English / Themes In The Colour Purple
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Autor: anton 22 March 2011
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The theme of Alice Walkerâ€™s The Color Purple is very straightforward and simple. Like many other novels devoted to the mistreatment of blacks and black women especially, The Color Purple is dedicated to black womenâ€™s rights.
Much of the narrative in Walkerâ€™s novel is derived from her own personal experience, growing up in the rural South as an uneducated and abused child. In short, the goal of this book and indeed all her writing is to inspire and motivate black women to stand up for their rights. Celie, the main character, undergoes an inner transformation, from a submissive, abused wife to an unabashedly confident and independent black woman and businesswoman.
There are other more secondary themes, such as the rejection of the traditional, Christian, "white-man's" God. Thanks to the influence of Shug Avery and Nettie, a new age kind of God is developed and is a great comfort to all three women. Even Celie's last letter is written to this vague kind of god-- a god of nature and stars and people
Race and domesticity in 'The Color Purple.'
An important juncture in Alice Walker's The Color Purple is reached when
Celie first recovers the missing letters from her long-lost sister Nettie.
This discovery not only signals the introduction of a new narrator to this
epistolary novel but also begins the transformation of Celie from writer to
reader. Indeed, the passage in which Celie struggles to puzzle out the
markings on her first envelope from Nettie provides a concrete illustration
of both Celie's particular horizon of interpretation and Walker's chosen
approach to the epistolary form:
Saturday morning Shug put Nettie letter in my lap. Little fat queen of
England stamps on it, plus stamps that got peanuts, coconuts, rubber trees
and say Africa. I don't know where England at. Don't know where Africa at
either. So I stir don't know where Nettie at. (102)
Revealing Celie's ignorance of even the most rudimentary outlines of the
larger world, this passage clearly defines the "domestic" site she occupies
as the novel's main narrator.(1) In particular, the difficulty Celie has
interpreting this envelope underscores her tendency to understand events in
terms of personal consequences rather than political categories. What
matters about not knowing "where Africa at" - according to Celie - is not
knowing "where Nettie at." By clarifying Celie's characteristic angle of
vision, this passage highlights the intensely personal perspective that
Walker brings to her tale of sexual oppression - a perspective that accounts
in large part for the emotional power of the text.
But Walker's privileging of the domestic perspective of her narrators has
also been judged to have other effects on the text. Indeed, critics from
various aesthetic and political camps have commented on what they perceive
as a tension between public and private discourse in the novel.(2) Thus, in
analyzing Celie's representation of national identity, Lauren Berlant
identifies a separation of "aesthetic" and "political" discourses in the
novel and concludes that Celie's narrative ultimately emphasizes "individual
essence in false opposition to institutional history" (868). Revealing a
very different political agenda in his attacks on the novel's womanist
stance, George Stade also points to a tension between personal and public
elements in the text when he criticizes the novel's "narcissism" and its
"championing of domesticity over the public world of masculine power plays"
(266). Finally, in praising Walker's handling of sexual oppression, Elliott
Butler-Evans argues that Celie's personal letters serve precisely as a
"textual strategy by which the larger African-American history, focused on
racial conflict and struggle, can be marginalized by its absence from the
By counterposing personal and public discourse in the novel, these critics
could be said to have problematized the narrative's domestic perspective by
suggesting that Walker's chosen treatment of the constricted viewpoint of an
uneducated country woman - a woman who admits that she doesn't even know
"where Africa at" - may also constrict the novel's ability to analyze issues
of "race" and class.(3) Thus Butler-Evans finds that Celie's "private life
preempts the exploration of the public lives of blacks" (166), while Berlant
argues that Celie's family-oriented point of view and modes of expression
can displace race and class analyses to the point that the "nonbiological
abstraction of class relations virtually disappears" (833). And in a
strongly worded rejection of the novel as "revolutionary literature," bell
hooks charges that the focus upon Celie's sexual oppression ultimately
deemphasizes the "collective plight of black people" and "invalidates . . .
the racial agenda" of the slave narrative tradition that it draws upon
("Writing" 465).(4) In short, to many readers of The Color Purple, the
text's ability to expose sexual oppression seems to come at the expense of
its ability to analyze issues of race and class.(5)
But it seems to me that an examination of the representation of race in the
novel leads to another conclusion: Walker's mastery of the epistolary form
is revealed precisely by her ability to maintain the integrity of Celie's
and Nettie's domestic perspectives even as she simultaneously undertakes an
extended critique of race relations, and especially of racial integration.
In particular, Walker's domestic novel engages issues of race and class
through two important narrative strategies: the development of an embedded
narrative line that offers a post-colonial perspective on the action, and
the use of "family relations" - or kinship - as a carefully elaborated
textual trope for race relations. These strategies enable Walker to
foreground the personal histories of her narrators while placing those
histories firmly within a wider context of race and class.
Both the novel's so-called "restriction of focus to Celie's consciousness"
(Butler-Evans 166-67) and one way in which Walker's narratology complicates
that perspective are illustrated by the passage quoted above. Celie's
difficulty interpreting the envelope sent by Nettie at first only seems to
support the claim that her domestic perspective "erases" race and class
concerns from the narrative. But if this short passage delineates Celie's
particular angle of vision, it also introduces textual features that invite
readers to resituate her narration within a larger discourse of race and
class. For where Celie sees only a "fat little queen of England," readers
who recognize Queen Victoria immediately historicize the passage. And if the
juxtaposition of the two stamps on the envelope - England's showcasing
royalty, Africa's complete with rubber trees - suggests to Celie nothing but
her own ignorance, to other readers the two images serve as a clear reminder
of imperialism. Thus Africa, mentioned by name for the first time in this
passage, enters the novel already situated within the context of
colonialism. Importantly, Walker remains true to Celie's character even as
she recontextualizes the young woman's perspective, because the features of
the envelope Celie focuses upon are entirely natural ones for her to notice,
even though they are politically charged in ways that other features would
not be (for example, Celie might have been struck by more purely personal -
and more conventional - details, such as the familiar shape of her sister's
handwriting). Embedded throughout The Color Purple, narrative features with
clear political and historical associations like these complicate the
novel's point of view by inviting a post-colonial perspective on the action
and by creating a layered narrative line that is used for different
technical effects and thematic purposes.(6) That Celie herself is not always
aware of the full political implications of her narration (although she
becomes increasingly so as the novel progresses) no more erases the critique
of race and class from the text than Huck's naivete in Huckleberry Finn
constricts that work's social criticism to the boy's opinions. This
individual letter from Nettie thus provides readers with a textual analogue
for the novel's larger epistolary form, illustrating one way in which the
novel's domestic perspective is clearly "stamped" with signs of race and
But it is not only through such narrative indirection and
recontextualization that the novel engages issues of race and class.
