You are on page 1of 8

Saint Louis University

Indiana State University

On The Color Purple, Stereotypes, and Silence
Author(s): Trudier Harris
Source: Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Winter, 1984), pp. 155-161
Published by: African American Review (St. Louis University)
Stable URL:
Accessed: 18-03-2016 22:48 UTC

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at
JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content
in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship.
For more information about JSTOR, please contact

Saint Louis University, Indiana State University and African American Review (St. Louis University) are
collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Black American Literature Forum.

This content downloaded from on Fri, 18 Mar 2016 22:48:24 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions



explanations are partly outweighed by the fact that the novel

The Color Purple has been canonized. I don't think it

has been so consistently in the public eye that it takes great

should have been. The tale of the novel's popularity is the

effort not to write about it. The Color Purple silences by its

tale of the media's ability, once again, to dictate the tastes of

dominance, a dominance perpetuated by the popular media.

the reading public, and to attempt to shape what is

Those who initially found or still find themselves unable to

acceptable creation by black American writers. Sadly, a

speak out perhaps reflect in some way my own path to

book that might have been ignored if it had been published

writing about the novel. From the time the novel appeared
ten years earlier or later has now become the classic novel by

in 1982, I have been waging a battle with myself to record my

a black woman. That happened in great part because the

reaction to it. For me, the process of reading, re-reading,

pendulum determining focus on black writers had swung in

and re-reading the novel, discussing it, then writing about it

their favor again, and Alice Walker had been waiting in the

has reflected some of the major dilemmas of the black

wings of the feminist movement and the power it had

woman critic. To complain about the novel is to commit

generated long enough for her curtain call to come. In the

treason against black women writers, yet there is much in it

1890s, the chosen one was Paul Laurence Dunbar; the

that deserves complaint, and there are many black women

choice turned out to be more his curse than his blessing. In

critics in this country who would rather have their wisdom

the 1960s, the time was right for James Baldwin, and he is

teeth pulled than be accused of objecting to it. After all, a

probably still trying to figure out why he lost the limelight.

large number of readers, usually vocal and white, have

For a brief period in 1981, when a photograph of Toni

decided that The Color Purple is the quintessential state-

Morrison appeared on the cover of Newsweek, it was her

ment on Afro-American women and a certain kind of black

day in the sun. Now, Alice Walker has been chosen, for the

lifestyle in these United States.

media, by its very racist nature, seems to be able to focus on

My dilemma started in Alabama in July of 1982 when I

only one black writer at a time. While it is not certain how

completed the novel and went into a fit of cursing for several

long Alice Walker will be in the limelight for The Color

days. Here, I felt, was a novel that had done a great

Purple, it is certain that the damaging effects reaped by the

disservice through its treatment of black women and a

excessive media attention given to the novel will plague us as

disservice as well to the Southern black communities in

scholars and teachers for many years to come.

which such treatment was set. I couldn't imagine a Celie

The novel has become so popular that Alice Walker is

existing in any black community I knew or any that I could

almost universally recognized as a spokeswoman for black

conceive of. What sane black woman, I asked, would sit

people, especially for black women, and the novel is more

around and take that crock of shit from all those folks? How

and more touted as a work representative of black com-

long would it take her before she reached the stage of

munities in this country. The effect of the novel's popularity

stabbing somebody to death, blowing somebody's head off,

has been detrimental in two significant and related ways.

or at least going upside somebody's head? But the woman

Response to its unequaled popularity, first of all, has created

just sat there, like a bale of cotton with a vagina, taking stuff

a cadre of spectator readers. These readers, who do not

from kids even and waiting for someone to come along and

identify with the characters and who do not feel the intensity

rescue her. I had problems with that. And so did other black

of their pain, stand back and view the events of the novel as a

women. By contrast, most of the white women with whom I

circus of black human interactions that rivals anything

talked loved the novel.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan concocted. The spectator readers

When I started asking black women how they felt about

show what damage the novel can have; for them, the book

the book, there was a quiet strain of discomfort with it, a

reinforces racist stereotypes they may have been heir to and

quiet tendency to criticize, but none of them would do so

others of which they may have only dreamed.

very aggressively. We were all faced with the idea that to

The other, equally significant, detrimental effect is that

criticize a novel that had been so universally complimented

the novel has been so much praised that critics, especially

was somehow a desertion of the race and the black woman

black women critics, have seemingly been reluctant to offer

writer. Yet, there was a feeling of uneasiness with the novel.

detailed, carefully considered criticisms of it. While that

Instead of focusing upon the specifics of that uneasiness,

may be explained in part by the recent publication of the

however, most of the black women with whom I talked

novel and by the limited access black women critics

preferred instead to praise that which they thought was safe:

traditionally have had to publishing outlets, these possible

the beautiful voice in the book and Walker's ability to

capture an authentic black folk speech without all the

*Trudier Harris is Associate Professor of English at the University of

caricature that usually typifies such efforts. They could be

North Carolina-Chapel Hill and a member of BALFs advisory board. She

lukewarm toward the relationship between Celie and Shug

is the author of From Mammies to Militants: Domestics in Black American

Literature (1982).

