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Book 14: The Color Purple–Alice Walker

I’ve seen The Color Purple with Whoopie Goldberg, Danny Glover, and Oprah, no less than ten times. I’ve also seen the (first) broadway version of story and would like to see the more recent (and apparently better) broadway musical. But I’ve never read the book.

Surprisingly, I didn’t finish the book and think about how terrible the movie was in comparison like I do with most movie adaptations of books. Maybe it’s because I watched it before I read it (vs. reading and then watching), but I think the movie did the best possible job of covering the vast time span of the novel and staying true to essential scenarios within the novel; there are parts of the movie that were taken from the book almost verbatim. But all that being said, the book was still considerably more interesting.

Obviously, a blockbuster film directed by a white man, adapted from a novel that deals very heavily with issues of racism and imperialism, is going to be filtered out to focus on the more palatable storylines and either vaguely allude to, or just discard, the rest. And like I said, I think Spielberg did a pretty great job; he didn’t completely obscure the indictments of white supremacist ideology and practice both in the U.S. and abroad. He might not have addressed them as blatantly and with as much nuance as the characters in the book did, but it was there.

Imperialism in Africa

Compared to the movie, Nettie’s storyline in the book had much more substance, and really got into the impact of imperialism. Through her letters you read about the faux-righteousness and hypocrisy of Christian missionary work, the problematic beginnings of international aid/relief work, as well as the capitalistic subversion of colonial powers paying local government leaders trivial sums for their complicity in developing entire systems of funneling out wealth to European nations for decades to come.

On that last point, Nettie’s letters gave an incisive commentary on the insidiousness of how today’s systems and issues emerged; how so many African nations rich in natural resources ended up in extreme poverty and sustained conflict; how imperial nations kept their hands clean by making local leaders do their dirty work, making it look like their entire national wealth didn’t result from limitless exploitation and resource plundering; that the conflicts between ethnic groups resulted from their being inherently uncivilized, not because an outside agitator was breaking community ties and creating hierarchies in order to divide and conquer and maintain their power; how the resultant chaos and devastation imperialists created was a retrospective justification for their initial subjugation and genocide, i.e., ‘Those people needed to be conquered and tamed, just look what happened once we left?’

Moreover, this storyline was effortlessly juxtaposed with the racial dynamics in the U.S.–the subjugation, the control mechanisms, the divide and conquer tactics, the hindsight justifications for slavery as needed to control inherently uncivilized people–providing a sociopolitical dialogue across contexts.

Mr.______.

It was strange, jarring even, to see how “Mr.______ ” was written in text. I think if I hadn’t seen the movie first I would’ve been reading that as “Mr. ‘blank'” rather than “Mister.” It was difficult to not read that blank space, and it forced me to think about how different it would’ve been had Alice Walker just written “Mister” or “Mr.” and didn’t include that space. The intentional absence of a name rather than addressing someone with respect like you would if you were saying ‘sir’ or  ‘ma’am.’ That blank space also made the dichotomy of his identity of Mr.______ vs. Albert that much more evident, and you really began to think of his dual personalities: the cold, abusive Mr._____ with Celie and the awkward, warm and loving Albert with Shug.  It was in the movie, but having to read the anonymity, the difference, made it more pronounced.

In the book, Mr._____/Albert had substantially more depth than in the movie. There was more time to develop both of his personalities, whereas the movie tended to focus on the Mr._____ side of him. He was two-dimensional in the movie: either domineering or weak, angry or a little bit pathetic. The book challenges you to empathize with him rather than be comfortable feeling simultaneous disdain and pity. There’s insight into how these dual personalities evolved, and an opportunity for his healing, for his becoming an emotionally available human, for his redemption. We got a taste of his redemption in the movie, when he went to the immigration office in secret to get Nettie back, but there’s more beauty and hopefulness in the book, showing that the ugliest of people 1) didn’t start out that way, 2) are often dealing (poorly) with immense pain, and 3) can be brought back from the edge and make amends with those he’s hurt.

Sex and Sexuality.

The movie hints at Celie’s sexuality and makes a subtle allusion to a sexual relationship between her and Shug, but it really doesn’t get into it. The book, on the other hand, gives a life-course perspective on the evolution of Celie’s understanding of sex and sexuality; from being raped as a child and shamed for the children produced, to the obligatory sex (probably marital rape) with a husband she didn’t want and who didn’t want her, through discovering that not only could sex be enjoyable with the right partner, and not just a violent act perpetrated on her, but that the right partner could be another woman, and that God wouldn’t damn her for it.

Shug’s sexuality was also more prominently featured. In the movie, you could maybe say that she was a primarily heterosexual woman whose depth of friendship with Celie allowed her to demonstrate what love was to someone who’d never felt loved. Not so much in the book. I don’t pretend to know enough about the nuances of sexuality to make any pronouncements of Shug, but the suggestion of her being bisexual, or maybe even pansexual, was all but outright stated. And she potentially loved Celie more than anyone, but had so many other issues with regards to needing to be loved by a man that it’s never quite certain.