Walker's domestic narrative undertakes a sustained analysis of race through
the careful development of family relationships - or kinship - as an
extended textual trope for race relations. Any attempt to oppose political
and personal discourses in the novel collapses when one recognizes that the
narrative adopts the discourse of family relations both to establish a
"domestic ideal" for racial integration and to problematize that ideal
through the analysis of specific integrated family groupings in Africa and
I. "She says an African daisy and an English daisy are both flowers, but
totally different kinds"
Important throughout the narrative, the kinship trope for race relations is
articulated most explicitly late in the novel when a mature Celie and a
reformed Albert enjoy some communal sewing and conversation. Celie herself
raises the issue of racial conflict by drawing on the Olinka "Adam" story
that has been handed down to her through Nettie's letters. Beginning with
the explanation that ". . . white people is black peoples children" (231),
the Olinka narrative provides an analysis of race relations expressed
explicitly in terms of kinship.
According to the Olinka creation narrative, Adam was not the first man but
the first white man born to an Olinka woman to be cast out for his nakedness
- or for being "colorless" (231). The result of this rejection was the
fallen world of racial conflict, since the outcast children were, in Celie's
words, "so mad to git throwed out and told they was naked they made up they
minds to crush us wherever they find us, same as they would a snake."
Offered specifically as an alternative to the Judeo-Christian account of
Adam, this parable also offers readers an alternative account of Original
Sin - defined not in terms of appropriating knowledge or resisting authority
but precisely in terms of breaking kinship bonds: "What they did, these
Olinka peoples, was throw out they own children, just cause they was a
little different" (232). Significantly, by retelling the Olinka narrative,
Celie is able to express naturally some rather sophisticated ideas
concerning the social construction of racial inferiority, since the myth
defines that inferiority as a construct of power relations that will change
over time. For the Olinka believe that someday the whites will "kill off so
much of the earth and the colored that everybody gon hate them just like
they hate us today. Then they will become the new serpent" (233).
The Olinka creation narrative also raises a question central to the novel's
larger design: Is progress in race relations possible? Some Olinka, notes
Celie, answer this question by predicting that the cycle of discrimination
will repeat itself endlessly, that ". . . life will just go on and on like
this forever," with first one race in the position of the oppressor and then
the other. But others believe that progress in racial harmony is possible -
that Original Sin may be ameliorated - through a new valorization of kinship
bonds: ". . . the only way to stop making somebody the serpent is for
everybody to accept everybody else as a child of God, or one mother's
children, no matter what they look like or how they act" (233).(7) These
latter Olinka, then, express a domestic ideal for race relations, one that
counters the sin of discrimination - based on an ideology of essential
difference with an ethic of acceptance that is grounded upon a recognition
of relation, or kinship.
But the universalist ethos of the domestic ideal for race relations is put
to the test by the larger narrative's development of historically situated,
integrated kinship groupings in both Africa and America. Of particular
importance are two family groupings: the white missionary Doris Baines and
her black African grandchild in Africa, and Sophia and her white charge Miss
Eleanor Jane in America. In both cases the specific integrated domestic
groupings serve to expose and to critique the larger pattern of racial
integration found in their respective countries.
Nettie meets Doris and her adopted grandson on a trip from Africa to seek
help for the recently displaced Olinka in England, a trip Nettie calls
"incredible" precisely because of the presence of an integrated family on
board ship: It was "impossible to ignore the presence of an aging white
woman accompanied by a small black child. The ship was in a tither. Each day
she and the child walked about the deck alone, groups of white people
falling into silence as they passed" (193). Compared to the overtly racist
actions of the other whites who ostracize Doris and her grandson, the
English missionary's relationship with the boy at first seems in keeping
with the ethic of treating all people as "one mother's children." Indeed,
Doris describes her years as the boy's "grandmama" as "the happiest" ears of
her life (196). Furthermore, Doris's relationship with the African villagers
also seems preferable to that of other white missionaries because, rather
than wanting to convert "the heathen," she sees "nothing wrong with them" in
the first place (195).
But the relationship between the white woman and her African grandson is
actually far from ideal, and Nettie's letters subtly question the quality of
their "kinship." If the boy seems "fond of his grandmother" - and, Nettie
adds, "used to her" - he is also strangely reticent in her presence and
reacts to Doris's conversation with "soberly observant speechlessness"
(196). In contrast, the boy opens up around Adam and Olivia, suggesting that
he may feel more at home with the transplanted black Americans than with his
white grandmother.(8) Indeed, the boy's subdued behavior around his
grandmother raises questions about the possibility of kinship across racial
lines, while his ease with the black Americans suggests that feelings of
kinship occur almost spontaneously within racial groups.
The nature of Doris's honorary "kinship" with the Akwee villagers is
questioned more seriously still, beginning with her reasons for taking up
missionary work in the first place. As a young woman Doris decided to become
a missionary not out of a desire to help others but in order to escape the
rarefied atmosphere of upper-class England and the probability of her
eventual marriage to one of her many "milkfed" suitors, "each one more
boring than the last" (194). Although Doris describes her decision to go to
Africa as an attempt to escape the stultifying roles available to women in
English society, it is important to note that Nettie does not take Doris's
hardships very seriously and draws upon fairy-tale rhetoric to parody the
woman's upper-class tribulations: "She was born to great wealth in England.
