Introduction

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1437

The acclaimed writer of the Pulitzer Prizewinning novel The Color Purple (1982), Walker has asserted that for her writing is a way to correct wrongs that she observes in the world, and that she has dedicated herself to delineating the unique dual oppression from which black women suffer: racism and sexism. Her work is an exploration of the individual identity of the black woman; in it she examines how embracing her identity and bonding with other women affects the health of her community at large. Walker describes this kinship among women as "womanism," as opposed to feminism.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Alice Walker Study Guide

Subscribe Now

BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

Walker was born February 9, 1944, and grew up, along with seven older brothers and sisters in Eatonton, Georgia, where her father was a sharecropper. When she was eight years old, one of her brothers accidentally shot her with his BB gun, leaving her scarred and blind in one eye until age fourteen when she underwent surgery to remove the scar tissue. The disfigurement made Walker shy and self-conscious, and she turned to writing as a means of expressing herself. Though Walker had a tenuous relationship with her father, she notes that she respected her mother's strength and perseverance in the face of poverty, and she recalls how hard her mother worked in her garden to create beauty in even the shabbiest of conditions. Despite a disadvantaged childhood, Walker earned a scholarship to Spelman College. She attended Spelman for two years, became disenchanted with what she considered a puritanical atmosphere there, and transferred to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, to complete her education. While at Sarah Lawrence, Walker wrote her first collection of poetry, Once (1968), in reaction to a traumatic abortion she experienced during her senior year of college. Walker shared the poems with one of her teachers, poet Muriel Rukeyser, whose agent found a publisher for them.

After college, Walker moved to Mississippi to work as a teacher and a civil rights advocate. In 1967 she married Melvyn Leventhal, a Jewish civil rights attorney; they became the first legally married interracial couple to reside in Jackson, Mississippi. Walker and Leventhal had a daughter, Rebecca; they divorced in 1976. While working in Mississippi, Walker discovered the writings of Zora Neale Hurston, an author whose works greatly influenced Walker's later work. Walker eventually edited a collection of Hurston's fiction called I Love Myself When I Am Laughing … and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader (1979). In addition to poetry, Walker has written short stories, collected in In Love and Trouble (1973) and You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down (1981), and several novels, most notably The Color Purple, which received both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award.

MAJOR WORKS

Walker's first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), introduces many of the themes that became prevalent in her later work, particularly the domination of powerless women by equally powerless men. The novel follows three generations of a black southern family of sharecroppers and its patriarch, Grange Copeland, as they struggle with racism and poverty. In Grange's "first life" he tortures his wife until she commits suicide. His son Brownfield inherits Grange's sense of helplessness and hatred, and eventually murders his own wife. In Grange's "second life" he attempts to escape to the industrial North. Walker does not present industrial labor as a viable solution to the poverty of the South, however, and in his "third life" Grange returns to his southern home. At the end of the novel, Grange has become a compassionate man who longs to atone for the legacy of hate he has left his family, attempting to help his granddaughter Ruth escape from her father (Brownfield) and the South as a gesture of his remorse. Another prominent theme in Walker's fiction deals with the ways in which black women seek "wholeness" and this quest's impact on the health of the community. The attempt at wholeness comes from remaining true to one's self and fighting against the constraints of society, as portrayed in the stories from Walker's collection In Love and Trouble.

Walker's novel Meridian (1976) is considered an autobiographical work. The title character is born in the rural South, like Walker, and uses education as a means of escape. Pregnant and married to a high school dropout, Meridian struggles with thoughts of suicide or killing her child, but eventually decides to give the child up and attend college. After graduating, she enters an organization of black militants in Mississippi, but realizes she is not willing to kill for the cause. With this knowledge she resolves to return to rural Mississippi to help its residents struggle against oppression.

In The Color Purple, Walker uses an epistolary form to create a woman-centered focus for her novel. The letters span thirty years in the life of Celie, a poor southern black woman. Celie is victimized physically and emotionally by her stepfather, who repeatedly rapes her and then takes their children away from her, and by her husband, an older widower who sees her more as a mule than as a wife. Celie's letters are written to God and to Celie's sister Nettie, who escaped a similar life by becoming a missionary in Africa. Celie overcomes her oppression with the intervention of an unlikely ally, her husband's mistress, Shug Avery. Shug helps Celie find self-esteem and the courage to leave her marriage. By the end of the novel, Celie is reunited with her children and her sister.

The Temple of My Familiar (1989) is an ambitious novel recording 500,000 years of human history. The novel's central character, Miss Lissie, is a goddess from primeval Africa who has been incarnated hundreds of times throughout history. She befriends Suwelo, a narcissistic university professor whose marriage is threatened by his need to dominate and sexually exploit his wife. Through a series of conversations with Miss Lissie and her friend Hal, Suwelo learns of Miss Lissie's innumerable lives and experiences—from the prehistoric world in which humans and animals lived in harmony under a matriarchal society to slavery in the United States—and regains his capability to love, nurture, and respect himself and others.

In Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992), Walker examines the practice of female genital mutilation. The novel focuses on Tashi, a woman who willingly requests the ritual, in part because she is unaware of what the ceremony involves. Since discussion of the ritual is taboo in her culture, Tashi is ignorant of the profound impact the procedure will have on her life. This ritual is further examined in Warrior Marks (1994), a nonfiction account of this ceremony that is still practiced in many parts of the world. Walker also collaborated with Indian filmmaker Pratibha Parmar to produce a film with the same title. The book covers the making of the film as well as bringing to light the consequences of this practice.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

There are several widely debated aspects of Walker's writing. One such aspect is her portrayal of black male characters as archetypes of black men in modern society. Many reviewers condemn her portrayals of black men as unnecessarily negative, pointing to the vile characters in some of her work and to her own comments about black men as evidence of enmity on her part. Other critics assert that the author, in presenting flawed characters, reveals typical shortcomings in the hope that real people burdened with these flaws will recognize themselves in her stories and strive to improve. Some reviewers also assert that Walker's work contains positive images of black men that are often ignored by critics. Beyond her portrayal of black men, some reviewers have found fault with Walker's characterization in general, opposing her tendency to refer to characters only with pronouns, thereby encouraging readers to consider the characters exemplary of anyone to whom that pronoun could apply. Finally, Walker's work is often viewed as political in intent, at times to the detriment of its literary value.

In contrast, reviewers praise works such as In Love and Trouble for balancing the art of storytelling with political concerns. Critics commend Walker's use of oral storytelling tradition, finding her work most convincing when she employs anecdotal narrative. Overall, critics commend her ability to incorporate a message within her narratives. Critics have also lauded Warrior Marks for its exposure of the practice of female genital mutilation. Walker's work consistently reflects her concern with racial, sexual, and political issues—particularly with the black woman's struggle for spiritual survival. Addressing detractors who fault her "unabashedly feminist viewpoint," Walker explained: "The black woman is one of America's greatest heroes.…Notenough credit has been given to the black woman who has been oppressed beyond recognition."

Principal Works

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 243

Once: Poems (poetry) 1968

The Third Life of Grange Copeland (novel) 1970

Five Poems (poetry) 1972

In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women (short stories) 1973

Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems (poetry) 1973

Langston Hughes: American Poet (juvenile nonfiction) 1974

Meridian (novel) 1976

Good Night Willie Lee, I'll See You in the Morning (poetry) 1979

I Love Myself When I Am Laughing … and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader [editor] (fiction) 1979

You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down: Stories (short stories) 1981

The Color Purple (novel) 1982

In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose (essays) 1983

Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful: Poems (poetry) 1984

Living by the Word: Selected Writings, 1973-1987 (essays) 1988

To Hell with Dying (juvenile fiction) 1988

The Temple of My Familiar (novel) 1989

Finding the Green Stone (juvenile fiction) 1991

Her Blue Body Everything We Know: Earthling Poems, 1965-1990 (poetry) 1991

Possessing the Secret of Joy (novel) 1992

Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women [with Pratibha Parmar] (nonfiction) 1994

The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult: A Meditation on Life, Spirit, Art, and the Making of the Film "The Color Purple," Ten Years Later (essays) 1996

Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer's Activism (essays) 1997

By the Light of My Father's Smile (novel) 1998

The Way Forward Is with a Broken Heart (short stories) 2000

Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth (poetry) 2003

A Poem Traveled Down My Arm: Poems & Drawings (poetry) 2003

Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart (novel) 2004

Primary Sources

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 71

ALICE WALKER (POETRY DATE 1971)

SOURCE: Walker, Alice. "'Women' and 'For My Sister Molly Who in the Fifties.'" In Revolutionary Petunias & Other Poems, pp. 5, 16-9. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1971.

In the following poems, Walker admires the feminist struggles of the previous generation of women and of her courageous, adventurous sister.

"Women"

Text not available.

"For My Sister Molly Who in the Fifties"

Text not available.

Text not available.

Ruth D. Weston (Essay Date Spring-Summer 1992)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4035

SOURCE: Weston, Ruth D. "Who Touches This Touches a Woman: The Naked Self in Alice Walker." Weber Studies 9, no. 2 (spring-summer 1992): 49-62.

In the following essay, Weston contrasts Walker's verse with that of Walt Whitman, finding that Walker presents a uniquely feminist perspective on love, sexuality, and self-worth.

In The New York Times Book Review for March 9, 1986, Alicia Ostriker celebrates American women poets who refuse to be limited by the masculine ideal of "universal," meaning nonfemale, poetry. Ostriker believes that the writing of these women poets during the last twenty-five years constitutes a shaping force in American poetry. Their passionate, intimate poems "defy divisions between emotion and intellect, private and public, life and art, writer and reader," reminding us, she says, of the frank sexuality of Walt Whitman's poems, so aptly characterized by his own words: "Camerado, this is no book, / Who touches this touches a man." Such an impulse is alive today in both the poems and the stories of Alice Walker. Her work has been previously linked to Whitman's because of both poets' celebration of the common problems that unite and divide people (Gernes 93-94), yet hers is a uniquely feminist—Walker would say "womanist" (In Search xii) perspective.

Whitman assumed his personal experience to be the universal experience, but it was more precisely the masculine universal. Walker writes about black women with the authority of the universal female experience, an experience made complex and contradictory by the phenomenon of love. Although some black critics, like Ishmael Reed, charge that white feminists' interest in black women's writing constitutes "intellectual fraud" (qtd. in Watkins 36), which exploits black women and undermines the black community (Watkins 36; qtd. in Sharpe et al 149), Patricia Sharpe and her colleagues explain white feminists' ability for cross-racial identity. Initially recognizing the basis of such identity in anthropological theories of female "liminality" as a locus of power (See Mascia-Lees et al), they have recently refined their analysis by pointing out women's common experience of victimization. These critics argue that:

[W]e, as white feminists, are drawn to black women's visions because they concretize and make vivid a system of oppression … [and] abuse.… [And further, that] it has not been unusual for white women writers to seek to understand their oppression through reference to the atrocities experienced by other oppressed groups. Sylvia Plath, for example, likened her feelings of rejection … by her father to the treatment of Jews under Nazism.…

(Sharpe et al 146)

Alice Walker's song of the self, although ultimately a celebration (Davis 38-53), differs from Whitman's not only in expected ways due to their respective genders, races, and eras. It differs more basically in the fact that, in Walker's fiction and poetry of the Black experience, many women are almost entirely ignorant of love, never having been allowed to share it. What is more, they do not know, much less celebrate, themselves. When they are abused—and they often are—they do not know the value of the self that has been violated. Celebrations, in such circumstances, are necessarily infused with an irony completely alien to Whitman's Leaves of Grass period, when he envisioned an ideal equality between men and women.

Even in relationships between women, Walker often shows the undervalued selves of women. In the story "Everyday Use," Maggie suffers psychological scars long after physical healing from burns in a fire set by Dee, her older sister. When the citified and condescending Dee comes to visit, Maggie feels ugly and hides behind the door, providing a graphic symbol of the physical and psychological disfigurement of women that is an important theme in Walker's writing. Similarly, low self-esteem also leads Roselily, in the story that bears her name, to marry the Muslim who will take her away from her home, promising her rest and freedom from the hard work she has always known. But Walker's narrative is laced with images of the new bondage that awaits Roselily in a culture which undervalues women, images which reveal the irony of her hope to be "Free! In robe and veil" (In Love 7).

Walker does not ignore the black man's search for self-worth, a theme she explores in The Third Life of Grange Copeland; but the casualties of that search are the wives of Grange and Brownfield Copeland. Not only because they are influenced by a macho male white culture (Wallace; qtd. in Sharpe et al 147), but because they are also frustrated in their own claim to manhood, Grange and Brownfield in turn deny their women's every assertion of self-worth. Thus, when Mem raises the family's standard of living, Brownfield systematically destroys first her health and then her spirit. Finally, he blows her face away with a shotgun (172), literally effacing her identity. That Walker intends the scene as an affirmation of the universality of female cultural effacement is clear from her statement in the "Afterword" to the novel that Mem, "after the French la même, meaning 'the same,'" was so named because the actual murder victim Walker based the story on "in relation to men was … symbolic of all women" (344).