and generally criticize Albert. However, they almost never


This content downloaded from on Fri, 18 Mar 2016 22:48:24 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

said anything about the book's African sections until I

Mariah Uphur does in Sarah E. Wright's This Child's

brought them up. Do they work for you? Do you see how

Gonna Live, but writing letters to God is altogether another

they're integrated into the rest of the novel? Does the voice

matter. Even if we can suspend our disbelief long enough to

of Nettie ring authentic and true to you? Only when assured

get beyond that hurdle, we are still confronted with the

that their ideas would not be looked upon as a desertion of

substance of the book. What Celie records-the degrada-

black femininity would the women then proceed to offer

tion, abuse, dehumanization-is not only morally repulsive,

valuable insights.

but it invites spectator readers to generalize about black

people in the same negative ways that have gone on for

For others, though, silence about the novel was some-

centuries. Further, how Celie grows and how she presents

thing not to be broken. One Afro-American woman critic

other characters as growing is frequently incredible and

who has written on contemporary black women writers told

inconsistent to anyone accustomed to novels at least

me that she would never write anything on the novel or make

adhering to the worlds, logical or otherwise, that they have

a public statement about it. Quite clearly, that was a

statement in itself. Her avowed silence became a political

confirmation of everything that I found problematic about

When I read lines such as ". . . I'm so beside myself"

the novel.

(p. 41), "She look like she ain't long for this world but

dressed well for the next" (p. 42), "Look like a little mouse

But shouldn't black women allow for diversity of inter-

pretation of our experiences, you may ask? And shouldn't

been nibbling the biscuit, a rat run off with the ham" (p. 47),

we be reluctant to prescribe a direction for our black women

and "Scare me so bad I near bout drop my grip" (p. 77),1 I

writers? Of course, but what we have with this novel is a

felt a sense of deja vu for all the black women who made art

situation in which many black women object to the portrayals

out of conversation in the part of Alabama where I grew up;

of the characters, yet we may never hear the reasons for their

they created poetry out of cotton fields and rivaled the blues

objections precisely because they are black women.

in the domestic images that came so readily to their tongues.

That part of Celie I could imagine. And one might even

I met many vocally articulate white women in 1982 and

understand, at least initially, her fear of her stepfather and

1983 who loved The Color Purple and who are still singing

the underdeveloped moral sense that leads to inactivity in

its praises. Because I do not automatically assume that white

response to abuse. Her lack of understanding about her

women have my best interests at heart, I kept wondering

pregnancy is also probable within the environment in which

why they so favored the novel when I myself had so many

she grew up; many black girls/women during those years

questions about it. In Gloria Steinem's article on Alice Walker

were taught that babies were found in cabbage heads or in

and her works, especially The Color Purple, which appeared

hollow logs. But those years and years and years of Celie's
in Ms. Magazine in July of 1982, Steinem reflects her own

acquiescence, extreme in their individuality, have been used

surprise at Walker's achievement; her response is con-

too readily to affirm what the uninformed or the illdescending at times to a degree even beyond that latitude

informed believe is a general pattern of violence and abuse

that might be expected in such works. She praises Walker

for black women. That is one of the dangerous consequences

for generally being alive, black, and able to write well. The

of the conceptualization of that powerful voice Celie has.

article is reminiscent of Helga Crane's visit to Sweden in

One of the saddest effects and the greatest irony of that

Larsen's Quicksand: Like, wow, it moves and grooves and

voice is that, while it makes Celie articulate, it has simultane-

crawls on its belly like a reptile. Those writing in the wake of

ously encouraged silence from black women, who need to be

Steinem's article and not supportive of the novel had to

vocal in voicing their objections to, as well as their praises for,

double-check to see if they could really consider themselves

the novel. As Celie's voice has resounded publicly, it has,


through its very forcefulness, cowed the voices of black

Steinem focuses on the language and the morality in

women into private commentary or into silence about issues

Walker's novel. The language I have no problem with, but

raised in the novel.

then I am not one of the individuals who assumes that black

women have difficulty with folk idiom. Celie's voice in the

The voice led to Steinem's celebration of the wonderful

novel is powerful, engaging, subtly humorous, and incisively

morality in the novel, yet what she finds so attractive

analytic at the basic level of human interactions. The voice is

provides another source of my contention with the book.