The novel’s dialogue was rich in profound racial and social analyses, made more powerful because it was written in colloquial language, and not the Academese that usually accompanies discussing or deconstructing people’s realities. You still got dialogue from an intersectional, black feminist framework that rejects cis- hetero- judeochristian patriarchal values (LOL). But it was presented with the verbiage of my grandma’s generation of folks, who would’ve sat on a porch in some type of gliding/rocking seat, talking shit about life, and every so often dropping nuggets of wisdom that penetrated you to the bones, making you rethink your entire worldview.

 “Then she say: Tell me what your God look like, Celie.

Aw naw, I say. I’m too shame. Nobody ever ast me this before, so I’m sort of took by surprise. besides, when I think about it, it don’t seem quite right. But it all I got. I decide to stick up for him, just to see what Shug say.

Okay, I say. He big and old and tall and graybearded and white. He wear white robes and go barefooted.

Blue eyes? she ast.

Sort of bluish-gray. Cool. Big though. White lashes. I say.

She laugh.

Why you laugh? I ast. I don’t think it so funny. What you expect him to look like, Mr.____?

That wouldn’t be no improvement, she say. Then she tell me this old white man is the same God she used to see when she prayed. If you wait to find God in church, Celie, she say, that’s who is bound to show up, cause that’s where he live.

How come? I ast.

Cause that’s the one that’s in the white folks’ white bibles.

Shug! I say. God wrote the bible, white folks had nothing to do with it.

How come he look just like them then? she say. Only bigger? And a heap more hair. How come the bible just like everything else they make, all about them doing one thing and another, and all the colored folks doing is gitting cursed?

I never thought bout that.

Nettie say somewhere in the bible it say Jesus’ hair was like lamb’s wool, I say.

Well, say Shug, if he came to any of these churches we talking bout he’d have to have it conked before anybody paid him any attention. The last thing niggers want to think about they God is that his hair kinky.

That’s the truth, I say.

Ain’t no way to read the bible and not think God white, she say. Then she sigh. When I found out I thought God was white, and a man, I lost interest. You mad cause he don’t seem to listen to your prayers. Humph! Do the mayor listen to anything colored say? Ask Sofia, she say.

But I don’t have to ast Sofia. I know white people never listen to colored, period. If they do, they only listen long enough to be able to tell you what to do.

Here’s the thing, say Shug. The thing I believe. God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into the world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it. And sometimes it just manifest itself even if you not looking, or don’t know what you looking for. Trouble do it for most folks, I think. Sorrow, lord. Feeling like shit.

It? I ast.

Yeah, It. God ain’t a he or a she, but a It.

But what do it look like? I ast.

Don’t look like nothing, she say. It ain’t a picture show. It ain’t something you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself. I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found it.

Shug a beautiful something, let me tell you. She frown a little, look out cross the yard, lean back in her chair, look like a big rose.

She say, My first step from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds. Then other people. But one day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed. And I laughed and I cried and I run all around the house. I knew just what it was. In fact, when it happen, you can’t miss it. It sort of like you know what, she say grinning and rubbing high up on my thigh.

Shug! I say.

Oh, she say. God love all them feelings. That’s some of the best stuff God did. And when you know God loves ’em you enjoys ’em a lot more. You can just relax, go with everything that’s going, and praise God by liking what you like.

God don’t think it dirty? I ast.

Naw, she say. God made it. Listen, God love everything you love–and a mess of stuff you don’t. But more than anything else, God love admiration.

You saying God vain? I ast.

Naw, she say. Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.

What it do when it pissed off? I ast.

Oh, it make something else. People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.

Yeah? I say.

Yeah, she say. It always making little surprises and springing them on us when us least expect.

You mean it want to be love, just like the bible say.

Yes, Celie, she say. Everything want to be loved. Us sing and dance, make faces and give flower bouquets, trying to be loved. You ever notice that trees do everything to git attention we do, except walk?

Well, us talk and talk bout God, but I’m still adrift. Trying to chase that old white man out of my head. I been so busy thinking bout him I never truly notice nothing God make. Not a blade of corn (how it do that?) not the color purple (where it come from?). Not the little wildflowers. Nothing.Now that my eyes opening, I feels like a fool. Next to any little scrub of a bush in my yard, Mr.____’s evil sort of shrink. But not altogether. Still, it is like Shug say. You have to git man off your eyeball, before you can see anything a’tall.

Man corrupt everything, say Shug. He on your box of grits, in your head, and all over the radio. He try to make you think he everywhere. Soon as you think he everywhere, you think he God. But he ain’t. Whenever you trying to pray, and man plop himself on the other end of it, tell him to git lost, say Shug. Conjure up flowers, wind, water, a big rock.

But this hard work, let me tell you. He been there so long, he don’t want to budge. He threaten lightening, floods, and earthquakes. Us fight. I hardly pray at all. Every time I conjure up a rock, I throw it.

Amen”

(pp. 194-197)

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