The theme of regressive violence within black families is seen even earlier in the poems that reveal how the exigencies of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s helped Alice Walker to come to terms with personal wounds. An example that she herself has pointed to is that of her poem "The Democratic Order: Such Things in Twenty Years I Understood":

My father
(back blistered)
beat me
because I
could not
stop crying.
He'd had
enough 'fuss'
he said
for one damn
voting day. (Once 43)

Although Walker's relationship with her father was not good, the matter of the poem is not strictly autobiographical (Walker Living 11), yet it creates an idealized father character that allows her to displace her anxiety about her own father while the poem speaks to the general cultural frustrations that are vented upon women.

In the novel Meridian, however, the field of anxiety is broadened to include anxiety about men as sexual "partners." The adolescent Meridian, like many of Walker's female protagonists, becomes afraid of males as soon as she is seen as fair game by boys at school. She submits to Eddie's sexual needs not because they respond to her own but because they

saved her from the strain of responding to other boys or even noting the whole category of Men.… This … was probably what sex meant to her; not pleasure but as anctuary.… It was resting from pursuit.

(54-55)

These women are ignorant of the joy of offering themselves as inherently valuable gifts, perhaps, because, as Barbara Christian points out, for such abused women "the body can become the tomb of the mind, [and similarly] the mind's anguish can diminish the body;" thus, Christian continues, Meridian's own guilt for "not living up to her mother's expectations about motherhood," combined with frustration at her sense of powerlessness, results in progressively more serious physical problems: "blue spells," then loss of sight, then temporary paralysis (Black Women 216). The world has touched women who have suffered similar experiences, perhaps indelibly marked them, but they are out of touch with themselves.

Celie, in The Color Purple, learns both psychological and literal touching of the self. Through her relationships with other women in the novel, she gets in touch with her moral and physical self. Jealous of Sophia's physical strength and sense of authority, and frustrated at her own lack of either quality, Celie strikes out at her by repeating to Harpo the advice his father had given him about how to make his wife obey him: "Beat her" (43). Celie rationalizes:

I like Sophia, but she don't act like me at all. If she talking when Harpo and Mr.—come in the room, she keep right on. If they ast her where something at, she say she don't know. Keep talking.

I think bout this when Harpo ast me what he ought to do to her to make her mind. I don't mention how happy he is now. How three years pass and he still whistle and sing. I think bout how every time I jump when Mr.—call me, she look surprise. And like she pity me.

Beat her. I say.

(43)

When Harpo tries to beat Sophia and gets beaten himself, Celie realizes her culpability but can only turn her guilt inward. When she is abused by her husband, Celie again internalizes her anger. She can't sleep, she feels like throwing up, and finally she feels nothing. Ironically, it is Sophia who calls her to moral responsibility, not only for allowing herself to encourage male brutality to women, but ultimately to responsibility for her own life. Celie's usual response to a beating from the man she calls only Mr.—has been, "But he my husband. I shrug my shoulders. This life soon be over, I say. Heaven last all ways." Sophia advises, "You ought to bash Mr.—head open.… Think bout heaven later" (47). It is only when Celie can externalize her anger, can dare to express herself in spite of the fact that her father has forbidden her to speak, that she begins her journey toward selfhood by writing a revised self, by literally touching pen to paper to release her creative energy.

But the rite of passage comes through a different sort of literal touching of the self, in Celie's sexual awakening by Shug Avery. Although Celie has been raped repeatedly by her father and has given birth to two children by him, and although she is now married to Mr.—, she is, according to Shug, still a virgin (79). In other words, she has never known, or even realized there could be, sexual pleasure for a woman. Thus her most significant initiation into human sexuality is by her husband's mistress, and the lesbian lovemaking that follows is Celie's first experience of erotic love. To Celie, "it feel like heaven is what it feel like, not like sleeping with Mr.—at all" (110). At last she is put in touch with her own body and her own needs. She learns to associate pleasure, not pain, with human touch. Thus, although women's relationships with men have impeded female self-development, their bonds with women, even literary bonds (Sadoff 4-26), can provide positive correctives. And certainly Celie's rite of passage provides the kind of cultural deconstruction that is a symbol of "emotive power" like those used by African women "mythmakers creating viable and meaningful new images of and for women" (Sharpe et al 145-46).

Even in the face of the painful disjunctions of life, Walker's emphasis is always on the inherent yearning for unity in all life of body and mind, of flesh and spirit, and especially of male and female. Thus in the title poem of Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful, the most important element of the poem is the "s" in "Horses," a fact which is evident from the incident that provided the impetus for the poem. Walker tells the story of a horse's wild suffering when deprived of his mate, and of his look that was "piercing,… full of grief …, [and] human" (Living 7). And the cruelty Walker sees in the humans who took away the mare after stud service seems an ironic reflection on the frequency of cruelty she notes among humans, who continually rupture their own intimate relationships. In the "Introduction" to her volume of poems entitled Good Night Willie Lee, I'll See You in The Morning, she states the basic need for human touch, a need which will, she says, "call out [one's] own heart for review" (vi). The complex theme common to the poems in this book is that of the perennial conflict of woman's two basic needs, which have historically been mutually exclusive: the need for intimacy with a man but also the need for mental and physical integrity. By "call[ing] out [one's] heart for review" in these poems, Walker shows us the state of the heart of woman. We see the continuing vulnerability of heart and body, but we also see hints of an emerging awareness of woman's equal need, and increasing ability, to resist abuse. It is as though Walker's book, published in 1979, is her answer to Adrienne Rich's call to action in her 1972 essay "When We Dead Awaken": a call not only for women writers to express anger at their victimization by men, but also a call for women to stop permitting the abuse, to take responsibility for their lives, to exchange the imposition of pain for what Rich calls the self-actuated "birth-pains [of] bearing ourselves" (25). And indeed, as Barbara Christian has shown, Walker's work contributes to, and perhaps represents the epitome of, a rapidly-developing theme in Afro-American women's writing: that of female self-development and self-definition ("Trajectories" 233-248).

The destructive results of a woman's need for a love relationship with a man are seen in Walker's poems through images of pain and death, suggesting the physical and mental stress on a woman in this double bind. Her conflicting needs cause "a painful knot in her back;" or they come up like weeds.

Through cracks in the conversation.
Through silences in the dark.
Through everything you thought was concrete.
Such needful love has to be chopped out
or forced to wilt back
poisoned by disapproval
from its own soil. (Good Night 2-3)

A reviewer of Walker's first volume of poems, entitled Once (1968), noticed the juxtaposition of images of the world's brutality with images of great tenderness (Walsh 20). In that book, however, the contrasting expressions were not often identified with sex; and sometimes they did not even appear in the same poem. Compare, for example, the soft eroticism of "The Smell of Lebanon," from the sequence of "impossible love" poems, with the following bitter passage from the long title poem "Once":

I remember
seeing
a little girl,
dreamingperhaps,
hit by
a
van truck
"That nigger was
in the way!" the
man
said
to
understanding cops.… (Once 35)

Perhaps the volume's most emphatic ironic contrast comes in "Karamojans," where the poet suggests the inherent native African beauty and dignity, which has been spoiled by poverty and disease. Throughout the poem, images of the fineness of human beings are undercut by those of the world's brutal realities, as stanzas two and eight will suffice to show:

The Noble Savage
Erect
no shoes on his
feet
His pierced ears
Infected.

How bright the little
girl's
Eyes were!
a first sign of
Glaucoma. (Once 20, 22)

The simple, perhaps even clichéd, vocabulary is elevated by the poem's sustained technique of ironic negation, a technique that also occurs in the title poem "Once," where the reality of the Southern jailer "in grey" negates, for the Civil Rights demonstrators, the "Green lawn / … picket fence / flowers / … [and] the blue sky" (Once 23). The continual juxtaposition of positive and negative images produces an overriding antiphonal style in both the poems and the prose, a style apparent, for example, in the title poem of Revolutionary Petunias; in the structure of the stories "Roselily" and "The Child Who Favored Daughter" (In Love); and in the alternating voices of Celie and Nettie, which "encompass and interconnect all the characters" in The Color Purple (Fifer 156).

This ironic antiphony underlies what are perhaps Walker's most striking images of negation: those which occur in poems which express love's mental anguish in terms of physical pain or danger: Loving a man is analogous to bearing a "knife that presses / without ceasing / against [a woman's] heart" (Good Night 10); to being "in limbo" (11), to being "afflicted" to the point of "murder[ing] the man" (13); to having one's life "shredded / by an expert" (15). Often, however, a woman endures sexual pain that has nothing to do with love. A recurring reference in Walker's poems is to the rape her great-great-grandmother suffered at age eleven. A poem entitled "The Thing Itself," from the volume Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful, is the poet's vision of that experience. It includes these lines:

There was no
pornography
in her world
from which to learn
to relish the pain.
(She was the thing
itself.) (62)

Nowhere is the body of the poem more at one with the female body than in Walker's "Early Losses: A Requiem," in which the poet, in the persona of a nine-year-old African girl sold into slavery, mourns the loss of her childhood friend but also the loss of her own childhood:

… Omunu
vanished
down a hole that
smelled of blood and
excrement and death
and I was "saved"
for sport among
the sailors of the crew.
Only nine, upon a ship. My mouth
my body a mystery
that opened with each tearing
lunge. (Good Night 28)

In this volume of poems we touch a woman in pain.

But mitigating the pain expressed are also flashes of the spirited woman that is Alice Walker. For example, in "Janie Crawford":

I love the way Janie Crawford
left her husbands the one who wanted
to change her into a mule
and the other who tried to interest her
in being a queen
a woman unless she submits is neither a mule
nor a queen
though like a mule she may suffer
and like a queen pace
the floor. (Good Night 18)

We also see a "moody woman / [with] temper as black as [her] brows / as sharp as [her] nails" (19). We see her trying to survive with a dream different from that of her grandmother, who longed only for some comfort in her poor life, and yet trying to maintain some connection with her heritage, as she says in "Talking to my grandmother…,"

I must train myself to want
not one bit more
than what i need to keep me alive
working
and recognizing beauty
in your
so nearly
undefeated face. (Good Night 46-47)

And there is the resurgent good humor in poems such as "Every Morning," the poet's rebuke to a sleepy, complaining body:

"Don't you see that person
staring at you?" I ask my breasts,
which are still capable
of staring back.
"If I didn't exercise
you couldn't look up
that far.… (Horses Make 16)

Although the volume Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful received mixed reviews, some readers alleging its "pathos" ("Private Voices" 19), banality (Publishers' 71), "forced" quality (Virginia Quarterly 57), or even racism (Disch 6), such poems as "Every Morning" speak both for Walker and her readers to the subject that Adrienne Rich said she herself addressed in writing "Planetarium": "the relief of the body / and the reconstruction of the mind" (30).

Contrary to charges of her insensitivity to black men, typified by the comments of Tony Brown (2), of her sexist polemic, according to Charles Johnson (107), or of both and more (Cheatwood; qtd. in Walker Living 88), Walker, as she herself has reminded us (Living 80), extends that same opportunity for relief and reconstruction to her male characters—to Grange Copeland, to Harpo, to Albert, and even to Mister. Yet there is no more false (that is, sexless) "universality" in Alice Walker's writing than there was false modesty in Walt Whitman's frankly sexual poems, notwithstanding even Walker's own cogent claim that all races suffered (and by implication still suffer) from the experience of slavery: "We are the African and the trader. We are the Indian and the settler …, the slaver and the enslaved …" (Living 89). To admit these common human afflictions is not to deny Chikweyne Okonjo Ogunyemi's claim that "black womanist writers … are committed to the survival and wholeness of their entire people, female and male" (qtd. in Sharpe et al 143). Yet in her fiction and poems, it is nevertheless the nerves and bodies and minds of Walker's female characters that are laid bare—to each other, to themselves, and to the reader. On the page in black and white (pun intended, in the spirit of Walker's own use in "African Images" Once 7), the complex self of woman is naked and exposed, in the misery of its pain or the celebration of its worth. Alice Walker's writing will never be mistaken for that of Whitman; for who touches this touches a woman.

Works Cited

Brown, Tony. "Tony Brown's Comments: The Color of Purple is White." The Herald 1 Jan. 1986: 2.

Christian, Barbara. Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976. Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1980.

——. "Trajectories of Self-Definition: Placing Contemporary Afro-American Women's Fiction." Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition. Ed. Majorie Pryse and Hortense Spillars. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1985. 233-248.

Davis, Thadious M. "Alice Walker's Celebration of Self in Southern Generations." Women Writers of the Contemporary South. Ed. Peggy Whitman Prenshaw. Jackson: U P of Mississippi, 1984. 38-53.

Disch, Tom. "The Perils of Poesy." Book World 30 Dec. 1984: 6.

Fifer, Elizabeth. "Alice Walker: The Dialect & Letters of The Color Purple." Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies. Ed. Catherine Rainwater and William J. Scheick. Lexington: U P of Kentucky, 1985. 155-71.

Gernes, Sonia. America 152.4 (2 Feb. 1985): 93-94; qtd. in Pratt, Louis H. and Darnell D. Pratt, Alice Malsenior Walker: An Annotated Bibliography: 1968-1986. Westport, CT: Meckler, 1988.

