Alice Walker is an American novelist, short story writer, poet, and social activist. In 1982, she became the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, which she was awarded for her novel The Color Purple. Walker’s specific brand of feminism included advocacy of women of color. In 1983, Walker coined the term womanist in her collection In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, to mean “a black feminist or feminist of color”. The term was made to unite women of color and the feminist movement at “the intersection of race, class, and gender oppression”. Walker states that, “‘Womanism’ gives us a word of our own”. because it is a discourse of Black women and the issues they confront in society.
The Colour Purple, follows a Black woman named Celie as she negotiates her life in early twentieth-century America. She is the eldest among her siblings, and it is shown from the start that she has a very close bond with her little sister Nettie. She did not have a peaceful childhood. She was raped multiple times by her father, and even gave birth to his children as a teenager. When was a little older, her father married her off to an older Black man whose sole purpose for finding a wife was to take care of his children and household works. In that marriage as well, Celie is abused consistently. But one thing that she brings into her marriage is the submissive and compliant attitude that she was accustomed to in dealing with her rapist father. Here too, she is not happy but she also did not think of trying to change things for the better; the picture portrayed is one of helplessness, unhappiness and subservience as a sadly normalized part of the poor Black woman’s life in America’s South.
The book is intricately laced with feminist ideas, and deals with the growing agitation demanding space for Black women as well – ‘womanism’ as we know it today. First, Celie was a victim of the patriarchy; she never thought of going against her father or her husband and accepted these grotesque abnormalities as the accepted normal for Black women, and did not even attach much sentimentality to them. In fact, like all subjected to a domineering patriarchal system and therefore conditioned to its ways, she too came to be a gatekeeper of this oppressive and hideous social order. If an individual comes out and expresses dissatisfaction with the system, people who have grown accustomed with their low-tier position as status quo, feel threatened by that disturbance. And we can see this happening when Celie’s stepson marries a woman named Sophie, and the latter turns out to be a bold and independent woman. When the son tries to control Sophie like how his father controls Celie, he was faced with harsh retaliation and he never could establish himself as the patriarch of his house. Upon witnessing this, Celie advises him to beat her up in order to ‘tame’ and make her an obedient wife out of the rebel. When the son tried taking the advice, Sophie brutally assaults him and confronts Celie about it. Later on, Celie confesses to Sophie that she just felt conflicted by seeing Sophie live out the courage and take up space in a place that clearly did not want her – the very courage that was lacking while dealing with her own miserable life.
But unfortunately, early 20th century America was still not ready to grow out of its extreme anti-Blackness. Although we as readers would have wanted Sophie to become a superhero for Black civil rights and a womanist icon, the book shows us how difficult it is to not conform to the actual social milieu of that time. It was simply not possible for a Black woman to stand up and assert herself, especially in the White South.
It was also an era when in wide areas of the South, secret societies sprang up with the aim of preventing Blacks from voting, doing everything to destroy the Republican Party which was then campaigning for liberal values and a just polity, going to the extent of even assassinating local leaders and public officials. The most notorious of such organizations was the Ku Klux Klan, which in effect served as a military arm of the Democratic Party in the South. From its founding in 1866 in Tennessee, the Klan was a terrorist organization. It quickly spread into nearly every Southern State. Led by planters, merchants, and Democratic politicians, men who liked to style themselves the South’s “respectable citizens,” the Klan committed some of the most brutal criminal acts in American history. In many counties, it launched what one victim called a “reign of terror” against Republican leaders, Black and White.
When Sophie was out and about in town one day, a White woman approached her and asked if she would want to be her maid. Clearly the question was incredibly rude and racially motivated – we have to remember that during Reconstruction era, Black women were largely involved in domestic works to support their family and also because they were not empowered or have the facilities to pursue higher jobs. In any case the White supremacist system would not have allowed them too. So in that way, the stereotype of the Black domestic worker was created, and that is what happened in this scene with Sophie. Sophie, being the blunt and fearless woman she was, replied with a simple “Hell No”.
