Many African American women have preferred the term womanism to black feminism. The term is taken from the Southern black folk expression of mothers to female children “you acting womanish”. Womanish girls acted in outrageous, courageous, and wilful ways as opposed to frivolous, irresponsible, and ‘girlish’. Womanism is rooted in the black woman’s historical experience of racial and gender oppression and consciously set itself apart from the white feminist movement. The Color Purple read in this context is a powerful, womanist narrative of the personal development of Celie, an African American woman living in early twentieth century rural Georgia.
The 1982 novel is written as a collection of letters she wrote to God and later, to her sister Nettie through her teenage and adult years. This epistolary form has been used repeatedly in women’s writings owing to its subjective nature. These letters are Celie’s expression of the violence and abuse she is regularly subjected to, first by her father, then by her husband. Written through the sensibilities of a teenage girl, it is an honest and brutal rendition. It is a novel that has been praised for breaking the silence around domestic and sexual abuse by narrating the lives of women in all honesty. Simultaneously, it has been subjected to numerous protests from some African American church groups and male writers who disapproved of showing love between women and violence against women within their community. Such is the politics of the African American woman, their voices are attacked both by the white supremacists and men within their community.
The narrative goes beyond a documentation of discrimination, as Celie tells us her story she also grows and changes. Celie’s transformation happens with the support of other black women giving importance to the black women’s sense of community, an important idea within womanist theory. Her interactions with Sofia, her stepson Harpo’s wife, shape her. Sofia is absolutely different from Celie, she would never let Harpo beat her but fight back. Through her interaction with Shug Avery, Celie begins to explore her sexuality, Shug also protects her from her husband. They are both ‘womanish’ role models for Celies. They are also women Celie nurses and aids, forging relationships of mutual support. We see colored women supporting each-other throughout the novel, even women who are otherwise shown to be at odds with each other. The Color Purple is about Celie exploring her sexuality and gaining autonomy, not her seeking a conventional marriage. This makes The Color Purple markedly different from the earlier 18th century woman centred novels which ended with the protagonist’s marriage and wealth acquisition or death.
It is a beautifully imagined journey of emancipation. Celie is soon disillusioned by the white Christian God. That is when she decides to stop writing letters to God and write to Nettie instead. Shug says, “When I found out I thought God was white, and a man, I lost interest.”(175)
Celie and Shug together explore an answer from within their own culture. The lives of the natives still living in Africa are also explored through Nettie’s experiences and her own attempt to negotiate between the Christian and Olinka traditions. The novel itself is written in the Black English vernacular questioning the hegemony of the language spoken largely by whites.
Celie’s quest for self development is hindered by both sexism and racism. Later, she also discovers that she is marginalised from dominant society by her sexual preference. According to the premise of intersectionality, race, and gender oppression does not merely ‘add up’. The Combahee River Collective Statement of 1977 helps us locate The Color Purple within the Black feminist (and womanist) struggle. It declares that Black women’s ‘liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else’s.’ The novel is about Celie’s individual experience but can be seen as establishing the universality of a female and racial quest for selfhood. To read Alice Walker’s work outside this political context would be a gross act of unseeing. It is a novel that documents pain and suffering and yet it is essentially an optimistic work. There is the possibility of overcoming barriers, emancipation and even reconciliation. However, a positive ending does not mean an end to the conflict that drives the novel. The power structures of race, class, and gender are still in place. Would we say then that it is a book giving us a false sense of hope? Maybe, but being a part of Celie’s journey of emancipation sensitizes the reader. The novel engages in a transformation of the reader as the protagonist transforms. This power to move its reader is the revolutionary potential of The Color Purple. That is what makes it, in Peter S. Prescott’s words “A novel of permanent importance.”
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