Johnson, Charles. Being & Race: Black Writing Since 1970. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1988.

Mascia-Lees, Frances E., Pat Sharpe, and Colleen B. Cohen. "Double Liminality and the Black Woman Writer." American Behavioral Scientist 31 (Sept.-Oct. 1987): 101-14.

Ostriker, Alicia. "American Poetry, Now Shaped by Women." New York Times Book Review. 9 Mar. 1986: 1, 28-30.

"Private Voices." Books and Bookmen Sept. 1985: 19.

Publishers Weekly 24 Aug. 1984: 71.

Reed, Ishmael. Reckless Eyeballing. New York: St. Martin's, 1986.

Rich, Adrienne. "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision." College English 34:1 (Oct. 1972): 18-25.

Sadoff, Dianne F. "Black Matrilineage: The Case of Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston." Signs 11.1 (Autumn 1985): 4-26.

Sharpe, Patricia, F. E. Mascia-Lees, and C. B. Cohen. "White Women and Black Men: Differential Responses to Reading Black Women's Texts." College English 52:2 (Feb. 1990): 142-53.

Virginia Quarterly Review 61:2 (Spring 1985): 57.

Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. 1982. New York: Washington Square, 1983.

——. Good Night Willie Lee, I'll See You in The Morning. 1979. Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984.

——. Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984.

——. In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974.

——. In Search of Our Mother's Gardens. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984.

——. Living By the Word: Selected Writings, 1973-1987. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.

——. Meridian. New York: Harcourt, 1976.

——. Once. New York: Harcourt Brace World, 1968.

——. Revolutionary Petunias & Other Poems. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.

——. The Third Life of Grange Copeland. 1970. Rpt. New York: Pocket Books, 1988.

Wallace, Michele. Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman. New York: Warner, 1979.

Walsh, Chad. "A Present Rooted in the Past." Book World 3 Nov. 1968: 20.

Watkins, Mel. "Sexism, Racism and Black Women Writers." New York Times Book Review 15 June 1986: 1, 35-37.

Whitman, Walt. "So Long." Leaves of Grass. 1860. Rpt. Eight American Writers: An Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Norman Foerster and Robert P. Falk. New York: Norton: 1963. 1137-38.

Keith Byerman (Essay Date 2000)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6665

SOURCE: Byerman, Keith. "Gender and Justice: Alice Walker and the Sexual Politics of Civil Rights." In The World Is Our Home: Society and Culture in Contemporary Southern Writing, edited by Jeffrey J. Folks and Nancy Summers Folks, pp. 93-106. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2000.

In the following essay, Byerman considers the interrelationship between racial discrimination and gender relations in Walker's fiction, contending that she uses the mid-twentieth-century civil rights movement in the South to explore current issues of gender and power.

In her novel Meridian (1976), Alice Walker depicts a northern white civil rights worker very concerned with her impulse to see southern blacks as aesthetic objects: "To Lynne, the black people of the South were Art.… 'I will pay for this,' she often warned herself. 'It is probably a sin to think of a people as Art.' And yet, she would stand perfectly still and the sight of a fat black woman singing to herself in a tattered yellow dress, her voice rich and full of yearning, was always—God forgive her, black folks forgive her—the same weepy miracle that Art always was for her" (128).

This essay argues that for Walker herself, just as for her character, southern black folk are Art, in the sense that they serve as a fixed standard by which to measure the moral significance and achievements of the central actors in her narratives about civil rights. It is necessary to understand that region and class are as important as race in establishing this standard. Those who retain their status of being close to the land, with a southern mind-set that rejects abstraction, are the model.1 This does not mean that Walker has a nostalgic view, though she may have a romantic one. The folk she presents are capable of change and of political action; it is simply that change must be connected to concrete experience.

Corollary to this narrative concern is the related issue of sexuality; desire in Walker's stories tends to produce distortions of itself in that characters generate abstractions of the sexual Other that they then manipulate out of motives of class or race ideology. In this case, the folk become the standard by consistently demonstrating innocent desire in the concreteness and authenticity of their relationships. Consistently in the texts under consideration here—the last part of The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), Meridian, and "Advancing Luna—and Ida B. Wells" (1981)—a complicated modern (even modernist) way of being and doing is set over against a folk model of (relatively) simple virtue in matters of gender and racial justice, and the modern approach is found wanting. Part of the problem is, in fact, that the modern characters confuse and conflate matters of desire and of justice.

The earliest version of this pattern occurs late in Walker's first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland. The book as a whole is almost naturalistic in its depiction of the repetition of racial hatred and attacks on women. It sets up a social pattern in which the powerlessness of black men in the face of white hostility leads them to victimize black women, especially their wives. Grange, having undergone an earlier transformation, has established his farm as a fortress to protect himself and his granddaughter Ruth from the effects of white racism and black self-destructiveness. While most of the novel is devoted to narratives of domestic violence, interracial antagonism, and self-hatred, it turns, in the penultimate chapter, to a story of civil rights.

Each of the episodes in the chapter links a sensual experience to the effort to attain justice, with the implication, at this stage in Walker's writing, that civil rights is an object of desire in the personal as well as political sense. Into Grange's sanctuary, through the device of television, come images of the civil rights movement. The initial viewing is contextualized by being presented as an item on the news, specifically the Huntley-Brinkley Report. Before the message, Ruth notes the messengers: "She became almost fond of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, especially David Brinkley, who was younger than Chet and whose mouth curved up in a pleasingly sardonic way" (231). This representation of white male authority as "pleasing" marks a break from the images of whiteness that dominate the book. Brinkley's presence in Grange's fortress, through the media, is also a breakdown of the black man's separatist principles, principles developed over a lifetime of abuse, self-hatred, and racial intimidation. The visual image is at once intrusive and distant, allowing Ruth and Grange to come to terms with it without directly engaging it.

They receive their knowledge of the movement through these white images. When the narrator comments that "integration appealed to Ruth in a shivery, fearful kind of way" (231), the term "integration" can be understood as applying to the cross-racial experience of media producer and consumer as well as to the movement that is depicted. Moreover, the language of the appeal—"shivery, fearful"—can be linked as easily to sensual experience as to political activity. Thus it can be argued that Ruth is in part seduced into belief. At the same time, the medium keeps the events at a distance from her reality, allowing her to encounter them safely. Change can come to her in an attractive package, not in the dangerous action that shaped her grandfather's attitudes and behaviors.

The extent of this generational difference is apparent in the story of Fred Hill, an old friend of Grange's. He is killed, and Grange concludes that it is because his grandson "is making news" by trying to integrate the schools. The shooting is officially labeled a suicide, though no gun is found. For Grange, this is evidence that the world will not and cannot change. For his granddaughter, the interest is elsewhere:

"Tried to get into one of the cracker schools?"

"And did he make it?"

Grange leaned back his head and looked at the ceiling, his chair tilted back on two legs. "Naw," he said, "he didn't make it. How you going to study in a cracker school with half your granddaddy's head missing?"

"Well," said Ruth, attempting to see a bright side, "you don't need your granddaddy's head to study. You just need your own."

(234)

The assumption that there is a "bright side" to the story reflects a sanitized, dehistoricized relation to reality that is reinforced by the media. Ironically, it can be contended that it is also one means by which hope can be sustained, especially in the primarily secularized world in which Walker's characters operate. Without the church as a source of faith, the only alternatives seem to be ahistorical optimism and experiential despair.

Desire, politics, and history come together in the culminating scene of the chapter. The movement from television physically enters their realm when two couples, one black and one white, appear at the farm to encourage Grange to register to vote. The young black man is someone Ruth has seen in town with the demonstrators. The sensual nature of her response is evident even to her grandfather: "Grange looked over at Ruth. She was standing at the edge of the porch with one arm around a roof support. Her eyes were shining! He could almost feel the hot current that flowed through her, making her soft young body taut and electric with waiting" (237). Her desire continues throughout the scene, even when she learns that the young man is married to the pregnant woman with him. She reacts with a twinge of jealousy and then regret. It remains for her a "charged" moment, in which desire reinforces admiration for political activism.

What is important here is the innocence of Ruth's response to the young man, a response not followed in either Meridian or "Advancing Luna." This difference reflects Walker's representation of the folk as pure. The black activists in this novel are themselves part of the folk. They are locals whose families Grange knows well. They are engaged in the movement, not out of some abstract notion of virtue or justice but because it serves the needs of their community. Helen's father was killed trying to vote, and her mother was evicted from her lifelong home for aiding the activists. What is evident is their simple belief in the cause and their attendant refusal to be discouraged or dissuaded by hostility or resistance. Grange's life experience does not permit a sharing of their faith, but it does inspire a protective impulse: "He felt a deep tenderness for the young couple. He felt about them as he felt about Dr. King: that if they'd just stay with him on his farm he'd shoot the first cracker that tried to bother them. He wanted to protect them, from themselves and from their dreams as much as from the crackers. He would not let anybody hurt them, but at the same time he didn't believe in what they were doing. Not because it wasn't worthy and noble and inspiring and good, but because it was impossible" (241).

Through the black couple the young whites are granted standing. Because they are with the blacks and because they have also been threatened for their efforts, their commitment cannot be doubted. Ruth immediately accepts them, but Grange cannot overcome his suspicion, especially of the white woman. She represents for him the opposite side of desire, a racialized, gendered object used to justify oppression and violence against blacks. In his view, the white woman cannot be separated from this objectification. Ironically, his position is the correlative of that of white racists, who call one of the women participating in the march "you nigger-fucking whore" (235). In both instances, she is an eroticized image distorted for purposes of power. She cannot be an individual self. In this text, the figure of the white woman is the measure of the moral enlightenment of the characters. Grange recognizes the limitations of his own feelings but cannot quite get over them. They are too deeply embedded in his personal experiences and cultural conditioning.

The relatively straightforward interaction of gender, race, and civil rights in Grange Copeland is deeply complicated in Meridian and "Advancing Luna," in part because of Walker's decision to distinguish between the folk and the activists. By making this distinction, she can introduce questions of motive that challenge some of the conventional wisdom about the movement. She can retain a fixed moral standard while examining modern, secular characters and perspectives. The key figures in both of the later narratives have no direct links to the folk but must establish such links primarily through the movement itself. The quality of the connection is one measure of the moral development of the central characters.

But aspects of life in the modern world—education, cosmopolitanism, individualism, urbanization, middle-class culture—work against such connections by focusing on private rather than communal concerns. Whatever their political commitment and ideals, modern characters bring into the movement their personal conflicts and desires and find ways to play them out.

The three central figures in Meridian—Meridian Hill, Truman Held, and Lynne Rabinowitz—are educated young people who participate in civil rights activities out of a complex of motives that include idealism, guilt, self-assertion, and rebellion. Each is in some way self-absorbed. Meridian cannot come to terms with her own mother; Truman believes in his own importance; Lynne seeks to escape her northern bourgeois life by identifying the black folk as "Art." In contrast, the folk, whether local young men, poor families, or the religious elderly, are characterized by simple dignity, honor, and love; they can be confused or troubled by circumstances, but their underlying moral strength is never in doubt.

On matters of both desire and politics, the position of the folk community is very clear. In terms of sexuality, they are not tempted to dehumanize others. For example, after raping Lynne, Tommy Odds urges a group of young men active in the movement to sexually assault "it." "'It? It?' [Altuna] said. 'What it you talking about? That ain't no it, that's Lynne'" (162). Similarly, the refusal of some to register to vote is never the result of cowardice or indifference; they simply make it clear that they have higher priorities: God, family, or personal honor. Lynne attempts to argue with a mother of the church; she succeeds only in offending her by insisting that God has not gotten her anything of value. When Truman and Meridian try to register a husband whose wife is dying, he questions the purpose of registering, given his need to care for her and their son on his meager earnings. This time, instead of arguing, the activists bring back groceries for the family. Some time later, apparently after the wife has died, the husband comes bearing gifts and signs the registration list. In these cases and many others throughout the novel, the spiritual and moral strength of the folk is asserted and demonstrated.

In one sense, it could be argued that for them civil rights as an ideology and a movement is largely irrelevant. As Truman and Meridian admit in their recruiting visits, voting will have little immediate or direct impact on individual lives. The people who sign up do so largely out of gratitude for the kindness and attention of the civil rights workers rather than because they have any belief in the efficacy of the political system. At the same time, the folk do not question the moral power of the movement or the courage of the activists. But that power and courage already exist within the people, so the movement cannot transform their basic character; it can only confirm it.

In contrast, because the central characters and others are not part of the folk, they are subject to a variety of inconsistencies, self-induced problems, moral quandaries, and complications of race, gender, sexuality, and class. They cannot simply be, as the folk can; they must do and think and become and desire. If desire is the response to a lack or absence, as contemporary theory suggests, then it may be said to be the primary motivation for the key characters of the novel.

