Color Itself: Race, Selfhood, and Symbolism in Walker’s ‘The Color Purple’.
The theme of color is very broad, and reaches strands out to many different emotions and feeling of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple such as sadness, desire and hope. Color also is central to the society that the novel is set in – the color of your skin defines who you are. However, Walker uses the women in her vibrant novel to chart a positive outcome for young black women, making a bold statement that a woman could overcome the hurdle of color.
Our first introduction to color is through Celie; it appears that she has a complex with her identity of being a black woman, and she doesn’t portray herself in an attractive light at all in the first part of the novel. This is shown through her use of her almost derogatory descriptions of her own skin color such as “I’m roasted coffee bean colour now”, the use of the verb “roasted” could be seen as having negative connotations of being damaged or burnt. Furthermore, this could be interpreted as the way she sees herself as being damaged as a cause of her race, because if we look at the treatment of black people when slavery was still practised, they were treated like inanimate objects and not like human beings, and they were whipped, women were raped and often burnt. Therefore we could consider that Celie sees herself as a slave because of her colour as she is certainly treated like one growing up. Contrastingly, we meet Shug Avery in Letter 22, and she utterly embraces her sexuality, she has no problem with her own sexual identity. However, in Celie’s naivity, when she first meets her, she described Shug as having “yellow powder caked up on her face”, but underneath “her face as black as Harpo”. The use of this simple sentence suggests that Shug could have a problem with her colour, the use of the preposition “on” shows us that she is trying to layer over her colour, as if to hide it and make herself lighter skinned. This brings up the discussion that black people were very aware that the lighter you were, the more respected you were, and so possibly, Shug has tried to lighten her skin in order to be more respected, whilst still singing of the hardships of black lives. Shug still spreads her message, but perhaps she is trying to appear wealthier and richer by wearing make-up to lighten her skin. Shug is a blues singer and so is a fictional representation of other black female blues artists such as Aretha Franklin and Bessie Smith, whom all sang of black hardships in order to find their own identity as a black community, something that Shug is doing herself for her race. Additionally, colour is key for Shug Avery as the colour red is prominent in all of her clothes, which is a symbol of many things. In letter 22 when she first enters the house, Celie notes that Shug “got on a red wool dress” and “red rouge” on her lips. The use of this descriptive pre-modifier symbolises Shug’s open sexuality, her desires and her boldness, as it is a very vibrant and attractive colour. Walker uses Shug as a symbol of what a black woman could be – powerful, rich and full of desire. Shug would have been a complete shock to society, as she lives her own life and isn’t willing to be told what to do, a huge contrast to Celie who has always been obedient to “her place” in society because of her colour. This new colour “red” that is introduced by Shug was received by feminist and black activist readers as showing that black women could be different and didn’t have to obey to social order, because Shug’r rebellion meant that she had money and power – something black women could only dream of having in the 1930s. Sofia considers colour a very personal thing, and she rebels against the white people and societal expectations, including “sassin” the Mayor’s wife because she is so proud of her colour, that she refuses to be degraded by white people after her race has been oppressed for centuries. Sofia rejects the traditional role of her colour and gender, and becomes the one in charge in her household as she is not afraid to fight back. Celie tells us the story of why Sofia was sent to prison – “Sofia say she never going to be no white woman’s nothing”. This use of the double negative shows how passionate Sofia is about not slaving away to white people, because to her, the colour white represents oppression and evil. If Sofia would have worked for the Mayor’s wife, she would have been like a slave, and after the abolition of slavery in 1865, Sofia wasn’t going to obey to a modern version of slavery. However, despite Sofia’s pride of her own colour, she is imprisoned, and this shows the importance of colour in the 1930s, because the colour white would always win agains the colour black. The subject of colour is perplexing at times, especially whilst Sofia is in prison and Squeak tries to release her because a part of her extended family is white, and to Celie and the family, that means that there is a way out for Sofia. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go to plan as anyone that had the colour black weaved into their skin would have been abused, just like Mary Agnes was. Before they send Squeak to the police station, Celie says “us dress Squeak like a white woman”. The use of this simile shows how colour meant a different dress code, a different appearance entirely because of the huge racial divide in 1930s society in the USA. Being mixed race during the 1930s would have been very rare as interracial marriage was illegal until 1967, however due to the treatment of black women, white men, like the police officer in the novel, would rape them as punishment and impregnate them. The intertwining of races is portrayed as something so brutal, with such awful connotations of rape in the novel, therefore the mixing of colours is key to the way that Walker portrays the brutality of 1930s society.
Perhaps most importantly, the main colour is in the title – “The Colour Purple”. We learn why the title is called what it is because Shug discusses her own philosophy that God is in everything, and one of those things is the colour purple – “the colour that is always a surprise to me but is in everywhere in nature”. The use of the semantic field of nature here shows how the colour purple is significant in the novel because it is a representation of life, and a way of celebrating the wonders that God has created. Purple is also Walker’s way of introducing Pantheism which is the belief that God is in everything, Walker own personal beliefs shine through here, therefore the colour is significant because it also acknowledges Walker’s own spirituality. Here as elsewhere, colour is a key theme in the novel, as it represents history, hardships and spirituality that contribute to the formation of the black community and its identity.
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