Re-reading The Color Purple: Alice Walker's Extended Critique of Racial Integration in the Novel

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

24 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table Of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Alice Walker’s Concept of African American Writing

3. The Role of Nettie’s Letters for the Critique of Racial Integration
3.1. Nettie’s First African Experiences in Monrovia

4. The Domestic Ideal of Racial Integration – The Construction of Kinship
4.1. The Olinka Adam-Myth
4.2. The White Missionary Doris Baines
4.3. Sofia and Miss Eleanor Jane – The Black Mammy Plantation Stereotype
4.4. Squeak and the Problem of White Uncles

5. The Critique of Missionary Work

6. A Fairy-Tale Ending?

7. Conclusion

1. Introduction

“ I am impressed by people who claim they can see every person and event in strict terms of black and white, but generally their work is not, in my long-contemplated and earnestly considered opinion, either black or white, but dull, uniform gray. It is boring because it is easy and requires only that the reader be a lazy reader and a prejudiced one. Each story or poem has a formula, usually two-thirds “hate whiteys guts” and one-third “I am black, beautiful, strong and almost always right.” Art is not flattery, necessarily, and the work of any artist must be more difficult than that. A man’s life can rarely be summed up in one word; even if that word is black or white. And it is the duty of the artist to present the man as he is.”[1]

In 1982, Alice Walker published her most famous novel, The Color Purple. For this epistolary tale of sexual oppression and strong female relationships, Walker won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award. The Color Purple is a feminist novel about an abused and uneducated black woman’s struggle for empowerment and has been praised for the depth of its female characters and for its eloquent use of black English vernacular.[2]

In 1985, a Steven Spielberg film based on the novel was released and reached an even wider audience all over the world.

However, the publication of the novel also unleashed a storm of controversy and criticism. It became a catalyst for heated debates about black cultural representation, as a number of male African-American critics and writers complained that the novel reaffirmed old racist stereotypes about pathology in black communities and of black men in particular. They charged Walker with focusing too heavily on sexism at the expense of addressing notions of racism in America and accused her of attacking black men in general.

One of the main problems was in all probability Walker’s portrayal of a different, not at all flattering side of the black community – first of all different from “I am black, beautiful, strong and almost always right.”. Another problem was detected in the novel’s restricted domestic perspective. One of the book’s critics, Elliot Butler-Evans[3], according to Linda Selzer’s essay Race and Domesticity in The Color Purple[4], criticized the novel’s epistolary form as “ a strategy by which the larger African-American history, focused on racial conflict and struggle, can be marginalized because of its absence from the narration”.[5] The restricted viewpoint of the novel’s main character, Celie, is seen as constricting the novel’s ability to analyze racial issues. “Celie’s private life pre-empts the exploration of the public lives of blacks.”[6] The critic bell hooks[7] even strongly rejected The Color Purple as “revolutionary literature” because for her the novel’s focus on the sexual oppression of women deemphasizes the “collective plight of black people” and “invali-dates…the racial agenda” of the slave narrative tradition that it draws upon.[8]

Academic discussions about the problems created by Celie’s very personal point of view were at the time paralleled by a controversy in the popular media in America, concerning the general representation of black men in novel and film. At the beginning of the 1980s there was an increasingly felt need for positive images of black people in the media that coincided with the growing recognition of the authenticity of black women writers.

The intention of this paper is to show and to analyze Walker’s often underestimated critique of racial relations in the novel The Color Purple. This analysis will be based primarily on a closer look at Nettie’s letters – the narrative’s embedded text that has been neglected by most of the early critical works on the novel .

It will be shown that one of the novel’s central questions is: Is a progress in race relations possible? And furthermore, that Walker’s answer to that question is not at all as fairy-tale-like as many critics have claimed the ending of the novel to be.

The main sources for my line of argumentation will be, of course, the novel The Color Purple[9] itself, Alice Walker’s essay collection In Search Of Our Mothers’ Gardens, and Linda Selzer’s essay Race and Domesticity in The Color Purple.

2. Alice Walker’s Concept of African American Writing

The quotation at the beginning of this text, taken from In Search Of Our Mothers’ Gardens, illustrates that already in 1971 Walker held a rather precise view concerning the qualities African American writing should have and which it should not have. She criticised especially the, in her opinion, superficial structures that close their eyes towards social realities other than racism. Walker has stressed this viewpoint in several essays and speeches before writing The Color Purple and proved her point with the novel.

Many of her critics’ arguments can be brought down to one main characteristic: Walker’s novel has no clear-cut white antagonists and instead concentrates on the manifold struggles of African American women in the American south - with black males playing a major role in their problems.

“It seems to me that black writing has suffered because even black critics have assumed that a book that deals with the relationships between members of a black family – or between a man and a woman – is less important than one that has white people as primary antagonists.”[10]

Walker has often criticised this simplifying concept of African American writing, as it seems to exist especially in the heads of black critics – as it once more became clear in the criticism unleashed on The Color Purple.

“ It is interesting to note, too, that black critics as well as white, considered Miss Hurston’s classic, Their Eyes Were Watching God, as second to Richard Wright’s Native Son, written during the same period. A love story about a black man and a black woman who spent only about one-eighteenth of their time worrying about whitefolks seemed to them far less important – probably because such a story should be so entirely normal – than a novel whose main character really had whitefolks on the brain.”[11]

Zora Neale Hurston in general and her great novel Their Eyes Were Watching God in particular were one of Alice Walker’s most important sources of inspiration for writing The Color Purple.