For Truman Held, desire is connected to status. He prefers, in his conversations with Meridian, to speak French because "he believed profoundly that anything said in French sounded better, and he also believed that people who spoke French were better than people (les pauvres, les misérables!) who did not" (95). She responds positively to him in part because he is clearly more sophisticated than other black men she has known: "He was a man who fought against obstacles, a man who could become anything, a man whose very words were unintelligible without considerable thought" (96). This last phrase suggests the irony with which he is viewed by the narrator, since it refers to the fact that Meridian knows very little French, not to the profundity of Truman's ideas. This commitment to white culture extends to his preference for northern white women. He tells Meridian, in an especially cruel moment, that he is attracted to them "because they read The New York Times" (141). The cruelty is based on his awareness that she has led a provincial life, with little access to the privilege inherent in the lives of the exchange students. Sex becomes the means by which he vicariously joins the world of white privilege; it is vicarious because his relationships do not literally enable him to enter the realm of white status and wealth. When Lynne's parents, for example, learn of their marriage, they disown her and her offspring. Moreover, Truman loses interest in her once she becomes his wife rather than a precious, almost unattainable object of desire.

He consistently links his sexual impulses to ideology. He justifies his interest in white students with his interpretation of W. E. B. Du Bois's writings, though how he does so is not made clear in the text. Later, he connects his abandonment of Lynne to a return to his racial roots. His artistic efforts are large images of black women with oversized breasts. While creating these Black Madonnas, he is living in New York with a young white woman from Alabama. Yet he cannot sustain the actual black woman in his life, Meridian, as an object of desire or as an actual person. When he returns to her three years after marrying Lynne, he claims that he should have married her instead. But she is no longer impressed by his words or superior tone. When he makes his claim, she insists that it is because it has now become fashionable to be associated with black women, not white ones. Then she turns his denial against him:

"Because I'm black?"

"Because you're you, damn it! The woman I should have married and didn't!"

"Should have loved, and didn't," she murmured.

And Truman sank back staring, as if at a lifeboat receding in the distance.

(138)

While Truman makes the narcissistic error of equating personal desire with political agenda and is repeatedly shocked by his self-delusion, both Meridian and Lynne link the personal and political in different ways.2 Both of them are damaged by Truman's arrogance, but they also suffer because of their complex motivations for and responses to social activism. For Lynne, who grows up in a privileged northern Jewish environment that was both protected and standardized, the South and especially the black folk there represent vitality and creativity.

Lynne's need to escape that northern life is not a desire to become southern herself; she never in the course of the novel loses the individualistic, secular assertiveness that she brought with her from the North. Rather, she wishes to exploit the geographic, racial Other to satisfy her personal and cultural lack in a variation of what George Frederickson has called "romantic racialism" (97-129). Her Jewishness is part of her sensibility as well. She grows up in a post-Holocaust world that suppresses the knowledge of suffering so that children like her can develop in a state of carefully maintained innocence. She responds by seeking out suffering, but suffering that has been reified: "Mississippi—after the disappearance of the three civil rights workers in 1964—began to beckon her. For two years she thought of nothing else. If Mississippi is the worst place in America for black people, it stood to reason, she thought, that the Art that was their lives would flourish best there" (130). The South for her, then, is a living museum. Denied the narrative of her own people's great horror, in part because it is too real to be subjected to aesthetic control, she turns to a parallel experience that has both immediacy and distance.

The problem with Lynne's approach is her refusal to accept the humanity of those she has constructed as art objects. She cannot grasp the ambivalence created by her own whiteness, which produces a volatile mix of desire and hostility. She fails to understand the effect her presence has on both blacks and whites in the South. Tommy Odds blames her for the loss of his arm in an act of racial violence; by being with a group of black men, she endangered them. Through a conversation with Odds, Truman is able to understand the attitudes of blacks toward Lynne: "To them she was a route to Death, pure and simple. They felt her power over them in their bones; their mothers had feared her even before they were born. Watching their fear of her, though, he saw a strange thing: They did not even see her as a human being, but as some kind of large, mysterious doll. A thing of movies and television, of billboards and car and soap commercials. They liked her hair, not because it was especially pretty, but because it was long. To them, length was beauty" (137).

In an important reversal, Lynne, as the white woman, is herself made into an object, but a dangerous, taboo one. The fact that she is northern and Jewish does not change this attitude. In the South, White Woman is a category nearly overwhelming in ideological, social, and erotic significance. The white woman who aligns herself with blacks is seen as a race traitor and whore by whites, who read her association with an "inferior," "promiscuous" race as the lowest form of profanation. Blacks, regardless of their individual views of her, retain a clear perception of her symbolic power in southern society. Her motives must be questioned because affiliation with her is deeply problematic. At the same time, her significance (and danger) can make her a powerful object of desire, less in the sexual than in the political sense. A sexual attack on her is an attack on the basis of white supremacy. It is simultaneously an act of revenge and rebellion, though in one sense it reinforces racism by accepting the premise of contamination. To have a white woman is to "ruin" her for white men.

Thus Tommy Odds's rape of Lynne expresses his personal rage and allows him to engage in a political act. He can vent his hostility toward whites without committing a suicidal attack on the white men who shot him. But the assault on her is a strangely safe act. She is already viewed as racially promiscuous by the white community simply by being where she is; attacking her will not affect their views in the least. Moreover, he is reasonably certain that she will not seek justice: "She wished she could go to the police, but she was more afraid of them than she was of Tommy Odds, because they would attack young black men in the community indiscriminately and the people she wanted most to see protected would suffer" (162). The very motives and circumstances that necessitated the movement generally and Lynne's participation specifically make it impossible for her to seek justice. The very power of her whiteness precludes her resistance to sexual violence. Moreover, her aestheticist view of black life holds even during the assault:

She lay … thinking of his feelings, his hardships, of the way he was black and belonged to people who lived without hope; she thought about the loss of his arm. She felt her own guilt.… She did not any longer resist but tried instead to think of Tommy Odds as he was when he was her friend and near the end her arms stole around his neck, and before he left she told him she forgave him and she kissed his slick rounded stump that was the color of baked liver, and he smiled at her from far away, she did not know him.

(159)

As Elliott Butler-Evans has noted: "If the novel's racial politics demands that it explore Tommy Odds's behavior within the context of racial oppression, it is also committed to investigating Lynne's status as victim. That issue is somewhat ambiguously presented through the graphic detail of the rape coupled with Lynne's commitment to the 'correct' political attitude, even at the expense of her own welfare" (122).

Rape is transmuted into a permissible effect of black suffering and white penance for that suffering. Lynne denies him the humanity of being responsible for an act of violence. Her embrace of him turns assault into fulfilled desire, apparently for both of them. He can both satisfy his sexual need for the white woman and express his hostility toward the white world; she can be the sacrifice that links her to black suffering. By kissing his stump, which approximates the phallus, she submits to black (male) authority and thus escapes the guilt associated with her whiteness. At the same time, she can sustain her image of black experience in something like its purity.

Significantly, neither Truman nor Meridian wants to hear her story, in part because they, too, wish to construct a version of the folk that serves their private purposes while permitting them to interpret themselves as benefactors. Meridian is the most extreme example of this. Her responses to the world are shaped in part by guilt, first the guilt of having "stolen" something from her mother and, second, the guilt of having abandoned her son to pursue her education. Hers is the dilemma of the modern woman: how is it possible to live an individually meaningful life in a world that still demands loyalty to traditional roles? What she has "stolen" from her mother, simply by being her child, is independence and individuality. She exacerbates the problem by giving up her own child; she in effect discredits the sacrifice made by her mother (cf. Callahan 159; Daly 254-55).

This conflict about maternity inspires Meridian's commitment to the civil rights movement. She seeks, in effect, the social equivalent of her mother's sacrifice. She takes in and identifies with the outcasts in the college community. She has an abortion when Truman loses his interest in her, but she never tells him. She offers to die for the movement but is uncertain of her willingness to kill. When she is rejected by her revolutionary friends for her ambivalence, she chooses to return to the rural South, even though that form of activism has become passé. During all this time, her health is fragile, and she consistently enters catatonic states after her public challenges to authority. In this sense, her repudiation of her mother's life in truth reenacts its sacrificial quality.

Her work with the folk has a healing effect on her over time. In her encounters with them, there is little evidence of ethical or political principles being transmitted in either direction. The people are particularly empowered by her actions. She sees herself as doing for them: "They appreciate it when somebody volunteers to suffer" (25). They are consistently shown to be simply good people who must be led. Even the transformative religious service near the conclusion of the novel reveals a largely passive people. After the grieving father has spoken his ritual three words—"My son died"—on the anniversary of the young activist's death, Meridian has an insight into the congregation's response to his call: "The people in the church … were saying, 'we are slow to awaken to the notion that we are only as other women and men, and even slower to move in anger, but we are gathering ourselves to fight for and protect what your son fought for on behalf of us. If you will let us weave your story and your son's life into what we already know—into the songs, the sermons, the 'brother and sister'—we will soon be so angry we cannot help but move'" (199).

Meridian's voicing of their feelings itself suggests the text's limited faith in the power of the folk. She, though an outsider, must speak for them. Moreover, it is the expression of a desire to be fulfilled at some future point, not the planning of an action in the present (cf. Hall). In fact, implicit in the statement is justification for inaction: "if your son should come again," they could act; but, of course, resurrection is not to be expected. The weaving of narrative must precede any movement into the social realm. It is Meridian's insight into her own situation, not that of the congregation, that is the focus of narrative attention. She now understands the circumstances under which she could take a life. She claims spiritual maternity by asserting that she could kill to save the boy and others like him. Her role is that of nurturer, protector, and culture-bearer. The revolutionaries do the fighting, and Meridian provides the music that makes sense of the struggle and that saves the soul of the people. "When they stop to wash off the blood and find their throats too choked with the smell of murdered flesh to sing, I will come forward and sing from memory songs they will need once more to hear" (201). The people themselves have no role in this tremendous effort on their behalf. They are kept outside of history, an object of contemplation and a source of inspiration for the fighters and artists of the revolution. For Meridian, in slight contrast to Lynne, it is not the folk but the souls of black folk that are Art (cf. Hall 104).

Given her understanding and commitment in this passage, it is significant that Meridian is absent herself from the end of the novel. Her efforts for the people and her overcoming of maternal guilt by interpreting those efforts as maternal have healed her. And having been healed, she walks away. She leaves Truman to take over guiding the people and in the process healing himself. This transition suggests that what happens to the individual is more important than the community or society. Meridian has been the guide, not so much for the folk as for those modern individuals—Truman, Lynne, Anne-Marion—who are no longer part of the community and who suffer as a result. Once the self-healing occurs, there is no longer a responsibility to the people. Social action is a form of therapy; community improvement is merely a means to a private end.

The furthest remove from community comes in "Advancing Luna—and Ida B. Wells." The story develops the logic of the rape of Lynne depicted in Meridian. The narrator is a young black woman who spent a brief time one summer doing voter registration work. It was here that she met Luna, who had come to Georgia for the same purpose. They work together until the narrator takes advantage of a fellowship opportunity to visit Africa. Later, they meet again in New York, and it is on this occasion that Luna describes the rape.

Almost no attention is paid in the story to civil rights activities. In fact, the narrator comments that the effort "seems not only minor, but irrelevant" (88). The focus of this part of the story is on the narrator's smugness and world-weariness. She describes the extent to which she takes for granted the efforts on behalf of the students by the local people, including the danger to which their assistance subjects them. The movement becomes simply the occasion to explore the politics of rape and race. Implicit in this analysis, however, is the view, similar to that established in Meridian, that the movement is more interesting in terms of what it reveals about young activists and about ideology than what it says about its effects on black southerners. As in the previous work, the folk are not delineated in any depth; they are simply there in their saintly being—patient, courageous, understanding.

Unlike them, the modern young volunteers must deal with larger moral and political issues. When the rape is first described to the narrator, she immediately turns to critical commentary on the sexual politics of Eldridge Cleaver and LeRoi Jones, both of whom she attacks for advocating the rape of white women. When Luna tells of her attack and the narrator asks why she had not screamed, the white woman responds, "You know why" (92). This comment leads into the narrator's imaginary conversation with Ida B. Wells, the turn-of-the-century antilynching activist. Wells consistently urged blacks to protect their sons, fathers, and husbands against accusations of sexual assault because such accusations endangered not only individuals but entire communities. Just as Lynne had done, Luna chooses protection of blacks over punishment of her assailant. In this instance, though, the narrator is more interested in her own conflicts and in the ideological implications of the assault than in the emotional and psychological states of either victim or victimizer (cf. McKay). In fact, the narrative effectively diminishes both of these figures. Luna is consistently described as childlike, while Freddie Pye seems almost bestial in his unattractiveness and inarticulateness. Such reduction allows the argument with Wells over the writer's need to depict reality as she finds it, regardless of the social or racial consequences. "'No matter what you think you know, no matter what you feel about it, say nothing. And to your dying breath!' Which, to my mind, is virtually useless advice to give a writer" (94). The literary rights of the individual must supersede whatever consequences might develop for the community. Just as the narrator walked away from activism to pursue her private agenda, so here she ignores history to enable self-expression.

