What do the female characters in The Color Purple tell the reader about the social development of African American women in the 1930s?

The Color Purple by Alice Walker is an acclaimed novel in which the situation of African American woman in the 1930s is discussed. Women’s main responsibilities centered around the domestic sphere: They raised the children, ran the household, cooked the food, as well as worked in the field when needed. However, they still found themselves in a subservient role to men. This paper mostly draws upon the superiority of Albert in comparison to Celie. But what do the female characters in the novel tell the reader about the social development of African American women in the 1930s? The goal is to let the reader understand how the female characters in the novel have managed to liberate themselves from men. To get the information in this essay, I have researched several thoughts from Alice Walker herself, Stewart Burns, Eleanor Roosevelt and Audre Lorde. Just as important is the ”Rule of Thumb” law which illustrates why men act superior to women. Questions that will be answered in relation to the main character Celie are: Why does Celie feel inferior? How does she manage to cope with Albert? What has the bond of sisterhood to do with this? After those questions have been answered, the reader will understand how Celie gets self-reliant through the bond of sisterhood with Nettie and Shug.

Imagine yourself, married to a man who does not love you and who takes the one person that you love away. This happens to main character Celie, a fourteen year-old girl in the novel The Color Purple. The novel, written by Alice Walker, is about the life of Celie, an uneducated black woman growing up in the Southern United States. She must overcome sexual abuse, racism, and poverty to acquire self-worth and become an independent person. The novel also follows the maturation of her sister Nettie and the lives of Shug Avery, Albert (Mr.____) and much of his extended family through Celie’s narrative letters to God. Historically speaking, black vernacular women in the 1930s wanted to prove to other black females that feminism was not only for white women. Strong black women fought for independence and solidarity in this period of time. (Burns, 2006) In Walker’s book, Celie survives violence at the hands of men. She can develop her solidarity and define herself by the feministic power her sister Nettie shows her. In this way, the bond of sisterhood can develop throughout the novel and Celie finds real love with Shug Avery. The bond of sisterhood in the novel The Color Purple by Alice Walker is essential to Celie’s story because it shows the reader how sisterhood helps her to deal with superior men and how she survives this oppression.

First of all, the bond of sisterhood is essential to Celie because it shows how sisterhood helps her to deal with the superiority of Alphonso and Albert. They see Celie as an object to control what makes her feel inferior. Historically, domestic violence has been downplayed and culturally ignored in America. In the colonial period, laws derived from English common-law permitted a man to beat his wife when she acted in a manner that he believed to be inappropriate. For example, the so-called “Rule of Thumb” law, which permitted a husband to beat his wife with a stick that could be no larger than the circumference of his thumb, was in effect until the end of the nineteenth century (Friedling, 2009). In the novel, Celie is repeatedly raped by her father. Her father tells her she must better not tell anyone that he is raping her: ”You better not never tell anyone but God. It’d kill your mammy” (Walker, 1970, p. 1) As a girl, Celie becomes pregnant by her father twice, and both times he takes her children away: ”He took it. He took it while I was sleeping. Kilt it out there in the woods.” (Walker, 1970, p.2) ”He took my other little baby, a boy this time. But I don’t think he kilt it.” (Walker, 1970, p. 3) Another man in the text that harms Celie both physical and emotional is Albert. Celie is sold into marriage with him who uses her as a servant, not as his wife. She is compared to women like Shug because Albert does love her:

Nothing up North for nobody like you. Shug got talent, he say. She can sing. She got spunk, he say. She can talk to anybody. Shug got looks, he say. She can stand up and be notice. But what you got? You ugly. You skinny. You shape funny. You too scared to open your mouth to people. All you fit to do in Memphis is be Shug’s maid. (Walker, 1970, p. 208)

As a result of the male dominance Celie experiences, she deals with domestic violence. In order to resist this inferior position, Celie forms a bond of sisterhood with her role models Shug and Nettie.

Secondly, the strength of Celie’s solidarity is developed regarding the power that Nettie shows her in her letters. At first, Celie does not stand up for herself: ”I don’t fight, I stay where I’m told. But I’m alive.” (Walker, 1970, p. 22) She is inspired by women around her that do stand up for themselves. Nettie is one of those women. Nettie is, unlike Celie, educated and independent of all men. The reason that she can develop is the sacrifices Celie takes to keep Alphonso away from her. Nettie never judges her personal worth in relation to men. Instead of looking for personal value and meaning through marriage, Nettie does not actually marry until she feels that she is a full complete human being in herself. Eventually, she marries Samuel whom she has a happy and stable marriage with. Celie is inspired by this because she does not have a happy and stable marriage with Mr___. Also of high importance are Nettie’s letters that Albert had been hiding. Celie gradually gains the ability to incorporate her feelings and thoughts into a voice that is fully her own on account of the letters. Celie’s liberation reaches its climax in a scene when the whole family is having lunch. Indeed, through this passage Celie stands up to her husband and is not scared to tell him what she thinks about him: ‘you a low down dirty dog, that’s what’s wrong. Time for me to get away from you, and enter into Creation. And your dead body is just the welcome mat I need.” (Walker, 1970, p.202) In conclusion, Nettie’s letters are essential to Celie because she needs inspiration of someone to survive in the oppression of Albert.