perfectly suited to the character, and Walker has breathed

Steinem asserts that morality for Walker "is not an external

into it a vitality that frequently overshadows the problematic

dictate. It doesn't matter if you love the wrong people, or

areas of concern in the novel. When, for example, in

have children with more than one of them, or whether you

December of 1982, I sat with an audience of hundreds on the

have money, go to church, or obey the laws. What matters is

Radcliffe College campus and listened to Walker bring Celie

cruelty, violence, keeping the truth from others who need it,

to life, all of my objections to Celie disappeared momentarily

suppressing someone's will or talent, taking more than you

as Walker wove an audible spell over the audience. I had to

need from people or nature, and failing to choose for

yourself. It's the internal morality of dignity, autonomy, and

remind myself that I was approving of the controlled yet

dynamic power of Walker as reader, rather than approving

balance" (p. 89). What kind of morality is it that espouses

of Celie's story. The reading epitomized one of the central

that all human degradation is justified if the individual

issues in the novel-the war between form and content. The

somehow survives all the tortures and uglinesses heaped

form of the book, as it relates to the folk speech, the pattern

upon her? Where is the dignity, autonomy, or balance in

and nuances of Celie's voice, is absolutely wonderful. The

that? I am not opposed to triumph, but I do have objections

clash between Celie's conception and her writing ability,

to the unrealistic presentation of the path, the process that

however, is another issue. I can imagine a black woman of

leads to such a triumph, especially when it is used to create a

Celie's background and education talking with God, as

new archetype or to resurrect old myths about black women.


This content downloaded from on Fri, 18 Mar 2016 22:48:24 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

cannot control their wives through beatings, they violently

By no means am I suggesting that Celie should be blamed

dispatch them. The only stereotype that is undercut in the

for what happens to her. My problem is with her reaction to

the situation. Even slave women who found themselves

book is that of the matriarch. Sofia, who comes closest in

abused frequently found ways of responding to that-by

size and personality to the likes of Lorraine Hansberry's

Mama Lena Younger and comparable characters, is beaten,

running away, fighting back, poisoning their masters, or

imprisoned, and nearly driven insane precisely because of

through more subtly defiant acts such as spitting into the

her strength.

food they cooked for their masters. They did something, and

Celie shares a kinship in conception if not in chronology

The women had fewer comments on the section on Africa,

with them. Dorothy Sterling includes material from many of

but generally agreed that it was less engaging than other

them in We Are Your Sisters. In literature, Nanny Crawford

parts of the novel. I maintained that the letters from Africa

and her daughter fight back, and even Janie has her ways of

were like the whaling chapters in Moby Dick-there more

rebelling. Walker says in the Foreword to Robert Hemenway's

for the exhibition of a certain kind of knowledge than for the

literary biography of Zora Neale Hurston (reprinted in In

good of the work. And there was also the problem of trying

Search of Our Mothers' Gardens) that Their Eyes Were

to decide when Nettie and Celie were actually receiving each

Watching God is one of the books she would select

other's letters as opposed to when Celie was reading the old

immediately if she had been "condemned to a deserted

letters from Albert, and if it made a difference. Of all the

island for life" and that she identifies with Janie; unfortunately

commentary I have seen on The Color Purple, there was one

such heroines as Janie and Nanny do not inform Walker's

striking evaluation of the African connection in the novel.

conception of Celie.

Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Mel Watkins

commented that "if there is a weakness in this novel-

I found so many white women who joined Steinem in

besides the somewhat pallid portraits of the males-it is

praising the novel that I read it again just to recheck my

Netti[e]'s correspondence from Africa. While Netti[e]'s

own evaluations. Then, since I was on leave at The Bunting

letters broaden and reinforce the theme of female oppres-

Institute at Radcliffe and had access to a community of

sion by describing customs of the Olinka tribe that parallel

women, the majority of whom were white, I thought it

some found in the American South, they are often mere

would be fitting to test some of my ideas on them.

Accordingly, I wrote a thirty-three-page article on the novel

monologues on African history. Appearing, as they do, after

and invited women in residence at the Institute to come to a

Celie's intensely subjective voice has been established, they

working paper session and respond to what I had written.

seem lackluster and intrusive" (25 July 1982, p. 7).

My basic contentions were that the portrayal of Celie was

Other women from that session also commented on

unrealistic for the time in which the novel was set, that Nettie

Walker's excessively negative portrayal of black men-not a

and the letters from Africa were really extraneous to the

new criticism leveled against her-, and some thought the

central concerns of the novel, that the lesbian relationship in

lesbian relationship was problematic. There were others,

the book represents the height of silly romanticism, and that

though, who couldn't see what all the fuss was about, who

the epistolary form of the novel ultimately makes Celie a

said that they had simply enjoyed reading the novel. I had no

much more sophisticated character than we are initially led

trouble with their enjoyment of the novel as a response to

to believe.