Her father was Lord Somebody or Other. They were forever giving or attending
boring parties that were not fun."(9) From Nettie's perspective as a black
woman familiar with the trials of the displaced Olinka, Doris's aristocratic
troubles seem small indeed, and Nettie further trivializes the white woman's
decision to become a missionary by emphasizing that the idea struck Doris
one evening when she "was getting ready for yet another tedious date" (194).
The self-interest that prompts Doris to become a missionary also
characterizes the relationship she establishes with the Akwee upon her
arrival in Africa. There she uses her wealth to set up an ostensibly
reciprocal arrangement that in fact reflects her imperial power to buy
whatever she wants: "Within a year everything as far as me and the heathen
were concerned ran like clockwork. I told them right off that their souls
were no concern of mine, that I wanted to write books and not be disturbed.
For this pleasure I was prepared to pay. Rather handsomely." Described as a
mechanism that runs "like clockwork," Doris's relationship to the Akwee
clearly falls short of the maternal ideal for race relations expressed in
the Olinka myths. In fact, Doris's relationship to the villagers is
decidedly paternal from the outset, since her formal kinship with the Akwee
begins when she is presented with "a couple of wives" (195) in recognition
for her contributions to the village.(10) The fact that she continues to
refer to the Olinka as "the heathen" in her discussions with Nettie implies
that, in spite of her fondness for her grandson, Doris never overcomes a
belief in the essential "difference" of the Africans attributed to her by
the Missionary Society in England: "She thinks they are an entirely
different species from what she calls Europeans. . . . She says an African
daisy and an English daisy are both flowers, but totally different kinds"
(115). By promoting a theory of polygenesis opposed to the Olinkan account
of racial origins, Doris calls into question her own ability to treat the
Akwee as kin. The true nature of her "reciprocal" relationship with the
Akwee is revealed when she unselfconsciously tells Nettie that she believes
she can save her villagers from the same displacement the Olinka suffered:
"I am a very wealthy woman," says Doris, "and I own the village of Akwee"
Stripped of both the religious motivation of the other missionaries and the
overt racism of the other whites, Doris Baines through her relationship with
the Akwee lays bare the hierarchy of self-interest and paternalism that sets
the pattern for race relations in larger Africa. Indeed, from the moment
that young Nettie first arrives in Africa she is surprised to find whites
there "in droves," and her letters are filled with details suggestive of the
hegemony of race and class. Nettie's description of Monrovia is a case in
point. There she sees "bunches" of whites and a presidential palace that
"looks like the American white house" (119). There Nettie also discovers
that whites sit on the country's cabinet, that black cabinet members' wives
dress like white women, and that the black president himself refers to his
people as "natives" - as Nettie remarks, "It was the first time I'd heard a
black man use that word" (120). Originally established by ex-slaves who
returned to Africa but who kept "close ties to the country that bought them"
(117), Monrovia clearly reveals a Western influence in more than its style
of architecture, and its cocoa plantations provide the colonial model of
integration that defines the white presence elsewhere in Africa - from the
port town "run by a white man" who rents out "some of the stalls . . . to
Africans" (127) all the way up to the governor's mansion where "the white
man in charge" (144) makes the decision to build the road that ultimately
destroys the Olinka village. Indeed, the later displacement of the Olinka
villagers by the English roadbuilders - the main action in the African
sections of The Color Purple - simply recapitulates the colonial process of
integration already embedded in Nettie's narrative of her travels through
the less remote areas of Africa.
From her eventual vantage point within the Olinka's domestic sphere, Nettie
becomes a first-hand witness to this process of colonization - a process in
which she and the other black missionaries unwittingly participate. For
although Nettie's reasons for going to Africa differ from Doris Baines's in
that they, like those of the other black missionaries, include a concern for
the "people from whom [she] sprang" (111), she is trained by a missionary
society that is "run by white people" who "didn't say a thing about caring
about Africa, but only about duty" (115). Indeed, missionary work is tied to
national interest from the time Nettie arrives in England to prepare for the
trip to Africa:
. . . the English have been sending missionaries to Africa and India and
China and God knows where all, for over a hundred years. And the things they
have brought back! We spent a morning in one of their museums and it was
packed with jewels, furniture, fur, carpets, swords, clothing, even tombs
from all the countries they have been. From Africa they have thousands of
vases, jars, masks, bowls, baskets, statues - and they are all so beautiful
it is hard to imagine that the people who made them don't still exist. And
yet the English assure us they do not. (116-17)
Charting the course of empire through a catalogue of the material culture
appropriated by missionaries from "all the countries they have been" (and,
chillingly, from peoples who no longer exist), this passage brilliantly
underscores Walker's ability to maintain the integrity of the narrative's
personal perspective - here that of a young girl's wonder at her first
glimpse into the riches of her African heritage - even as she simultaneously
invites readers to resituate that perspective in a wider context of race and
class. In fact, throughout the African sections of the novel, Walker's
embedded narrative enables readers to sympathize with the hopes and
disappointments of the black missionaries while it simultaneously exposes
the limitations of their point of view.