Having rejected the sexist aspects of black nationalism and the suppressions of Wells, the narrator now turns on Luna: "And yet the rape, the knowledge of the rape, out in the open, admitted, pondered over, was now between us. (And I began to think that perhaps—whether Luna had been raped or not—it had always been so; that her power over my life was exactly the power her word on rape had over the lives of black men, over all black men, whether they were guilty or not, and therefore over my whole people)" (95).

The question of power takes priority over the question of rape; Luna in this passage is not a distinct character but White Woman, though it is precisely her racial power that she resists using. The narrator refuses to engage the complexity of a situation that positions Luna closer to Ida B. Wells (and implicitly to "my whole people") than the narrator herself. Not surprisingly, the two women grow apart, though not before Freddie Pye appears in their apartment coming out of Luna's bedroom one morning. We also learn that the narrator goes back to the South because of "the need to return, to try to understand, and write about, the people I'd merely lived with before" (97). She does not describe the impact of the return, choosing instead to end the story proper at this point.

In a metafictional move, Walker offers several appendices to the narrative that attempt to specify its ideological significance. One addition locates the existing ending in the context of current reality, "a society in which lynching is still reserved, at least subconsciously, as a means of social control" (98). But this "unresolved" conclusion cannot support the narrator's vision of what the society ought to be and so, after a brief comment that again deprecates Luna's efforts at racial understanding ("A very straight, clear-eyed, coolly observant young woman with no talent for existing outside her own skin" [99]), she offers "Imaginary Knowledge," an alternative ending. In this version, she depicts Freddie and Luna engaging in a night-long conversation about their lives and the rape. Importantly, she focuses on Freddie's coming to the North as an "exhibit" of what southern oppression had done to black men. When he has done his part at a fund-raiser, he is abandoned by both his black and white sponsors, who clearly want nothing to do with his real life. After Freddie has described this situation, this ending stops with the comment that it would now be Luna's turn to talk and that she needed to understand the rape and her response to it. But this conversation is never presented, though in some sense it would seem to be the key to the story.

Instead of granting voice to Freddie and Luna about their central experience, the narrator turns to a "Postscript" that undermines what has just been offered. In Cuba, the narrator tells the story, but her listener objects that she has been unable to imagine true evil. He speculates that Freddie was a government agent paid to disrupt the civil rights movement by acts of sexual violence. Though the narrator seeks to qualify this scenario, she clearly is attracted by it. By positioning it as the actual conclusion to the narrative, she grants it considerable authority. In this sense, what began as an attempt to understand a crucial aspect of the sexual-racial dynamic of the South and the movement becomes a political commentary far removed from its beginnings. The narrator is ultimately concerned with the ideological underpinnings of her story rather than with the people and experiences of the South. Freddie Pye, as an emblem of the southern folk, is cast either as the Pathetic Victim of southern oppression and northern exploitation or as the Dark Villain, much like the black beast of racist imagination. He is, in other words, Art.

In "The Black Writer and the Southern Experience," Walker says, "In large measure, black Southern writers owe their clarity of vision to parents who refused to diminish themselves as human beings by succumbing to racism" (19). Ironically, what we see in her fiction of the civil rights movement is a focus on the individual, especially the modern individual, alienated from the folk in some way, whether through media, representation, education, guilt, or artistic impulse. The attraction to the people is consistently motivated by some private need, and when that need is met, the folk become irrelevant. Black southern life is primarily an aesthetic idea and ideal by which to measure those who are doing the truly important work in life, struggling for virtue and justice within modern consciousness. Unlike Ernest Gaines, who also writes of the South and the movement of the mid-twentieth century, as an artist Alice Walker is not particularly interested in the complexities of southern people or the social movements of the region. Rather, she sees them as a means to explore current issues of gender and power. She generates sympathy or antipathy about them depending on the requirements of ideology and modern character development. Like her character Lynne, Walker as author sees black folk as Art; unlike that character, however, she does not acknowledge her aesthetic hegemony.

Notes

  1. For other interpretations of Walker's views on the South and civil rights, see Butler (two articles), Daly, Donaldson, Ensslen, Hall, and Manvi.
  2. On interracial friendships in Meridian, see Jones and Porter.

Works Cited

Butler, Robert James. "Alice Walker's Vision of the South in The Third Life of Grange Copeland." African-American Review 27.2 (1993): 195-204.

——. "Visions of Southern Life and Religion in O'Connor's Wise Blood and Walker's The Third Life of Grange Copeland." College Language Association Journal 36.4 (1993): 349-70.

Butler-Evans, Elliott. "History and Genealogy in Walker's The Third Life of Grange Copeland and Meridian." Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and K. A. Appiah. New York: Amistad, 1993. 105-25.

Callahan, John F. "The Hoop of Language: Politics and the Restoration of Voice in Meridian." Alice Walker: Modern Critical Views. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. 153-84.

Daly, Brenda O. "Teaching Alice Walker's Meridian: Civil Rights According to Mothers." Narrating Mothers: Theorizing Maternal Subjectivities. Ed. Brenda O. Daly and Maureen T. Reddy. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1991. 239-57.

Donaldson, Susan. "Alice Walker's Meridian, Feminism, and the 'Movement.'" Women's Studies 16.3-4 (1989): 317-30.

Ensslen, Klaus. "Collective Experience and Individual Responsibility: Alice Walker's The Third Life of Grange Copeland." The Afro-American Novel Since 1960. Ed. Peter Bruck and Wolfgang Karrer. Amsterdam: Gruner, 1982. 189-218.

Frederickson, George M. The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914. New York: Harper, 1971.

Hall, Christine. "Art, Action and the Ancestors: Alice Walker's Meridian in Its Context." Black Women's Writing. Ed. Gina Wisker. New York: St. Martin's, 1993. 96-110.

Jones, Suzanne W. "Dismantling Stereotypes: Interracial Friendships in Meridian and A Mother and Two Daughters." The Female Tradition in Southern Literature. Ed. Carol S. Manning. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1993. 140-57.

Manvi, Meera. "The Second Reconstruction and the Southern Writer: Alice Walker and William Kelley." Literature and Politics in Twentieth Century America. Ed. J. L. Plakkoottam and Prashant K. Sinha. Hyderabad: American Studies Research Centre, 1993. 92-98.

McKay, Nellie Y. "Alice Walker's 'Advancing Luna—and Ida B. Wells': A Struggle Toward Sisterhood." Rape and Representation. Ed. Lynn A. Higgins and Brenda R. Silver. New York: Columbia UP, 1991. 248-60.

Porter, Nancy. "Women's Interracial Friendships and Visions of Community in Meridian, The Salt Eaters, Civil Wars, and Dessa Rose." Tradition and the Talents of Women. Ed. Florence Howe. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1991. 251-67.

Walker, Alice. "Advancing Luna—and Ida B. Wells." You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981. 85-104.

——. "The Black Writer and the Southern Experience." In Search of Our Mothers Gardens. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983. 16-21.

——. Meridian. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.

——. The Third Life of Grange Copeland. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970.

"Everyday Use"

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on June 12, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5503

"Everyday Use"

BARBARA T. CHRISTIAN (ESSAY DATE 1994)

SOURCE: Christian, Barbara T. Introduction to “Everyday Use”: Alice Walker, edited by Barbara T. Christian, pp. 3-17. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1994.

In the following essay, Christian investigates Walker’s use of the quilt metaphor in her fiction—especially in Walker’s story “Everyday Use”—and underscores the role of quilting in African American literature and African women’s culture.

Although Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use ” was published in 1973, in the early phase of her writing career, it is a cornerstone in her large and distinguished opus—one that consists, to date, of five novels, five volumes of poetry, two essay collections, two children’s books, and two short-story collections. For it is in this story and in her classic essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens ” (1974) that Walker first articulates the metaphor of quilting to represent the creative legacy that African Americans have inherited from their maternal ancestors. Walker’s exploration of that metaphor is not only an abiding contribution to African American literature, as well as to American women’s culture, it is also the basis of the forms she has used in her works, especially in her novels, including The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Color Purple (1982), and her most recent, Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992).

During the twenty years since this story was published, critics have explored the quilt as the major metaphor in Walker’s works. In Black Women Novelists, The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976 (1980), I called Walker’s first two novels “quilts” and named the chapter on these works “Novels for Everyday Use.”1 In “Alice Walker: The Black Woman Artist as Wayward” (1981), reprinted in this volume [“Everyday Use”: Alice Walker], “Everyday Use ” is pivotal to my reading of Walker. Houston Baker and Charlotte Pierce Baker critique my analysis of the quilt motif in African American culture and in “Everyday Use ” in their essay, “Patches: Quilts and Community in Alice Walker’s ‘Everyday Use’” (1985), also reprinted here.

In the 1980s, partially inspired by Walker’s works, many studies, including those by cultural and feminist critics such as Elaine Showalter, explored the relationship between the quilt as metaphor and American literature and culture. In her book Sister’s Choice, named after Walker’s name for Celie’s quilt in The Color Purple , Showalter investigates the history of the quilt in relation to American culture, ranging from nineteenth-century women’s literature to the AIDS Quilt so important in contemporary culture.

African American women writing today have also responded to Walker’s metaphor of the quilt as an articulation of women’s culture, notably Toni Morrison in Beloved in her subtle use of the orange piece in the quilt that Baby Suggs looks to for color,2 and Gloria Naylor in Mama Day in her dramatization of the construction by the “matriarch,” Mama Day, of her quilt as the history of her family and community.3 In her essay, “Sister’s Choice: Quilting Aesthetics in Contemporary African American Women’s Fiction,” included in this volume, Margot Anne Kelley traces that motif in the novels of Walker, Morrison, and Naylor.4 Even a popular magazine, Newsweek, has acknowledged the importance of the quilt in its articles on African American writers, as, for example, in Margo Jefferson’s review of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.5

In her essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, ” published in 1974 before the rise of Cultural Studies, Walker celebrates the creative legacy, symbolized by the quilt that women like her mother had bestowed on her and other contemporary black women writers. In this essay, Walker searches for literary models of her own, as Virginia Woolf does in A Room of One’s Own. Instead of analyzing the reasons why women had not created great art, as Woolf—an upper-class British white woman—does, Walker wonders whether, instead of looking for a clearly defined African American female tradition of ‘art,’ perhaps we should look for the female folk creativity that sustained our maternal ancestors. When she looks “low,” Walker finds quilts like the one she saw in the Smithsonian Institution, composed by an “anonymous black woman” who lived in an almost invisible past, yet who created a work of art valued for its passion and imagination. What Walker, a contemporary black woman writer, stresses in her appreciation of such examples of the creativity of nearly anonymous black Southern women like her mother is their ability to devise something beautiful and functional out of throwaways, from what the society considers to be waste. “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens ” beautifully complements Walker’s short story “Everyday Use .” In both pieces she uses the metaphor of the quilt to represent the pivotal role Southern black women played in the development of African American culture. The ability to transform nothing into something, central to these women’s creativity, is the critical theme of “Everyday Use .”

In “Everyday Use ,” as in “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens ,” Walker alludes to the process of quilting as a basis for “high art.” Walker’s own literary process is, in fact, developed on that model of quilting, for she consistently stitches together short units in patterns of recurring imagery to create her novels, the first three in particular: The Third Life of Grange Copeland her patchwork quilt,6 Meridian her crazy quilt,7 and The Color Purple her sister quilt.

In The Third Life of Grange Copeland , Walker uses the novel form to explore the complexities of the relationships between poverty, racism, and gender oppression in the life of a black Southern sharecropping family, the Copelands. More generally, Walker confronts the question of how to change the destructive pattern comprising the lives of many black sharecroppers to a pattern of creativity and wholeness.8 In Grange Copeland she demonstrates the ways in which the oppression the men face sometimes results in cruelty to wives and the destruction of children. In the first part of the novel, Walker graphically lays out the bleak pattern of life for Grange, the father, who comes to hate the white man so much he has no space to love his own family. In the second part, Grange’s son Brownfield repeats that same pattern of despair, resulting in his murder of Mem, his wife. But in the third part of the novel, Grange, now a grandfather, is able to change the motifs in the pattern that had made up the quilt of his life. He learns, in his third life, that the possibility of “surviving whole” resides not in his hatred of whites but in his love for his granddaughter, Ruth, his reverence for the land, and his African American Southern heritage.

In Meridian , published in 1976, two years after “Everyday Use ,” Walker improvises more freely to create a crazy quilt, juxtaposing the histories of Southern blacks and Native Americans, and the motifs of violence throughout American history as well as in the decade of the 1960s, with the life of Meridian, an “ordinary lower middle class Southern woman.” At first the quilt of change she constructs seems incoherent, but by arranging a pattern of patches for Meridian’s growing up (one being the way in which girls are made to feel that their only goal is to be biological mothers) in apparently random relationship to patches evoking the collective, often violent history of the sixties (with the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.), Walker in fact creates a quilt of the Civil Rights Movement. As she focuses on the Movement’s refusal to violate life and extends its philosophy of non-violence to include the nurturing of life, she creates a pattern that suggests a quality usually ascribed to mothers as central to all those who would be revolutionaries.

Walker employs another pattern of quilting in The Color Purple to embody the history and culture of women, for the entire novel is written as a series of letters, a form which feminist historians have found to be a major source of women’s history. Walker’s composition of a quilt of sisterhood is signalled in the novel by her choice of the name “Sister’s Choice” for the quilt her central character, Celie, is stitching.

