The Color Purple is arguably the most influential and well-known book of Alice Walker’s literary opus. It won the Pulitzer Prize; it was adapted into a successful film; and it has continued to spark controversy and debate since its publication. Most of the controversy surrounding this piece centers on the role of African American men in Walker’s writing. She appears to have an unrestrained anger towards black men, and those men may well be stripped of power in her writing, but I would posit that this portrayal of black men is due more to the amount of social, legal, and historical detriments weighing down on them than to Walker’s personal vendetta. She is portraying a certain aspect of black masculinity associated with the time period and setting of the novel. The men—volatile and malicious as they are—are just as victimized by their circumstances as the women are. The racial confines of a white power structure relegated these men to a bestial existence, and this relegation was so powerful and complete that it became self-sustained in the psyche of many African-American communities—a self-perpetuating curse. This is proven in The Color Purple by the fact that almost all of the violence and depravity is directed towards an African American by an African American; the Caucasian community is largely unrepresented, only appearing at key moments to initiate violence in the black community in order to keep the black characters in a self-sustained submissive role. The male characters are, in effect, simultaneously cursed by both the exterior white society and their own black society. They become the victims of a cycle of degradation and disenfranchisement that spreads to all around them and whose repercussions span far beyond the annals of history and the confines of Walker’s novel.
One of the most poignant moments in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple occurs as Celie, the book’s protagonist, is leaving her abusive husband Albert—a man she submissively refers to as “Mister.” After years of abuse and neglect at his hands, Celie leaves him with a curse: “I curse you … Until you do right by me, everything you touch will crumble … Until you do right by me … everything you even dream about will fail … Every lick you hit me you will suffer twice … The jail you plan for me is the one in which you will rot … Anything you do to me already done to you” (Color Purple 213-214). If he is to be judged by his actions, Albert is deserving of a much harsher jinx: he attempts to rape Celie’s sister Nettie, whom he wished to marry initially; when Nettie fights off his attack, he swears that neither sister will ever hear from the other—a promise that he keeps for years as he hides the letters that Nettie sends from Africa (131); and he makes Celie do the majority of the work around the farm (27-28). Couple all this with his constant physical and mental abuse (23), and the character of Albert is unforgivable. The problem here is that Albert is just one in a succession of unforgivable male characters. As Stacie Lynn Hankinson puts it: “He explodes into an archetype—one in which Pa, Harpo, and all other men are also cast” (323). It would appear that Walker has taken all of the erroneous, racial stereotypes associated with men of color—idleness, brutality, mental ineptitude, etc.—and personified them in the men in her book. Celie’s stepfather rapes her multiple times and gives the resulting children away (1-4), and her stepson Harpo is too stupid to realize that his wife needs love and support rather than discipline and abuse (37-39). In her article “On The Color Purple, Stereotypes, and Silence,” Trudier Harris discusses the reaction of one of her male students to the portrayal of these men. She writes:
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 name, to having the only supportive males be young and potheads or middle-aged and henpecked … to giving Du Bois’ last name a different spelling, this student thought black men had been stripped of their identities and thus their abilities to assume the roles of men. … All the men, the student concluded, fit into that froglike perception Celie
has of them. And the problem with these frogs? None of them can turn into princes. (158-159)
Harris shares this view. She says, “The novel gives validity to all the white racist’s notions of pathology in black communities. For these spectator readers, black fathers and father-figures are viewed as being immoral, sexually unrestrained. Black males and females form units without the benefit of marriage, or they easily dissolve marriages in order to form less structured, more promiscuous relationships” (157). This argument appears even more valid when viewed through the lens of Walker’s own womanist ideology. In In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Walker defines her term thusly:
“Womanist: A black feminist or feminist of color. . . . A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility . . . and women’s strength. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or nonsexually. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. [emphasis added]” (xi).
Walker uses the plural in regard to “other women,” thus connoting that all women are included in this decree, yet she uses the terms “sometimes” and “individual” in regards to men, limiting their interaction and importance. That is, all women are automatically included in Walker’s philosophy, but only certain “individual” men are welcomed, and only at certain points. It would appear that Walker is maliciously painting a picture of male ineptitude and depravity, and other critics have spoken out about her perceived animosity towards black men.