Of course, in the White South, a Black person talking as equals, let alone using impolite language, with a White person was considered atrocious. Sophie giving a flat out refusal, an impolite one at that, had her mauled by White folks and thrown in jail. She was only allowed to walk out of prison if she agreed to become the maid of the same White woman, who turned out to be the mayor’s wife; and she did concede. This marked the breakdown of Sophie’s spirit; she could not leave the White household to even meet her family, her children had to be raised by her sisters instead and they never saw her as their mother. More than a decade later, when she was finally relieved from her maid occupation, the old Sophie was nowhere to be seen, only a battered and bruised soul of the original rebel remained.
I found Sophie’s story particularly tragic as it rings true for the countless underdogs who have tried to take up space and pronounce their rights clearly, only for the oppressors to completely crush their spirit till they shrink into their assigned tier again. That was what happened with Sophie as well.
Another interesting aspect of the book is how it explores the realm of the LGBTQ+ community. Now, Celie is shown as a person who cannot see the pleasure of sexual relations with men; she found it undesirable and bothersome. She never had any romantic feelings for any man either, but she had this sort of fantasy with a woman called Shug Avery, a famous singer, and coincidentally, her husband’s mistress. Celie had felt an emotional attention to Shug even though they had never met, perhaps she was the person that Celie wanted to be but knew she could never find the guts to be so. As they got to know each other, Celie began falling in love with her, and so does Shug with Celie. Alice Walker has beautifully written about Celie discovering what attraction and affection feels like after falling in love with Shug; and seeing such good LGBTQ+ representation, and that too about Black queer women, is very rare, and Alice Walker was definitely ahead of her time when she decided to incorporate this part into the story.
But despite Celie finally having someone she truly loves and who supports her, she still was uncomfortable with the way her life was. Her husband still abused her, she was still the servant of the house, and she still did not have a voice of her own.
When she got married, Celie lost contact with Nettie for over 30 years, never receiving the letters she was promised. Hence, she had assumed Nettie was dead. But 30 years later, through Shug, she found out that Nettie had been writing her letters through all those years relentlessly, but her husband had been taking away all of them as revenge for Nettie fighting against him when he tried to rape her.
This was the climax of the novel because at this moment, we can clearly see how Celie finally loses that single thread of subservience she had been holding to her husband. Nettie was the most important person in her life and the fact that her husband had been keeping her away from herself made her extremely livid. She packs her bags and leaves to live with Shug instead. This is where Celie starts taking her first few baby steps towards a self-sufficient life finally. She starts sewing clothes for Shug, and surprisingly found her passion in it. She starts taking orders, hiring more help in sewing, and establishing her own clothing company. This was very important for her as now she had financial independence; she was now her own boss.
What I love about Alice Walker is how she laid emphasis not only on financial independence but also on emotional independence in Celie’s case. After they started living together, Shug becomes interested in a new guy and goes with him on flings. This breakes Celie’s heart and she was driven helpless for months, missing and loathing Shug at the same time. Finally, Celie comes to terms with her life and finds closure: she now makes peace with the fact that being with Shug makes her happy but even if she does not come back to her, she will still be okay. In my opinion, this seems to be Celie’s true liberation – the realisation that your happiness does not depend on someone else and that they can only enrich it but not take it away from you.
Coming to Nettie, she was described as a very intelligent girl who was always eager to study and learn new things. During the times she was apart from her sister, she had met Black missionaries and sailed with them to the African continent. There, she began to live among the Natives and learn their way of life. In this part of the story, an interesting face of capitalism was highlighted. The coast on which the Natives lived were bought by the Whites and they had decided to establish a rubber plantation there. For that to take place, they had to destroy the villages and completely displace the Natives with no compensation. This was a hallmark phenomenon of the time – plantation-owners pursuing monetary gain with reckless greed.
It was also revealed at a later time that the man that Celie and Nettie had known as their father all their lives was in fact not their biological father but their stepfather. Their biological father had apparently been a well-off farmer, and even had two of his brothers to help him in running a successful store. White merchants however started complaining about how they were stealing their businesses, and so, they literally and physically destroyed their business, dragging the three men out of their houses in the middle of the night and hanged them. This also was unfortunately a common occurrence in the early twentieth century. Black people were lynched and murdered at the simplest annoyance a White person felt about their presence, and justice would never be served against the perpetrators.
Overall, I think the book is heart-touching, heartbreaking, and wholesome; everything about it is poignant and real. It is written as the heavy story of an abused Black woman finding it in herself to choose her own path and become truly independent.
The writer is an undergraduate student of history, Maitreyi College, Delhi University