Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

I remember one time you said your life made you feel so ashamed you couldn’t even talk about it to God, you had to write it, bad as you thought your writing was. Well, now I know what you meant. And whether God will read letters or no, I know you will go on writing them; which is guidance enough for me.

Initially, I wasn't that impressed with The Color Purple. I reached the midpoint and was discussing it with Chris, and I mentioned that it seemed to be covering ground too similar to other books I'd read recently--Beloved and Homegoing--without catching me in the same way. He observed that I'd probably read many other books on the same topics without complaint, but was kind enough not say "try harder". However, I did, and ultimately came to appreciate The Color Purple on its own, somewhat unusal terms.

So, to kick things off, there are a few unusual things about the book that set it apart. It's in epistolary form, with about half the book being letters from the main character, Celie, to God and about half being from (minor spoiler) her younger sister, Nettie, who disappears early on but reappears later to pick up the other half of the narrative.

The story itself is broken into two pieces: the first half of the book is primarily letters by Celie, describing her life in the Jim Crow south; the second half is dominated, though not monopolized, by letters from Nettie, who has connected with a family of black missionaries headed to Africa under a white-owned missions organization.

Celie's letters are written in dialect, but never in a way which overwhelmed me--I'm not a huge fan of dialect--and it provides a nice ironiic syslistic distinction between Celie's tales, in which white people hardly appear, and Nettie's, in which the white missionaries make only token appearances but whose presence is felt even in the much more "proper" way Nettie learns to speak.

Nettie's story covers a lot of similar ground as Things Fall Apart, but from the perspective of the missionaries. It was interesting and at times quite sad--colonialism was a real bitch--but the emotional heft of the story belongs to Celie and her emotional, spiritual, and romantic awakening. But I did want to include this excerpt, which resonated with me regarding the way that our unconcious nationalism can easily breed resentment toward those who don't accept what we think they need to hear:

The Africans never asked us to come, you know. There’s no use blaming them if we feel unwelcome. It’s worse than unwelcome, said Samuel. The Africans don’t even see us. They don’t even recognize us as the brothers and sisters they sold. Oh, Samuel, I said. Don’t. But you know, he had started to cry. Oh Nettie, he said. That’s the heart of it, don’t you see. We love them. We try every way we can to show that love. But they reject us. They never even listen to how we’ve suffered. And if they listen they say stupid things. Why don’t you speak our language? they ask. Why can’t you remember the old ways? Why aren’t you happy in America, if everyone there drives motorcars?

Which brings me to the other thing I didn't know about this book: it is, in large part, a lesbian romance. Or rather, Celie seems to be a lesbian while her lover, Shug, is bisexual. Their friendship develops so naturally into a physical romance that it almost happens without notice. There's certainly no fanfare or any particular fuss made about it, in Celie's mind or by those around her.

Finally though, The Color Purple is a deeply spiritual book, although it takes pains to demonstrate that it's not a pamphlet of colonial Christianity. The libertine Shug turns out to be the novels spiritual center, in spite of Celie's letters to God. At one point, Celie is faced with a tragedy that undermines her faith:

What God do for me? I ast. She say, Celie! Like she shock. He gave you life, good health, and a good woman that love you to death. Yeah, I say, and he give me a lynched daddy, a crazy mama, a lowdown dog of a step pa and a sister I probably won’t ever see again. Anyhow, I say, the God I been praying and writing to is a man. And act just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgitful and lowdown. She say, Miss Celie, You better hush. God might hear you. Let ’im hear me, I say. If he ever listened to poor colored women the world would be a different place, I can tell you. She talk and she talk, trying to budge me way from blasphemy. But I blaspheme much as I want to.

But Shug is there to give this lovely speech:

I is a sinner, say Shug. Cause I was born. I don’t deny it. But once you find out what’s out there waiting for us, what else can you be? Sinners have more good times, I say. You know why? she ast. Cause you ain’t all the time worrying bout God, I say. Naw, that ain’t it, she say. Us worry bout God a lot. But once us feel loved by God, us do the best us can to please him with what us like. You telling me God love you, and you ain’t never done nothing for him? I mean, not go to church, sing in the choir, feed the preacher and all like that? But if God love me, Celie, I don’t have to do all that. Unless I want to. There’s a lot of other things I can do that I speck God likes.

I would like to write at more length about the treatment of God and spirituality in the book, but honestly, I don't feel qualified. Much of Walker's theology seems rooted in animism and pantheism, but she ties such a lovely bow on it that I'm not compelled to critique or dissect it. Celie's spiritual journey is something beautiful, as far as I can tell, and it doesn't need me whitemansplaining it.

So sometimes, I guess it's true that books require some extra work, not just on an intellectual level, but on a personal one as well. I feel as though recentering my focus on The Color Purple helped me root out some unconcious racist assumptions in myself--and if that's not a good takeaway from a book, I don't know what it. Also, the end made me cry.

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