The Color Purple

I decided to dive into #1000BlackGirlBooks by starting with The Color Purple by Alice Walker. It’s one of those many classics that I’ve never read. In fact, the only Alice Walker I’ve ever read was her short story, “Everyday Use”. For such a famous author whose work is so well known, it’s a shame that I’ve read so little of her work.

Going into this, everything I knew about the story itself could be written on a post-it note:

  1. It’s about sisters, I think
  2. Oprah was in the movie
  3. Something about shaving an abusive husband

When I got the book from my library, I was surprised at how thin it was. I’d been expecting something thick, a door stopper of a novel, because isn’t what the classics usually are? I was honestly afraid I wouldn’t be able to finish it in a timely manner, so I was a bit relieved to see that it wasn’t even 300 pages long. The Carl Hiaasen novel I’d just finished was longer than that, and Hiaasen isn’t exactly high-brow reading.

The second thing that surprised me was the readability. When I think classic novels, I usually think of long, flowery prose and hard to follow sequences. As much as I love reading, I do struggle a bit with purple prose and old timey novels.

Here, there’s two distinct voices telling the story. The first is Celie, whose passages are direct and often sparse, especially towards the beginning of the book. Nettie, Celie’s younger sister, is educated, and her letters reflect this. Through their letters – some received, some unsent – we learn the story of their lives over the course of decades. This is another remarkable thing about the novel to me. It covers such a long span of time, but it doesn’t waste words or drag it out. It never feels like a slog.

Alice Walker doesn’t pull any punches, either. On the first page, Celie is raped by the man she thinks is her father. By the second page, she’s had two children by him.

From what little I knew about the book before I read it, I knew Celie had an abusive husband. I didn’t know that she was abused long before he came into her life. Celie’s narration is concise in the beginning, but even so, I can feel her suffering and how trapped she is. For a long time, she lives in a world dominated by violent men with no way out. This is evident in even the way Celie refers to her husband, as only “Mr. _____”. He’s a source of fear and pain for Celie. It’s only near the end of the book, thirty years after it begins, that she calls him by his first name. Before she was able to forgive him, Mr. ____ had to show that he could change and do right by the woman he tormented. Celie also had to find her courage to leave him and start a life of her own. She wouldn’t be able to do this, though, without the help of Shug Avery.

There’s a lot of themes in the book: racism, sexism, spirituality. But the theme that spoke to me most was that of sisterhood and female empowerment.

Celie’s life with Mr. ____ is fraught with abuse, a cycle that continues when her step-son, Harpo, get married. Harpo loves his new wife, Sofia, but doesn’t know how to make her “mind” him. Celie tells Harpo to beat her. I initially thought this was Celie’s advice because abuse is all she knows. Later on, though, she tells Sofia that it’s because she’s jealous of her, because Sofia can fight back. And she does, frequently, hitting Harpo harder than he hits her.

Celie’s life only starts to turn around with the arrival of Shug Avery, a singer and Mr. ____’s former lover. Celie takes care of her while she’s sick, and they fall in love with each other. Shug intervenes and stops Mr. ____ from beating Celie, and helps her find the courage within her to defy Mr. ____ and eventually leave him for good. Celie starts a life of her own, making a living selling pants – Shug’s suggestion – and has her own house and store by the end of the book. Celie was in such a dark, hopeless place that she could hardly conceive of a way out. Shug’s love raises Celie up and gives her a new lease on life. Towards the end of the book, Shug leaves Celie for a younger man. Celie is heartbroken, but it doesn’t stop her from living her life.

Shug’s role really can’t be understated in this book. She’s a catalyst for so much in Celie’s life. Shug helps her find her long-lost sister (and her children, by proxy), leave her abusive husband, and stand on her own two feet.

But she also encourages Celie to rethink her views on God and religion.

Ain’t no way to read the bible and not think God white, she say. Then she sigh. When I found out I thought God was white, and a man, I lost interest. You mad cause he don’t seem to listen to your prayers. Humph! Do the mayor listen to anything colored say? [. . .]

Here’s the thing, say 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 looking for. Trouble do it for most folks, 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. [. . .]

She say, My first step from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds. Then other people. But one day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed. And I laughed and cried and I run all around the house. I knew just what it was. In fact, when it happen, you can’t miss it.

I’d like to tell you a little but about about my relationship with God and religion, though it’s constantly a work in progress. I was raised Catholic, went to mass every Sunday and volunteered at Sunday school. My parents put me in Catholic school when I was seven, not for religious reasons, but because my parents weren’t happy with the public school my sister and I attended. I went to Catholic school for ten years straight, and I was a believer. I said my prayers every night, got the sacraments, got confirmed.

And, of all things, it was the night I got confirmed – when the Holy Spirit is sealed within my heart – that started to shake things up. I’d received a book of “prayers for teens”, and out of curiosity, opened up to a prayer for non-believers. It asked Jesus to convert all non-Christians to Christianity so they wouldn’t go to hell. I’m not sure what I’d expected, but this certainly wasn’t it.