Walker’s choice of these various quilting techniques for her three novels is related to the project she proposed for herself in the early 1970s. In her interview in 1973 with critic Mary Helen Washington, Walker described the three “cycles” of black women that she was about to explore in the early seventies. The first type of black woman character Walker felt was missing from pre-1970s American literature were those “who were cruelly exploited, spirits and bodies mutilated, relegated to the most narrow and confining lives, sometimes driven to madness”—a succinct description of the Copeland women in Walker’s first novel as well as of many of the young protagonists of In Love and Trouble . The women of Walker’s second cycle are those who are not so much physically abused as they are psychically conflicted as a result of wanting to be part of mainstream American life—for example, Walker’s sister in the poem “For My Sister Molly Who in the Fifties ” (reprinted in this volume), or early twentieth-century writers Nella Larsen and Zora Neale Hurston, who suffered from “contrary instincts” in their need to be recognized as “real” writers in order to express themselves and their people. In Walker’s third cycle are those black women who come to a new consciousness about their right to be themselves and to shape the world. The title character in Walker’s second novel Meridian is a woman who moves in that direction, but who suffers from the restrictions imposed by the world in which she lives. Thus Meridian’s need to be a part of a Movement, a struggle for change. It is Celie, Shug, and Sophia in Walker’s third novel, The Color Purple , as well as some of the women in her second collection of stories, You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down (1981), who achieve the wholeness of Walker’s third cycle of women. Yet, while most of the third-cycle women appear in works published after In Love and Trouble , there are some older women in Walker’s early fiction, Washington notes, who are clearly and completely themselves.

As early as 1973, in “Everyday Use, ” Walker presents women of all three cycles. Maggie is the scarred sister who does not know her own worth. Her mother tells us that she walks like “a lame animal, perhaps a dog run over by some careless person rich enough to own a car.” In contrast to Maggie, Dee is very much like the women of Walker’s second cycle. It is true that she does not want to assimilate into white society, and that at first glance she appears to have a sense of her own selfhood. Yet it is clear from her mother’s description of her growing up that she detests her family and her people’s past—until it is fashionable to appreciate them. While her mother is, from time to time, fascinated by Dee’s desire to win in the world, Mrs. Johnson understands Maggie’s value and her love for her family, and she is critical of Dee’s denigration of her past. As someone who understands herself, her right to be herself, Mrs. Johnson is one of those older women in Walker’s fiction who prefigures the women of the third cycle she would so beautifully portray in The Color Purple . And it is significant that in “Everyday Use ” it is the older mother figure, a woman who must have learned much about her own worth from her grandma Dee, who passes on that tradition of self-hood to the scarred black women of Walker’s first cycle.

“Everyday Use ” is also critical to Walker’s work in that it is the pivotal story in her first short-story collection, In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women (1973). As its title indicates, this book placed African American women’s voices at the center of the narrative, an unusual position at that time. The Third Life of Grange Copeland , Walker’s first book of fiction, is told primarily from the point of view of Southern black men, but the stories in Walker’s next publication, In Love and Trouble , are narrated from the point of view of women. In Love and Trouble is linked to The Third Life of Grange Copeland because the Copeland women, Margaret and Mem, like the younger protagonists of the short stories, are very much “in trouble.” Thus, In Love and Trouble represents an important shift in Walker’s work: from then on, women will occupy the center of her narratives. In one of her first interviews (with John O’Brien, included in this volume), Walker tells us that she is “preoccupied with the spiritual survival, the survival whole of [her] people,” and that she is “committed to exploring the oppressions, the insanities, the loyalties, and the triumphs of black women.”

Most reviewers of In Love and Trouble were aware of the distinctly new emphasis Walker placed on African American women. Barbara Smith, in her review in Ms., was exuberant about Walker’s ability to “explore with honesty the texture and terrors of black women’s lives.”9 Mel Watkins, in The New York Times Book Review, characterized these stories as “perspective minatures, snapshorts that capture their subjects at crucial and revealing moments”10 —qualities seldom found at that time in writings about African American women. Still, few reviewers were then aware of the importance “Everyday Use ” would have in Walker’s opus, either as a harbinger of the importance of the quilt in her work or as a new beginning in the creation of African American Southern women as subjects in their own right.

Walker’s attention to black women’s voices in In Love and Trouble is especially significant in that perhaps for the first time in contemporary United States literary history, a writer featured a variety of Southern black women’s perspectives. In so doing, Walker had to confront the variety of stereotypes which had shaped earlier accounts of black Southern women. Walker was certainly aware of the traditional stereotypes of “the mammy” and “the wench” that had developed during slavery, for these stereotypes continued to have currency in twentieth-century American culture.11 No doubt, she was also aware of the ways in which these stereotypes had become standard in American literature, a conspicuous example being William Faulkner’s portrait of Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury (1929). A descendant of the historical representation of slave mammies, Dilsey has little life outside of the terrain of her employers, the Compsons. She has no black context, little family or life of her own, and exists only to enhance her white folks’ lives. So incensed was Walker by this character that she called the portrayal of Dilsey, in one of her interviews, an “embarrassment” to black people.12

But Walker not only had to contend with American white authors’ constructions of Southern black women, she had to revise African American men’s representations of these women. She clearly appreciated Jean Toomer’s haunting portraits of African American Southern women’s sexuality in his masterpiece, Cane (1923), for she named her second novel, Meridian (1976), after Toomer’s “The Blue Meridian” (1933), his prophetic poem about women and men, the earth and survival. Yet Toomer’s women are silent, their sense of themselves and their condition interpreted by a male narrator.

Walker did discover a writer who allowed her Southern black women to speak. While writing “The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff ,” another story in In Love and Trouble , Walker accidently came upon the works of Zora Neale Hurston, another black Southern woman writer, who, in 1937, published Their Eyes Were Watching God, a novel which emphasized a Southern black woman’s search for her own voice. In one of her later essays, Walker tells us that “There is no book more important to me than this one (including Toomer’s Cane, which comes close, but from what I recognize is a more perilous direction).”13 Hurston’s works were to inspire Walker, not only because of their use of black folk English, which clearly influenced Walker’s use of black folk English in The Color Purple , but also because of Hurston’s abiding respect for Southern black folk. Understanding the importance of Hurston’s legacy to American literature, Alice Walker would be a major force in the rediscovery of her maternal ancestor’s works, to the extent that today, in significant measure because of her efforts, Hurston is considered a great American writer.14 Walker’s discovery of Hurston and the inspiration she drew from her literary maternal ancestor exemplifies the critical role models play in the development of young writers, as well as the importance of passing on the literary tradition of black people in educational institutions.

Walker’s first collection of short stories was not only influenced by past stereotypes of black women in American literature, it was also very much affected by the present within which she was living. “Everyday Use ” is, in part, Walker’s response to the concept of heritage as articulated by the black movements of the 1960s. In that period, many African Americans, disappointed by the failure of integration, gravitated to the philosophy of cultural nationalism as the means to achieve liberation. In contrast to the veneration of Western ideas and ideals by many integrationists of the 1950s, Black Power ideologues emphasized the African cultural past as the true heritage of African Americans. The acknowledgment and appreciation of that heritage, which had too often been denigrated by African Americans themselves as well as by Euro-Americans, was a major tenet of the revolutionary movements of the period. Many blacks affirmed their African roots by changing their “slave names” to African names, and by wearing Afro hair styles and African clothing. Yet, ideologues of the period also lambasted older African Americans, opposing them to the lofty mythical models of the ancient past. These older men and women, they claimed, had become Uncle Toms and Aunt Jemimas who displayed little awareness of their culture and who, as a result of the slave past, had internalized the white man’s view of blacks. So while these 1960s ideologues extolled an unknown ancient history, they denigrated the known and recent past. The tendency to idealize an ancient African past while ignoring the recent African American past still persists in the Afrocentric movements of the 1990s.

In contrast to that tendency, Walker’s “Everyday Use ” is dedicated to “your grandmama.” And the story is told by a woman many African Americans would recognize as their grandmama, that supposedly backward Southern ancestor the cultural nationalists of the North probably visited during the summers of their youth and probably considered behind the times. Walker stresses those physical qualities which suggest such a person, qualities often demeaned by cultural nationalists. For this grandmama, like the stereotypical mammy of slavery, is “a large big-boned woman with rough, manworking hands,” who wears “flannel nightgowns to bed and overalls during the day,” and whose “fat keeps [her] hot in zero weather.” Nor is this grandmama politically conscious according to the fashion of the day: she never had an education after the second grade, she knows nothing about African names, and she eats pork. In having the grandmama tell this story, Walker gives voice to an entire maternal ancestry often silenced by the political rhetoric of the period. Indeed, Walker tells us in “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens ” that her writing is part of her mother’s legacy to her, that many of her stories are based on stories her mother told her. Thus, Walker’s writing is her way of breaking silences and stereotypes about her grandmothers’, mothers’, sisters’ lives. In effect, her work is a literary continuation of a distinctly oral tradition in which African American women have been and still are pivotal participants.

Other African American women writers have also been aware of the ways in which the cultural nationalist rhetoric attempted to erase the importance of these ancestors. Toni Cade Bambara in her short story “My Man Bovanne,” published in the early seventies, also critiques the demeaning of older black women.15 Bambara’s story, however, takes place in the urban North, rather than the rural South, and her character, Hazel, is a decidedly urban woman. In contrast, Walker’s story emphasizes the rural Southern roots of African American heritage.

Mrs. Johnson, Walker’s grandmama, typifies the elder protagonists in In Love and Trouble . Southern contentions about family, community, the general society, even their conscious understanding of who they should be, hem them in. But, denying the passive images of Southern black women accepted by our society, these women actively seek to be themselves; they are often, therefore, in conflict with social restrictions rooted in racist and sexist ideologies and may appear crazed or at least contrary. Walker underlines these internal conflicts by introducing In Love and Trouble with quotations from two seemingly unrelated figures: the west African writer Elechi Amadi and the early twentieth-century German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Both excerpts stress that “everything in nature grows and defends itself in its own way,” and “is characteristically and spontaneously itself,” against all opposition. In using an excerpt from a West African writer about the restrictions imposed on a young girl, as well as an excerpt from a European writer, Walker challenges the stereotypes of women, especially of older women within black societies, as well as the racism these women must confront within white societies. When Mrs. Johnson yanks the old quilts away from Dee/Wangero, the seemingly educated and politically correct daughter, and gives them to Maggie, the scarred and supposedly backward daughter who would put them to everyday use, she might appear unreasonable or contrary.16 Yet her act is in keeping with her own knowledge of the meaning of the quilts, the spirit that they embody, and her need to make decisions based upon her own values.

Alice Walker is well aware of the restrictions of the African American Southern past, for she is the eighth child of Georgia sharecroppers. Born in 1944, she grew up during that period when, as she put it, apartheid existed in America.17 For in the 1940s and 1950s, when segregation was the law of the South, opportunities for economic and social advancement were legally denied to Southern blacks. Walker was fortunate to come to adulthood during the social and political movements of the late fifties and sixties. Of her siblings, only she, and a slightly older sister, Molly, were able even to imagine the possibility of moving beyond the poverty of their parents. It is unlikely that Alice Walker would have been able to go to college—first at Spelman, the African American woman’s college in Atlanta, and then at Sarah Lawrence, the white woman’s college near New York City—if it had not been for the changes that came about as a result of the Civil Rights Movement. Nor is it likely that she, a Southern black woman from a poor family, would have been able to become the writer that she did without the changes resulting from the ferment of the Black and Women’s movements of the 1960s and early 1970s.

While Walker was a participant in these movements, she was also one of their most astute critics. As a Southerner, she was aware of the ways in which black Southern culture was often thought of as backward by predominantly Northern Black Power ideologues, even as they proclaimed their love for black people. She was also acutely aware of the ways in which women were oppressed within the Black Power Movement itself, even as the very culture its participants revered was so often passed on by women. Walker had also visited Africa during her junior year of college and had personally experienced the gap between the Black Power advocates’ idealization of Africa and the reality of the African societies she visited.

One of Walker’s distinctive qualities as a writer is the way she plays on one idea in different modes, in much the same way that a musical idea in jazz is explored through different instruments. Walker’s instruments are literary genres: the poem, the short story, the essay, the novel. Her first publication, a book of poetry called Once (1968), criticizes the uses the Black Power Movement made of Africa, particularly the movement’s tendency to turn Africans into artifacts, an objection she develops in her third novel, The Color Purple , and in her fifth novel, Possessing the Secret of Joy . Ironically, the name given to Walker by Africans during her trip there was Wangero, a name she uses for herself in Once and for the educated sister in “Everyday Use .”

Names are extremely important in African and African American culture as a means of indicating a person’s spirit. During the 1960s Walker criticized the tendency among some African Americans to give up the names their parents gave them—names which embodied the history of their recent past—for African names that did not relate to a single person they knew. Hence the grandmama in “Everyday Use ” is amazed that Dee would give up her name for the name Wangero. For Dee was the name of her great-grandmother, a woman who had kept her family together against great odds. Wangero might have sounded authentically African but it had no relationship to a person she knew, nor to the personal history that had sustained her.

