In Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Nettie is Celie’s younger and much more physically attractive sister. Celie has dedicated their lives together to protecting Nettie from the sexual advances of, first their father, Pa, and, after Celie marries Mr. ___/Albert, from her physically and emotionally abusive husband. The sisters love each other deeply, and try to look out for each other, although Nettie’s physical appearance and more assertive personality has enabled her to aspire to greater ambitions than Celie could ever imagine. During the period Nettie is living with Albert and Celie, she becomes increasingly frustrated by the demeaning manner in which Albert’s children from a previous marriage treat Celie, including the physical abuse they have inflicted her older sister. After Albert forces Nettie to leave, she pleads with Celie to assert herself with Albert’s children and to demand more out of life than the miserable existence she has only known, but Celie cannot fathom any other existence for herself. Mere survival is the only goal she can imagine. Believing Nettie to have died, Celie reflects on her sister’s advice:
“You got to fight them, Celie, she say. I can’t do it for you. You got to fight them for yourself.
I don’t say nothing. I think bout Nettie, dead. She fight, she run away. What good it do? I don’t fight, I stay where I’m told. But I’m alive.”
Later in the story, when Celie is befriended by Shug Avery, who enlightens Celie regarding Nettie’s existence and history of sending letters to Celie – letters that, unbeknownst to Celie, have been concealed by Albert – Celie is exposed to the first time in her life to a glimpse of lives with some measure of dignity and independence. Learning from Nettie’s letters of her experiences in Africa, Celie is stunned to learn of the pride and history of African peoples and how different their lives are to those of the descendants of slaves in North America. Nettie’s letters from Africa are filled with exclamations of pride in her and Celie’s heritage:
“Did you know there were great cities in Africa, greater than Milledgeville or even Atlanta, thousands of years ago? That the Egyptians who built the pyramids and enslaved the Israelites were colored? That Egypt is in Africa? That the Ethiopia we read about in the Bible meant all of Africa?”
With respect to interpretations of the Bible as institutionalized by European-centric clergy and illustrators, Nettie writes in one of her letters to Celie:
“Saying good-bye to our church group was hard. But happy, too. Everyone has such high hopes for what can be done in Africa. Over the pulpit there is a saying: Ethiopia Shall Stretch Forth Her Hands to God. Think what it means that Ethiopia is Africa! All the Ethiopians in the bible were colored. It had never occurred to me, though when you read the bible it is perfectly plain if you pay attention only to the words. It is the pictures in the bible that fool you.”
Nettie’s letters, discovered years after they were written, open a window for Celie into the kind of spiritual freedom enjoyed in the African homeland from which they are descended. Celie, for the first time, can imagine life outside of her isolated and melancholy existence. The revelations provided by Nettie’s descriptions of Africa provide Celie with a newfound sense of self-respect and hope for a better future – hopes that enable her to finally leave Albert.