by Ashton Henry-Reid
‘The Color Purple’ has always been one of the books that has been held as the pinnacle of thoughtful reading. Discovering it for myself during the 2020 lockdown, it feels as if the aligning of the fictional narrative and the reality of the BLM movement was predestined. The book has a timeless quality in its depiction of the prejudice in 1920s Georgia. It presents ideals that echo through to the 21st Century and subtextual ideals that have integrated into my own thinking to racial constraints. Alice Walker uses the life of Celie to communicate to all minorities: even the meekest and downtrodden, those expected for a life of victimhood, can exceed the expectations with passion and community.
Tackling such a recognised novel, I feared my expectations would be set too high. However, reading is a personal experience and Walker’s craft beautifully captures the southern idiom, seamlessly integrating the reader into Celie’s world. Celie’s religious appeal, written as entries to God, and later the exploration of entrepreneurial capabilities for black people, resonates with me especially. The structure of the book reveals that, in her true connection to self and God, Celie is uplifted and capable of escaping hardship.
There’s a moment in the story when Shug Avery – an unexpected friend Celie meets – is outside with Celie who reveals her dismay in God, saying “if he ever listened to poor coloured women the world would be a different place”. This is a shifting point, where Shug helps her to see that her understanding of religion, her motivation at the heart of the entire story, is a white, blue-eyed, old man and therefore her oppressor. This could arguably be the cause of her demise, being assured in her abilities and who she is, a beautiful, black, and now empowered woman. She discovers that God is within her, in nature and all around her. This idea of having true power inside her allows us to view the entirety of her journey differently, her fate not being a spiral of victimhood, but prosperity. When she leaves Albert’s home, she is compelled by an unknown force that “come to [her] from the trees”. He tells her “You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman (…), you nothing at all”, but she overcomes this by reclaiming these ideals, “I’m pore, I’m black, I may be ugly and can’t cook, a voice say to everything listening. But I’m here.” Celie is aware of the power she holds in simply being alive, something I feel everyone should live by, religious or not. The lockdown for many was a time of deep reflection and this coming to me during quarantine saw my own reassurance and rediscovery of Christianity. The life of Celie in the analysis of biblical symbolism could be highlighting the idea of the holy trinity, the holy spirit being a convention she had been missing previously.
While this is a theory, we can also lean on the more physical changes when she begins to make pants when moving to Memphis with Shug. While sowing is a domesticated activity in the 1930s usually expected of women, Walker subverts the stigmatised task and showcases Celie’s passion for it saying, since she started “[she] ain’t be able to stop” and the joy she brings to others as a result. She explains that making pants back home with Shug spurred this love, which blossomed into a small company. The fact this love was nurtured by friends is something that jumped at me as, like her pants, I know the best ideas and songs can come from this same collaboration and bring people closer together. Furthermore, Walker explores more explicitly society’s relationship with race; when Celie discovered her real father’s brutal racially motivated murder because of the success of his store, as compared to white-owned competitors. This addition could have easily been cut from the book and not affect the narrative, but I feel in its inclusion Walker highlights the mirroring of entrepreneurship between father and daughter, with Celie unknowingly making homage to her father through her own success. In an obscure way, I feel this same parallelism with my mother wanting to achieve greatness not just for me but for her, fighting constraints in all the ways that her own time did not allow.
We get moments of similar triumph through Sophia and Shug Avery’s narrative which also comes to a blissful end. While it’s a secondary narrative, Sophia enters the text setting up her boundless presence and gives the book depth greater than just a happy story. She presents the truth of what can happen to those that fight against the system, but despite being forced into submission, imprisoned, and made servile, she fights against the dismissal of black women in the 1930s and eventually shares the wholesome contentment of community and victory in the finale of the story. For this, she is my favourite character, refusing to comply with the economic nature of the domestic dutiful housewife seeking equality in the marriage and never settling for anything less. When Elanor Jane and her baby, the white family that Sophia is made to care for, arrive at her home, Walker presents her untainted resilience and now equally wise and forgiving nature; this is symbolised in the way the iron sounds, “the sound have a lot of old and new stuff in it”. This shows further that even out of strife you can uphold your beliefs and morals learning and growing. You could say that her diplomatic fight against these forces, as opposed to her previous approach of slapping the woman, presents her renewed understanding of the operation of the racial hierarchy of 20th-century Southern America. It feels that in every character there is a lesson to be learnt from them, here the idea of planning a fight before acting impulsively, which aligns with the biblical motif of the book and the concept of thinking before you speak.
Reading loosely around the book, while I enjoyed the text, my view began to shift when understanding the widely shared distaste for the book from black critics. I think there’s beauty in the fact today’s critiques argue against the authority and elevation of the book. It reveals the progression of the world we live in. Where black people and women alike are not categorised as of one mind and nature, a world where we recognise that the actual narrative negatively forms stereotypes of black people in modern society. While its publication in 1982 worked to propel progressive and understanding mindsets around race, the surface-level narrative is perhaps the antithesis of this progressivism.