One such critic is Candice Marie Jenkins, who says, “Perhaps even more significantly, however, Walker’s writing, and particularly her 1982 novel The Color Purple, also engages in a project of ‘queering’ the black family, reshaping it in unconventional ways that divest its black male members of a good deal of power, thereby reconfiguring the very meaning of kinship for black sons, brothers, and especially fathers” (970). While Jenkins’s idea is understandable, she does fail to recognize that these black males had long been divested of power by the social structures around them. Their relationships had been undermined and reconfigured by the institutions of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation long before Alice Walker presented these characters in print.
Another writer points out that Steven Spielberg’s movie version of the novel re-empowers the male characters in order to appeal to a mainstream audience, thus supporting the idea that Walker’s original portrayal of black masculinity is unappealing: in “The Return of the Father in Spielberg’s The Color Purple,” Carol Dole says, “The added subplot [of Shug Avery’s reunion with her father]. . . embodies the return in the film of the patriarchal structures that Walker’s novel works to undermine. In reinscribing such structures, it helps to undercut the novel’s unacceptable ideology. [This] is just one of several modifications that make the film more palatable to the mainstream viewer. (15)
While all of these arguments against Walker’s portrayal of black men are justified, none of them takes into account the notion that the men presented were acting in these horrific ways because they were victims of horrific circumstances. The first glimpse of African American male victimization we see in The Color Purple is in the story of Celie and Nettie’s biological father. Walker writes that their father was a “well-to-do farmer” who “decided to open a store.” His store was prosperous, so he asked his brothers to help him manage both it and the blacksmith shop behind it. His enterprise became more and more successful; he eventually began to take both white and black customers away from the local white businessmen. Because of this, he and his brothers were hanged, and the store and smithy were destroyed (180-181). This is the moment that begins Celie’s descent into hardship, for it can be conjectured that her life would have been at least somewhat easier if her wealthier and more industrious father had lived. This is also the moment when the white power structures first commandeer the story of the novel. According to Edward Hatfield:
…whites resorted to lynching to maintain the region’s racial caste system. Between 1882 and 1930, Georgia’s [the setting of The Color Purple] toll of 458 lynch victims was exceeded only by Mississippi’s 538 … In Georgia and throughout the rural South, lynching assumed enormous significance, not only because it functioned as a form of vigilantism but also because it provided a visible and ritualistic reaffirmation of white supremacy.
The male characters in the novel would be all too familiar with this type of “vigilantism;” they would see, through Celie’s father’s murder, exactly where hard work would get them and exactly how quickly the white power structure could strike down any African American advancement. Of course, there are countless examples of men who are victimized by racial hatred who do not turn into abusive, neglectful husbands and fathers, but those men are not found in this particular setting in Walker’s novel, primarily because they were not found in Walker’s personal life. Cynthia Cole Robinson describes Walker’s father as a hard man who “sometimes hit [Walker’s] mother” and who took her brothers to the fields so they could watch animals mating. Robinson says, “He saw this as a certain bonding between he [sic] and his sons since it prepared them for their lives as ‘men’” (298-299). Robinson, paraphrasing Walker, continues: “This desire to sexually conquer women can be described as phallocentricism, and in regard to African-American men, it is viewed as a way for them to claim power in a patriarchal society that has not allowed them the means to define themselves in the traditional patriarchal sense, i.e., through financial avenues” (299). There had been a direct assault on the African American family beginning with slavery, an institution which was abolished a mere seventy to eighty years before the initial events in the novel take place. That legacy, coupled with the various rules and mores established to keep African American populations in a powerless state, is what makes the novel’s men what they are. Walker is simply writing what she knows to be her own personal truth, but it is a truth shared by many African Americans.