reading it; my problems centered on the reasons for their

finding it so enjoyable. Those who did generally mentioned

Twelve women, ten. of them white, read the novel and

came to my discussion of it over lunch. Several of them also

the book's affirmation: that Celie is able to find happiness

read my paper. During that session, I discovered that some

after so many horrible things have happened to her. That is a

white women did not like the novel, but they were not the

response that would probably please Walker, who has

ones controlling publications like Ms.. One white woman

indicated that the character Celie is based on her great-

grandmother, who was raped at twelve by her slaveholding

commented that, if she had not been told the novel had been

written by a black woman, she would have thought it had

master. In reparation to a woman who had suffered such

been written by a Southern white male who wanted to

pain, Walker has explained: "I liberated her from her own

reinforce the traditional sexual and violent stereotypes

history.... I wanted her to be happy" (Newsweek, 21 July

1982, p. 67). It is this clash between history and fiction, in

about black people. That comment affirmed one of my

part, that causes the problems with the novel.

major objections to the thematic development of the novel:

The book simply added a freshness to many of the ideas

On the way to making Celie happy, Walker portrays her

circulating in the popular culture and captured in racist

as a victim of many imaginable abuses and a few unimagin-

literature that suggested that black people have no morality

able ones. Celie is a woman who believes she is ugly, and she

when it comes to sexuality, that black family structure is

centers that belief on her blackness. While this is not a new

weak if existent at all, that black men abuse black women,

problem with some black women, a black woman character

and that black women who may appear to be churchgoers

conceived in 1982 who is still heir to the same kinds of

are really lewd and lascivious.

problems that characters had who were conceived decades

earlier is problematic for me-especially since Celie makes a

The novel gives validity to all the white racist's notions of

big deal of how ugly she believes she is. But, you may say,

pathology in black communities. For these spectator readers,

black fathers and father-figures are viewed as being immoral,

how can a woman affirm any standard of beauty in an

sexually unrestrained. Black males and females form units

environment in which men are so abusive? Allowance for the

without the benefit of marriage, or they easily dissolve

fact that Celie is "living" in the 1 940s really does not gainsay

the criticism about this aspect of her conception. I would say

marriages in order to form less structured, more promiscuous

relationships. Black men beat their wives-or attempt to-

in response that Nettie was there during Celie's early years,

and neglect, ignore, or abuse their children. When they

and Nettie apparently has a rather positive conception of


This content downloaded from on Fri, 18 Mar 2016 22:48:24 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

teaching of argument, and only one work of literature can be

herself. If Celie believes her about some things, why not

taught, it was late in the semester when we finally read the

about others? Instead, Celie gives in to her environment with

novel. That made my students even more enthusiastic about

a kind of passivity that comes near to provoking screams in

it because it was so different from everything else we had

readers not of the spectator variety who may be guilty of

done during the semester.

caring too much about the characters. Before she can be

made to be happy, Celie is forced to relive the history of

In classroom discussion, I discovered that The Color

many Afro-American women who found themselves in

Purple is one of the most provocative works that can be

unpleasant circumstances, but few of them seem to have

offered to students. Responses were wide-ranging, but there

undergone such an intuitive devaluation of themselves; even

was never a dull session during the entire discussion. Some

abused Linda Brent found some source for valuing herself,

students were appreciative because they felt it gave them an

as did many women in the South who were treated as beasts

opportunity to see how black people in the deep South really

of burden, but who refused to see themselves as mules of the

lived during the 1930s and the 1940s (the emphasis was on

world. I can imagine Celie existing forever in her situation if

really). Students did not conclude that this was a particular

someone else did not come along to "stir her root life," as

depiction of particular black people in a specific black

Jean Toomer would say, "and teach her to dream." It is that

community; rather, they concluded that this was a large and

burying away of the instinctive desire to save one's self that

representative slice of black life, U.S.A. Admittedly, most

makes me in part so angry about Celie-in addition to all

freshmen have limited powers of analysis, and they are quick

those ugly things that happen to her. Plowing a man's fields

to generalize. But, if a book reads like a verification of all the

for twenty years and letting him use her body as a sperm

racist stereotypes students have grown up on, how can we

depository leaves Celie so buried away from herself that it is

expect them to be selectively discriminating in responding to

hard to imagine anything stirring her to life-just as it is

it? And can we expect them to change readily when we point

equally hard to imagine her being so deadened. Ah-the

out the discrepancies? While my students may have left the


classroom with slightly changed impressions, will those

of teachers unfamiliar with black culture leave their

Celie does have an awareness of right and wrong that

classrooms in a similar fashion? It is Walker who asserts

comes from outside herself-as well as the one she will

that, as black women, "our models in literature and life have

develop from her own experiences. She knows that Albert's

been, for the most part, devastating" (Essence, July 1982,

abuse of her is wrong just as she knew her stepfather's sexual

p. 118). To leave open other possibilities for destructive

exploitation of her was wrong. And she does go to church;

models is equally devastating. She concludes the discussion

whether or not she believes what she hears, certainly

in Essence by maintaining that, "In any case, the duty of the

something of the Christian philosophy seeps into her

writer is not to be tricked, seduced or goaded into verifying

consciousness over the years. There are guidelines for

by imitation, or even rebuttal, other people's fantasies. In an

action, therefore, to which she can compare her own

oppressive society it may well be that all fantasies indulged

situation and respond. Also, considering the fact that she

in by the oppressor are destructive to the oppressed. To

cannot have children with Albert, the traditional reason for

become involved in them in any way at all is, at the very

enduring abuse-one's children-is absent in her case. So

least, to lost time defining yourself" (p. 121). The very

why does she stay?