This really rubbed me the wrong way. I had non-Christian friends who were kinder, more generous and all around better people than some of the Christians I knew. But they couldn’t get into heaven just because, as George Carlin put it, “they pray to a different invisible man than the one you pray to”?

Yeah, no.

After that, the Catholic church’s doctrine started chafing me. Jesus preached love and tolerance, and so often the church’s teachings felt exactly the opposite of that. Then a tragedy occurred in my family that shook me and my faith to the core. I couldn’t understand why God would let this happen, what was the point of allowing it to happen? I was angry and confused and felt betrayed. After yelling, “Hey God, fuck you!” I declared myself an atheist.

I missed having that faith. But years later, when I tried to reach for it, there was nothing there. Praying was like talking to a wall, or having a conversation on the phone with no one on the other line.

I found my own faith instead, inspired by the loving connections I’d made with my friends. I prayed to my aunt and grandma for guidance. I’ve sent wishes and hopes and dreams out into the universe, and seen more of God and miracles in fog rolling in over hills, or hidden depths of kindness in strangers.

What I believe now is a grab bag: a mix of agnosticism and spirituality, praying to saints and ancestors, thumbing rosary beads while keeping God the Father out of it. There’s no set doctrine, no homilies, no guilt for breaking an arbitrary rule put down by an organization built two thousand years ago. What I do and do not believe in have boundaries that are constantly changing, and I float somewhere between them.

All this to say, I felt Shug’s speech about seeing God in all things – not just a bearded White man in the sky – more personally than I thought I would. When I first picked up this book, I thought it would strike a chord in me, but I never imagined it would be this chord.

There was something else that stuck to me, too. Because with the theme of female empowerment, I cannot forget the other half of this book: Nettie, and Sisterhood.

I tend to be drawn to sister stories. It doesn’t take a genius to see why. My only other sibling is my older sister, who I’ve mentioned in the blog quite a few times. It’s pretty obvious that she’s been a huge influence on my throughout my life. We’re exceptionally close, best friends or worst enemies and not much in between. When I was a kid, I wanted to be just like her, and do whatever she did. I was her shadow, and I let her get away with way more than I should have.

I did so because I loved her and admired her. If someone hurt her, it hurt me, too. No matter how much we fought, and the end of the day, I wanted to protect her.

That was one of the first thing that struck me, in the very beginning of the book. Celie has been raped by her stepfather, and notices that he is now turning his attentions to Nettie. At the same time, Nettie is seeing someone else, a potentially dangerous man. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Celie pushes Nettie to accept her suitor. She tries to protect her sister as best she can, even if it means sending Nettie to someone else who could hurt her. It doesn’t work out, and Celie is, essentially, sold into a marriage with Mr. ___ instead.

Celie only sees Nettie once during the early years of her marriage with Mr. ___. Nettie has run away from home and her abusive step-father, seeking safety with her sister. Mr. ___ sends her away, and Celie tells her to look for the preacher’s wife, Corrine, to help her. While she’s leaving, Nettie fights off Mr. ____’s rape attempt, and he vows to punish her and Celie for it. He hides all of the letters Nettie sends Celie, which go unread for years.

I was already pretty hooked when I got to this point. When Celie finds Nettie’s letters, I knew I was doomed. There was no way I’d be able to put the book down until I saw the sisters reunited.

Nettie becomes a missionary in Africa, and in her early letters, she’s so excited. She’s traveling, meeting people, and getting an education. She also truly believes that she and her new family will succeed as missionaries where others have failed for one reason: they’re Black. But when Nettie reaches the Olinka tribe, she finds that she’s still the “other”. She may be the same race as the Olinka people, but she’s still an American with a very different culture. Part of Nettie’s story is her and her family becoming accepted in the tribe, while at the same time challenging the tribe’s traditions.

This made me think of Alice Walker’s short story, “Everyday Use”. You can read the full text here, but I’ll give a quick summary. In this story, a woman named Dee comes home with her new boyfriend to visit her mother and sister. The story is about heritage: Dee’s trying to get closer to her African roots, while her mother believes that her daughters’ heritage is all around them. You can read the story in a few different ways, but I always felt a little sorry for Dee. She’s reaching and trying to connect to a culture that isn’t her own, which doesn’t have a place in her family’s world. While we can’t know what happens to Dee at the end of her story, we do know that Nettie comes to embrace the Olinka tribe while at the same time fighting against cultural practices that hurt the girls in the tribe.

To be totally honest, I didn’t connect with Nettie’s story the way I did with Celie’s. Maybe it’s because she doesn’t come back into the story for a long time after she disappears. Or that her story is quite different from Celie’s, more about finding family than finding herself.

After she and Celie separate, Nettie is taken in by the preacher, Samuel, whose family includes a wife and two adopted children. They bring Nettie on their missionary trip because Samuel suspects the children are actually Nettie’s, which stirs some jealousy in Corrine. Years later, Nettie uncovers the truth: the children are Celie’s that they both had thought were killed by their step-father. When Nettie, Samuel, and the children finally return to America, Nettie writes that she is bringing “our children” home.