This narrative complexity becomes especially important in the passages
concerning Samuel and Corrine's Victorian aunts, Theodosia and Althea, whom
the narrative asks readers both to sympathize with and to judge harshly. On
the one hand, as representatives of a group of black women missionaries who
achieved much against great odds, the narrative asks readers to see these
women and their accomplishments as "astonishing":
. . . no sooner had a young woman got through Spelman Seminary than she
began to put her hand to whatever work she could do for her people, anywhere
in the world. It was truly astonishing. These very polite and proper young
women, some of them never having set foot outside their own small country
towns, except to come to the Seminary, thought nothing of packing up for
India, Africa, the Orient. Or for Philadelphia or New York. (199)
On the other hand, the narrative levies its harshest criticism of missionary
work not against the white missionary Doris Baines but against Aunt
Theodosia - and particularly against the foolish pride she takes in a medal
given to her by King Leopold for "service as an exemplary missionary in the
King's colony." The criticism is levied by a young "DuBoyce," who attends
one of Aunt Theodosia's "at homes" and exposes her medal as the emblem of
the Victorian woman's "unwitting complicity with this despot who worked to
death and brutalized and eventually exterminated thousands and thousands of
African peoples" (200). Like the other political allusions embedded in
Walker's narrative, the appearance of Du Bois in Aunt Theodosia's domestic
sphere recontextualizes Nettie's narrative, and his comments serve as an
authoritative final judgment upon the entire missionary effort in Africa.
By structuring Nettie's letters around missionary work, then, Walker
achieves much. First, that work provides Nettie and the other black
missionaries with a practical and credible pathway into the African domestic
sphere. Second, the institutional, historical, and ideological connections
between philanthropy and colonialism enable Walker to use that domestic
sphere and the example of Doris Baines's integrated family to expose the
missionary pattern of integration in larger Africa. Finally, the embedded
narrative line enables Walker to remain true to her characters even as she
anatomizes the hierarchy of race and class that is first pictured in
miniature on Nettie's envelope.
II. "He said he wouldn't do it to me if he was my uncle"
If the integrated family of Doris Baines and her adopted African grandson
exposes the missionary pattern of integration in Africa as one based on a
false kinship that in fact denies the legitimacy of kinship bonds across
racial lines, the relationship between Miss Sophia and her white charge,
Miss Eleanor Jane, serves an analogous function for the American South.
Sophia, of course, joins the mayor's household as a maid under conditions
more overtly racist than Doris Baines's adoption of her Akwee family:
Because she answers "hell no" (76) to Miss Millie's request that she come to
work for her as a maid, Sophia is brutally beaten by the mayor and six
policeman and is then imprisoned. Forced to do the jail's laundry and driven
to the brink of madness, Sophia finally becomes Miss Millie's maid in order
to escape prison. Sophia's violent confrontation with the white officers
obviously foregrounds issues of race and class, as even critics who find
these issues marginalized elsewhere in The Color Purple have noted. But it
is not only through Sophia's dramatic public battles with white men that her
story dramatizes issues of race and class. Her domestic relationship with
Miss Eleanor Jane and the other members of the mayor's family offers a more
finely nuanced and extended critique of racial integration, albeit one that
has often been overlooked.(11)
Like Doris Baines and her black grandson, Sophia and Miss Eleanor Jane
appear to have some genuine family feelings for one another. Since Sophia
"practically . . . raise[s]" (222) Miss Eleanor Jane and is the one
sympathetic person in her house, it is not surprising that the young girl
"dote[s] on Sophia" and is "always stick[ing] up for her" (88), or that,
when Sophia leaves the mayor's household (after fifteen years of service),
Miss Eleanor Jane continues to seek out her approval and her help with the
"mess back at the house" (174). Sophia's feelings for Miss Eleanor are of
course more ambivalent. When she first joins the mayor's household, Sophia
is completely indifferent to her charge, "wonder[ing] why she was ever born"
(88). After rejoining her own family, Sophia resents Miss Eleanor Jane's
continuing intrusions into her family life and suggests that the only reason
she helps the white girl is because she's "on parole. . . . Got to act nice"
(174). But later Sophia admits that she does feel "something" for Miss
Eleanor Jane "because of all the people in your daddy's house, you showed me
some human kindness" (225).
Whatever affection exists between the two women, however, has been shaped by
the perverted "kinship" relation within which it grew - a relationship the
narrative uses to expose plantation definitions of kinship in general and to
explode the myth of the black mammy in particular. Separated from her own
family and forced to join the mayor's household against her will, living in
a room under the house and assigned the housekeeping and childraising
duties, Sophia carries out a role in the mayor's household which clearly
recalls that of the stereotypical mammy on the Southern plantation. However,
as someone who prefers to build a roof on the house while her husband tends
the children, Sophia seems particularly unsuited for that role. And that is
precisely the narrative's point: Sophia is entirely unsuited for the role of
mammy, but whites - including and perhaps especially Miss Eleanor Jane -
continually expect her to behave according to their cultural representations
of the black mother. It is, in fact, these expectations that get Sophia into
trouble in the first place, for when Miss Millie happens upon Sophia's
family and sees her children so "clean" (76), she assumes that Sophia would
make a perfect maid and that Sophia would like to come and work in her
household. Similarly, Miss Eleanor Jane assumes that Sophia must return her
family feelings in kind, without considering Sophia's true position in her
household. The young white woman's stereotypical projections become clear
when she can't understand why Sophia doesn't "just love" her new son, since,
in her words, "all other colored women I know love children" (224-25).
An historical appropriation of domestic discourse for political ends,
descriptions of the black mammy were used by apologists for slavery to argue
that the plantation system benefited the people whom it enslaved by
incorporating supposedly inferior blacks into productive white families.(12)
And Sophia explicitly ties her employers to such plantation definitions of
racial difference: "They have the nerve to try to make us think slavery fell
through because of us. . . . Like us didn't have sense enough to handle it.
All the time breaking hoe handles and letting the mules loose in the wheat"
(89). But through Sophia's experience in the mayor's household, the
narrative demonstrates that it is Miss Millie, the mayor's wife, who is
actually incompetent - who must be taught to drive by Sophia, for example,
and who even then can't manage a short trip by herself. Thus, when she
suddenly decides to drive Sophia home for a visit, Miss Millie stalls the
car and ruins the transmission, the mistress unable to master driving in
reverse. Too afraid of black men to allow one of Sophia's relatives to drive
her back home alone, Miss Millie reveals her childlike dependence upon
Sophia, who must cut short her first visit with her children in five years
to ride home with the distraught white woman. Sophia's position as domestic
within the mayor's household thus enables Walker to subvert the discourse of
plantation kinship by suggesting that it actually supports a group of people
who are themselves incompetent or, in Sophia words, "backward, . . . clumsy,
and unlucky" (89).