substance of The Color Purple, it seems to me, contradicts

I continued to wrestle with my response to the novel in

this statement.
various social and academic settings. I found myself discuss-

Other students in my class, a few of them sophomores,

ing the novel with people at cocktail parties, on subways in

were initially appalled by the incest in the book and took

the Boston area, and over lunches and dinners. Every time

several starts and stops before they could get beyond that.
someone discovered that I taught Afro-American literature,

One student, older, married, and with a child of his own,

I would invariably be asked about The Color Purple if the

told me after class one day that he couldn't read the book
inquisitive person had recently read it-and sometimes even

because of its portrayal of sexual abuse. When he finally got

if the person hadn't. It was simply believed that, if the novel

beyond his initial moral repugnance, he became the center of

was everywhere written and talked about, then anyone who

several discussions. His responses were especially important

taught black American literature must-or ought-to have

to me because he was the most articulate of the black males

something to say about it. I found myself clearing my throat

in the class. How Walker had presented them-or failed to

again and again, getting ready to defend the unpopular

present them, from his point of view-gave him several days

position. Or I found myself trying to get off onto another

of intellectual exercise.
subject because there simply wasn't time for me to pursue

my commentary on what I really thought and felt about the

This student maintained that Walker had very deliberately


deprived all the black male characters in the novel of any

positive identity. From giving Albert a blank instead of a

But I kept wrestling with myself. I kept testing out my

name, to having the only supportive males be young and

impressions for the sake of making sure there wasn't

potheads or middle-aged and henpecked (as is the husband

something I had overlooked in my analysis and interpreta-

of Sophie's sister, for whom Celie makes a pair of pants and

tion of the novel. It became a challenge for me. And all

whose only goal in life seems to be to please his wife-

teachers know that one of the places to test challenges is in

because she can beat him up?), to giving Du Bois' last name a

the classroom. During the Fall of 1983, therefore, I assigned

different spelling, this student thought black men had been

the book in my freshman composition class (not the best

stripped of their identities and thus their abilities to assume

place in the world, but the only other course I was teaching

the roles of men. And consider the case of poor Harpo, who

was Afro-American Folklore, and I simply had to teach the

doesn't even realize when he has a gooi thing and loses it

novel as soon as I could). Since the course is designed for the


This content downloaded from on Fri, 18 Mar 2016 22:48:24 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

because he has such warped notions of manhood. No man in

means. I interpreted it to mean that I had been less than

the novel is respectable, this student maintained, not even

enthusiastic about a novel that this editor was obviously

Albert (because he can only change in terms of doing things

enthusiastic about, and she did not want to give her volume

that are traditionally considered sissified, such as sewing

the bad reputation of containing a piece overly critical of

The Color Purple.

and gossiping). And what about the good preacher who goes

off to Africa, I asked him. He's not an exception, either, the

That was her prerogative. But it is mine as a scholar and a

response came back, because he must get down on his knees

critic not to accept suggestions that turn into dictations that

and ask a woman for permission to get married. All the men,

perpetuate an already existing but unwritten demand for

the student concluded, fit into that froglike perception Celie

silence. That would be parallel to my trying to tell Alice

has of them. And the problem with these frogs? None of

Walker exactly what kind of black woman character would

them can turn into princes.

appeal to me. In a way therefore, Walker and I have both

I can recount this student's perceptions at such length

done our own things. However, I would maintain that my

because we argued about the novel in and out of class-and

essay differs from Walker's novel in that its ability to alter

he recruited other students to read it for the sake of

people's perceptions is minute in comparison to the wide-

furthering discussion of the impressions he had. But that,

spread influence of the novel. Also, there is the added

too, is a testament to the provocative quality of the novel.

concern of Walker's being recognized as a spokeswoman for

The students in the class would stay beyond the allotted class
black women in this country. In the October 7, 1982, issue of

time to continue whatever we had been pursuing during the

The National Leader, which has a picture of Walker on the

hour. And we all tried to convince each other of what we

cover and includes an article, with another large photo-

thought we were seeing in it. But while I was very happy to

graph, on Walker and The Color Purple, she is referred to as

have taught the novel, and to have had such enthusiastic

the "Resounding Voice for Black Women." The title of a

response to it, I was still not sure that I was ready to say in
New York Times Magazine article for January 8, 1984, is

print what I thought I wanted to say about the work.