Thirdly, as a result of the power of Celie’s solidarity, the bond of sisterhood develops throughout the novel and Celie becomes a womanist. Womanist: ” A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexual. She appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women’s strength.” (Walker, 1979) According to the novel Celie is a womanist. Celie’s development of a womanist starts through her lesbian sexual relationship with Shug Avery:

She say, I love you, Miss Celie. And then she haul off and kiss me on the mouth. Um, she say, like she surprise. I kiss her back, say, um, too. Us kiss and kiss till us can’t hardly kiss no more. Then us touch each other. (Walker, 1970, p. 114)

This experience gives her strength to stand up to Albert’s oppression and to become step by step more self-reliant in order to live her own life. This exemplifies the power of a group to resist inferiority. The power of Shug is very effective to the strength of Celie because Shug embodies black women’s freedom. She is a singer, she needs to be admired and she retains her freedom. Thus, she has control on her behaviour and on her life. To the contrary of Shug, Celie is depicted as passive and obedient. Celie does not possess the ability and courage to rebel against male authority until Shug comes into her life. From their relationship and shared experiences, Shug has improved Celie’s life and gave her a new beginning. She has finally become an independent woman that can stand for herself and her beliefs. The thought of Lorde exemplifies this:

Change means growth, and growth can be painful. But we sharpen self-definition by exposing the self in work and struggle together with those whom we define as different from ourselves…. For Black and white, old and young, lesbian and heterosexual women alike, this can mean new paths to our survival. (Lorde, 1984)

In conclusion, the relationship Celie has with Shug Avery has helped her to become a woman like Shug: Strong and independent.

However, to have superior men can be advantageous and in this way no bond of sisterhood is needed. Somebody has to have the power to keep order. So why not men? Somebody has to do the dishes, clean the house and look after children. So why not women? These are all stereotypes that illustrate the difference between men and women. Changing these stereotypes can result in an unfair distribution which leads to dissension. Speaking of the 1930s, negro women gave birth to many children. The National Center for Health Statistics has researched that black people, to the contrary of white people, have the highest fertility rate. (National Center for Health Statistics, 2012).

Fertility Rates for Latinas and Black Women Are Approaching Those of White and Asian Women.

Source: National Center for Health Statistics.

As a result of the big families, it is important someone has power otherwise it becomes a total chaos. So again why not men? The greatest purpose of women in the era is to give support to a man so that he may better carry out his work. In the novel, Celie supports Albert by helping him with the children and household. If Celie listens to Albert without complaining, there is no problem. She can live a happy life without be desperately needing the bond of sisterhood with Shug and Nettie. In this way, male dominance does not need to be cruel for Celie because there is no harm for her. To conclude, changing the superiority of man can have many disadvantages.

But in the end, men fail to hold onto their power because women refuse to abide by it. During the 1930s women as a group could not end the Depression. However, the country could never have survived the crisis without women’s contributions: ‘The women know that life must go on and that the needs of life must be met and it is their courage and determination which, time and again, have pulled us through worse crises than the present one.’ (Eleanor Roosevelt, 1933). Indeed, women are strong and achieve to change and fight men. In relation to the novel, Celie becomes a strong woman because of the bond of sisterhood and the power of her solidarity. Because of this, Celie stands up for herself and leaves her victimhood behind. Celie realises that she can leave Albert so she does. Albert fails to hold on to his power because he changes as well. ”The first thing I notice bout Mr._____ is how clean he is. His skin shine. His hair brush back.” (Walker, 1970, p. 225) Mr___ regrets that he has kept Celie and Nettie separate for years and sends Celie the rest of Nettie’s letters. Positively, he actually starts being sympathetic towards others. Eventually, Mr___ and Celie become friends and he asks her to marry him, but she says no. In the end, he even admits he was jealous of her relationship with Shug. To sum up, the development of Celie regarding the bond of sisterhood results in a positive change of Albert.

On the whole, the bond of sisterhood in The Color Purple is essential to the social development of Celie because it shows the reader how sisterhood helps her to deal with superior men and how she survives this oppression. Celie’s past of domestic violence and superior men have created her into a strong confident woman who dares to stand up for herself. Indeed, the bond of sisterhood with Shug and Nettie develop throughout the story and this results in Celie being this strong and confident. The letters of Nettie help Celie to manage hopeful. Celie manages to see through that being an object to control is wrong and that this needs to be changed. To be the ”womanist” Celie is in the novel, helps her to remain positive. After all, the female characters in Walker’s book tell the reader that African American women in the 1930s were inferior to men, but later stood up for themselves which resulted in equality.

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