I first attempted to read The Color Purple when I was 14. I’d recently been introduced to the film, and thought that reading the original work would enhance my understanding of Steven Spielberg’s adaptation. I was wrong. I was a voracious reader, and even I couldn’t grasp the magnitude of Alice Walker’s phenomenal masterpiece. It wasn’t until I reread The Color Purple as a senior in college that I was able to understand the feat Walker was able to accomplish by publishing a novel that chronicles friendship and love and triumph through the lenses of multiple Black women.
The Color Purple is the multi-generational tale of Celie, a poor woman living with an abusive husband in the rural South. Celie is constructed as the classic victim of both patriarchy and abuse. She is raped and impregnated by her father, who also successfully silences her by telling her that nobody but God can know he’s abusing her. Unintentionally, Celie’s father also gives her voice; she begins writing detailed letters to God about what she’s experiencing and what’s happening in the world around her. Celie emotionally bleeds all over and throughout her journal entries written to God. From the incestuous rape that she was enduring at the hands of her father to the birth and adoption of her children, writing provides Celie solace. She finds comfort in expressing herself, even if her words are only traveling to the Lord’s ears. Celie’s father then sells her to an abusive man who wants both a wife and a servant; he is also abusive toward Celie. Celie’s hurt is facilitated by her father and her husband.
When Celie encounters Shug Avery, she begins to discover that she can exist outside of her husband’s abuse…Their friendship, and eventual relationship, is built and sustained by love and resilience.
Celie’s husband is Albert, who’s referred to as Mr. ____ throughout the book. He’s brutish, abusive, unloving and sexually aggressive toward Celie. Mr. ____ expects Celie to fulfill all domestic duties, including cleaning the house, caring for his children, and sexually satisfying him on demand. Though Celie completes her obligations without complaint, Mr. ____ is still abusive toward her in order to maintain control. Yet, throughout the book, Celie is seeking freedom from Mr. ____ and his control over her life. She finds it in sisterhood with several other women, including Sophia (wife of Celie’s stepson, Harpo) and Shug (the love of Mr. ____’s life).
Sophia is fiercely independent and unwilling to submit to men or the white power structure. Though she is married to Harpo and is expected to fulfill her duties as a wife, Sofia refuses to be dominated. Sophia, like Celie, desires to be free. She is punished for that desire and forced to serve a prison term for not surrendering to the mayor and his wife. Sophia’s fierceness inspires Celie, just as Shug does.
Shug has been able to live her life on her terms without having to answer to someone about her choices. Shug is untamed, wild and brings chaos into Celie’s life and home. Shug is the love of Celie’s husband’s life, but the world makes little space for such a free Black woman. For Shug, an irreconcilable split with her preacher father is her punishment for being liberated. Shug’s father disowns her and removes her children from her custody, so she attempts to make herself “respectable” by getting married and leaving her jazz-singing lifestyle behind.
When Celie encounters Shug Avery, she begins to discover that she can exist outside of her husband’s abuse. Initially, Shug is unkind to Celie. She calls her ugly when she first meets her and ignores Celie. However, she eventually learns to love Celie, especially as the latter begins caring for her. As Shug recovers from a venereal disease, Celie prepares meals for her, brushes her hair and listens to her stories about a turbulent life that’s included much pain. Their bond is strengthened as Shug strengthens. Once Shug is at full stealth, she begins repairing Celie’s broken spirit. When Celie’s husband, Mr. ____, brings her to the juke joint, Shug sings a song of solidarity to Celie. Shug prepares a song called “Miss Celie’s Blues,” which is an ode to her being able to see Celie in the totality of who she is.
…a novel that chronicles friendship and love and triumph through the lenses of multiple Black women.
In “Miss Celie’s Blues,” Shug refers to Celie as “sister,” which signifies their kinship. That bond assists in liberating Celie from the oppression of her partner. This leads to minor acts of resistance, like Celie’s decision to spit in her father-in-law’s glass of water after he insults Shug. There’s also the assumption that Shug and Celie spark an intimate relationship that frees her sexually as well. This is the beginning of Celie’s repair at the hands and heart of Shug. Shug then begins telling Celie she’s beautiful. She tells her to smile. She begins lifting Celie up, which gives Celie the strength to heal.
Their friendship, and eventual relationship, is built and sustained by love and resilience.
Celie garners enough strength and support to leave Mr. ____, which leaves him dumbfounded. He has never lived without a woman to provide for him. Once he is forced to live on his own, Mister learns to care and love his children and other people, appreciate the small gifts in life, and he even befriends Celie and garners her forgiveness.
The Color Purple is one of the greatest novels that centers on Black women. I now understand the significance of this Pulitzer Prize-winning gem. In the end, Celie – and all Black women know:
“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.”