The Color Purple as a Womanist novel

by Giz TimesApril 19, 2015

The Color Purple as a Womanist novel

Feminism is a gathering of developments and belief systems that impart a typical objective: to characterize, secure, and achieve equivalent political, monetary, social, individual, and social rights for women. This incorporates trying to secure equivalent open doors for women in training and job. A feminist advocates or supports the rights and equality of women.

Black Feminismrgues that sexism, class mistreatment and racism are inseparably bound together. The way these identify with one another is called intersectionality. Manifestations of feminism that endeavor to overcome sexism and class persecution overlook that race can victimize women through racial inclination. The Combahee River Collective contended in 1974 that the liberation of Black women involves flexibility for all individuals, since it would oblige the end of racism, sexism, and class oppression.

Womanism is a social change based upon the regular issues and encounters of black women and other women of minority demographics, but more broadly seeks for strategies to destroy disparities for black women, as well as for all individuals. Alice Walker used the term ‘womanism’ to define her concept of a uniquely different kind of black feminism, one that looks towards freedom from oppression and the desire for selfhood not so much in terms of antagonism to men as in terms of the supportive bonding of women. Womanism is thus an umbrella term which incorporates various all the terms that talk about equality. It not only rectifies the hegemony of the whites and the males, but also talks about rectifying the “man hating” aspect of Feminism and the idea of “free spirit”. This free spirit allows a person to explore one’s own sexuality and puts on a pedestal – the idea of respecting the universality of uniqueness.

The term womanism was first coined by author Alice Walker in her 1979 short story, Coming Apart. Here Walker describes the protagonist of the story as a womanist. She later explained this term in the preface to her book of essays, In Search of Our Mother’s Garden: Womanist Prose (1983), where she says that a womanist is “A black feminist or feminist of color… [With] outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior. A woman who loves other woman, sexually or non-sexually.” Chikwenye Ogunyemi describes a womanist novel as one “in which fictional black women move from physical or psychological enslavement to independence and freedom.” Harold Bloom observes that it is characterized by the movement from “confusion, resistance to the established order, and the discovery of a freeing order.”

Alice Walker’s womanist books include The Color Purple (1982), The Temple of My Familiar (1989) and Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992). The Color Purple, an epistolary novel which won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Award for Fiction and was later adapted into a film and musical of the same name, is one of the best examples of a womanist text of all times. The Color Purple is a touching novel through the eyes of Celie, with her journal entrances and letters from her sister Nettie. Celie lives in a universe of prejudice, sexism and misuse in profound southern America. She, as a dark woman of her time, is poor and uneducated. In the wake of being assaulted, mishandled and impregnated by the man why is believed to be her father the youthful age of 14, Celie is constrained into marriage.  Her children were taken away to ‘be with god’, her sister escaped from the pain and torment and ran away to the home of a pastor from her husband who is violent and abusive to Celie. Poor Celie has nobody to turn to. Nobody with the exception of God. She thinks of her journal admitting and letting out the outrage and feeling which she is not emphatically to express in ordinary regular life. Anyhow Celie is soon intrigued by Shug Avery, who comes to stay with her. Shug is the main individual to demonstrate any friendship to Celie, and stays in their home a bit longer, to shield her from her vicious spouse. Following quite a while of never listening to or accepting letters from her sister (who guaranteed to think of her), Celie accept Nettie is dead. Anyway with the associate of Shug, they soon find that Mr _____ had concealed the letters that Nettie had sent to Celie. The letters clarify how Nettie had gone to Africa with another family as their maid, and she soon discovers that the 2 youngsters that she deals with are Celie’s kids. She additionally discovers that the man, who she accepts to be her dad, is not her genuine father. Celie and all the free women begin a sewing business. Celie figures out Nettie’s arrangements to return back to America with the kids. Once rejoined at maturity, Celie and Nettie are genuinely happy and live in congruity with the other they cherish around them.

The Color Purple can be understood as a womanist text in the light of the four meanings that Alice Walker assigns to the word womanist.

First,’ Womanist’ is from the southern folk expression “womanish”. It usually refers to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior. Wanting to know more and in great depth than is considered “good” for one. Interested in grown up doings. Acting grown up. Interchangeable with another black folk expression “You are trying to be grown” Responsible. In charge. Serious.

