In the end, The Color Purple has a happy ending. Celie escapes Mr.—’s house and is reunited with her beloved sister and children, leavening the dark, pastoral elements of the story. As a result, The Color Purple has made it onto Broadway twice: Oprah Winfrey produced the musical based in 2005 and is slated to produce the rebooted show later this year, which stars Jennifer Hudson as Shug.
For black women especially, loving means placing the needs of others above our own. In respectability politics, it means that you comport yourself in a way that compromises the self and therefore doesn’t humiliate the group. In The Color Purple, this all gets inverted. Self-love must first be achieved to properly love others. Self-acceptance leads to substantial community standing. Love and sexual satisfaction flow from self-esteem. And as a concept, sexual fluidity privileges female desire while neutering . Celie and Shug don't end up together in either the novel or the movie, and that's not the point of the story. The choice of self makes meaningful, satisfying sexual relationships possible in the first place.
Alice Walker—a former Ms. Magazine editor, the daughter of sharecroppers—published The Color Purple in 1982. It was the first work by a black woman to win both the Pulitzer and National Book awards. Beyoncé appropriation aside, though, the story isn’t about feminism as much as it is about empowering its audience by unburdening us of pathos and cultural shame.
Reed was wrong then and he’s wrong now. The popularity of The Color Purple has very little to do with besmirching black men. Instead, it has everything to do with black women’s rejection of respectability politics: from the lesbian relationship between Celie and Shug, Mr.—’s ex-lover; to the representation of traditional Christianity as small-minded and stifling; to the narrative’s assertion that domestic violence arises from patriarchal hysteria about women’s strength, not our weakness.
Beyoncé quoted the movie in the liner notes of her first solo album. When Kerry Washington appeared on the cover of InStyle with dubiously light skin, black women across Twitter referenced it. A is named after it. And when a friend texted me that she was eloping, I responded by sending her . Thirty years since its film adaptation, The Color Purple lingers as perhaps the cultural touchstone for black women in America, a kind of lingua franca of familiarity and friendship.
We know her because she is us twice over. For a black female audience, Celie feels like an ancestor who survived, so we might thrive. That a film about black women like The Color Purple was made at all feels like progress. Anyone who watches it has an opportunity—because of Goldberg’s moving, Oscar-nominated performance—to walk in Celie’s shoes and to experience how it feels to be black, poor, and ugly.
Respectability politics make life worse by shaming people with a facade of dignity. The Color Purple, on the other hand, teaches us that dignity does not come from ducking behind appearances and hiding yourself. Being a victim is nothing to be ashamed of.
By relentlessly focusing on black female vulnerability, The Color Purple disassembles . This particular stereotype tells a perversely aspirational tale of how much black women can do with very little, how much pressure we can withstand without support. How we don’t require protection because not only can we defend ourselves, but also because we are to be feared—. Whether we are deemed invincible or “de mule uh de world,” as Zora Neale Hurston called us in Their Eyes Were Watching God, the strong black woman myth sees us as inhuman at worst, neglected and depleted at best.
Gate, Henry Louis Jr., and Appiah K.A., eds. Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives Past and
Present. New York. Amisted, 1933. Printed
O’Brien, John. “Interview with Alice Walker”. In: Barbara T. Christian. Ed. Everyday Use. New
Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. New York: Pocket Books, 1982. Print.