I have spent a lot of the past year or so reading history and other non-fiction about racism, slavery, Jim Crow and the broader African American experience in the US. I have not read a lot of fiction in part because non-fiction I can distance myself a bit.
A large part of the point of fictional portrayals of the African American experience is to engage in an emotional way. I am still reluctant, although I know that is where I need to start going more often.
The Color Purple has been in my library for years. I picked it up on sale on kindle. Then picked up the audiobook on sale. But it wasn’t until the musical Color Purple was included in my Broadway in Atlanta subscription (so I could get Hamilton tickets) that I finally sat down and read The Color Purple.
Alternating between kindle and audiobook, it took me about a week to read the first 20%, but only two or three days the read the last 80%. The opening of The Color Purple is rough. Celie opens the books with short, childish letters to God. She is describing being repeatedly raped by her father as her mother gets sick and dies. And this continues for years after her mother’s death. She gives birth twice, with her father taking away the children into the woods to an unknown fate.
Later, when her younger sister starts to mature and become attractive, she starts to try to protect her. That leads to Celie essentially being sold off to a widower to be his new wife (and sex slave) and mother to his children (who are not much younger than she is.)
The time scale for The Color Purple is decades. As I tried to describe the story to my wife in preparation for the musical (we go Sunday night), the weight and breadth of the story really came to me. There are a number of characters that are well developed with enough back stories and emotional life to make telling the story difficult.
There are no simple solutions in the story. Characters grow and develop and become independent and better off, or worse off, but there is still a system of oppression that they live under. Racism does not go away. Sexism is just as real and often more tangible for Celie and the other female characters as the racism is.
Children are raised and cared for, and sometimes loved. There are communities and church and society that impact the characters, but they are either not strong enough to really matter, or too strong to resist against.
Alice Walker has an introduction to the book in the edition I read. She talks about why she framed the book initially as letters to God and how that shifts later in the book. In some ways the pantheism of the book feels like a response to the weakness of a Christian God to actually work in the life of Celie. That is position that many Black atheists have taken from early days and pointed out by James Baldwin and Ta’Nehesis Coates more recently. But also many African American Christians pointed out the lack of true faith by Whites (Frederick Douglass is an early example of this.)
As the Color Purple moves on the sexual abuse and violence recedes as a number of the women get together to become independent and support one another. Celie and another character have a lesbian relationship and even though Celie reconciles with her husband (called Mr____ in most of the book), they do not resume a marital relationship, but only close friendship.
In the end, the family comes back together. The childlike Celie in the beginning has become a capable matriarch. The family relationships are confused and tangled. But that does not matter much.
I have listened to the musical soundtrack twice. The more difficult strands of the story appear to be condensed or glossed over from what I can tell. There is a lot of influence from African American church music, which in part seems like an odd choice given the religious themes of the book. But Black Church music is culturally important as well as religiously important. So it makes sense that some of the music clearly is invoking that cultural touch stone.
I feel like I probably need to re-read the book after the musical to get another take at the story. But I am not sure I can handle it twice in a relatively short period of time.
The writing was clear, evocative, and poetic. It deserves it praise. But it has a clear content warning. If you find violence, especially sexual violence, domestic violence and oppression difficult, this is book you probably should stay away from.
(The Kindle Edition is on sale today for $1.99. My kindle edition is lendable if someone wants to borrow it.)