There’s a lot that I could say about this book, talking about Nettie’s journey or Sophia’s time as a maid to a wealthy White family. But I’m sure that’s been discussed time and time again by people both more well-read and worldly than me. Instead, I want to focus on the relationship between Nettie and Celie. Celie puts herself in harm’s way to protect her sister. In return, Nettie brings Celie’s children back to her. Alongside that, she gives Celie knowledge about the world through her letters, and endless, consistent love.

That’s important. Because Mr. ___ and his children don’t love her, and her allies don’t stay by her side forever. Even Shug leaves her for a young man at one point. Nettie writes Celie letters that go unread for years, that she knows her sister might never see. But she also never stops writing them, even if Celie doesn’t reply. At least, not on paper.

The novel opens with two words, “Dear God.” Celie used to write letters to God in her head, until she finally finds Nettie’s letters. After, her letters all begin with, “Dear Nettie,” indicating both her newfound spirituality, and a connection with her sister that she thought she’d lost.

These aren’t the only things worthy of discussion in the novel. There’s so much that I could get into, but these were the things that made The Color Purple so compelling to me. It’s a story of changes, of family, and sisterhood lost and found. It’s about becoming your own hero, with the ones who love you raising you up.

And I wish I could just end this post with, “it’s a wonderful book, go read it,” but I won’t get away with that. It’s time to talk about that elephant in the room: race. And it’s going to be uncomfortable for me to do, especially because I’m fairly sure I’ll be sticking my foot in my mouth. But I wanted to start reading these book to broaden my figurative and literary horizons, and I think I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about race in some capacity.

This is going to sound strange, but I can’t help draw comparisons to the way I treat race to the way others might treat sex or death. That is, it’s something that you don’t talk about. Or if you do, you only talk about it with confidantes. Most people have little formal education about the above topics; a lot of your knowledge on the subject may come from entertainment, if you don’t have any experience with it. And when you finally do engage with it, it’s not easy. It can be scary. And it can definitely leave you feeling like an idiot.

That being said, let’s talk about race in The Color Purple.

One of the first things I’ve noticed is that the characters aren’t explicitly described as Black until Nettie goes to Africa. As the Writing With Color blog points out, authors will often only describe a character’s skin tone if they’re not White, as though White is the default race for every character. And without that description, it seems likely many readers will picture that character as White. I’m curious to know that if I had read this book without knowing anything about it, would I have pictured the characters were Black? Maybe it’s an experiment I’ll test out some day.

Another thing that struck me was Sofia’s role as a maid to the White mayor and his family. As I mentioned in another post, Roxane Gay’s review of The Help really made me think about what I’d taken away from that book and movie. In The Help, the maid Abileen loved the children she took care of, and the main character, Skeeter, was deeply attached to the maid who raised her. But Sofia isn’t Abileen or Minny. She describes being a maid as slavery, and she goes for years without seeing her children. When she is finally released, the mayor’s daughter, Eleanor Jane, continues to visit Sofia. Eleanor Jane brings her young son to visit Sofia as well, cooing over the baby and asking Sofia how much she loves him. Sofia snaps that no, she doesn’t love the baby.

I just don’t understand, say Miss Eleanor Jane. All the other colored women I know love children. The way you feel is something unnatural.

I love children, say Sofia. But all the colored women that say they love yours is lying… Some colored people so scared of whitefolks they claim to love the cotton gin.

Despite Eleanor Jane’s insistence that her son won’t grow up to be racist, Sofia knows otherwise. No matter how much Eleanor Jane cares for Sofia, her son is still going to learn the prejudices of those around him. Saying that he’s not going to be racist is a nice idea, but it’s not going to happen.

What this made me think of is something I’m a little more familiar with – benevolent sexism. Put simply, benevolent sexism is the idea that women are beautiful, amazing creatures that are to be cherished and protected. It’s more palatable and subtle than your “get back in the kitchen and make me a sandwich” hostile sexism, but it’s still sexism. So I wondered: what does benevolent racism look like?

So I did what I do best: read. I found a few scholarly articles on the topic, and I’m making my way through them. In the meantime, though, I’ll leave you with this definition of benevolent racism from the first paper I read:

[B]enevolent racism is not predicated on the usual process of de-racialization. That is, rather than invoking the liberal idea of “neutrality” or color-blindness as a way to dodge, deny, or defend the racialized social system that supports White privilege (as with other types of post-civil rights racisms), benevolent racism ostensibly acknowledges and often condemns a system of White privilege. However, it does so in a way that further legitimizes and reinforces racist attitudes, policies, and practices in the name of “benevolent” aims–i.e., in the name of supporting, empowering, and/or defending the Black community (Esposito, Romano, 2014).

Other than The Color Purple, work cited:

ESPOSITO, L., & ROMANO, V. (2014). “Benevolent Racism: Upholding Racial Inequality in the Name of Black Empowerment.” Western Journal of Black Studies, 38(2), 69–83.

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