Alice Walker’s Colour Purple is a heart wrenching story of gender and power, of exploitation and liberation, of bitterness and encompassing humanity. It is an honest celebration of what it means to be a black female but more importantly, it transcends race. This work is a beautiful interplay of forgiveness and hope amidst a cadence of abuse, violence and pathos within families and communities.
Set in the 1900s, it is borne out of the experiences of black women, their oppressed reality, that continues to be relevant in many places in the world, revolves around the victimization and segregation of Black women and yet, celebrates the power of female friendships. Considered a pioneer of post-colonial feminist literature, Color Purple introduced Black feminism into the then male centred Black nationalist discourse. The book won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction, a first for a black woman.
The Color Purple is an epistolary novel about a young black, South African-American girl named Celie. The first letter addressed to God is profoundly disturbing where it is mentioned that Celie has been repeatedly raped by the man she calls her father. Despite her immense interest to learn and educate herself and her siblings, she is forced to drop out of school. Unable to make sense of what is happening to her and her own identity, she starts addressing her letters to God. With no relief in sight, Celie escapes only to be caught in another tyrannical relationship with a widower who makes her take care of his children and run house chores. Though Celie’s life continues to be miserable and choked up with self pity, it is an unfamiliar friendship that Celie forges with her husband’s mistress, Shug Avery, a bold, glamorous and independent singer, who helps Celie discard her understanding of God as a powerful, white man and urges her to discover a more nuanced understanding of God, beyond race and gender.
“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.”
This is underlined as Celie starts writing letters to her sister Nettie, which suggests her desire for a relatable and empathetic company and finally attaining spiritual freedom and love for self as she addresses her last letter to God, stars, trees, sky, people and everything. Shug instils in Celie self love, helps her overcome the emotional trauma her husband and others have put her through, encourages her to explore her sexuality and break away from patriarchal heterosexual norms that had reduced her to a slave.
Womanism, a term coined by Alice Walker, which at it’s core signifies the importance of cultural and feminine dimension to a woman’s existence, especially to include the narrative of Black women and women of color into mainstream feminist movements, is also highlighted in the novel. This is evident in the market places and when Sofia, Celie’s daughter-in-law is jailed and abused by the Police when she refuses to work for a white woman, the Mayor’s wife. Womanism in the novel also brings out the bonding between the various female characters, spirit-affirming sisterhood and the potential power of women coming together to attain socio-economic independence.
Purple colour is a metaphorical element used in the story to represent Celie’s pain and suffering. It represents the sexual violation and physical abuse that the men in her life inflicted upon her, since purple colour signifies clotted blood. In the latter part of the story, as Celie frees herself from the shackles of male dominion, and discovers her true passion for quilting and making apparels, the purple color represents freedom and independence.
The story is written in African- English vernacular, written from the perspective of a naïve, barely educated adolescent girl. But as the story progresses and Celie grows in experience, and realization of the things happening to and around her seeps in, the initially crude dialect now refines and so does Celie’s observation and her authority on her life and letters.
What makes this poignant tale of a woman’s struggle for equality and justice still relevant for millennials is the journey of self discovery and realization that no matter where we are, we can be more than what we are right now.
It is a story that will stay with you forever as a reminder of our unforgiving past and a hope for the future.
“I am an expression of the divine, just like a peach is, just like a fish is. I have a right to be this way…I can’t apologize for that, nor can I change it, nor do I want to… We will never have to be other than who we are in order to be successful…We realize that we are as ourselves unlimited and our experiences valid. It is for the rest of the world to recognize this, if they choose.”