Alice Walker’s Purple Epic
Alice Walker’s Purple Epic. Alice Walker is the voice of Black feminism. She rechristened it “womanism,” to distinguish it from second wave feminism which she regards as a white middle class movement
Alice Walker is the voice of Black feminism. She rechristened it “womanism,” to distinguish it from second wave feminism which she regards as a white middle class movement
“T he Black woman is one of America's greatest heroes . . . . She has been oppressed beyond recognition”… Alice Walker
Alice Walker is indisputably America’s most celebrated Black feminist icon and has a footprint in every form of literary expression: poetry, short and long fiction, essays and political comment.
Her books include seven novels, four collections of short stories, four children’s books, and volumes of essays and poetry. Her most acclaimed work is ‘The Color Purple’, the 1982 novel that won her The Pulitzer — the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer for Fiction — and the National Book Award. Steven Spielberg made the novel into film in 1985.
‘The Color Purple’ is an elementally vivid presentation of the life of the Blacks in the American south in the early years of the twentieth century. It is told from a womanist perspective. The story repeats itself in a different way in today’s Harlem, where life is defined primarily by the bonding of bodies that necessarily leads to domestic violence claiming children and women as victims, blocking their self-discovery and actualisation. In many ways the novel’s storyline and prose are as raw and purple as the primeval passions of its characters set in a universe of incest, corporeal questing and struggles to reinvent and repair themselves,
The epistolary novel focuses on overbearing men who degrade women into submission and servitude through spousal violence. A stepfather repeatedly rapes, impregnates the novel’s protagonist Celie, and finally gets her married to a man of his age. He then casts his eye on her sister Nettie, who flees home and meets a missionary couple who take her to Africa. Celie tells this story spanning 30 years in a series of letters to God. Celie tells God of her married life, wasted in caring for her step-children and submitting to punishing sex and beatings. Also, she has to wait upon her husband’s mistress Avery Shug who later becomes her lover. Celie leaves her husband to live with Shug. Nettie marries Samuel, the missionary, after his wife dies of malaria. The labyrinthine story ends with the reunion of the sisters.
The book, replete with lurid prose, soon ran into problems. Schools and colleges resisted its inclusion as teaching material. They objected to the incidence in the novel of homosexuality, offensive language, and sexually explicit passages. In addition, a section of her community accused her of portraying Black men harshly. They claimed that the novel revisited old racist stereotypes about physicality in Black communities -- Black men in particular. Critics saw excessive sexism in the novel, sidelining issues that racism raises in America. One of the most influential African-American writers of all time Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning novel ‘Beloved’ also met with the same fate because parents had complained that the book contained violence, sexual content and discussion of bestiality.
The term “womanist", first occurred in Walker’s book ‘In Search Of Our Mother’s Gardens - Womanist Prose’ in 1983. Walker says the white feminist movement was silent on issues concerning the plight of Black women. So a new term was necessary to ‘focus on cultural inequalities, reproductive rights and social disparities.” Gloria Steinem said of her, "I mean Alice Walker…she’s ahead of us all on the path…"
A one-time editor of ‘Ms. Magazine’, Walker said she coined the term from the word womanish that Black women employed to mean frivolous, irresponsible or to mean a Black feminist. Mothers of her time would say, “You acting womanish.” It means the girl wants to know more than what is “good” for her. Another Black folk expression: “You trying to be grown” means ‘responsible.’ In short, a womanist was a rebel.
What made Walker a womanist was the grinding poverty of her father who was a sharecropper and her mother a maid with eight children and a hostile southern environment that kept the Blacks on the periphery. In a first person short story “To Hell With Dying” she says, “The South was a place where a Black man could be killed for trying to improve his lot; the laws of segregation kept most Black people from ever having decent schools, housing or jobs.” Naturally, women bonded by this background of victimhood and vulnerability, peep through her works. An injury to her eye that kept her at home helped Walker spend time in acquiring reading and writing skills. She won a scholarship first to an Atlanta college. Then moved to the prestigious and exclusive Sarah Lawrence College in New York from where she graduated in 1965. After graduation, Walker moved to Mississippi and became involved in the civil rights movement. She also began teaching and publishing short stories and essays.
The novel’s principal linguistic feature is the use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), also known as Black English and sometimes as Ebonics. Black English is any of the nonstandard varieties of English spoken by Black people throughout the world. It is spoken in different ways in different countries with Black populations like the United Kingdom and Commonwealth Africa. Even in the US, Harlem English is different from what is in vogue in the American South. The novel uses this to show the differing levels of literacy of its characters and their cultural background.
Some features of Black English: (A) Use of double negatives like “I don’t know nothing.” The book begins with this sentence: “You better not never tell nobody but God.” (B) Use of the object pronoun 'us' instead of the subject pronoun 'we'. Like "where us (we) going" (C) Subject-verb disagreement like “He say (s) us (we) is (are) coming.”
Maybe, Walker was using Black English to symbolise the pride of Black women or more broadly Black culture. With the giant strides that women have made the world over, “Feminism” (at least the militant, bra-burning kind) is waning. But the struggles of Black people continue and Walker’s “Womanism” is as relevant today as when she coined the phrase 30 years ago.