The racially charged history of masculine disenfranchisement leading to masculine depravity was established by a racist white culture, but it has been perpetuated by a racist black one. Barbara Omalade says, “…family members have used skin color, hair length and texture, body size, and African-ness of features to evaluate Black girls. . . . Adult Black women recall that heavier and short-haired girls received more negative feedback from family members about their looks and personality than lighter, thinner and long-haired girls (141). The men are cursed by white society to be powerless and destitute, the women are then cursed by the men who have limited outlets to express their anger, and thus the victimized women, in retaliation for their abuse at the hands of both white society and black men, curse their male oppressors. The cycle is complete, and the white power structure fades into the background as the black social structure keeps the cycle spinning.
The same black-on-black hate is found in The Color Purple in the story of Harpo and Sofia. Their relationship begins with love and passion: “Used to be when he touch me I’d go all out my head,” Sofia says, “…I used to chase him home from the field. Git all hot just watching him put the children to bed” (Walker 69). Their relationship has changed because of Harpo’s obsession with Sofia being an obedient wife. Harpo asks his father how “to make Sofia mind,” and Albert responds with “You ever hit her? … Wives is like children. You have to let ‘em know who got the upper hand. Nothing can do that better than a good sound beating” (37). This scene illustrates how brutality against African Americans by their own culture is seemingly hereditary in this novel, as Albert is passing down his own brutish ways to his son just as he presumably received them from his own father. This is an element only hinted at in the book, but developed more fully in the film. According to Dole it is during the dinner party scene, when Celie expresses her anger and hatred towards Albert, that his father chides her by saying, “You can’t talk to my boy that way!” Sofia cuts in with “Your boy? Seems like if he hadn’t been your boy he might of made somebody a halfway decent man” (13). Dole concludes this analysis by saying, “The film’s vilification of Mister’s father thus removes part of Mister’s responsibility for his mistreatment of his wife” (13). But this leads viewers and readers to wonder who is then responsible for Mister’s father’s villainy. As a black man from an older generation, he was arguably exposed to more virulent forms of racism. He, like countless others, was born and raised in the shadow of ancestral slavery while simultaneously seeing the effects of Jim Crow law in Georgia. He was part of an outcast group who were taught to avert their gazes from white women, to never even offer to shake hands with a white man, to always remove their hats in the presence of whites, and to always refer to whites as sir or ma’am, no matter the age of the speaker and the addressee (Kennedy 209-216). These are but a few of the unwritten statutes used to negate the humanity of people of color during the time period of The Color Purple.
All this hatred had to find an outlet, and the most readily available one was the women. Thus racism effectively altered the natural affection between husband and wife/father and child for many (though certainly not all) black men. Walker had seen this alteration first-hand. In In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, she states that “[her father] did fall in love with [her] mother partly because she was so light; he never denied it.” (330) Furthermore:
Mamie, Walker’s oldest sister, was considered to be his favorite among what she calls his first set of children because of her complexion, “Mamie was favorite among the first. In her case the favoritism seemed outwardly caused by her very light color . . .” Walker was considered ‘Daddy’s Favorite’ among the second set due to her ‘good hair.’ “In my case, my father seemed partial to me because of my ‘smartness’ and forthrightness, but more obviously because of my hair, which was the longest and ‘best’ in the family.” (qtd. in Robinson 301)
Second-class citizenry based on physical traits had been such an integral part of African American existence that both Walker’s family and her characters begin to believe it and promote it with little influence from white society. It is such a strong force in their minds that it reaches into the spiritual realm as well. Shug Avery says it best when she responds to Celie’s statement that Jesus had hair “like lamb’s wool”: “Well . . . 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” (202).
Perhaps the most shocking example of intraracism is when Celie gives Harpo the same advice that Albert had given him. “Beat her,” she says (Color Purple 37-38). This is another pivotal moment in the book because it shows how Celie has come to accept her treatment at the hands of men as normal and acceptable, and how she has no reservations in seeing violence against other women of color around her. For this brief moment, she has given into the same racist mentality to which the men in the book acquiesce. She has started to believe that she is something less than human because she is an African American and a woman. She is jealous of the happiness that Harpo and Sofia share and the independence that Sofia has, so she caters to her baser side and wants to see Sofia brought low. She has fulfilled a cyclical curse of black-on-black hatred with no interference from the white community at large. The racism is largely self-inflicted at this point.
