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The Color Purple: A Black Literary Landmark

“I don’t even look at mens. That’s the truth. I look at women, tho, cause I’m not scared of them.” If I had to use one quote to describe The Color Purple, this quote by the protagonist would be most apt.

Set in Georgia, America of the 1930s, this epistolary tells the tale of a young black girl Celie whose life is entangled with tragedies of physical abuse, sexism, and racism, and how she emerges as a transformed woman despite these challenges with freedom as her achievement. This magnum opus of Alice Walker was published in 1982 and is regarded as one of the most famous books of all time. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1983 as well as the National Book Award for Fiction. The Color Purple was critically acclaimed and even after all the censure it was subjected to, and maybe also because of it, it still is considered to be groundbreaking. This article is my attempt at highlighting why the book is an important one about the Black community, especially because of how realistic it is in its portrayal and intense in its effect.

The period in which the story is set is defined by segregation for Black people. Not to mention, the South is particularly infamous for its discriminatory attitudes even today. The theme of racism is inescapable in the book and whenever it comes to explicit play, it’s infuriating, saddening but nonetheless enlightening. Alice Walker’s parents were oppressed sharecroppers, and in the 60s she became actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement; aspects of which manifested in her writing. Sofia’s imprisonment and subsequently forced occupation as a maid because of a harsh response to the mayor’s wife’s offensive remark shows how meticulously the racial oppression functioned: one wrong step and your entire life is just that. Even after the abolition of slavery, black women still experienced restrictions in jobs, as highlighted by Marvel Cooke and Ella Baker’s 1935 article about slave markets where White employers could hire African-American women for domestic labor.

Lynching was a common practice of the time. According to a 2015 report by Equal Justice Initiative, 4084 black people were killed in “racial terror lynchings” in the South between 1877 and 1950. This horrific reality can also be seen in the book where Celie’s father who is successful in his business venture infuriates the other White store owners with his success leading to his consequent lynching with his shop being burned down. These instances throughout the story are reminders of the excruciating anxieties that surrounded the oppressed and the severities that would break upon them. Historian Howard Smead in Blood Justice: The Lynching of Mack Charles Parker says, “The deadly act was [a] warning [to] the black population not to challenge the supremacy of the white race.”

The drama is raised as a milestone for Black feminism. Anna Janusiewicz says in her paper A Product of Womanism: Shug Avery in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, “Feminism in the early 1980s in the United States revolved much around social and cultural matters such as sexual liberation, self-definition, and self-realization for women,” which probably influenced Walker. A major theme of the book is the sexual abuse Celie is victim of by both her stepfather Alphonso (due to which she gives birth to two children) and her husband Mr. —. The other men in the story are also shown to have similar cruelly domineering tendencies – Harpo beats up Sofia to claim his authority, while Squeak/Mary Agnes is raped by the warden when she goes to plead for Sofia’s release. It’s in this context of overbearing patriarchy as well as the racism that Celie navigates her way towards a proud identity. Despite all the hardships she endures, despite all the diminution of her character and worth, in the end, she emerges as an independent woman. Shug Avery, who is viewed as a person who is morally deficient because of her relationships with many men, is Celie’s guide in the exploration and discovery of her own perception of spirituality and sexuality. Celie and Avery’s relationship was a ‘never seen before’ element of literature; the protagonist realizes her sexual desires when she is entangled in a lesbian affair (that is when she experiences her first orgasm!).

Avery is coherent with the concept of womanism (a term coined by Alice Walker herself) as she is self-assertive, determined, and confident. Sofia is also a womanist character and Celie too transforms into one. Such characters bring forth the essence of black feminism the book is famed for. It should also be noted that the story is told in the African American vernacular, which is also called non-standard English. This was done by Walker so as to show how the black people of the time really spoke, raw and authentic in its portrayal.

The Color Purple’s portrayal of the troublesome lives of black women of the time is heart-wrenching, and evidently, controversial. The book came under a lot of fire for its representation of black men as abusive. Walker was thought to have betrayed her people by serving to the notions promoted by White people, helping their Supremacist ideologies. However, the author has stated that much of the horrifying domestic violence is based on her grandparents’ lives. Aida Edemariam, in her The Guardian article, states that one of Walker’s grandfather chased his wife through the fields, shooting at her. Many black women have supported the story as being something they can relate to. The book has been banned in several libraries in the United States since 1984 because of, in the case of Oakland High School’s honor class, “sexual and social explicitness” and such. The release of the Steven Spielberg movie in 1985 fueled the discord: in a 1986 The New York Times article by E.R. Shipp, he records a Chuck Sutton, who had been a host on the subject, during the premiere of the movie saying, ”No media vehicle since ‘Roots’ has caused this kind of dialogue.”

The feminist scholar Salamishah Tillet has credited the novel for her coming forward about her sexual abuse and creating a project documenting her healing process. Celebrities have referenced the story and there are even ‘Celie Braids’ named after the protagonist. The 11 Academy Award nominations highlight the importance of the subject and the fact that it went home empty-handed gave birth to another controversy of it being snubbed.

The Color Purple has to its name relevance and influence that has hardly been available to anything else in black literature. It’s a piece of history and hope tied together, delivering themes that still spark debates. With this, Alice Walker has created something that will rapture the audience time and again.


Tanya Khantwal

Delhi South '22

Tanya is currently studying BA (History) Honors from Gargi College. She enjoys r&b music, action anime, conspiracy theories and daydreaming about finally learning how to play the guitar.
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