The Color Purple’s Publication and Reception History: The Color Purple immediately garnered high praise upon its publication in 1982. Alice Walker, who had already published two novels and a book of poetry, was praised for her portrayal of complex black women and for her skilled use of Black English vernacular. The novel won both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction in 1983. Despite its generally favorable critical reception, The Color Purple has been frequently banned for its portrayal of rape, incest, and violence. The novel has also been criticized for what some critics view as a stereotypical portrayal of black men. Nevertheless, the novel has been adapted into a film and a musical, and it remains an influential part of the American literary canon.
The Experiences of Black American Women: The Color Purple offers an intimate, often traumatic portrayal of the struggles and triumphs of an impoverished, uneducated black woman living in the American South. Celie’s documentation of oppression highlights the unique challenges that black women continue to face.
- Segregation: The novel begins approximately sixty years after the end of the American Civil War. Though slavery was illegal, many black Americans in the South had limited socioeconomic opportunities due to deep systemic inequalities and lingering prejudices. For those who remained in the South after the northward Great Migration that began in 1916, there were few options beyond working as sharecroppers for the white descendants of slave owners.
- Gender Equality: Celie’s letters regularly depict a strained, often violent relationship between women and men in southern black communities. Much of this strain stems from the trauma of living in a predominantly white and patriarchal society. As Walker portrays it, black men dominate their female loved ones in order to compensate for their powerlessness in a society controlled by white men. As a result, black women are doubly oppressed: first by white people and second by their abusive husbands, fathers, and brothers. Celie’s account of abuse illustrates the erasure of black female identity at the intersection of racism and misogyny. However, her story also offers hope for women who, like Shug Avery and Sofia, fight back.
Alice Walker and Womanism: Alice Walker coined the term “womanism” in her 1979 short story “Coming Apart.” Womanism is a social theory that incorporates the intersections of race, class, and gender to envision a more equal world. It arose specifically as a reaction to the frequent marginalization of black women by both black men and the mainstream feminist movement. According to Walker, womanism is about embracing “women’s culture [and] women’s emotional flexibility” and allowing black women to be in control of their own narratives. The Color Purple’s focus on the complex and varied relationships between black women highlights Walker’s womanist views.