Walker has always been concerned with the ways in which artifacts of the African American past are celebrated by black political ideologues while the people who created them are not—a theme she develops in many of the short stories in In Love and Trouble . Perhaps that volume’s most succinct expression of the theme is “Everyday Use .” She would continue to explore the same theme in her later work. For example, the grand-mama in “Everyday Use ” has many qualities in common with Gracie Mae Stills, the blues singer in Walker’s short story “1955 ,” published eight years later in the volume You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down . Both women appear to be traditional mammy figures, but they are in fact the creators and guardians of the culture. By contrast, the young Celie in The Color Purple is in many ways like the scarred sister, Maggie, in “Everyday Use ,” but, as Thadious Davis notes in an essay included in this volume, Celie, created some ten years later, is able to acquire her own voice.

In “Everyday Use ,” by contrasting a sister who has the opportunity to go to college with a sister who stays at home, Walker reminds us of the challenges that contemporary African American women face as they discover what it means to be truly educated. The same concern appears in many of her works. For example, in “For My Sister Molly Who in the Fifties ,” she explores the conflicts that can result from an education that takes a woman away from her cultural source. Like Molly, Dee/Wangero in “Everyday Use ” is embarrassed by her folk. She has been to the North, wears an Afro, and knows the correct political rhetoric of the 1960s, but she has little regard for her relatives who have helped to create that heritage. Thus, she does not know how to quilt and can only conceive of her family’s quilts as priceless artifacts, as things, which she intends to hang on her wall as a means of demonstrating to others that she has “heritage.” On the other hand, Maggie, the supposedly uneducated sister, who has been nowhere beyond the supposedly uneducated black South, loves and understands her family and can appreciate its history. She knows how to quilt and would put the precious quilts to “everyday use,” which is precisely what, Walker suggests, one needs to do with one’s heritage. For Maggie, the quilts are an embodiment of the spirit her folk have passed on to her.

It is worth noting that Walker, in interviews as well as in her dedication to In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens , refers to herself as scarred, perhaps because of the tragedy she endured at the age of eight when her brother accidently shot her with a BB gun and left her blind in one eye.18 The two sisters in “Everyday Use ,” then, are related to different aspects of Walker’s own personal experience as an African American woman scarred by the poverty of her origins, and as a African American woman whose awareness of the richness of the culture of her origins causes her to question the meaning of her education in prestigious American colleges.

Because Walker came from a background of poverty and social restriction, she also experienced first hand those values through which the grand-mama and Maggie transformed the little they had into much more, so that they might survive. As important, Walker understood that poor people needed beauty in their lives and went to great lengths to create it. Although Walker’s mother worked long hours in the fields and as a domestic, she cultivated beautiful gardens, artfully told stories, and created beautiful, functional quilts out of scraps. In creating beauty in the media available to them, Walker’s mother and other “ordinary” African American women not usually considered artists were, in face, models of creativity for young African American women who now have the opportunity to become artists.

In Alice Walker’s works, from Once (1968) to Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992), the pieces of the ancestors’ quilts continue to be restitched. As the essays in this volume suggest, the figure of this older African American woman who knows the patterns of the past and therefore knows how to stitch together patterns for the future—a perspective first enunciated in “Everyday Use ”—is central to our understanding of African American culture as well as that culture we call American. While there are differences between the patterns of African American quilts and those of other American women, as Margot Kelly’s essay delineates, there are also the powerful similarities between these apparently disparate cultures, as Elaine Showalter points out. Without question, a significant number of American writings published in the last decade have illuminated ways in which “ordinary” Americans used female folk creations to articulate distinct American cultures. In that same decade, more and more American writings are focussed on women’s voices, women as subjects. By emphasizing the power and variety of African American women’s voices, Walker forecast the primary focus of an entire generation of African American women writers, who, in the 1970s and 1980s, published more fiction than they ever had, fiction in which they consistently constructed themselves as major actors in the world. Walker’s literary works and the wisdom she exhibited in articulating the legacy of African American female creativity symbolized by the quilt helped bring about this significant development in American literature.

Notes

1. Barbara T. Christian, “Novels for Everyday Use,” in Black Women Novelists, the Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1980), pp. 180-238.

2. Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987).

3. Gloria Naylor, Mama Day (New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1988).

4. Margot Anne Kelley, “Quilting Aesthetics in Contemporary African-American Women’s Fiction,” in Quilt and Metaphor, ed. Judy Elsley and Cheryl Torsney (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, forthcoming). It appears for the first time in this volume.

5. Margo Jefferson, “Across the Barricades” Newsweek 87, (31 May 1976): 71-72.

6. Claudia Tate, “Interview with Alice Walker,” in Black Women Writers at Work, ed. Claudia Tate (New York: Continuum, 1983), pp. 175-187.

7. Tate, “Interview with Alice Walker.”

8. See Barbara T. Christian, “Novels for Everyday Use,” in Black Women Novelists.

9. Barbara Smith, “The Souls of Black Women,” Ms. 2 (February 1974): 42.

10. Mel Watkins, The New York Times Book Review 123, #42, Section 1 (17 March 1974): 40-41.

11. See, for example, Barbara T. Christian, “Shadows Uplifted,” in Black Women Novelists, pp. 1-34.

12. Alice Walker, “Alice Walker and The Color Purple,” BBC production, 1986.

13. Alice Walker, “Zora Neale Hurston: A Cautionary Tale,” introduction to I Love Myself When I’m Laughing … And Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader (Old Westbury, New York: Feminist Press, 1979).

14. See Alice Walker, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” Ms. 2, no. 11 (March 1975).

15. See Toni Cade, “My Man Bovanne,” Gorilla My Love: Short Stories (New York: Random House, 1972).

16. See Barbara Christian, “The Contrary Women of Alice Walker,” The Black Scholar (March-April 1981): 21-30.

17. For a succinct biography of Alice Walker, see Barbara T. Christian, “Alice Walker,” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 33: Afro-American Fiction Writers After 1955, ed. Thadious Davis and Trudier Harris (Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1984), pp. 257-270.

18. Alice Walker, dedication to In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983). The dedication reads: “To My Daughter Rebecca / Who saw in me / what I considered / a scar / And redefined it / as / a world.”

The Color Purple

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3587

WINIFRED MORGAN (ESSAY DATE 1997)

SOURCE: Morgan, Winifred. "Alice Walker: The Color Purple as Allegory." In Southern Writers at Century's End, edited by Jeffrey J. Folks and James A. Perkins, pp. 177-84. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1997.

In the following essay, Morgan discusses The Color Purple as an allegory that represents the traditional gender role of women as constituting slavery.

Since the 1982 publication of The Color Purple, Alice Walker has continued to publish essays, poetry, and fiction. She has also maintained a high profile in news media for her role in spearheading a campaign against the primarily African practice of female genital mutilation, clitorectomy. Regardless of these accomplishments, Walker remains best known for The Color Purple. Since its publication, buoyed up by the enthusiastic support of feminists and black studies departments, the novel has enjoyed considerable success. This was true both before and after Stephen Spielberg's cinematic revisioning of the novel.1 Walker's novel certainly has appealing qualities which generally sell—strongly drawn characters, a sense that these characters embody the experience of many people, memorable contrasts between the oppressors and oppressed, a downtrodden central character who overcomes both horrendous abuse and deprivation to bloom into a strong person, and, above all, an optimistic, some say a fairy-tale, ending.

Whether they praise or condemn the novel, few readers react with less than passion to Alice Walker's The Color Purple. The considerable critical disagreement which has developed about the novel reflects these emotional responses. Beginning with the novel's publication and continuing through the 1985 premiere of the film version, one group of reviewers and critics has lavished praise even as others have questioned both the novel's and the film's artistic validity, particularly their verisimilitude, and their depiction of black men.2

From the first reviews to the most current criticism, writers have analyzed, adulated, and excoriated the novel's structure. A number of scholars, with a glance toward Terry Eagleton's comments on the epistolary novel in The Rape of Clarissa, have concentrated on Walker's use of letters. Most (for example, Gates) find the choice fortuitous, allowing Walker to move beyond the limitations of first-person narration while still encouraging readers to identify with the central character. Most critics also find Nettie's letters the least satisfying part of the novel.3 A few critics (for example, Katz and Heraldson, in Bloom) enjoy the use Walker makes of this inherently didactic form usually associated with eighteenth-century tomes. They believe that Walker uses this traditional, even old-fashioned form, to overturn expectations of traditional social structures.

Still other writers have placed the novel in the existential tradition (Christophe) and that of the parable (Scholl). Yet the most obvious tradition that the novel belongs to beyond that of the epistolary novel is that of the slave narrative. The common narrative pattern encountered in slave narratives—an innately good, morally superior person is unjustly confined and maltreated by a corrupt individual; through heroic efforts, the victim escapes and lives to tell the tale and to work against the evil institution—continues to influence African-American literature almost a century and a half after the legal abolition of chattel slavery in the United States.4 In fact, Walker's echoing of that form5 accounts for a good deal of the angry reaction to the novel since black men, accustomed to seeing themselves vindicated in African-American literature, encounter little vindication in this novel.

Although critics have made much of the tie between The Color Purple and the slave-narrative tradition, concentrating on the similarities between the form of this novel and that of slave narratives may distract critics from the novel's allegorical possibilities, what Hernton refers to an "ironic analogy" between racism and sexism. A traditional definition reminds students that allegory is

a form of extended METAPHOR in which objects, persons and actions in a NARRATIVE are equated with meanings that lie outside the NARRATIVE itself.… Allegory attempts to evoke a dual interest, one in the events, characters, and settings presented, and the other in the ideas they are intended to convey or the significance they bear. The characters, events, and settings may be historical, fictitious, or fabulous; the test is that these materials be so employed that they represent meanings independent of the action described in the surface story.

[Harmon and Holman 12; my italics in the last clause]

With this novel, Alice Walker joins other late-twentieth-century feminists in building up, and on, an allegorical construct which personifies the traditional gender roles of woman as constituting slavery.6 In fact, Kathleen Barry even equates domestic abuse and incest with slavery: "Female sexual slavery is present in ALL situations where women or girls cannot change the immediate conditions of their existence; where regardless of how they got into those conditions they cannot get out; and where they are subject to sexual violence and exploitation" (40; Barry's italics and caps).

Not only does the novel play upon the form of traditional slave narratives, as an allegory The Color Purple provides a devastating critique not only of racism but also of the sexism that has doubled the burden of those women whom Zora Neale Hurston has one of her characters call the "mules of men."7 Furthermore, the novel speaks against all forms of oppression. Readers do not have to be poor, black, ugly, unable to cook, or female to feel its central character's plight.

A striking allegorical representation of a kind of continuing slavery occurs in The Color Purple. Unnerving similarities exist between Celie's twentieth-century existence in the early part of the novel and that of her slave ancestors and other black women's lives under slavery. Before the novel opens, Celie's birthright has been stolen as her stepfather, Alphonso, has usurped her inheritance. If, as a sage in one of the medieval Spanish ejemplos argues, stealing is "the greatest villainy," then that is what has been practiced against Celie. Not only has her stepfather taken over her inheritance, his physical and sexual abuse have almost obliterated her sense of self. Hence, when fourteen-year-old Celie attempts to write her first "letter to God," her second sentence begins with a false start as she crosses out "I am." The adolescent Celie's rape by the man she believes is her father parallels the rape of slave women whom plantation theory considered "children" of the patriarchal owner. In common with generations of slave women, Celie then has her infant daughter and son taken from her. Her stepfather tells her that they are dead when, in fact, he has given—perhaps sold—them to a childless couple.

Five or six years later, when he hopes to unleash his sexual abuse on her younger sister, Nettie, Alfonso connives to get rid of Celie by having a neighbor, Mr.—, a widower with four children, marry her. During their negotiations, Alfonso's description, "she ain't fresh," identifies Celie with milk-producing animals, and the way he makes her turn around for Mr.—to examine her body recalls the way slave women were bought and sold. Like them, Celie is handed on to Mr.—for reasons slave women were bought—their ability to endure hard physical labor and their potential as sexual objects.

In common with her ancestors, Celie is lied to and lied about. In fact, her stepfather tells Mr.—that "She tell lies" (10). Until Celie finally breaks loose from Mr.——whom she refuses to, perhaps dare not, call by his first name, Albert—she is almost constantly abused and intimidated by him. Celie spends her first day of married life fleeing Mr.—'s twelve-year-old son, who nonetheless manages to wound her in her head with the rock he throws at her. She then cooks dinner under primitive conditions and untangles the long-neglected hair of Mr.—'s little daughters. When night comes, she spends her time thinking about her sister, Nettie, and Shug Avery while Mr.—is "on top" (13) of her. Mr.—, it quickly turns out, is a brute who alternates between beating her and beating his children (22). Living with Mr.—'s brutality, Celie inures herself to maltreatment and tells herself she is a "tree" (22). "I don't say nothing.…What good it do? I don't fight, I stay where I'm told. But I'm alive" (21). Celie lacks power and skill. All she can do is survive and persevere. All she retains of ego is her "voice," and in the presence of her masters, that she keeps silent.