"Novelist Alice Walker: Telling the Black Woman's Story,"

In the Fall of 1983, therefore, I organized a women's

not the story of some or afew black women. Such roles give

reading group in the Chapel Hill area. Alice Walker's The

Walker a much more public responsibility than mine,

though certainly neither one of us should be irresponsible.

Color Purple and Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster

Place were the first works we decided to read. The

Walker is put in the peculiar position of crying out against

group discussion was more exciting in terms of the levels of

her own popularity or watching the onslaught of distortion

perception, but I didn't feel that my initial perceptions of

continue. That is also in part the paradox-the curse and the

Celie were being changed. I went from the group discussion

blessing-of being chosen.

to a convention in November and found myself discussing

The editor's response to my essay took me back momentarily

the novel over lunch with one of the black male participants.

to those divisions between black and white evaluations of

He is from the deep South and raved about the novel's

the novel. This editor happened to be white; instead of my

language and about how much it reminded him of home (he

critical approach to the novel, from the editor's point of

is now teaching in another region of the country). We sat

view, I should have approached the novel as fantasy. I had

there going through arguments that by now had become

considered that position-and would eventually return to

very, very old hat for me. This young man did not have

it-but that seemed to be getting around the issue. If Walker

difficulty with Walker's presentation of black male char-

had wanted to write a fairy tale, why would she have dressed

acters. He never really succeeded in articulating the reasons,

it up as a novel? Since it professed to be a novel, I would treat

and because that was not at all close to the kinds of

it as such. And since it professed to be realistic fiction, I

responses I had been hearing, I found it particularly striking.

would respond to that as much as I could. Where it broke

It occurred to me later that he might not have had any

down as realistic fiction, I would begin to treat it as

problem with the portrayal of black men in the novel

something else. The problem for me was that it broke down

because he did not identify with them. He could perhaps

much earlier than it did for most of the other folks reading it.

view them with the kind of detachment of the sociologist:

From the beginning of the novel, even as Walker presents

"Oh, yeah, there are those guys down there who do those

Celie's sexual abuse by her stepfather, there is an element of

kinds of things, but that means nothing to me. I can be

fantasy in the book. Celie becomes the ugly duckling who

clinically objective about this because my reality is elsewhere."

will eventually be redeemed through suffering. This trait

He joined some of the white women in becoming a spectator

links her to all the heroines of fairy tales from Cinderella to

to the circus-like events unfolding before his eyes in the

Snow White. Instead of the abusive stepmother as the


villain, the stepfather plays that role. He devalues Celie in

My thirty-three-page article also re-surfaced in the Fall of

direct proportion to Nettie's valuing of her; unfortunately,

1983. I had submitted it for possible consideration in a

as an inexperienced rather than an adult godmother, Nettie

collection of essays on black women novelists. The two

lacks the ability to protect Celie. The clash between youth

editors read it and suggested that I consider expanding it to

and age, between power and powerlessness begins the

include other Walker works since it would probably be the

mixed-media approach of the novel. Celie's predicament

only piece in the volume on Walker. That sounded okay. But

may be real, but she is forced to deal with it in terms that are

then I read on and found myself back in one of those

antithetical to the reality of her condition.

dilemmas. One of the editors wanted revisions because she

The beginning of the novel also approximates the legendary

felt I was "slamming" Walker too much. Now, I may view

beginnings of many heroes similar to those discussed by

my role as a critic in many ways, but I never consider myself

Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

about the business of slamming writers, whatever that


This content downloaded from on Fri, 18 Mar 2016 22:48:24 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Celie's very existence is threatened in the way that Moses' or

Because my reaction to the novel was so strong, I began in

King Arthur's was. Celie will break her bonds and take

the Summer of 1982 to collect reviews of it. I wanted to see

symbolic vengeance on those who have attempted to hurt

how others thought and felt, and to know if they were

her just as surely as Moses eventually comes to power in

working through any problems comparable to the responses

Egypt and as other heroes triumph over the forces that

I had. Friends and colleagues around the country also sent

attempted to destroy them in their youth. It is ironic that

copies to me of reviews they uncovered. Though I found and

Walker would use male models in a work that is so blatantly

received many reviews, and some hints at criticism, there

anti-male in its sentiments.

