‘The Color Purple’ is often argued to be a novel dedicated to the rights of black women owing to a number of features the book holds which point to this conclusion. Firstly, the story is told through the letters of Celie, a black woman living in Georgia and later there is the second narrative voice in the letters Celie receives from her sister Nettie. Through each we encounter the lives of Shug Avery, Sofia and Squeak. Therefore the simple numerical fact that a novel follows the growth of five black women points to their rights being a key theme. The way in which the novel is an epistolary can be seen to confirm this, as a fundamental human right is to have a voice and feel heard. Walker’s use of first person narrative through letters marks the beginning of the journey of empowerment Celie will take in the novel to finding her voice and feeling heard.
Yet Walker points out how this is an incredibly difficult struggle for a black woman in that time and context from the offset, with the words of Celie’s stepfather which begin the novel “you better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy”. This sets the scene as to the invisibility of the women in the black community at that time, and the sentiment is continued through the generations of the male characters. When Celie is first introduced to Mr. _______, the second most prominent male in her life, he admits, “I ain’t never really look at that one.” Later in the book we see the same concept in Mr. _______’s son, Harpo, whose attitude to Squeak when he is distracted at the news of Sofia’s imprisonment, is that he simply “looks through her head, blow smoke.”
The author shows us through Mr. _______’s advice to Harpo, ‘wives is like children’ the governing influence that black men held over black women at that time. Mr. _______ makes all the decisions in her life at the beginning of the book, whether she works, goes out or has sexual intercourse. Walker uses a religious image through Celie’s writing in the early letters, as she refers to her stepfather as “He,” with the capital letter that is only usually used in reference to a God, to emphasise how oppressed Celie’s patriarchal society is making her – it is men who have power over her like a God has power over his followers. In this way, Walker implies such sexism and racism is cyclical and needs to be constantly fought against through the assertion of black women’s rights in such ways as are taken in the novel, namely the bonds of sisterhood which give each character strength.
It is between Shug and Celie that we see possibly the strongest bonds of sisterhood in the novel. It is Shug’s strength and individuality which first helps Celie to realise her potential and the fact that men do not have to have the hold over her that they have been shown to have as she grows up. She tells Celie that “Man corrupt everything . . . soon as you think he everywhere, you think he God.” She voices what seems to be Walker’s idea of what God should be, ‘everything’, and once Celie realises this, she begins to take control of her life, the implication being that she finds the God, the governing power, that exists within herself, with the help of her sisters. This manifests itself in the success of her pants-making business and in the development of her first true adult relationship, that of the sexual side she shares with Shug.
This is an arguable feature of the novel as a dedication to black women’s rights, however, as Celie’s experiences up of men throughout her life have been violent and oppressive. She says she likes to look at women because she’s not scared of them, and in this way we encounter the debate of whether sexuality is in our nature or whether it can be the result of the circumstances we are brought up in. This would appear to be a theme that people can identify with universally, and not just a struggle of black women.
However the theme of sisterhood enabling the empowerment of black women continues very strongly once Celie has found her voice. This is most evident when she leaves Mr. _______ , telling him”I’m pore, I’m black, I may be ugly and can’t cook…But I’m here.” She then helps her sisters around her to find theirs; and an example can be made in the way that after Celie tells Harpo “if you hadn’t tried to rule over Sofia the white folks never would have caught her” Sofia, who has been silent, speaks. She finds her voice literally, and this can be seen as Walker’s way of telling black women everywhere that whatever struggles they go through, they still have a voice and they can be heard. We see a similar thing in the character of Squeak. When she has entered into Celie’s family and entered the friendship of her and Shug, she is able to tell Harpo “shut up Harpo, I’m telling it”, and she begins to sing in church – both affirmations of her voice and value as a black woman. She can also find the strength to reject the undesirable nickname of Squeak and affirm her identity when she says “My name Mary Agnes.”
In this way, it can be seen that there is much strength in claiming ‘The Color Purple’ to be a novel dedicated to that rights of black women. However, the issues raised in chronicling their empowerment can be very much applied to any person who feels oppressed and is questioning their value as a human being. Walker speaks through Nettie in reminding us that all people are capable of racist and oppressive tendencies. In one letter she tells Celie that “Africans are very much like white people back home, in that they think they are the center of the universe,” and that the mbeles, “harass the white man’s plantations and plan his destruction,” This goes against the commonly held idea that racism means white people oppressing black people, and makes us realise that Walker’s novel is arguing for universal human rights, not just those of black women.
This can be discovered further in the way that Celie’s letters, in their simple structure, use of dialect and spelling mistakes, resemble the slave narratives of the 1930s. This fact has caused some critics to read the novel’s content in terms of a protest against white people’s attitudes towards black people and a quest for social change, and thus rendering the dedication of the novel to be towards rights for all black people, not just those of women. Walker seems to emphasise the slavery echoed in Celie’s letters by the metaphorical slavery that appears to be in practise in various parts of the novel. Adam, Celie’s second child, “is sold to a man over in Monticello” and Celie herself is given away with “a cow she raise down there back of the crib” as a dowry. The rape that Celie was also forced to endure at the hands of Alphonso is also reminiscent of the sex female slaves were made to have with their white land-owning slave masters.
However, even concerning slavery Alice Walker does not concentrate on the evils white people at that time committed in buying and selling black people like cattle for use as slaves, and then treating them despicably whilst they worked, often killing them. She also considers the fact that other black people played a part in the slave industry by selling slaves on. Walker captures how this is often ignored by black people in the way she depicts the Olinka as “not want[ing] to hear about slavery” and acknowledging “no responsibility” for it whatsoever.
In this way ‘The Color Purple’ covers many issues of oppression in many societies, and in my opinion acts more as a novel of affirmation to people of every race, colour and creed to have value in themselves than just to the rights of black women.