The stories of the other black women in the novel provide variations on Celie's story. They also serve as catalysts. As a matter of fact, from the first mention of Sophie twenty pages into the novel, Celie's existence starts to improve—if only because she has someone to talk to. The intersection of the other women's lives with that of Celie allows her for the first time to envision other possibilities. First Sophie, then Shug, but even Mary Agnes (Squeak) and Nettie move from being dominated to liberated. Each of them starts out "freer" than Celie, but none travels quite as far as she. As Shug comments to Mr.—'s brother, To-bias, "All women's not alike" (52).

The Color Purple looks at what the dynamics of power between men and women, and particularly between some black men and women, currently achieve. The novel finds them so appalling that they evoke the image of conditions under slavery. No other image has quite the same potential for inciting horror, repulsion, and anger among African-Americans. Having raised this dreadful specter and dramatized the similarities between slavery and patriarchy, the novel, in effect, asks, "Can men and women find 'another way' of dealing with one another? What might this new dynamic look like? How might it come about?" The novel then pictures a world in which such new relationships might unfold. The novel's allegory implies that if such changes and new relationships could occur in the life of the downtrodden, humanly almost obliterated Celie, surely a new life with different alternatives could be possible for anyone.

In a sense each person's life, even that of a single cell, recapitulates that of the entire race. Yet Celie's experience in the first two-thirds of Alice Walker's The Color Purple—until she leaves Mr.—and moves to Memphis with Shug and Grady—has such specific parallels with the experiences of slave women that the novel emerges as an allegory of the black woman's experience of slavery in America. Calvin Hernton labels the novel "an emulation of the slave narrative" (3). But as an allegory, and not merely a novel utilizing "a classical (primal) literary genre" (Hernton 3), the novel becomes an even stronger statement of the parallels between the domestic slavery found in some homes and marriages and the situation of black women under the system of chattel slavery existing in the United States before the Civil War. Although he never actually uses the word allegory, Hernton does interpret the novel as an allegory of patriarchy (13-14). Celie's declaration of independence from Mr.—contrasts with her earlier comment that "I don't fight.… But I'm alive" and echoes what is probably the best known epiphany found in the slave narrative genre, Douglass's insight into Covey's tyrannous reign (Douglass 81).8 When Celie turns on Mr.—and challenges him with the warning that "Anything you do to me, already done to you.…I'm pore, I'm black, I may be ugly and can't cook.…ButI'm here" (176), she changes her life dramatically. "What women want" is respect. But then that is what all human beings want and need. The ending of the novel projects "what might be" if men and women respected one another.

One wonders whether the novel's allegorical message helps to explain its popularity, which took even Walker by surprise. Readers respond to this novel at an emotional level, suggesting that something is influencing them at a subliminal as well as a conscious level. One explanation might be that in The Color Purple, Walker has written an apparently realistic novel that also functions as an allegory of the slave woman's experience. But since the story does not, after all, take place during slavery times, readers are left with the impression that for some black women, at least, their condition after slavery hardly changed. Orlando Patterson's definition of slavery resonates with a chilling familiarity when one thinks about Celie's situation at the opening of the novel. As Patterson explains, "on the level of personal relations … slavery is the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons" (13).9 Although not born a slave, as the novel opens, for all practical intents and purposes, Celie is a slave.

One has to ask "Why has the condition of women like Celie changed so little?" Many people respond that racism alone does not explain this fact. Both the excitement and the outrage that the novel has generated are understandable, even to be expected, when one realizes that inadvertently or not, the novel lends itself to an allegorical interpretation explicating the lives of many poor black women both during and after slave times. The fragmented, epistolary, almost inchoate early part of the novel also deflects readers from suspecting that Walker might be using a seemingly outdated technique like allegory. By setting the novel in the not-too-distant past, Walker makes clear that slavery did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation nor even with the end of the American Civil War. Nor—despite the novel's apparently happy ending—does slavery end until people grow into an appreciation of themselves within a human community. Celie's story starts in slavery but goes on to suggest not so much how slave women of the antebellum period could choose to be free (they could not) as how those who continue to suffer a kind of slavery might participate in their own emancipation.

The central narrative in The Color Purple certainly works as an allegory, and the allegorical nature of the novel may help to explain why critics delight in finding multiple interpretations. It mimics aspects of the slave-narrative pattern because it harks back to a defining experience in African-American culture: the unavoidable historical fact of chattel slavery. But Walker seems to use that experience as a foil or mirror, forcing her readers to acknowledge the equally formative experience of sexism under patriarchy.10

Unlike the "temptation" which C. S. Lewis warns readers to avoid lest they attend to an allegory's larger meaning to the detriment of its poetry, to find allegory in The Color Purple in no way encourages readers to attend to an intellectual abstraction or any other kind of construct in preference to the novel's verisimilitude. On the contrary, most readers are far more likely to get so caught up in the fiction's highly charged details that they ignore any larger significance. Yet, in fiction as in poetry, "the more concrete and vital the [work] is, the more hopelessly complicated it will become in analysis: but the imagination receives it as a simple—in both senses of the word" (Lewis 345).

Yet the critical reaction to The Color Purple illustrates that, however easy it is to summarize its plot, the novel is not simple. That Walker should have produced a work with allegorical overtones flows organically from her rural Southern upbringing in which the tradition of African-American religious music has always spoken symbolically. Allegory works through symbols, and as Don Cameron Allen reminds readers, symbols allow communication that is larger than simple reality. "It is also the nature of the symbol to communicate to others those intuitions which seize us" (Swann and Krupat 566). The emotional reaction to the novel seems to suggest that many readers have felt that it speaks to their intuitions. Allegory, according to Angus Fletcher, has been "omnipresent in Western literature" as long as there has been such an entity, and often the surface of an allegorical tale works perfectly well by itself but achieves greater depth with interpretation. In any case, allegory serves to get past defenses, to speak to those intuitions of which Allen speaks, intuitions that might otherwise be repressed.

By its nature allegory is open to interpretation. Since readers respond to a piece of literature and interpret it according to individual experiences, not surprisingly, contemporary readers do indeed find The Color Purple a "moral tale" as Walker originally subtitled the novel. While, of course, the novel reflects the experience of only a portion of black women, enough of them relate to the central character's vicissitudes that, for example, during the movie's showing in some theaters, black women's voices sang out their encouragement of Celie. On the one hand, many African-American women could reasonably interpret The Color Purple as an allegory of both the racial and sexual oppression that black women have endured during and since slavery. Many white women, on the other hand, respond to the novel as a "womanist" (with its emphasis on choosing a course of action rather than accepting one's fate as biologically predetermined) allegory. Anyone can read the novel as an allegory of every human being's need for respect.

The novel's most adamant critics have objected to its supposed lack of realism and what they insist are vicious stereotypes of black men. But if The Color Purple is allegorical, the criticism of the novel as a fairy tale or unrealistic or improbable loses some of its validity. The Color Purple is about reclaiming one's history, gifts, inheritance, language, skills, song, and voice—and thereby throwing off the yoke of slavery. Though the action in the early part of the novel closely parallels that of black women under slavery, the novel's conclusion has moved far beyond that. Questions both about whether it is unfair that some black men are depicted as violent and whether the story achieves adequate historical accuracy are beside the point. As an allegory, the novel does not have these as primary concerns. In any case, why cannot the story of a poor black woman's liberation also help to set free others of both sexes, all classes, and all races?

Notes

  1. The movie subtly alters and even subverts some of the novel's feminism, but that's another essay. As Jacqueline Bobo reminds readers, "the film is a commercial venture produced in Hollywood by a white male according to all of the tenets and conventions of commercial cultural production in the United States" ("Cultural Readers" 93).
  2. See, for example, Bartelme, Baumgaertner, Bovoso, Graham, Heyward, Hiers, Kelley, Pinckney, Prescott, Dinita Smith, Tickle, Towers, and Watkins.
  3. See, for example, Barbara Christian's comments in an early essay on Walker (in Evans 470).
  4. During the early 1990s, William L. Andrews led NEH Summer Seminars at the University of Kansas exploring how this tradition functions in African-American literature. I was fortunate to be part of the 1991 seminar.
  5. The assumption that The Color Purple echoes the slave narrative is so common as to be almost a truism. See, for example, Awkward and Hernton.
  6. This is, of course, hardly a new connection, since radical eighteenth-century feminists insisted on the same similarities. More recently, Kari Winter's Subjects of Slavery, Agents of Change delineates some of the parallel strategies utilized by women slave narrators and women writers of gothic fiction. Winter's book also carefully delineates the limits of the rhetoric linking women under slavery and other, for the most part, less harsh patriarchal forms of domination.
  7. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie's grandmother gives this warning to the still youthful, romantic central character.
  8. This is, of course, the section of Douglass's autobiography where he determines to fight back. In an extended brawl he beats the bully Covey; and years later, recalling his insight from that experience, Douglass muses that "I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me" (81).
  9. In David Brion Davis's explanation, "the slave has three defining characteristics: his [sic] person is the property of another man, his will is subject to his owner's authority, and his labor or services are obtained through coercion." Without irony, Davis goes on to note that "various writers have added that slavery must be 'beyond the limits of the family relations'"(31).
  10. Michael Awkward explores what he believes is Walker's conscious construction in The Color Purple ofatale about black women's creativity in order to counter false images developed over the years in the fiction of black men. Her portrayal, even if a "dream" or "utopian," nonetheless offers a picture of what a black community that had advanced beyond patriarchy might look like (163-64).

Further Reading

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 580

Bibliographies

Banks, Erma Davis, ed. Alice Walker, an annotated bibliography, 1968-1986. New York: Garland Pub., 1989, 210 p.

Offers an annotated bibliography.

Bow, Leslie. Alice Malsenior Walker: An Annotated Bibliography, 1968-1986, Westport, Conn.: Meckler, 1988, 162 p.

Provides an annotated bibliography.

Criticism

Barnett, Pamela E. "'Miscegenation,' Rape, and 'Race' in Alice Walker's Meridian." Southern Quarterly 39, no. 3 (spring 2001): 65-81.

Addresses the issue of interracial rape in Meridian and explores the repercussions of the issue on African American women in the novel and in American society.

Bradley, David. "Novelist Alice Walker Telling the Black Women's Story." New York Times Book Review (8 January 1984): 25-37.

An extensive biographical profile of Walker, interspersed with critical analyses of her work.

Callaloo 12, no. 12 (spring 1989).

Special issue devoted to Walker, with essays and reviews by Theodore O. Mason Jr., Joseph A. Brown, and Keith Byerman.

Dieke, Ikenna, ed. Critical Essays on Alice Walker. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999, 226 p.

Collection of critical essays.

Gourdine, Angeletta K. M. "Postmodern Ethnography and the Womanist Mission: Postcolonial Sensibilities in Possessing the Secret of Joy." African American Review 30, no. 2 (1996): 237-44.

Explores Possessing the Secret of Joy "as ethnographic, predicated upon and beholden to the legacy of Western anthropology's relationship to and conscription of Africa and blackwomen's bodies."

Pollitt, Katha. "Stretching the Short Story." New York Times Book Review (24 May 1981): 9, 15.

Praises Walker's willingness to explore controversial topics in You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down, but faults her perceived tendency to depict all black women as victims of racism and sexism.

Steinem, Gloria. "Alice Walker: Do You Know This Woman? She Knows You." In Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, pp. 259-75. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983.

Offers a feminist appreciation of Walker's literary career.

Washington, Mary Ellen. "An Essay on Alice Walker." In Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature, edited by Roseann P. Bell, Bettye J. Parker, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall, pp. 133-49. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1979.

Views Walker as an apologist and spokesperson for black women, and examines the author's preoccupation with her subject matter.

Viswanathan, Meera, and Evangelina Manickam. "Is Black Woman to White as Female Is to Male?: Restoring Alice Walker's Womanist Prose to the Heart of Feminist Literary Criticism." Indian Journal of American Studies 28, nos. 1-2 (winter-summer 1998): 15-20.

Discusses Walker as a black feminist and situates her feminist writings within the tradition of feminist literary criticism.

OTHER SOURCES FROM GALE:

Additional coverage of Walker's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: African-American Writers, Eds.1,2; American Writers Supplement, Vol. 3; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 3, 33; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography and Resources, Vol. 3; Bestsellers, Vol. 89:4; Black Literature Criticism; Black Writers, Eds. 2, 3; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1968-1988; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 37-40R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 9, 27, 49, 66, 82; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 5, 6, 9, 19, 27, 46, 58, 103, 167; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Popular Writers; Contemporary Southern Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 6, 33, 143; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied, Multicultural, Novelists, Poets, and Popular Writers; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Novels; Exploring Short Stories; Feminist Writers; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Modern American Women Writers; Novels for Students, Vol. 5; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 30; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 2, 11; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 5; Something about the Author, Vol. 31; Twayne's United States Authors; and World Literature Criticism Supplement.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial
Previous

Walker, Alice (Poetry Criticism)

Next

Walker, Alice (Vol. 103)