Predicated on this plantation model of integration, relations between whites
and blacks throughout the American South reveal a false kinship not unlike
that of Doris Baines and the Akwee. But in this instance the false kinship
is doubly perverse because it conceals an elaborate network of actual
kinship connections. Thus Miss Eleanor Jane's husband feels free to humor
Sophia by referring to the importance of black mammies in the community - ".
. . everybody around here raise by colored. That's how come we turn out so
well' (222) - while other white men refuse to recognize the children they
father with black women. As Celie says of Mr. 's son Bub, he "look so much
like the Sheriff, he and Mr. almost on family terms"; that is, "just so long
as Mr. know he colored" (76-77). Like the apologists for slavery, then, the
Southern whites in The Color Purple keep alive a counterfeit definition of
family while denying the real ties that bind them to African Americans.
In fact, the underlyIng system of kinship that exists in the American South
has more to do with white uncles than black mammies, as is clear from the
scene in which Sophia's family and friends consider various stratagems for
winning her release from prison. By asking, "Who the warden's black
kinfolks?" (80), Mr. reveals that kinship relations between whites and
blacks are so extensive in the community that it may be assumed that someone
will be related by blood to the warden. That someone, of course, is Squeak.
Hopeful that she will be able to gain Sophia's release from the warden on
the basis of their kinship, the others dress Squeak up "like she a white
woman" with instructions to make the warden "see the Hodges in you" (82). In
spite of the fact that the warden does recognize Squeak as kin "the minute
[she] walk[s] through the door" (83) - or perhaps because he recognizes her
- the warden rapes Squeak, denying their kinship in the very act of
perverting it. As Squeak herself recounts, "He say if he was my uncle he
wouldn't do it to me" (85). Both an intensely personal and highly political
act, Squeak's rape exposes the denial of kinship at the heart of race
relations in the South and underscores the individual and institutional
power of whites to control the terms of kinship - and whatever power those
definitions convey - for their own interests.(13)
It is specifically as an act of resistance to this power that Sophia comes
to reject Miss Eleanor Jane's baby and thereby to challenge the Olinka
kinship ideal for race relations. From the time her son is born, Miss
Eleanor Jane continually tests out Sophia's maternal feelings for him,
"shoving Reynolds Stanley Earl in her face" almost "every time Sofia turn[s]
around" (223). When an exasperated Sophia finally admits that she doesn't
love the baby, Miss Eleanor Jane accuses her of being "unnatural" and
implies that Sophia should accept her son because he is "just a little
baby!" (225) - an innocent who, presumably, should not be blamed for the
racist sins of his fathers. From Sophia's vantage point as a persecuted
black woman, however, Reynolds Stanley is not "just a sweet, smart, cute,
innocent little baby boy." He is in fact the grandson and namesake of the
man who beat her brutally in the street, a man whom he also resembles
physically. A "white something without much hair" with "big stuck open eyes"
(223), Reynolds Stanley also takes after his father, who is excused from the
military to run the family cotton gin while Sophia's own boys are trained
for service overseas. To Sophia, Reynolds Stanley is both the living
embodiment of and literal heir to the system that oppresses her: "He can't
even walk and already he in my house messing it up. Did I ask him to come?
Do I care whether he sweet or not? Will it make any difference in the way he
grow up to treat me what I think?" (224). Reminding Miss Eleanor Jane of the
real social conditions that separate her from Reynolds Stanley in spite of
his "innocence," Sophia articulates a strong position counter to the Olinka
kinship ethic of treating everyone like one mother's children: ". . . all
the colored folks talking bout loving everybody just ain't looked hard at
what they thought they said" (226).
In subverting the plantation model of kinship in general and the role of
mammy that it assigns to black women in particular, then, Sophia's position
as an unwilling domestic in the mayor's household underscores the importance
of the personal point of view to the novel's political critique of race
relations. Indeed, the personal point of view of The Color Purple is central
to its political message: It is precisely the African American woman's
subjectivity that gives the lie to cultural attempts to reduce her - like
Sophia - to the role of the contented worker in a privileged white
III. "White people off celebrating their independence. . . . Us can spend
the day celebrating each other"
The Color Purple closes with a celebration of kinship, its concluding action
composed of a series of family reunions: Sophia patches things up with
Harpo; Shug visits her estranged children (for the first time in thirty
years); and the novel's two narrators, Celie and Nettie, are joyfully and
tearfully reunited. Even Albert and Celie are reconciled, his change of
heart signaled by his earning the right to have his first name written.
Coming after Celie has achieved both economic independence and emotional
security, the reunions at the end of The Color Purple testify to the
importance of kinship to the happiness of every individual. Appropriately,
then, when the two sisters fall into one another's arms at last, each
identities her kin: Nettie introduces her husband and the children, and
Celie's first act is to "point up at [her] peoples . . . Shug and Albert"
(243). But in addition to suggesting that the individual realizes her full
potential only within the supporting bonds of a strong kinship group (no
matter how unconventionally that group might be defined), the conclusion to
The Color Purple also addresses the vexing question posed by the Olinka Adam
narrative: Is progress in race relations possible? By bringing to closure
two earlier narrative threads - one dealing with Sophia and Miss Eleanor
Jane, and the other with Sophia's relationship to work - the novel suggests
that progress in race relations is possible. But the narrative's ending also
contains arresting images of racial segregation in both Africa and America
that complicate the idea of progress and ultimately move the narrative
toward a final definition of kinship based on race.
After their falling out over Reynolds Stanley, Sophia and Miss Eleanor Jane
are reunited when the mayor's daughter finally learns from her family why
Sophia came to work for them in the first place. Miss Eleanor Jane
subsequently comes to work in Sophia's home, helping with the housework and
taking care of Sophia's daughter Henrietta. Clearly an improvement in the
domestic relationship between the two women, this new arrangement expresses
Miss Eleanor Jane's new understanding of their domestic history together: To
her family's question "Whoever heard of a white woman working for niggers?"
