its reception was, for the most part, laudatory. Mel Watkins, in "Some Letters Went to God," calls the book "No mean accomplishment," and "a striking and consummately well-written novel." Critics were quick to give Walker credit for taking on such an ambitious project. Yet, the sensitivity of the subject matter, combined with the epistolary and dialectical style of the novel, spawned more debate as to whether or not the overall project was successful.
The New York Times's editor's choice for "The Best Books of 1982• excluded The Color Purple, saying that "Everyone … agreed that its first 75 pages contained probably the best fiction written this year but that the quality was not sustained." Watkins also suggests in his review that "If there is a weakness in this novel—besides the somewhat pallid portraits of the males—it is Netti's [sic] correspondence from Africa," which strikes him as "lackluster and intrusive." This hesitance to proclaim the book an all-around success is echoed by others, with many critics pointing to Walker's often unflattering portrayals of black males as the most problematic issue.
The novel's subject matter has also been a source of debate and even censorship. According to Andrea Glick and Renee Olson in "Lacking Policy, WV School Board Orders Books Off the Shelves," in the 1990s, The Color Purple came under fire when schools in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and California challenged its appropriateness for school reading lists, citing themes of incest, lesbianism, and domestic abuse as reasons for its removal from school library collections. Since that time, The Color Purple has been challenged in several other states and continues to be controversial in school districts across the country.
In her article "Writing a Rationale for a Controversial Common Reading Book: Alice Walker's The Color Purple," Pepper Worthington pinpoints four issues that might explain the book's frequent censorship. These include: the subject matter (including rape, incest, lesbianism, drugs, and murder); specific words (like the word "nigger," used to articulate the oppressive nature of black experience); the narrator's overall use (or misuse) of grammar; and the epistolary motif of the novel (which may strike readers as dated). Worthington also adds that "the seedbed of censorship is a hidden, dreadful fear that the lurking unloveliness inside the human spirit may explode," as it does in The Color Purple, and that the only way teachers can illuminate the issue is by examining the "genuine motives" within "the entire issue of censorship." For the years 1990 to 2000, the American Library Association lists The Color Purple as the eighteenth most-challenged book in school classrooms and libraries.
Walker herself addresses many of the concerns and controversies that emerged from the publication of The Color Purple and the subsequent Spielberg adaptation in her book The Same River Twice (1996). She also writes extensively about the banning of her work, specifically the two short stories "Roselily" and "Am I Blue," in her book Banned (1996). Banned Page 182 | Top of Articleincludes the aforementioned short stories and an excerpt from The Color Purple, as well as commentary about what Patricia Holt refers to in the introduction as, "the bizarre configurations of censorship that have forced Walker to respond to political attack." Nonetheless, many have cited Walker's 1983 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for The Color Purple as proof of the book's lasting triumph.
Regardless of past or present controversy, The Color Purple continues to be one of the defining examples of contemporary American literature and is further distinguished as a great work of feminist prose by critics and readers alike.
In the following excerpt, Selzer discusses Walker's confrontation of race relations and class distinctions through the underlying text in The Color Purple.
An important juncture in Alice Walker's The Color Purple is reached when Celie first recovers the missing letters from her long-lost sister Nettie.
Saturday morning Shug put Nettie letter in my lap. Little fat queen of England stamps on it, plus stamps that got peanuts, coconuts, rubber trees and say Africa. I don't know where England at. Don't know where Africa at either. So I still don't know where Nettie at.
What matters about not knowing "where Africa at"—according to Celie—is not knowing "where Nettie at." By clarifying Celie's characteristic angle of vision, this passage highlights the intensely personal perspective that Walker brings to her tale of sexual oppression—a perspective that accounts in large part for the emotional power of the text.
But Walker's privileging of the domestic perspective of her narrators has also been judged to have other effects on the text. Indeed, critics from various aesthetic and political camps have commented on what they perceive as a tension between public and private discourse in the novel. Thus, in analyzing Celie's representation of national identity, Lauren Berlant identifies a separation of "aesthetic" and "political" discourses in the novel and concludes that Celie's narrative ultimately emphasizes "individual essence in false opposition to institutional history." Revealing a very different political agenda in his attacks on the novel's womanist stance, George Stade also points to a tension between personal and public elements in the text when he criticizes the novel's "narcissism" and its "championing of domesticity over the public world of masculine power plays." Finally, in praising Walker's handling of sexual oppression, Elliott Butler-Evans argues that Celie's personal letters serve precisely as a "textual strategy by which the larger African-American history, focused on racial conflict and struggle, can be marginalized by its absence from the narration."
