Books

The Color Purple (Alice Walker) – Throwback 40

There are more books being written by diverse authors today than there have ever been, with bestsellers being written by marginalised authors from many backgrounds and experiences. But this has sadly not always been the case, and it may shock some to learn that the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction wasn’t won by a Black woman until 1983. The book that won that prize, and that has gone on to become one of the most influential and important books of the last forty years, is The Color Purple by Alice Walker.

The Color Purple is set in the early 1900s, in the Southern United States, and follows the life of Celie. When the book begins Celie is only fourteen, has been pulled out of school to work around the house, and is frequently beaten and raped by her father. Having birthed two children from her father already, Celie is eventually married off to an older man, only ever called Mister, so as to prevent her twelve-year-old sister Nettie from being married to him.

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Moving into Mister’s home, Celie must care for him and his abusive children, and suffers frequent beatings, emotional abuse, and rape at Mister’s hands. Over the course of the book we watch as Celie grows from teen into a woman, and we see other figures enter her life, and the impact that they have upon it. These experiences often expose the brutality of being a Black woman in the Southern States at this time, and cover the abuses that those women went through, and how society at the time not only didn’t care, but encouraged it to happen.

The Color Purple is not an easy book to read by any means, and the content of the story is something that has plagued the book for many years. Whilst most people will recognise that the things that happen in the book are very important conversations, others have challenged the book ever since it was published, claiming that it should be banned because of the graphic nature of its content. According to the American Library Association, The Color Purple is on the list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books.

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But this content is not only a major part of the book, but a major part of the life of the author, Alice Walker. Walker grew up in the rural South before the civil rights movement, in a time and place where racism was alive and well. The experiences in her early life would go on to help form her first published work, a collection of poems called Once. Her first two novels also covered similar themes, with The Third Life of Grange Copeland exploring the life of an abusive sharecropper, and Meridian being about activist workers during the Civil Rights movement.

Walker was always political, and it reflected in her work. She was a part of the Civil Rights movement, working for the Legal Defense Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (the NAACP), being a consultant of the Friends of the Children of Mississippi Head Start program, teaching Black Women’s Writing at the Universeity of Massachusetts Boston, and became the editor of the radical feminist Ms. Magazine to name but a few of her activities. And her passionate views and push for the liberation of Black women bled through into her work, particularly The Color Purple.

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Upon the publication of The Color Purple critics praised Walker for bringing such a stark, and honest depiction of the lives of Black women to the forefront. The book, written by Celie in the form of letters to God, used the main character’s own voice to sell the honesty of the story. Celie was uneducated, and would misspell words, would write sentences with poor grammar, and would sometimes even struggle to explain herself clearly. But these moments helped to elevate the narrative, to give readers an insight into her life and her struggles.

The book was so well received that the book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1983, and the National Book Award for Fiction in the same year. The popularity also resulted in a film adaptation in 1985, directed by Steven Spielberg. The film, which some critics consider Spielberg’s first steps away from the ‘summer blockbuster’ into more prestige film-making, garnered huge success, making close to ten times its budget, as well as launching the careers of Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey. Despite being nominated for 11 Oscars it failed to win any.

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Despite the accolades for her work, and for The Color Purple being seen to be one of the most important books in the last forty years, Alice Walker herself has attracted some controversy in recent years, including accusations of antisemitic views. In 2012 the author talked about her love for the work of antisemitic conspiracy theorist David Icke on BBC Radio 4. She also supported Icke again in 2018 when she recommended one of his conspiracy theory books. Her 2017 poem, It Is Our (Frightful) Duty To  Study The Talmud has also been accused of being antisemitic. It would be a shame if these criticisms proved to be true, as Walker has performed some important, and admirable work over the decades, and The Color Purple is part of that.

Despite being challenged, and even outright hated, because of its brutally harsh content, The Color Purple has remained one of the most important books of the last forty years. It has been used in schools and colleges, has frequented book lists, and has become a book club staple that is sure to last for many, many more years.

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