The Color Purple. Alice Walker. Harcourt, Brace, 1982.
By Rose Gladney
Vol. 5, No. 2, 1983, pp. 23-24
Speaking at the University of Florida in 1962, Lillian Smith observed that women were only beginning “to break the million year silence about themselves.” “Women rarely tell the truth,” she said, “even in their diaries, about their sex experiences, or their most intimate relationships; nor do they spend much time asking the unanswerable questions about the meaning of human life since they have never been sure they were human.” Smith linked in one sentence the necessity of women speaking the truth about themselves with their asking the unanswerable questions. In the same speech, she suggested that for women to tell the truth “might radically change male psychology.”
Although her own writing often challenged her culture’s rigid concepts of gender, Lillian Smith did not live to enjoy the literary flowering of the most recent phase of the women’s movement in America. For some fifteen years Alice Walker’s poetry, fiction, and essays have been-a major part of that flowering. In The Color Purple she has reached a new pinacle. You can rest easier now, Lil, the truth about women is being spoken.
Walker’s novel takes the form of letters between two sisters: Nettie, who is a missionary to Africa, and Celie, who is trapped in a brutally oppressive marriage in a Southern black farming community. Their correspondence spans the thirty year period ending in World War II.
A major theme in all of Walker’s writing has been the struggle of black women to create lives in the face of racism, sexism, and the inevitable self-doubt which accompanies generations of patriarchal oppression. In The Color Purple the struggle achieves fruition, but not through a gradual evolution over centuries or even decades, and not through mass organization of the oppressed against the oppressor. Furthermore, although the presence of white racism is quite evident throughout both sisters’ narratives, it is not the central theme. Of primary importance is the effort of black women to create their own lives with and without black men. The power to do so comes through the love and support of women for each other, expressed in a variety of ways.
Walker’s choice of form, letters between two sisters, allows each sister’s perspective to mirror and reinforce the other’s. Nettie’s description of life among the Olinka tribe echoes Celie’s accounts of her own life in rural Georgia. In both societies the “traditional” ideas regarding sexual division of labor and personal relationships between men and women insist on male dominance. Nettie writes:
There is a way that the men speak to women that reminds me too much of Pa. They listen just long enough to issue instructions. They don’t even look at women when women are speaking. They look at the ground and bend their heads toward the ground. The women also do not “look in a man’s face ” as they say. To “look in a man’s face ” is a brazen thing to do. They look instead at his feet or his knees. And what can I say to this? Again, it is our own behavior around Pa.
In both societies the real strength of the community can be found in women’s friendship with each other. Even as Nettie’s letters tell of the friendship among Olinka wives of the same husband, so Celie finds her greatest love and support from her husband’s lover, Shug Avery. The quality of the relationship between Celie and Shug is the key to Celie’s liberation from her role as “mule of the world.”
For Celie to free herself she must find her own voice, speak her own thoughts. Most importantly, she must replace the ideas of male dominance, the ultimate symbol of which is the image of God as male, with a new understanding of power. Shug is able to help because she understands the real power within every individual, part of the spirit of life itself. The turning point in Celie’s journey comes in her conversation with Shug about the nature of God:
Here’s the thing, says Shug. The thing I believe. God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into the world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it. And sometimes it just manifest itself even if you not looking, or don’t know what you rooking fort Trouble do it for most forks, I think. Sorrow, lord. Feeling like shit.
It? I ast.
Yeah, It. God ain’t a he or a she, but a It.
But what do it look like? I ast.
Don’t look like nothing, she say. It ain’t a picture
show. It ain’t something you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself. I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will he. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found It.
Echoing Shug’s understanding of God as key to liberation, Nettie writes:
God is different to us now, after all these years in Africa. More spirit than ever before, and more internal. Most people think he has to look like something or someone–a roofleaf or Christ–but we don’t. And riot being tied to what God looks like frees us.
Freed from her old concept of God, Celie begins to view all of life differently:
Well, us talk and talk about God, but I’m still adrift. Trying to chase that old white man out of my head. I been so busy thinking bout him I never truly notice nothing God make. Not a blade of corn (how it do that.?) not the color purple (where it come from.?). Not the little wildflowers. Nothing.
Now that my eyes opening, If eels like a fool. Next to any little scrub of a bush in my yard, Mr.______’s evil sort of shrink. But not altogether. Still, it is like Shug say, You have to git man off your eyeball, before you can see anything a’tall.
For Alice Walker, the power of sisterhood leads not to a separatist female community, but to a fuller life for both men and women. Under patriarchy men have feared women’s creative power and have sought to suppress it. In doing so, they have denied much that is creative in themselves as well. When women have managed to resist patriarchal definitions of themselves, the fruits of their love and support for each other have transformed the lives of both sexes.
As Celie begins to “chase the old white man from her head,” she is no longer subject to her husband’s abuse.
With Shug’s help, she finds the means to support herself. After Celie and Shug leave him, Albert begins to change his ways. Later, freed from former definitions of power, Celie and Albert come to know each other as friends, to work together, even to discuss the differences between men and women and ask the unanswerable questions:
Anyhow, he say, you know how it is. You ast yourself one question, it lead to fifteen. I start to wonder why us need love. Why us suffer. Why us black. It didn’t take long to realize I didn’t hardly know nothing. And that if you ast yourself why you black or a man or a woman or a bush it don’t mean nothing if you don’t ast why you here, period.
So what you think? I ast.
I think us here to wonder, myself. To wonder. To ast. And that in wondering bout the big things and asting bout the big things, you learn about the little ones, almost by accident. But you never know nothing more about the big things than you start out with. The more I wonder, he say, the more I love.
And people start to love you back, I bet, I say.
They do, he say, surprise.
Alice Walker’s writings pay tribute to a heritage of black sisters and foremothers: artists all, whether named or anonymous, a great host of witnesses from the rural American South to Africa, from the unlettered and unsung, to famous poets, story-tellers, healers and musicians. A major source of Walker’s power comes from her faithfulness to the richness of women’s spirituality. In her fiction, varied African and American Indian religious traditions sometimes merge and sometimes conflict with the concepts and beliefs of Christianity, but spiritual power remains fundamental. The Color Purple contains Walker’s best writing on the nature of God. It is also one of our finest testimonies to the power of sisterhood.
Rose Gladney is associate professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.