The character of Harpo is an excellent example of African American male victimization in The Color Purple as well. He is introduced to readers as a violent young man who “laid [Celie’s] head open” with a rock on her wedding day, yet he is also given a tender side. We know that his mother died in his arms (Color Purple 13) and that he has tenderness for Sofia, as evidenced by his tears when discussing their marital problems with Celie (66). These tears are symbolic of his internal struggle. He wants a wife that will “mind” because that is what his society and family have dictated that he must have, but he also shows an ability to transcend these stereotypes in his love of Sofia and in the fact that “he love cooking and cleaning and doing little things around the house” (63). The pressure of the opposing forces within him—that is, the desire to have a loving relationship with a woman and the desire to live up to sexist social expectations of how black men and women should behave and interact—creates the stress that he expresses in tears and binge eating (62-64). Sofia and Celie have a telling conversation which shows that Harpo has given in to his father’s/society’s dictates. Celie quotes Sofia as saying:
I don’t like to go to bed with him no more. … Once he get on top of me I think bout how that’s where he always wanted to be. … Now I feels tired all the time. No interest. … You know the worst part? she say. The worst part is I don’t think he notice. He git up there and enjoy himself just the same. No matter what I’m thinking. No matter what I feel. It just him. Heartfeeling don’t even seem to enter into it. She snort. The fact that he can do it like that make me want to kill him. (69)
This is a direct juxtaposition to Celie’s intimate experiences with Albert. “Mr.______ clam up on top of me, do his business,” she says, “in ten minutes we both asleep” (69). Harpo has started to imitate his father, a man who tries to imitate his own father who was ultimately trying to hold on to what little vestiges of power were left to him by white society at large. As if to underscore the root of this cycle, Sofia—the muse of Harpo’s kinder qualities—is beaten and imprisoned for defending herself against a white man who slaps her for speaking harshly to his wife (90-91). That is, Harpo is incapable of escaping the masculine brutality of his society as dictated by the men who came before him, and his reason for trying in the first place—Sofia—is thrown in jail because of her strength and pride.
The connection between male victimization and intraracism is one of social expectation and mimicry. Men in the time period represented in the book were expected to be the leaders of their homes and families. The African American men in The Color Purple, being stripped of any power outside of their own familial circle, created toxic relationships with the women and children in their lives by embodying the perceived attributes of the white establishment. Celie’s stepfather explains the desires of the white power structure thusly: “But the fact is, you got to give ‘em something. Either your money, your land, your woman or your ass. So what I did was just right off offer to give ‘em money” (Color Purple 188). The men in the novel adopt the desires they have seen in their own oppressors: it can be inferred that Celie’s stepfather marries her mother for her money and land (181), and all of the main male characters demonstrate a loveless sexual desire fueled by domination more than affection (62-64, 69, et.al.). They are driven by these desires—money, land, and sex—and the female characters bear the brunt of their dominance. This is why there is not a single long-lasting monogamous relationship in the novel; this is also why the intraracist concepts are so prominent. The female characters are victimized by both white society and the patriarchal confines of their own families; with no recourse for attacking the white society, they turn their hatred to their closest oppressors: the African American men around them who are mimicking white racist ideology. Candice Jenkins gives a perfect example of this mimicry and its immediate effect. She says that the title “Mister” is a “subtle reminder” of white supremacy; “… if every southern white man is ‘Mister’ and every black man ‘boy,’ then the black men in Walker’s text are scripted into a pattern of titular naming that even without direct reference to whiteness is informed by racial hierarchies” (981). Celie refers to nearly every man in the novel as “Mister” (Jenkins 981), thus expressing her subordination to them through the racial terms of her day.