Miss Eleanor Jane answers, "Whoever heard of somebody like Sophia working
for trash?" For her part, Sophia's acceptance of Miss Eleanor Jane in her
own home also signals progress, although when Celie asks pointedly if little
Reynolds Stanley comes along with his mother, Sophia sidesteps the issue of
her own feelings for the child by answering, "Henrietta say she don't mind
him"(238).(15) Sophia's comment maintains the legitimacy of her own
hard-earned attitudes toward the child, even as it reserves the possibility
that different attitudes may be possible in future generations.
Sophia's employment in Celie's dry goods store also seems to signal an
improvement in race relations, not only because it represents Sophia's final
escape from her position as mammy but also because shops are used throughout
The Color Purple to represent the status of economic and social integration
between blacks and whites. Thus early in the novel Corrine, a Spelman
graduate, is insulted when a white clerk calls her "Girl" (14) and
intimidates her into buying some thread she doesn't want. Later the novel
contrasts the histories of Celie's real Pa and Step-pa as store owners,
histories that comment on the ability of African Americans to achieve
economic integration into the American main-stream.(16) Celie's real father,
in the tradition of the American success story, works hard, buys his own
store, and hires two of his bothers to work it for him. Ironically, his
model of industry and enterprise fails, since the store's very success leads
"white merchants . . . [to] complain that this store was taking all the
black business away from them" (148) Refusing to tolerate free competition
from a black-owned and black-operated business, whites eventually burn the
store and lynch Celie's Pa and his two brothers. The tragic history of
Celie's real Pa thus compels readers to reinterpret Celie's family history
in terms of the historical lack of access of African Americans to the
Believing that Celie's real Pa "didn't know how to git along," Alphonso, her
step-pa, expresses a different path to economic integration:
Take me, he say, I know how they is. The key to all of 'em is money. The
trouble with our people is as soon as they got out of slavery they didn't
want to give the white man nothing else. But the fact is, you got to give
'em something. Either your money, your land, your woman or your ass. So what
I did was just right off offer to give 'em money. Before I planted a seed, I
made sure this one and that one knowed one seed out of three was planted for
him. Before I ground a grain of wheat, the same thing. And when I opened up
your daddy's old store in town, I bought me my own white boy to run it. And
what make it so good, he say, I bought him with whitefolks' money. (155)
Alphonso's decision to pay off whites and buy a white boy to work in the dry
goods store establishes him in the tradition of the trickster who plays the
system for his own benefit; however, the model of integration he represents
is finally seen as accommodationist. Alphonso, in fact, is identified with
white power from the beginning of the novel, where he is seen going off with
a group of white men armed with guns (11-12). After he has made his fortune,
Alphonso recalls the compromised African president described in Nettie's
letter - like him Alphonso lives in a house that now looks like a "white
person's house" (153), and like him he establishes paternalistic
relationships with other blacks. Thus when Shug asks Alphonso's new wife, a
"child" not "more than fifteen," why her parents allowed her to marry him,
the girl replies: "They work for him. . . . Live on his land" (154).
Alphonso's marriage thus makes explicit the degree to which his
identification with white paternalism shapes his domestic relationships with
In the context of these earlier histories, Sophia's coming to work in
Celie's dry goods store has wider significance than just her finding
suitable work outside the home. Indeed, for the first time in its history
the store has an integrated workforce, since Celie keeps the "white man" who
works there even as she hires Sophia to "wait on" blacks and "treat 'em
nice" (245). In direct contrast to the white clerk who intimidated Corrine
earlier, Sophia refuses to coerce customers and turns out to be especially
good at "selling stuff" because "she don't care if you buy or not."
Importantly, Sophia also resists the white clerk's attempts to define their
relationship in the terms of plantation kinship: When he presumes to call
her "auntie," she mocks him by asking "which colored man his mama sister
marry" (237-38). While race relations in Celie's integrated store are
obviously not ideal, Sophia's employment there is nonetheless both a
personal and a communal triumph: Sophia finds employment that suits her as
an individual, and the black community is treated with new respect in the
Significantly, these small steps toward progress in race relations come not
from some realization of the Olinka ideal or any recognition of identity
between the races but from an evolving separatism and parallel growth in
racial identity within the African and African American communities. The
possibility of treating everyone like "one mother's children" is achieved
within but not between racial groups by the end of The Color Purple.
Instead, the conclusion leaves readers with images of an emerging
Pan-Africanism in Africa and a nascent black nationalism in the American
In Africa separatism is represented by the mbeles, warriors who "live deep
in the jungle, refusing to work for whites or be ruled by them" (193).
Composed of men and women "from dozens of African tribes," the mbeles are
particularly significant because they comprise a remnant group defined not
by traditional village bloodlines but by their common experience of racial
oppression and their shared commitment to active resistance, which takes the
form of "missions of sabotage against the white plantations" (234). In the
mbeles, The Color Purple accurately depicts the historical origin of many
African "tribes" or nations in the reorganization of older societies
decimated by colonization. Their plans for the white man's "destruction - or
at least for his removal from their continent" (217; italics added) - also
reflect a nascent pan-Africanism among the disenfranchised. Including among
their number "one colored man . . . from Alabama," the mbeles represent a
form of kinship that is defined by racial rather than national identity.
In America, a parallel growth in black identity is suggested by Celie's
final letter in The Color Purple. Indeed, the spirit of celebratory kinship
with which the novel closes is achieved by Celie's group specifically in
isolation from whites, as Harpo explains: "White people busy celebrating
they independence from England July 4th . . . so most black folks don't have
to work. Us can spend the day celebrating each other" (242). By juxtaposing
"white people" and "black folks," Harpo distinguishes his kinship group from
the kinship of whites, defined by privilege and national identity.
Importantly, the "folks" that Harpo refers to now include Celie's African
daughter-in-law, Tashi. Also significantly, that group does not include Miss
Eleanor Jane, no matter how strained her relationship with her own family or
how successful her reunion with Sophia. Tashi's easy integration into the
black community effaces her earlier fears that coming to America would rob
her of all kinship ties, leaving her with "no country, no people, no mother
and no husband and brother" (235). Instead, Tashi's quick acceptance by the
Southern women, who make a fuss over her and "stuff her" with food (244),
suggests once again that feelings of black identity make it easy for people
to treat others as "one mother's children."(17)
But if the conclusion to The Color Purple suggests that feelings of racial
identity can transcend national boundaries, the novel provides no such
reassurances that the boundaries between races can be successfully
negotiated. That sober conclusion is confirmed by the outcome of two other
attempts at integration. The first is that of Shug's son, a missionary on an
Indian reservation in the American West. The American Indians refuse to
accept her son, Shug explains, because "everybody not a Indian they got no
use for" (237).(18) The failure of Shug's son to become integrated into the
American Indian community contrasts with Mary Agnes's successful integration
with the mixed peoples of Cuba, but her experience there also emphasizes the
importance of racial identity to kinship definitions. Indeed, it is because
she is a person of color that Mary Agnes is recognized as kin: Even though
some of the Cuban people are as light as Mary Agnes while others are "real
dark," Shug explains, they are "all in the same family though. Try to pass
for white, somebody mention your grandma" (211). Thus in Cuba - as well as
in Africa and North America - feelings of racial identity among marginalized
peoples become the basis for definitions of kinship by novel's end.
Finally, it is not surprising that, in elaborating her domestic trope for
race relations, Walker is able to foreground the personal experience of her
narrators while simultaneously offering an extended critique of racial
integration. As Walker's integrated families remind us, the black family has
seldom existed as a private, middle-class space protected from the
interference of the state; therefore, the African American household is
particularly inscribed with social meanings available for narration. Rather
than opposing public and private spheres, Walker's narrative underscores
their interpenetration. If her narrative does reveal an opposition, it is
not between public and private discourse but between the universalist ethos
of the Olinka ideal for race relations and the historical experience of
African Americans as reflected in the narrative's analysis of specific
integrated family groupings. For if the Olinka ideal questions the true
nature of kinship in the novel's integrated families, these families also
serve to criticize the Olinka myth for tracing the origins of racial
discrimination back to some imaginary sin of black people, rather than to
real, historical discrimination by whites.
It may be, however, that the growing sense of racial separatism at the
conclusion to the The Color Purple is not necessarily at odds with the
Olinka ideal for race relations. Past discrimination itself may dictate that
improved relations between the races must begin with the destruction of
false relations - the discovery of kinship among the disenfranchised the
necessary first step, perhaps, toward recognizing all others as part of the
same family. Like the Olinka Adam myth, the conclusion to Walker's novel
raises the question of the future of race relations, but also like that
myth, the novel offers no certain predictions. One thing is certain,
however. Critics who believe that The Color Purple sacrifices its ability to
critique the public world of blacks in favor of dramatizing the personal
experience of its narrators not only run the risk of reducing the
narrative's technical complexity, but also of overlooking the work's
sustained critique of racial integration levied from within the domestic
sphere. Through its embedded narrative line and carefully elaborated kinship
trope for race relations, The Color Purple offers a critique of race that
explores the possibility of treating all people as "one mother's children" -
while remaining unremittingly sensitive to the distance that often separates
even the best of human ideals from real historical conditions.
1. By characterizing the novel's point of view as "domestic," I mean no
criticism, as my paper will make clear. My approach to The Color Purple is
in sympathy with recent revaluations of the domestic sphere in literature.
See, for example, Barbara Christian, who charts in her discussion of George
Simms (20) the well-known nineteenth-century denigration of sentimental
fiction by male writers; and Jane Tompkins, who has argued that earlier
interpretations of sentimental fiction were shaped by critics who taught
"generations of students to equate popularity with debasement, emotionality
with ineffectiveness, religiosity with fakery, domesticity with triviality -
and all of these, implicitly, with womanly inferiority" (123). Closer at
hand, Alison Light has attributed critics' "fear" of the happy ending in The
Color Purple to similar attitudes toward sentimentality in fiction; Light
points to an" 'androcentricity' implicit and produced" in the "making" of
public and private spheres (92) and notes that "terms like 'sentimental' and
'idealistic' are not themselves transparent descriptions of knowledge or
response" but "carry with them cultural prescriptions and assumptions and
have themselves to be historicized" (93). See also Susan K. Harris and
2. Called Walker's "best but most problematic" novel by Bernard Bell (263),
The Color Purple has generated controversy since its publication in 1982 and
especially since the appearance of the 1985 film of the same title. It
should be noted that academic discussions of Celie's point of view in The
Color Purple are paralleled in interesting ways by a controversy in the
popular media over the representation of black men in novel and film. In
"Sifting Through the Controversy: Reading The Color Purple," Jacqueline Bobo
concludes that arguments in the public media focus on two values that
sometimes seem in conflict: the need for positive images of black people in
the media and the recognition of "the authority of black women writers to
set the agenda for imagemaking in fiction and film" (334).
3. By placing my first reference to race in quotation marks I am following
the practice of Gates and others in "Race," Writing, and Difference. The
quotation marks indicate that "race" does not refer to some essential nature
or fixed difference between people. Gates's collection illustrates a variety
of critical approaches to what he calls "the complex interplay among race,
writing, and difference" (15).
