The Color Purple by Alice Walker, The Women’s Press, 1982
Review by Harriet Elizabeth
To celebrate the recent World Book Day we asked Library volunteer Harriet to share a
review of a book that means a lot to her and her feminist identity. She chose the classic
novel The Color Purple.
I first read Alice Walker’s The Color Purple aged 17 and studying for my A levels, a time when I stuttered as I asserted that I was a feminist. With this novel I was exposed for the first time to black feminism, a strand of feminism that lit a fire in my belly, and which I have campaigned for ever since. To be a feminist is to want equality for all, but to fight for that, you must empathise with others’ situation and their history.
Walker’s novel was a fantastic introduction for this to me. The context in which the novel was written was the increasing importance of the feminist and Civil Rights movements, yet black western women found themselves marginalised in both narratives. This led Civil Rights campaigner and feminist Alice Walker to coin the term Womanism, a strand of feminism which prioritises the urgent needs of women of colour. It was in this context, in the USA in 1982, that Alice Walker published her episodic, historical novel, The Color Purple.
Walker was the daughter of African American farmers living in the South of America in the twentieth century, and it is largely from upbringing that she draws inspiration for her novel. An activist in the civil rights movement and academic in Black Women’s Studies, she was able to combine personal and ancestral history with an understanding of deeply complicated and political ideologies to create a narrative that was simple but highly effective in its meaning. Adapted into a critically acclaimed film directed by Steven Spielberg, featuring Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey, and later turned into a hit Broadway musical, the novel has been accepted into American popular culture as an important representation of it’s ashamed past.
The text and Walker, however, both received criticism when the book was first published – Walker was accused by some of pandering to the White Supremacist ideologies which existed about African Americans in that time, ideas and stereotypes which the Civil Rights Movement were fighting to change. She, and many others, fought back at these claims by highlighting the realistic representation of the lives of African American women in post-slavery America, further arguing that the text works to prove the freedom that can be found in acknowledging the mistakes of the past and rectifying them for the future.
In this fictional text we follow the life and voice of Celie, a young black woman living in the South of America in the early part of the twentieth century as she negotiates the abuse that comes with such a status. The text is written in the form of letters from Celie to God, documenting her prayers and therefore her internal, private and most honest thoughts. The space also operates as the only realistic outlet for Celie’s voice; dually oppressed by her race and gender, it is only in private and only to God that she is able to unload the trauma that she endures throughout her young life and into womanhood.
Education, female relationships and spirituality are Celie’s saving graces; in the first letter, written to God, Celie blames herself for the rape that she has just suffered by the man who she believes to be her father. Through shame and forced silence, she is unable to confide this in anyone but God; unable to speak the words of the trauma she has endured and the shame that is forced onto her with it, she writes him letters. Through the stylisation and language of these letters, Walker effectively conveys a story of hope and inspiration as against all odds Celie slowly becomes empowered by herself and by the women around her each day, spurred on by her undying love for her sister and best friend.
This novel can be found in the Feminist Library collection and is highly recommend for those looking to familiarise themselves with black feminism, the history of post-slavery America, or for those looking for an emotional but inspiring read.
This novel is in the Feminist Library collection and is highly recommend for those wanting to familiarise themselves with black feminism, the history of post-slavery America, and for everyone looking for an emotional but inspiring read.