While no major Caucasian characters can be found in the novel, the presence of white power structures is constantly lurking in the background to remind the reader of the source of the novel’s intraracism. Celie’s stepfather’s lynching—he was murdered solely because he was more successful than his white contemporaries—is the first example, but Sofia’s beating, arrest, imprisonment, and forced servitude is another. While on an outing to town, Sofia, her prizefighter boyfriend, and her children are approached by the white mayor and his wife, Miss Millie. After condescendingly commenting on how “clean” the children are and how they have “such strong white teef [sic],”and after noticing Sofia’s car and wristwatch, the mayor’s wife asks her, “Would you like to work for me? Be my maid?” Sofia responds with a curt “Hell no” (Color Purple 90). At that moment, the mayor steps in to defend his wife; he slaps Sofia, and Sofia knocks him down. Six policemen attack her; they crack both her skull and her ribs, put out one of her eyes, and “rip her nose loose on one side” (91). She is so swollen that her tongue protrudes, and she is held in prison for eleven years (92). It is no coincidence that this occurs at a moment in the novel in which the black characters are prospering. Harpo has a moderately successful juke joint (84-85), and Sofia, if the mayor’s wife’s noticing of her car and timepiece is an indicator, is financially secure. To keep the concept of the cyclical curse in motion, Walker chooses this point to have the white power structure step into the rising action of the novel. To reiterate the concept of the cyclical curse between the African American characters, though, Walker shifts the blame for Sofia’s predicament in part to Harpo. Celie says, “If you hadn’t tried to rule over Sofia the white folks never would have caught her.” Harpo says it is a lie, to which Sofia responds with “A little truth in it” (207).
This exchange takes place in yet another important dinner scene. This scene is noteworthy because it is the moment in which the women—Shug, Celie, and Mary Agnes, specifically—stand together to announce their imminent departure (Color Purple 208-209) and to show their independence from the men. Their dinner is suddenly interrupted by “Eleanor Jane, the white girl Sofia used to work for” (210). Eleanor Jane’s appearance causes an abrupt end to the discussion, thus, even for just a moment, silencing the conversation of the women’s liberation. She brings Sofia out to the porch for a conversation readers are not privy to, but the characters can hear her “really boo-hoo” (210). All readers are told is that there is “a lot of mess back at the house” (211). In this subtle, symbolic way, Walker is yet again showing how the white power structure is perpetually lingering, waiting for a moment of strength or camaraderie among the African American community to present itself for attack.
The final instance in which a Caucasian character abruptly appears is during the subplot of Nettie and Samuel. On their ocean voyage with Adam and Olivia to England, the missionaries meet Doris Baines, the daughter of a wealthy British Lord. She is on her way home with an African child to whom she refers as her grandson. She explains that, while she came from wealth and luxury, she always wanted to be her own independent, educated woman. She refused to marry, despite her family’s multiple requests, and she used missionary work as a means of escape. She tells Nettie and Samuel that she is a well-known writer under the pseudonym Jared Hunt, and that her entire missionary career in Africa was spent writing novels; at the same time, though, she used her finances and fame to better the natives to which she was assigned without interfering with or altering their native ways. She built “a hospital…a grammar school” and “…a college” (Color Purple 234-236). The young man with her is actually the child of one of two native women whose educations she sponsored (237). She is the antithesis to the rest of the Caucasian characters in the book. She serves as a counterpoint to the men who lynched Celie’s father and to Miss Millie, but her status as a foreigner takes her out of the cycle. She is external to the American racial paradigm, and the fact that Walker had to create a foreign white character in order to have a likable white character is further proof of the prevalence of an American white power structure. Nettie and Samuel’s response to her story is telling as well. They become “bored” with it eventually (235) and listen in “more or less respectful silence” (237). They are unaffected by her story because they too are outside of the cycle; they have been away from the Americas for so long that they no longer see the peculiarity of this woman’s situation. Thus, all of the white characters—despite their being the subject of so few pages—serve either to show directly the white power structures covertly operating just out of sight or to highlight the idea that these structures are unique to the American zeitgeist at this point in history. The cycle of white supremacy resulting in intraracism is by and large an American ordeal.
