In celebration of Black History Month, Emily Pirie looks at Alice Walker’s ‘The Colour Purple’.
“You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.”
This haunting opening line has the same chilling effect now as it did when I first read Alice Walker’s feminist novel, ‘The Color Purple’ at the age of thirteen. For this opening line is spoken by Celie’s father, an oppressive figure who repeatedly rapes her and takes away her children. It is impossible to fathom the heartache that these actions caused Celie. However, through Walker’s powerful imagery and emotive language written in Celie’s deep American Southern dialect, the reader is immersed into Celie’s life and turmoil.
Written in epistolary form as letters to God, Celie wishes for an escape from her life of poverty and segregation in the American South. Celie pleaded with God for help on multiple occasions but they went unanswered. Instead, she carries on her existence believing herself to be ugly; in part because of her dark skin.
“Through Walker’s powerful imagery and emotive language… the reader is immersed into Celie’s life and turmoil.”
Issues of race and racism are prevalent within the novel. Moments of resistance are met with harsh consequences; Sofia, after fighting back against the racism of the mayor and his wife, ends up serving as a maid to that family. Walker makes it clear that there are very few career paths open to the African Americans in the novel; women are forced into motherhood, whilst men find that farming can be their only choice of occupation.
However, as the narrative progresses and Celie meets the defiant Sofia and the glamorous and independent singer, Shug Avery, the novel becomes one of hope and self-empowerment. With the help of these powerful female figures, Celie is able to claim back her own identity and confidence that has been stripped from her by the ruthless masculine figures in her life.
These moments of female resistance are hugely important for Alice Walker, a social activist as well as a writer. In 1983, a year after the publication of ‘The Color Purple’ Walker coined the term ‘Womanism’ to mean “a black feminist or feminist of colour”. Walker states that her “politics initially sprang from the shared belief that Black women are inherently valuable” and that black female’s “liberation is a necessity”.
“With the help of these powerful female figures, Celie is able to claim back her own identity and confidence that has been stripped from her by the ruthless masculine figures in her life.”
Therefore, it is indicated that Celie represents black females whose voices have been lost and suppressed in history. Walker gives these oppressed female characters a platform to discuss sexuality, religion and violence openly, allowing the reader to access their world, a sphere that is at times simultaneously painful and full of joy.
‘The Color Purple’ is a novel that should be read by all. It has the power to make you cry and laugh at the same time; emotions that will not let you forget this enchanting novel. Once you have read the novel, I highly urge you to watch Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation, in which the fantastic Whoopi Goldberg gives a spell bounding performance.