were no large-scale objections to the novel. I did, however,

run into one review that held my attention because it was

In the same Essence article mentioned above, Walker

written by a black woman who shared some of the

makes an additional comment relevant to the discussion of

objections of black men to Walker's treatment of them. In

reality and fantasy. "To isolate the fantasy [of the oppressor's

what seems like an indictment, Pearl Cleage Lomax observes:

stereotypes of blacks] we must cleave to reality, to what we

"In the book's first 35 pages, black men commit incest on

know, we feel, we think of life. Trusting our own experience

small black girls .. ., shoot down their lovers in cold blood

and our own lives; embracing both the dark self and the

and leave them to die in the arms of their screaming children,

light" (p. 121). She would assert that she has done that in

beat their wives and sell their daughters" (The Atlanta

The Color Purple, and I would assert that she has not. From

Constitution, 26 Sept. 1982, p. 9-H). She then turns from

its opening in that paradoxical, nightmarish, fairy-tale vein,

the problem by granting Walker the right to artistic freedom

the novel moves through improbable events to the tradi-

and proceeds to speculate that, perhaps in some-hopefully

tional passing out of presents in that contrived "happily ever

near-future, black men and black women will be able to

after" ending. All the good guys win, and the bad guys are

form viable relationships and coexist peacefully with each

dead or converted to womanist philosophy.

other. To my knowledge, this review constitutes the most

The fabulist/fairy-tale mold of the novel is ultimately

negative published reaction to the novel by a black woman.

incongruous with and does not serve well to frame its

I continued to collect reviews and to discuss the novel with

message. When things turn out happily in those traditional

students, colleagues, friends, and strangers during 1984.

tales, we are asked to affirm the basic pattern and message:

Two of those were distinctive. A young man from Africa,

Good triumphs over evil. But what does The Color Purple

who was enrolled in a graduate course in my department in

affirm? What were all those women who applauded approv-

which the novel was taught, was outraged at the depictions

ing of? It affirms, first of all, patience and long-suffering-

of Africans in it. He objected to them as strongly as I

perhaps to a greater degree than that exhibited by Cinderella

objected to the presentation of the black women characters.

or by the likes of Elizabeth Grimes in James Baldwin's Go

Since I did not solicit the young man's opinion-the

Tell It on the Mountain. In true fairy-tale fashion, it affirms

discussion came up by accident-I was particularly struck

passivity; heroines in those tales do little to help themselves.

by his reaction. Another conversation involved another

It affirms silence in the face of, if not actual allegiance to,

black man, a colleague at another university, who shared

cruelty. It affirm's secrecy concerning violence and violation.

many of my concerns about the novel. I was happy to talk

If affirms, saddest of all, the myth of the American Dream

with him because we had tried to work through similar

becoming a reality for black Americans, even those who are

problems in relation to the teaching of the novel.

"dirt poor," as onie of my colleagues phrased it, and those

Still, after all the conversations are over, the classroom

who are the "downest" and "outest." The fable structure

discussions done, I am haunted by the basic issue of the role

thereby perpetuates a lie in holding out to blacks a non-

of the black woman critic as perceived by the scholarly

existent or minimally existent hope for a piece of that great

community in general, and by black women scholars

American pie. The clash of characters who presumably

themselves in particular. The larger community advocates

contend with and in the real world with the idealistic,

silence to objection, and it espouses unity before informed,

suprarealistic quality and expectations of fairy-tale worlds

constructive criticism. The majority of black women critics

places a burden on the novel that diffuses its message and

have seemed so far to conform to these unspoken dictates.

guarantees possibilities for unintended interpretations.

That, to me, is the most serious tragedy of the history of the

With its mixture of message, form, and character, The

popularity of The Color Purple. Today, there are more

Color Purple reads like a political shopping list of all the

black women critics and scholars than ever before, and we

IOUs Walker felt that it was time to repay. She pays

may be the last for a while. The majority of us are over thirty,
homage to the feminists by portraying a woman who

and our numbers are not being replenished to the extent that
struggles through adversity to assert herself against almost

they were in the early 1970s; women seeking graduate

impossible odds. She pays homage to the lesbians by

degrees are doing so in areas more conducive to economic

portraying a relationship between two women that reads

security. If black women critics surrender their voices in this

like a schoolgirl fairy tale in its ultimate adherence to the

day, then how can we expect the even more isolated voices of
convention of the happy resolution. She pays homage to

the future to stand against the ravings of those who would

black nationalists by opposing colonialism, and to Pan

give us our models and select our masterpieces-and

Africanism by suggesting that yes, indeed, a black American

demand that we like them?

does understand and sympathize with the plight of her black

I will teach The Color Purple again-precisely because of

brothers and sisters thousands of miles across the ocean.

the teachability engendered by its controversiality. I will be

And she adds in a few other obeisances-to career-minded

angry again because I am not a spectator to what happens to

women in the characters of Mary Agnes and Shug, to born-

Celie; for me, the novel demands participation. I will

again male feminists in the character of Albert, and to black

continue to react to all praise of the novel by asserting that

culture generally in the use of the blues and the folk idiom.


