"The Color Purple" Continues to Inspire
This month marks the 30th anniversary of Alice Walker’s winning of the Pulitzer Prize for “The Color Purple,” the first for a novel by a black woman.
I remember the controversy over the book when it came out. I was 16 and dreaming of becoming a writer myself.
Walker tells the story of Celie, an illiterate black woman living in the South in the 1930s. She is pregnant at 14 with the first of two of her stepfather’s children. He then gives Celie to a man who needs someone to clean house and raise his children after his first wife dies. Her stepfather even throws in a cow to sweeten the deal.
Celie is alone and loveless. The only person who cares about her is her sister Nettie, who runs away after Celie’s husband tries to seduce her. Celie has no one except God, and her letters to God constitute the body of the novel.
Celie and Nettie are eventually reunited, and the novel has an undeniably implausible happy ending: Everybody changes, and all is forgiven.
But even at 16, I understood that the novel was an allegory about how the powerless can become powerful. “The Color Purple” is a celebration of humanity and the transformative possibilities of love. These messages sustained me as a teenager growing up in the alienating suburbs of Nashville.
But when it was published, the book ignited outrage, particularly among black men, who felt insulted by it and contended that Walker had reproduced stereotypes of black men as both predators and buffoons. A substantial number of critics, including Spike Lee, contended that Walker had betrayed the race by colluding with a white publishing industry that had long been bent on undermining black masculinity.
The criticism got even more dramatic once the film adaptation, directed by Steven Spielberg, was released in 1985. Nationally syndicated columnist and television show host Tony Brown appeared on “The Phil Donohue Show” to condemn the movie, calling it “the most racist depiction of black men since “The Birth of a Nation” and the most anti-black family film of the modern film era.” He said the fact that he had not seen the film didn’t matter — he was speaking as a black man, not at as a film critic.
One thread in the book’s condemnation was the homophobic disdain critics expressed for the sexual relationship between two of the novel’s main female characters. In the movie version, the relationship is reduced to a single kiss.
Today, 30 years later, the controversy has long since died off, and the book lives on. It’s about men and women trying to live together in peace and trying to transcend our culture’s stifling dictates about gender.
These are messages that moved me when I first read the book and that move me now, in the wake of senseless drone strikes abroad and bombings here at home.
Emily Bernard is associate professor of English and ethnic studies at the University of Vermont. She can be reached at pmproj [at] progressive [dot] org.
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