Both laws and social stratification have kept people of color in a minority status for generations. The idea that Alice Walker’s writing is anti-male and misrepresentative of masculinity is far from a new notion as well, but the concept that Walker’s representation of men in The Color Purple is accurate for many in rural African American communities and that those men were victims of their circumstances as well is largely absent from the literary critical dialogue surrounding the novel. This is well worth the discussion for a few reasons, the largest reason being that the repercussions of self-inflicted racism can be seen in day-to-day life.
My role as an educator affords me a daily interaction with students of all ethnic backgrounds. By seeing the lack of racial awareness between race groups, I am constantly reminded of how far we have come as a nation in regards to race relations; however, one aspect of my daily interaction with students is chilling. While the racial stratifications of yesteryear are largely disappearing from the minds of youth in general, they are as present as ever in the interpersonal interactions of young African Americans. The majority of the insults I hear between youth of color, whether intended for jest or for abuse, center on skin color and hair texture. I still hear these young men and women making decisions about dates and future relationships primarily because of the brightness or darkness of someone’s flesh. I believe this to be the direct outcome of the centuries of oppression and negation inflicted by white power structures, despite the fact that those power structures have been integrated or nonexistent for years. There is no need for a white power structure to suppress rural black communities any longer because the rural black communities—if the young people I have encountered in various geographical locations are any indicator—are suppressing themselves. Of course, this does not mean that white youth are free from racist ideas or that they do not berate one another in horrible ways; it does mean that, from this writer’s perspective as an educator, their barbs never focus specifically on characteristics of color when interacting within a Caucasian circle. This is what the curse of institutionalized racism has created: a young culture whose knee-jerk response to one another is racial stereotyping and what Walker refers to as “colorism.” According to Walker, “colorism” is the “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color” (qtd. Robinson 290). In essence, it is the idea that lighter skin is somehow better or more desirable than darker skin, or that straighter hair is more desirable than kinky or curly hair, in African American people. This of course hearkens back to the days when appearing white meant the difference between employment and unemployment, social acceptability and chastisement, and, in some instances, life and death. . In “The Paper Bag Principle: Of the Myth and the Motion of Colorism,”Audrey Elissa Kerr traces this notion to the time of slavery. She says:
Because the ability to purchase lightskinned fancy slaves with long hair and European features was a marker of wealth (such women went for extremely high prices on auction blocks), light skin was an indication of status for white communities long before light complexion became a mark of status in black communities. It is no surprise that, in every nation that had contact with the African slave trade, there is a version of color politics playing out in terms of economic, political, and social power. (273)
It is understandable that centuries of oppression would mar the psyche of many modern African American youths to the point that they still accept the notion that whiter is better.
The historical record shows that this notion of intraracism was not limited to rural communities, though. Kerr explains how, from the turn of the century to as recently as the 1990’s, color tests have been used to determine membership in social clubs and organizations and acceptance into certain schools and colleges, both those managed by Caucasians and those managed by African Americans. One such test was known as “the paper bag test.” Attendees of these clubs, or students enrolled in these educational institutions, had to have a complexion lighter than a paper bag (281-284). This was particularly true among the quadroon and octoroon communities in New Orleans, but these ridiculous color lines were found (and perhaps originated) in larger urban areas such as New York; Washington, D.C.; Cleveland; and Philadelphia (284). And, according to one of Kerr’s interviews, they were more strictly enforced at historically black colleges: During the late 1980’s, one young woman was studying at Rutgers. She claims that it was well known that the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority had had a paper bag test for its applicants. While the actual testing had disappeared years before, the members were all still noticeably light skinned. This was blatantly obvious in sororities across the country, but especially at those associated with historic black universities (286). The bitter irony of intraracial prejudice is seen in Candice Marie Jenkins’s concept of “the salvific wish.” She postulates that the salvific wish is “an aspiration, most often but not only middle-class and female, to save or rescue the black community from white racist accusations of sexual and domestic pathology, through the embrace of conventional bourgeois propriety” (973). That is, African Americans could rid themselves of the inferior attributes commonly associated with them in years past by embracing typical middle-class etiquette. According to Jenkins, the establishment of this etiquette was brought to fruition in “social institutions such as the black women’s club movement” (973). The irony is in Kerr’s hypothesis that several of these institutions were elitist—only admitting people of certain hues. Thus, the rules of segregation passed from the realm of white racism into the realm of African American social interaction.