By counterposing personal and public discourse in the novel, these critics could be said to have problematized the narrative's domestic perspective by suggesting that Walker's chosen treatment of the constricted viewpoint of an uneducated country woman—a woman who admits that she doesn't even know "where Africa at"—may also constrict the novel's ability to analyze issues of "race" and class. Thus Butler-Evans finds that Celie's "private life Page 183 | Top of Articlepreempts the exploration of the public lives of blacks," while Berlant argues that Celie's familyoriented point of view and modes of expression can displace race and class analyses to the point that the "nonbiological abstraction of class relations virtually disappears." And in a strongly worded rejection of the novel as "revolutionary literature," bell hooks charges that the focus upon Celie's sexual oppression ultimately deemphasizes the "collective plight of black people" and "invalidates … the racial agenda" of the slave narrative tradition that it draws upon ("Writing"). In short, to many readers of The Color Purple, the text's ability to expose sexual oppression seems to come at the expense of its ability to analyze issues of race and class.
But it seems to me that an examination of the representation of race in the novel leads to another conclusion: Walker's mastery of the epistolary form is revealed precisely by her ability to maintain the integrity of Celie's and Nettie's domestic perspectives even as she simultaneously undertakes an extended critique of race relations, and especially of racial integration. In particular, Walker's domestic novel engages issues of race and class through two important narrative strategies: the development of an embedded narrative line that offers a postcolonial perspective on the action, and the use of "family relations"—or kinship—as a carefully elaborated textual trope for race relations. These strategies enable Walker to foreground the personal histories of her narrators while placing those histories firmly within a wider context of race and class.
Both the novel's so-called "restriction of focus to Celie's consciousness" (Butler-Evans) and one way in which Walker's narratology complicates that perspective are illustrated by the passage quoted above. Celie's difficulty interpreting the envelope sent by Nettie at first only seems to support the claim that her domestic perspective "erases" race and class concerns from the narrative. But if this short passage delineates Celie's particular angle of vision, it also introduces textual features that invite readers to resituate her narration within a larger discourse of race and class. For where Celie sees only a "fat little queen of England," readers who recognize Queen Victoria immediately historicize the passage. And if the juxtaposition of the two stamps on the envelope—England's showcasing royalty, Africa's complete with rubber trees—suggests to Celie nothing but her own ignorance, to other readers the two images serve as a clear reminder of imperialism. Thus Africa, mentioned by name for the first time in this passage, enters the novel already situated within the context of colonialism. Importantly, Walker remains true to Celie's character even as she recontextualizes the young woman's perspective, because the features of the envelope Celie focuses upon are entirely natural ones for her to notice, even though they are politically charged in ways that other features would not be (for example, Celie might have been struck by more purely personal—and more conventional—details, such as the familiar shape of her sister's handwriting). Embedded throughout The Color Purple, narrative features with clear political and historical associations like these complicate the novel's point of view by inviting a post-colonial perspective on the action and by creating a layered narrative line that is used for different technical effects and thematic purposes. That Celie herself is not always aware of the full political implications of her narration (although she becomes increasingly so as the novel progresses) no more erases the critique of race and class from the text than Huck's naïveté in Huckleberry Finn constricts that work's social criticism to the boy's opinions. This individual letter from Nettie thus provides readers with a textual analogue for the novel's larger epistolary form, illustrating one way in which the novel's domestic perspective is clearly "stamped" with signs of race and class.
But it is not only through such narrative indirection and recontextualization that the novel engages issues of race and class. Walker's domestic narrative undertakes a sustained analysis of race through the careful development of family relationships—or kinship—as an extended textual trope for race relations. Any attempt to oppose political and personal discourses in the novel collapses when one recognizes that the narrative adopts the discourse of family relations both to establish a "domestic ideal" for racial integration and to problematize that ideal through the analysis of specific integrated family groupings in Africa and America.
An historical appropriation of domestic discourse for political ends, descriptions of the black mammy were used by apologists for slavery to argue that the plantation system benefited the people whom it enslaved by incorporating Page 184 | Top of Articlesupposedly inferior blacks into productive white families. And Sophia explicitly ties her employers to such plantation definitions of racial difference: "They have the nerve to try to make us think slavery fell through because of us…. Like us didn't have sense enough to handle it. All the time breaking hoe handles and letting the mules loose in the wheat." But through Sophia's experience in the mayor's household, the narrative demonstrates that it is Miss Millie, the mayor's wife, who is actually incompetent—who must be taught to drive by Sophia, for example, and who even then can't manage a short trip by herself. Thus, when she suddenly decides to drive Sophia home for a visit, Miss Millie stalls the car and ruins the transmission, the mistress unable to master driving in reverse. Too afraid of black men to allow one of Sophia's relatives to drive her back home alone, Miss Millie reveals her childlike dependence upon Sophia, who must cut short her first visit with her children in five years to ride home with the distraught white woman. Sophia's position as domestic within the mayor's household thus enables Walker to subvert the discourse of plantation kinship by suggesting that it actually supports a group of people who are themselves incompetent or, in Sophia words, "backward,… clumsy, and unlucky."
Predicated on this plantation model of integration, relations between whites and blacks throughout the American South reveal a false kinship not unlike that of Doris Baines and the Akwee. But in this instance the false kinship is doubly perverse because it conceals an elaborate network of actual kinship connections. Thus Miss Eleanor Jane's husband feels free to humor Sophia by referring to the importance of black mammies in the community—"… everybody around here raise by colored. That's how come we turn out so well"—while other white men refuse to recognize the children they father with black women. As Celie says of Mr.____'s son Bub, he "look so much like the Sheriff, he and Mr._____ almost on family terms"; that is, "just so long as Mr._____ know he colored." Like the apologists for slavery, then, the Southern whites in The Color Purple keep alive a counterfeit definition of family while denying the real ties that bind them to African Americans.