This content downloaded from on Fri, 18 Mar 2016 22:48:24 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

mere praise ignores the responsibility that goes along with

though my crying out against it might be comparable to

it-we must clarify as much as we can the reasons that things

spitting into a whirlwind in an effort to change its course, I

are being praised and enumerate as best we can the

shall nevertheless purse my lips.

consequences of that praise. I will continue to read and re-

read the novel, almost in self-defense against the continuing


demands for discussions and oral evaluations of it. Perhaps-

and other black women may share this response-I am

'Citations from The Color Purple are from the first edition (New York:

caught in a love/ hate relationship with The Color Purple;

Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982).


A Review by C. LYNN MUNRO*

Alice Walker. In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose. New

is to encourage diversity and to embrace the mystery rather

York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983. 416 pp. $14.95.

than to try to channel and dissect all reactions and expe-

riences. To do so, she suggests, is to gain a new and larger

As her published works have repeatedly demonstrated,

perspective and to benefit from "a fearlessness of growth, of

Alice Walker has never shrunk from controversy; she has,

search, of looking that enlarges the private and the public

instead, through both her life and her art provided a

world." Insofar as each essay demonstrates the value of

courageous model of what can and must be done to ensure

seeking new connections, Walker challenges the reader to

"the spiritual survival, the survival whole of my people." At

reassess past opinions and to formulate a more comprehensive

the heart of her perspective is a belief in the importance of

continuity-the need to reclaim and celebrate the unsung

Walker's insistence on the inherent interrelationships

achievements of one's ancestors, especially those anonymous

among all facets of art and life and the need to encourage
women who "dreamed dreams that no one knew-not even

creative expression sounds like a drumbeat throughout the

themselves, in any coherent fashion-and saw visions no

entire volume. That she has been steadfast in her devotion to

one could understand."

this principle is made clear by the way in which each of the

Walker's longstanding commitment "to exploring the

essays builds upon the others and deepens the readers'

oppressions, the insanities, the loyalties, and the triumphs

understanding of the issues she raises. Simultaneously,

of black women" is nowhere more manifest than in her

however, the holistic bent that informs the several essays

recent collection In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens. The

makes the four-part division of the book seem somewhat

thirty-six essays, thirty-four of which were published in

capricious. While Part One is the most exclusively literary in

various magazines and journals between 1966 and 1983, are

focus, for example, each section is peppered with insights

a testimony to Walker's humanism and her critical acumen.

drawn from literature, and some of her most perceptive

Hers is what she calls a womanist perspective, an orientation

analyses of works like Their Eyes Were Watching God and

that fosters the "survival and wholeness of an entire people,

Cane appear in subsequent sections. This overlap may, of

male and female." To be a womanist is to be "outrageous,

course, be intentional insofar as it underscores the interaudacious, courageous, [and] willful," and to speak one's

disciplinary nature of reality, and in this sense it is extremely

mind whether or not one's ideas are considered appropriate

effective in forcing the reader to acknowledge that there are

by the culture's gatekeepers.

no neat divisions between the literary, social, and personal

Walker insists on the right of each individual to express

his or her particular point of view. Only in this way, she

What is most impressive about In Search of Our Mothers'

argues, can the historic reality in all of its diversity be

Gardens is its range. In addition to dealing with the works of

appreciated. It is for this reason that Walker defends

some of the most gifted modern writers and assessing the

Michele Wallace's Black Macho and the Myth of the

achievements of the Civil Rights Movement, Walker provides

Superwoman despite what she finds to be its glaring

valuable insights into the anti-nuclear movement, Zionism,

inaccuracies and omissions. Black Macho, concludes Walker,

and the nature of political reality. She does not restrict her
is "an expression of one black woman's reality. And I persist

attention to prominent figureheads, but instead captures the

in believing all such expressions. . . are valuable and will, in

voices of such unsung heroines as Mrs. Winston Hudson,

the long run, do us more good than harm." That silencing

who worked tirelessly with the Friends of the Children of

discordant voices is not only counterproductive but also

Mississippi, and Mathilda Moseley, the only surviving

destructive is made abundantly clear in "Breaking Chains

resident of Eatonville who knew Zora Neale Hurston.

and Encouraging Life," an essay that celebrates the recent

While almost all of the pieces in this volume have

outpouring of publications by black lesbians as "one of the

previously appeared in print, their collection into a single

most exciting and healthiest things to happen lately in the

volume makes a substantial contribution to the literature. In

black community."

addition to making the essays more accessible, this volume

Throughout the book the reader is made aware of both

demonstrates the versatility of Walker's style and her

the need for change and his or her responsibility to

capacity for intellectual and personal growth. Reading these

contribute to a saner future. The need, as Walker defines it,

essays not only gives one a clearer sense of Alice Walker but

also countless insights into the men and women who have
*C. Lynn Munro teaches at Stockton State College in Pomona, New


touched her life.


This content downloaded from on Fri, 18 Mar 2016 22:48:24 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions