If you’re a literature graduate, women’s literature and black feminism are something that you would not go without studying. Writers and poets like Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker etc. are names to be reckoned with when talking about black women’s writings’ and their contribution to world literature.
Alice Malsenior Walker, born on February 9, 1944, is one of the most prominent international writers of the 20th century. She completed her education at Spelman College, Atlanta and Sarah Lawrence College, New York.
The corpus of Walker’s work comprises of “The Third Life of Grange Copeland” (1969), “Meridian” (1976), “The Colour Purple” (1982) for which she won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and many more which have been a great contribution to literature.
“The Colour Purple” is a novel that celebrates black women who challenge authority. The story revolves around Celie and her sister Nettie. Walker exposes the prevalent patriarchy and how men dominate women. The novel is about the trials and tribulations faced by a black woman under colonialism and black men oppression and her journey to attain knowledge, identity, and freedom.
Celie’s father rapes her and she continues to suffer in silence, unable to express herslef or fight back. She has a daughter and a son at an early age and both of them are snatched away from her. She is later married off as a slave to Albert, interestingly, whose name Celie never utters in the novel. She always calls him Mr. ____.
Forced into a loveless marriage, she serves as a maid, a worker, a babysitter and is treated like a full-time object for sexual pleasure. Her step-son, Harpo marries a confident woman named Sofia who demands attention, unlike Celie.
Sofia is fearless and does not let any man to dominate her. She remains undefeated until she is forced to become a slave to a white couple – the mayor and his wife. Sofia’s sisters helped her escape an unhappy marriage and helped her take her children with her. On the other hand, Celie could never dare to do that.
All through the novel, the one thing that never lets hope die within Celie is her love and concern for her sister, Nettie. Mr ____ who earlier had eyes on Nettie, threw her out of the house after she refused to respond to his sexual advances. The sheer love for sisters is one thing that no reader can miss.
Celie describes wanting to become a man when her feelings arouse on seeing Shug Avery’s alluring naked body. The lesbian love is evident, although non-sexual, but present in moments of deep love. Shug Avery is the woman that Mr. ___ always loved and the character of the novel that Celie comes to idealize. It is only because of Shug, that Celie manages to fight back for her existence, even as a human.
The letters written by both Celie and Nettie are an excellent escape from their atrocities. During the time of distress, pain, and depression, writing letters became their only option. These letters are confessions of those moments of powerlessness wherein she has no one, but God to talk to. Her step-father threatens, “You better not never tell anybody but God. I’d kill your mammy.”
She expresses her feelings by writing, which was the best way to fight her depression and with this, she retained the minimal identity and freedom that remained. It is her desperation to converse with someone understanding like Shug Avery, or better, her sister Nettie, that she resorts to writing. In the last letter of the book, she addresses it as, “Dear God, Dear Stars, Dear Trees, Dear Sky, Dear Peoples, Dear Everything.” Everything reminded her of her existence.
Walker’s Womanism stems from her mixed ancestry. Thus, how Walker perceives the notions of ‘self’ and the ‘other’ is revolutionary and challenges the race, gender and class divide. According to her, patriarchal society and its associated evils of sexism, racism, and homophobia etc. can be only challenged by a womanist spirit of defiance and irreverence with an unshakable desire for social integration.
In her pivotal work, “In search of Our Mother’s Garden: Womanist Prose”, she defines the term “Womanist” as derived from “womanish” (a folk term in African American tradition symbolic of boldness, premature adulthood, responsibility and leadership as opposed to frivolous and irresponsible).
“Womanist is one who dares to speak out and against oppression, loves other women and upholds woman culture, is committed to the survival of the whole community, and loves music, dance, folk and herself.”
Walker associates the colour purple, an empowered lavender, with this empowered form of feminism. In her vision, a sense of solidarity and sharing enables the blossoming of society and individual identity. And in one of the lines, Shug Avery beautifully says, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the colour purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”
What she started was a purple streak of the Womanism movement in the history of the feminism. And, it is hard for anyone to not notice.