In fact, the underlying system of kinship that exists in the American South has more to do with white uncles than black mammies, as is clear from the scene in which Sophia's family and friends consider various stratagems for winning her release from prison. By asking, "Who the warden's black kinfolks?", Mr.―reveals that kinship relations between whites and blacks are so extensive in the community that it may be assumed that someone will be related by blood to the warden. That someone, of course, is Squeak. Hopeful that she will be able to gain Sophia's release from the warden on the basis of their kinship, the others dress Squeak up "like she a white woman" with instructions to make the warden "see the Hodges in you." In spite of the fact that the warden does recognize Squeak as kin "the minute [she] walk[s] through the door"—or perhaps because he recognizes her—the warden rapes Squeak, denying their kinship in the very act of perverting it. As Squeak herself recounts, "He say if he was my uncle he wouldn't do it to me." Both an intensely personal and highly political act, Squeak's rape exposes the denial of kinship at the heart of race relations in the South and underscores the individual and institutional power of whites to control the terms of kinship—and whatever power those definitions convey—for their own interests.
In subverting the plantation model of kinship in general and the role of mammy that it assigns to black women in particular, then, Sophia's position as an unwilling domestic in the mayor's household underscores the importance of the personal point of view to the novel's political critique of race relations. Indeed, the personal point of view of The Color Purple is central to its political message: It is precisely the African American woman's subjectivity that gives the lie to cultural attempts to reduce her—like Sophia—to the role of the contented worker in a privileged white society.
Finally, it is not surprising that, in elaborating her domestic trope for race relations, Walker is able to foreground the personal experience of her narrators while simultaneously offering an extended critique of racial integration. As Walker's integrated families remind us, the black family has seldom existed as a private, middle-class space protected from the interference of the state; therefore, the African American household is particularly inscribed with social meanings available for narration. Rather than opposing public and private spheres, Walker's narrative underscores their Page 185 | Top of Articleinterpenetration. If her narrative does reveal an opposition, it is not between public and private discourse but between the universalist ethos of the Olinka ideal for race relations and the historical experience of African Americans as reflected in the narrative's analysis of specific integrated family groupings. For if the Olinka ideal questions the true nature of kinship in the novel's integrated families, these families also serve to criticize the Olinka myth for tracing the origins of racial discrimination back to some imaginary sin of black people, rather than to real, historical discrimination by whites.
It may be, however, that the growing sense of racial separatism at the conclusion to the The Color Purple is not necessarily at odds with the Olinka ideal for race relations. Past discrimination itself may dictate that improved relations between the races must begin with the destruction of false relations—the discovery of kinship among the disenfranchised the necessary first step, perhaps, toward recognizing all others as part of the same family. Like the Olinka Adam myth, the conclusion to Walker's novel raises the question of the future of race relations, but also like that myth, the novel offers no certain predictions. One thing is certain, however. Critics who believe that The Color Purple sacrifices its ability to critique the public world of blacks in favor of dramatizing the personal experience of its narrators not only run the risk of reducing the narrative's technical complexity, but also of overlooking the work's sustained critique of racial integration levied from within the domestic sphere. Through its embedded narrative line and carefully elaborated kinship trope for race relations, The Color Purple offers a critique of race that explores the possibility of treating all people as "one mother's children"—while remaining unremittingly sensitive to the distance that often separates even the best of human ideals from real historical conditions.
Source: Linda Selzer, "Race and Domesticity in The Color Purple," in African American Review, Vol. 29, No. 1, Spring 1995, pp. 67-82.
Davis, Ronald, "From Terror to Triumph: Historical Overview," The History of Jim Crow, www.jimcrowhistory.org/history/overview.htm (December 1, 2005).
Glick, Andrea and Renee Olson, "Lacking Policy, WV School Board Orders Books Off the Shelves," in School Library Journal, Vol. 44, No. 1, Jan 1998, pp. 13-15.
Holt, Patricia, Introduction to Banned, by Alice Walker, Aunt Lute Books, 1996, p. 1.
Tetzlaff, Monica Maria, Review of Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South, in Journal of Southern History, Vol. 69, August 2003, pp. 733-35.
"The Best Books of 1982," in New York Times, December 5, 1982, p. BR3.
Walker, Alice, In Search of Our Mother's Gardens: Womanist Prose, Pocket Books, 1982, p. xi.
―The Color Purple, Pocket Books, 1982.
Watkins, Mel, "Some Letters Went to God," in New York Times, July 25, 1982, p BR7.
Worthington, Pepper, "Writing a Rationale for a Controversial Common Reading Book: Alice Walker's The Color Purple," in The English Journal, Vol. 74, No. 1, Jan 1985, pp. 48-52.