After the publication of the novel, when Walker found herself facing harsh criticism especially from the male part of the African American community, she published her collection of speeches and essays In Search Of Our Mothers’ Gardens - also to justify herself and the point she wanted to make.

“ It is possible the white male writers are more conscious of their own evil (which, after all, has been documented for several centuries – in words and in the ruin of the land, the earth) than black male writers, who, along with black and white women, have seen themselves as the recipients of that evil and therefore on the side of Christ, of the oppressed, of the innocent.”[12]

The Color Purple has been criticised exactly for lacking those obvious features Walker did not like to see African American writing being reduced to: blacks and whites as opponents. The criticism of her novel was even stronger because at the same time Walker showed a picture of black males that is far from “flattery”.

However, a closer and less prejudiced look at the novel reveals, that Walker, in contrast to the opinion of most of her critics, has proved that African American writing does not necessarily need this open opposition to be able to criticise race relations: even though the plot lacks the typical white antagonist, there is an extended critique of race relations, which has often been underestimated.

All the critics focusing mainly on the gender issues touched by the novel at the same time completely overlooked the extent and also the importance of the novel’s representation of race. The Color Purple is not “just” a feminist novel restricted to the analysis of sexual oppression. It is about being a woman and black, living in the frame of male civilization, racist and sexist by definition, being subject to all possible forms of oppression. Even though the critique of race relations in The Color Purple is not as obvious and fore grounded as that of gender relations and sexual oppression, it is still there.

In her essay collection Walker describes an experience at a women scholar’s symposium that has probably massively influenced her outlook on gender relations especially in the African American community:

“(…) we were treated to a lecture on the black woman’s responsibilities to the black man. I will never forget my sense of horror and betrayal when one of the panellists said to me (…): “The responsibility of the black woman is to support the black man; whatever he does.”[13]

This quotation describes the for Walker very shocking and disillusioning experience at the Radcliffe symposium, where she found herself confronted with the majority of the female participants stressing the black woman’ s duty to support her man, come what may. This experience surely contributed to the formation of Walker’s womanism and consequently also to the writing process of The Color Purple.

“It was at the Radcliffe symposium that I saw that black women are more loyal to black men than they are to themselves, a dangerous state of affairs that has its logical end in self-destructive behaviour.”[14]

Alice Walker has characterized herself and the novel The Color Purple as being “womanist” in contrast to feminist. One of the main differences between these two concepts is, that while feminism prioritizes gender above other marginalizing factors, womanism, as defined by Walker, seeks to balance racial, gender, and class / social difference while recognizing and respecting individual difference. Womanists therefore, like neo-slave narrative writers, emphasize wholeness. Since The Color Purple is, by this definition, a womanist and not a feminist novel, it also shows that it is possible to offer an extended critique of gender as well as race relations within the same novel.

“ Black women are called, in the folklore that so aptly identifies one’s status in society, “the mule of the world”, because we have been handed the burdens that everyone else – everyone else – refused to carry … To be an artist and a black woman, even today, lowers our status in many respects, rather than raises it: and yet, artists we will be.”[15]

The Color Purple clearly stresses Walker’s womanist standpoint without neglecting issues of race and class, as will be shown later in this text.


[1] Alice Walker,“The Unglamorous but Worthwhile Duties of the Black Revolutionary Artist, or of the Black Writer Who Simply Works and Writes,“In Search Of Our Mothers‘ Gardens (New York: Harvest/HBJ, 1984) 137

[2] www.

[3] PhD Elliot Butler-Evans, Professor of American Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz

[4] Linda Selzer,“Race and Domesticity in The Color Purple“African American Review 29.1. (1995)

[5] Selzer 2

[6] Selzer 2

[7] aka Gloria Watkins, Professor of English at City College, City University of New York

[8] bell hooks, „Writing the Subject: Reading The Color Purple.“Reading Black, Reading Feminist, Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Meridian, 1990) 465

[9] Alice Walker, The Color Purple, Tenth Anniversary Edition (London: The Women’s Press Limited, 1992)

[10] Alice Walker, „From an Interview“, In Search Of Our Mothers‘ Gardens, (New York: Harvest/ HBJ, 1984) 261

[11] Alice Walker, „A Talk: Convocation 1972“In Search Of Our Mothers‘ Gardens, (New York: Harvest/HBJ, 1984) 35

[12] Walker, „Interview“ 251

[13] Alice Walker, „Looking to the Side, and Back“In Search Of Our Mothers‘ Gardens, (New York: Harvest/HBJ, 1984) 317

[14] Walker, „Looking“ 318

[15] Alice Walker, „In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens“In Search Of Our Mothers’ Gardens, (New York: Harvest/HBJ, 1984) 237

Excerpt out of 24 pages


Re-reading The Color Purple: Alice Walker's Extended Critique of Racial Integration in the Novel
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Franziska Böttcher (Author), 2003, Re-reading The Color Purple: Alice Walker's Extended Critique of Racial Integration in the Novel, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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