Alice Walker’s the Color Purple
Alice Walker’s 1982 epistolary novel, The Color Purple, is an unsettling, yet triumphant representation of the the cultural, intellectual, and emotional impact of oppression and strength in early twentieth-century rural Georgia. The degree to which this novel has impacted my overall understanding of women, oppression, gender, and deeply-rooted historical ideals is unmatched by any other work of nonfiction that I have read during my academic career. In order to assess the true impact that Alice Walker’s The Color Purple has had on my understanding and appreciation of cultural perspectives, it is essential to analyze the how the novel itself presents the opportunity for readers to gain said cultural perspective, and how connections can be made between the writing and personal life experiences.
The deep thematic elements of the Alice Walker’s novel have truly illuminated my understanding of the roles of race and gender in the culture of the “Jim Crow” era American South. This novel has taught me the true importance of understanding diverse attitudes, beliefs, practices, and language patterns. The protagonist, Celie, a survivor of incest who lives her life under the close watch of abusive men, has taught me about the culture of an entire people group, which stretches far beyond the confines of the era and location of which the novel is set. The greatest impact that this novel has had on my cultural perspectives is on the way in which I have come to view black women in early 1900s America. Through Alice Walker, Celie, and her sister Nettie, I have learned about “respectability politics” – a term coined my scholar Evelyn Brooks in 1993. In the novel, through men such as Alphonso, “Mr. —,” and the mayor, I’ve learned about the strict dictation of the actions of women, especially black women, during the time period. In the novel, men dictate what behaviors are deemed appropriate for women such as Celie, Sofia. Celie’s rejection of “respectability politics” helped me understand how truly difficult it was for black women to break away from the constructs of male dominance during the era.
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Apart from my newly-found cultural understanding of early 1900s black women in the American South, through Walker’s writing, I’ve gained a better understanding of post-slavery culture, racism, and white social dominance. From my interpretation of the setting of The Color Purple, the social and economic structure of life for black men and women in the rural south remained similar, in some ways, to that of men and women living during the time of slavery. Although readers do no encounter the traditional definition of “slavery” in the novel, they are presented with the reality of oppression in many forms. Celie, for example, was essentially a slave to her “father,” then her husband. For example, Celie states in the novel, quoting Sofia, “They won’t let me see my children. They won’t let me see no mens…I’m a slave, she say” (Walker 60).
The novel is also teeming with examples of racism – a concept that I now have a greater understanding of in the cultural context of the time period and setting. When Celie states that she believes she is ugly because of her very dark skin, stating that “[she] too black,” I realized the true and lasting impact of culture’s standards of beauty on black men and women (Walker 20). Another example of racism that broadened my perspective of the culture the early 1900’s American South was when the mayor’s wife, Miss Mille, tells Sofia that her children look surprisingly clean, saying, “All your children are so clean…would you work for me, be my maid” (Walker 53). Miss Millie’s assumption that a black women’s children would not be clean is a direct and intentional representation of the inherent racism of many white men and women towards black men and women during the set place and time period.
By reading and analyzing Alice Walker’s epistolary novel, I have had the opportunity to make some extremely profound connections between the work and my own personal life experiences in relation to my advocacy for women’s rights and positive race relations. Although some of the content was highly disturbing for me, I believe that the connections to my personal life that I made in relation to the work have allowed me to better advocate for the causes that I’m passionate about. After reading he opening letter of the novel, written by Celie to God, about the sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of “Pa,” I immediately made a connection to the many stories that I’ve heard from friends, family, and strangers about their experiences being in situations of sexual abuse and assault. This connection helped me to begin understanding Celie’s character almost immediately upon opening the book.
Another connection that I made, that has had a significant impact on my perspective of race relations in the United States is the many examples of racism in the novel. I connected Celie’s view of her personal beauty to my own view. As someone of Indian descent, I understand Celie’s belief that “dark is ugly.” Many people in India, similarly to many people from African and Caribbean communities, spend large sums of money to lighten their skin because there is a misconception, reinforced by old Western ideals and media, that “lighter is better.” The connection also relates my experiences in a “International Development” course that I took during my time as a student at Point Loma Nazarene University, in which we learned that ideals similar to these continue to dictate the behaviors of entire groups of people, much like they did in The Color Purple.
In conclusion, I feel that Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple, has deeply impacted and broaden my understanding of the cultural perspectives of black men and women in the early twentieth-century American South, and in doing so has illuminated the cultural impacts and connections that can be made between a story of African-American men and women in the 1910s-1940s and a twenty-two year old Indian-Irish student in 2019.