4. Hooks also objects specifically to Walker's linking of the slave
narrative form to that of the sentimental novel, an association that she
believes "strips the slave narrative of its revolutionary ideological intent
and content" by linking it to "Eurocentral bourgeois literary traditions"
("Writing" 465). But hooks's criticism is problematic in light of the
classical slave narrative tradition itself. Female authors of slave
narratives often draw heavily upon the tradition of the sentimental novel to
tell their stories. Note, for example, the case of what today is probably
the best known woman's narrative, Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of
a Slave Girl. Until recently Jacobs's autobiographical narrative was thought
to be a sentimental novel. Jean Fagan Yellin details the textual history of
the narrative in her edition of Incidents. See also Sekora's discussion of
the genre of the slave narrative as a "mixed form" that syncretizes several
literary traditions. While disagreeing with hooks about the genre of slave
narratives in general and with her assessment of Walker's use of that
tradition in particular, I want to acknowledge my debt to her work elsewhere
on plantation family structures (as discussed in n14, below).
5. Unlike George Stade and bell hooks, Lauren Berlant and Elliott
Butler-Evans seek not to criticize Walker's handling of the epistolary form
but to uncover one effect that they believe follows from her chosen
approach. Butler-Evans believes that the "restriction of focus to Celie's
consciousness enables the novel to erase the public history and permits
Celie to tell her own story" (166-67). Similarly, Berlant discusses Walker's
"strategy of inversion, represented in its elevation of female experience
over great patriarchal events" (847). Both critics detect an opposition or
separation of discourses in the text, but their analyses differ in important
ways. While sympathetic to Butler-Evans's method of analyzing the "politics
of narration" (17) and especially to his analysis of sexual oppression, I
believe his focus on the gender issues at the center of Walker's narrative
leads him to underestimate both the extent and the importance of the novel's
representation of race. Berlant's sophisticated argument cannot be
summarized here, but if she means to limit - as I believe she does - her
analysis of "nation" to Celie's understanding of the term, then our analyses
may not be so much in conflict as they first appear. My own interest is in
analyzing the narrative's embedded text on racial integration rather than in
defining any particular characters understanding of race or nation. In other
words, I believe that the implied reader of Walkers text is provided a
political vantagepoint wider than that of any particular character in the
novel, including its primary narrator, Celie.
6. Gates has analyzed the extent to which The Color Purple signifies upon
Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (Signifying 239-58). Note
that, because of its layered narrative line, Walker's text is capable of
another form of "doubleness" - an ability to signify upon itself.
7. While my purpose here is to focus primarily upon the representation of
racial integration rather than gender, I should also note that this domestic
ideal is expressed specifically in terms of matrilineal bonds. The
recognition of all people as "one mother's children" is in keeping, of
course, with the construction of gender elsewhere in the novel. Woman's
love, understood as growing out of the experience of identity between mother
and child (rather than out of the perception of difference between the
sexes) is represented throughout The Color Purple as love that looks beyond
differences in how people "look or act." As Celie tells Shug when the singer
prepares to leave her, "I'm a woman. I love you. . . . Whatever happen,
whatever you do. I love you" (221). For a theoretical alternative to Oedipal
theories of maturation, see Chodorow.
8. While the boy's close proximity in age to Adam and Olivia accounts for
some of his demeanor, his behavior raises issues of race and class
9. Note that Nettie's use of fairy-tale rhetoric to parody Doris undercuts
the gender issues available in the white woman's narration and emphasizes
instead issues of race and class.
10. Linda Abbandonato and others have pointed to Levi-Strauss's
interpretation of the exchange of women as a "system of bonding men" (1109).
Similarly, historian Gerda Lerner argues in The Creation of Patriarchy that
the control of kinship - and especially of women's sexual and reproductive
powers - leads to the historical development of patriarchal political
structures, as power moves from the home and into law. Ironically, Doris
leaves England to avoid becoming a wife, only to become an honorary husband
in Africa. Doris's money has enabled her to escape becoming an object of
exchange but not to escape the petriarchal system of exchange itself, which
is seen to reach across continents.
11. Thus, in an article on "alienation and integration," Frank Shelton
analyzes four kinds of alienation and integration in the novel - but not
racial alienation or integration, probably because he believes that one
component of such an analysis is largely missing from the text: "White
people," he asserts, are "called a miracle of affliction" and then are
"virtually ignored" (382). Rather than being ignored, white people actually
function in the latter half of the novel to underscore the presence of race
and class hegemony in domestic space and to problematize the family ideal
for racial integration.
12. My discussion of the black mammy builds upon the work of Hazel Carby,
Barbara Christian, Trudier Harris, and bell hooks (Ain't I a Woman), all of
whom have written on literary representations of the African American woman
in the plantation household.
13. For other analyses of Squeak's rape, see Christine Froula's reading of
Squeak's "self-naming" in light of the sexual violence in the novel (639),
and Berlant's discussion of the rape as "the diacritical mark that organizes
Squeak's insertion into the 'womanist' order" (844).
14. In doing so, Walker's novel joins the longstanding feminist critique of
separate-spheres ideology as a false division used for power's
self-maintenance. See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's comment that "the
deconstruction of the opposition between the private and public" is
"implicit in all feminist activity" (201).
15. Note that Celie's pointed question to Sophia about Miss Eleanor Jane's
baby demonstrates her own understanding of the race issues involved in
Sophia's relationship with the white baby.
16. See Berlant's reading of Celie's family history, which argues that
Celie's "fairy-tale rhetoric emphasizes the personal over the institutional
or political components of social relations" such that "the nonbiologized
abstraction of class relations virtually disappears from the text" (841-42).
According to Berlant, Celie never understands the economic or class issues
implied by her family history.
17. The conclusion also suggests that feelings of kinship can transcend
gender differences, even when these differences include prior wrongs as
great as Albert's abuse of Celie. The novel resolves tensions between the
sexes - but not those between the races - optimistically, with partners,
husbands, wives, and estates well sorted out by the novel's end.
18. Shug's son may work for the same organization as Nettie, since we learn
early on that the "American and African Missionary Society" has also
"ministered to the Indians out west" (109). In any case, the American
Indians' treatment of Shug's son underscores their own understanding of the
colonial function of missionaries. By calling Shug's son the "black white
man," the American Indians also complicate racial definitions of kinship by
suggesting that the definition of race itself is ultimately located in
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