 This aspect of womanism can be seen in The Color Purple through characters like Sofia, who unlike the initial Celie, thinks and acts fearlessly and decisively. Sofia Butler is a strong and independent woman who can knock down a man if she is not treated well. She beats Harpo when he mistreats him, knocks out two of Squeak (Mary Agnes)’s teeth, and even gets into the fight with the mayor and his wife. She is thrown into the prison and suffers for being outrageous. Similarly, Nettie and Shug Avery are also considered to be audacious and courageous in their behavior. Later on, Celie also realizes to adopt this “womanish” attitude and is hence able to get out of the vicious patriarchal circle where the phallus rules. It is important to note that all these black women are not considered as “good” by the society. They are victimized by the black men physically, mentally, sexually and economically for not falling under the stereotypical woman who would easily succumb to a man. This is the exact reason that unites them and makes them womanish in their behavior. It is also interesting to note that the synthesis of their individual struggles result in a resolution that makes all the women succeed at the end because of their “womanish” behavior. With Shug in Memphis, Celie successfully starts her own business of sewing pants and inherits Alphonso’s land after he dies. Mary Agnes fulfils her ambition of becoming a successful singer, supported by her daughter Suzie Q and Sofia, who returns home, “a big, stout, graying wild-eyed woman” to a warm welcome within the family circle. Even the white community is partially assimilated into this “edenic” world in the person of Sofia’s former charge Miss Eleanor Jane, who leaves her own home to work for Sofia. Thus the novel establishes a female defined community, purely on the basis of their “womanish” attitude.

Second, a womanist is a woman who loves other women, sexually and/or non-sexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as a natural counterbalance of laughter) and women’s strength.                                                                                         Committed to the survival of and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not separatist, except periodically, for health. Traditionally, Universalist, as in “Mama, why are we brown, pink and yellow, and our cousins white, beige and black?” Answer: “Well, you know the colored race is just like a flower garden, with every color flower represented.” Traditionally capable, as in: “Mama, I’m walking to Canada and I’m talking you and a bunch of other slaves with me.” Reply: “It wouldn’t be the first time.”

Alice Walker here uses the metaphor of a garden and says that there are myriad flowers which bloom in a garden. She believes that all humans should be respected and embraced with love for their uniqueness and it is this uniqueness of an individual that should be valued for its universality. The novel concerns black women victimized by black men, their lesbian bonding against the tyrannical forces of patriarchy, and their ultimately gaining a triumph over them. Its epistolary form in itself is suggestive of lesbian sexuality. To cite Wendy Wall: “ Letters become the surrogate body for Celie, an inanimate form that serves the dual purpose; it fends off pain by siphoning off her feelings of degradation, as well as allowing her to express and thus feel the intensity of her emotions. She compartmentalizes a suppressed ‘self’ through her letters. The letters become the tenuous skin of her body, framing her internal thoughts in a realm separate from her outward actions.” Henry Louis Gates Jr., believes that Walker through this epistolary novel has written a letter portraying her lesbian love for her authority figure, Hurston.  With reference to Nettie’s letters, Wendy Wall observes that Albert intercepts them because he fails to seduce her, and that he rapes her language because he fails to rape her body. Alice Walker has basically shown the women coming together both sexually and non-sexually. There is a profound love that unites all the women and raises them to a pedestal where they can actually emerge victorious as a gender and give a message of universality of uniqueness and its acceptance. Celie is shown sacrificing herself for her sister Nettie. She accepts her fate and marries Mr.____ to free Nettie from this torture. She is shown as a lesbian in the absolute sense- both sexually with Shug Avery and emotionally with other women like Sofia and Nettie. We also see Albert’s sisters Carrie and Kate’s instant falling for Celie for her cleanliness. Kate even urges her brother to buy her new clothes. We also witness, Squeak who is in fact an enemy to Sofia, not only taking care of her children, but also musters up enough courage to go and meet the prison warden, a distant relative, to get help for Sofia. Similarly, Shug also provides sexual and emotional relief to Celie by helping her know what love is all about. Nettie also brings up Celie’s children and even educates Celie.The lesbianism shown in the novel is to criticize two things. First, it is a critique of the patriarchal society that believes a woman to be an object of sense gratification, a person to take care of the chores and nurse the family. Second, it condemns the stereotypical thinking that makes a person who is penetrated (both men and women; straights and gays/lesbians) submissive to the one who is penetrating. Walker has in fact used homosexuality and sisterhood to deconstruct the unequal conventions that marginalize the “other” and this other can be anyone belonging to any gender, caste, creed, religion, etc. The novel at the end focuses on a female-defined community in which all those who were pushed to the periphery are brought to the centre and the ones who held the absolute power to exploit the others are brought to an equal level with those others. Thus, as Jaques Derrida wanted, the centre is decentered and the deconstruction of the binaries takes place.