A perfect example of this can be found in recent work by the African American artist Nate Hill. His project, entitled Trophy Scarves, involves him carrying semi-nude white women on his shoulders to “tackle the notion of non-White males using Caucasian women to elevate their own social statuses” (Gedeon). One commenter at Vice.com says that this art relates to the idea that many African American men, “immediately upon gaining success,” either marry or have a relationship with a Caucasian woman, and “they do it for a number of reasons: because white women are the beauty standard, because of internalized racism,” and/or “because they want children with lighter skin than their own” (qtd. by Gedeon). If skin tone is such a pressing social issue in modern society that it inspires performance art pieces, one can safely assume that it would have been an even larger issue in the rural, pre-Civil Rights Era setting of The Color Purple.
This cycle of intraracial prejudice is expressed in The Color Purple in several ways—from Harpo’s initial attraction to Sofia because she is “pretty” and has “bright skin” (31) to Mary Agnes’s awareness of her own light complexion when she asks Harpo “…do you really love me or just my color?” (102). There is even a suggestion of intraracism in Sophia’s father’s dislike of Harpo. Celie tells us that Harpo is “tall and skinny, black [emphasis added] like his mama” (24), and Sofia’s father, when asked why Harpo is not good enough for his daughter, responds with “[His] mammy” (30). While he continues with “Somebody kill her” (30), there is a subconscious barrier set to keep Sofia’s “bright skin” from mingling with Harpo’s “black.” There is something in Harpo that Sofia’s father does not trust. It leads her father to listen to every conversation the couple has (30). However, the incident that is most prominent is, in its own way, another curse. As Celie is walking out the door to go with Shug to Memphis, and in the midst of her hurling her previously mentioned curse in his face, Albert returns the favor: “Look at you. You black, you pore [sic], you ugly, you a woman. . .you nothing at all” (213). He begins his retort with an attack on the color of her skin, thus perpetuating the racist notion that blackness is somehow ugly or less desirable. This notion has become part of his mentality in the absence of any outside pressure. This is a symbolic scene, as the primary male character curses and is in return cursed by the female protagonist; in this scene, they have become the perpetrators of their own degradation.
Albert, as a man of color in a time and place where his very skin incriminates him, is jealous of Celie’s newfound voice and power. He has been cursed to an existence in which his only means of expression is to pass the curse on to someone else—specifically, those closest to him. Celie’s extrication from the situation leaves him to ponder his own choices and abilities. Thus, when she returns, she finds an Albert who can cook and clean for himself (—an Albert who collects sea shells and is gentler to those around him (259-260). And she has changed as well—she is successful, communicative, and able to stand on her own two feet (261). It appears that the curse has lifted.
But what does this mean for modern readers, especially those young African American readers who still use race as a weapon against one another daily? As with most questions regarding race, there are no simple answers. To use another personal anecdote, I recall teaching a classroom unit on The Power of Words. I asked a group of tenth graders to give me a list of people known for their command of strong language. I heard “Martin Luther King, Jr!” from a young black woman in the back of the room. “What was he known for?” I asked, to which she replied proudly and enthusiastically, “He helped free the slaves.” This ignorance of the basics of our country’s racial history is astounding, but it is an ignorance I encounter weekly. Many young men and women of color have heard the stories of the oppression their immediate ancestors suffered and overcame, but this oppression is so far removed from them that they do not comprehend the meanings and connotations of the words they use against one another, nor do they fully understand the historical weight of intraracism. The power of Alice Walker’s novel is in its historical testimony. This is one reason that The Color Purple has stood the test of time: it depicts truths that some, such as the above critics, do not want to acknowledge, but it also serves as a testament to the origin of modern intraracism. The interplay between the male victims and their respective female victims is a foreshadowing of the interaction seen in modern youths. By examining the time and the setting of her novel, and the dehumanization associated with that time, perhaps the present generation can come to an understanding of why racially-centered attacks on those closest to them are unacceptable. Perhaps they can break the curse.
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