Third, Walker defines a womanist as the one who loves music. Loves Dance. Loves the moon. Loves the folk. Loves herself. Regardless.

Alice Walker has incorporated this aspect of womanism in her novel The Color Purple by showing how affection and love wins over the power struggles in a society. Womanism celebrates femaleness by saying that it gives women something more than a normal human. Walker and other womanists believe that doing embroidery, painting, engaging in chores, sewing, etc. are not something to be ashamed of. These qualities which are stereotyped with a woman and are used as means to discriminate between the men and women are in fact the added capabilities that empower a woman. In the novel we see Shug Avery and Mary Agnes becoming successful by exploring and exploiting their singing capabilities. Similarly, Celie too at the end gains independence by starting her own business of sewing. The novel shows that a woman loves everything and everyone in a way that not only empowers them, but also allows the men to shed their patriarchal behavior and respect women. In this way, the novel becomes a celebration of womanhood and femaleness; thus allowing women to respect and love themselves for what they are.


Fourth, Walker says Womanist is to Feminist as purple is to lavender.

The title of the novel is based on this aspect of womanism. According to Alice Walker, she is purple- purple with rage, purple as restored royalty, purple blossoming wild in an open field. Therefore, according to her womanism is an empowered form of feminism just as purple is a bold and empowered version of lavender. Purple is perhaps the color that unites all the themes in the novel to freedom, creativity and love. At the beginning of the story, Celie does not wear purple clothes, which suggests that she has not got independence and self- identity. With Shug’s help, Celie begins to make a living by herself, gets independence on economy. She sets up Folks Pants Unlimited Company, and then makes pants for one of her sisters, Sofia. She chooses red and purple in the pants, which shows that Celie begins to get dignity. At the end of the story, decorated with red and purple, she possesses her own house and gets anything she likes to adorn her room. The changing of colors indicates that, faced with the future, she becomes optimistic towards life. Albert, the husband of Celie, has carved a purple frog to her as a gift. It denotes the recognition for Celie, the equality of black men and women, and the respect that the black women regain. Purple also signifies homosexuality and the importance of self identity. The Color Purple, thus emerges as a novel about gaining independence and freeing oneself from everything to reach one’s true potential and exercise one’s choice.

It is also important to note that Nettie’s commentary on the Olinka people’s discrimination against their women, consistently with Walker’s womanist design, suggest the fact that gender oppression is not only limited to the Afro-American community in American South and to the entire world of black men and women, but also to all the people who are doubly marginalized on the basis of gender, caste, class and creed. Indians, for example have witnessed this double marginalization when it comes to the Dalit women of India. Although the Dalits have always been considered as outcastes, the dalit women have faced the worst kind of discrimination. The traditional taboos are the same for Dalit men and Dalit women. However, Dalit women have to deal with them more often. Dalit women are discriminated against not only by people of higher castes, but also within their own communities. Men are dominant in Dalit communities. Dalit women also have less power within the Dalit movement itself. Dalit women are discriminated against three times over: they are poor, they are women, and they are Dalits.

The Dalit Movement in India is a movement of protest against untouchability, casteism and superstitions. It aims at the uplift of the Dalits to the level of non -Dalits. Just like Black Feminism, Dalit Movement too focuses on empowering the dalit women and brings them to the forefront in order to establish equality and liberty for all. Though, in theory the movement talks about equality, in practice, the movement often fails. For example, in March 2015, a Dalit woman in Diwan-Tola hamlet of Patthardewa village in Kushinagar district, Uttar Pradesh, was set on fire by her own brothers for pursuing education. Such incidences keep on occurring again and again and there is a need to spread awareness and educate people. Literature and other forms of awareness must be used to empower the downtrodden and bring them together with the upper class. Bama Faustina, P.Sivakami, Baby Kamble are some of the Dalit women writers in India who aim at spreading such awareness amongst people through their brilliant pieces.

Alice Walker says: “The greatest value a person can attain is full humanity, which is a state of oneness with all things.” Walker’s ideas on womanism reflects her intention to champion as a writer the causes of black people, black women and lesbians in particular; and all the marginalized sections of the society- the LGBT, the Dalits, the poor, etc in general. Her view is that of a society that talks about accepting and respecting one’s own and others perspective. She is a woman who believes that everything is inhabited by a spirit and that true knowledge is that which is perceived intuitively. The Color Purple, characterized by its womanist elements thus succeeds in being a novel that epitomizes equality and freedom in its true essence.

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