African-American culture: Business and education

In The Color Purple, Alice Walker addresses significant African and African-American cultural issues, in particular how business acumen as well as education and literacy can both liberate and repress African-American people.

Business themes in The Color Purple

For the economic context in which the novel is set, see Social and political context > Early twentieth century American business. The Color Purple shows how quickly black men and women are able to prosper in private enterprise, once the opportunity arises.

Harpo becomes a new man when he discovers that he has a talent for making money (see Letter 32). Building a juke joint behind his house entails long hours to complete the building and to make it a successful venue for entertainment. Once it is built he becomes prosperous and the establishment offers the opportunity for Shug Avery, Mary Agnes and various local musicians to earn money for themselves as cabaret singers or band members. Harpo‘s efforts make it possible for him to support his extended family and by the end of the narrative he is a more confident and considerate family man.

Shug Avery works hard at her singing career and earns enough to buy a big house in Memphis and a second car (probably one of the first model T Fords, produced in America from 1908). At the time it would be the height of fashion and an unusual thing for an African-American woman to own outright.

Although Alphonso (Pa) acquires ownership of his dry goods store by deceit, he nevertheless turns it into a successful business which earns him sufficient income to build a large new house with extensive grounds. When the business passes to Celie and Nettie, their natural father’s foresight and acumen plus Alphonso’s attention to business ensure that the sisters inherit a valuable asset and face a secure and prosperous future.

The name of Celie’s firm, ‘Folkspants Unlimited’ suggests her business has the potential for unlimited growth. Walker does not mention the Great Depression which followed 1929, perhaps intending the reader to infer that Celie’s determination and drive enables her to remain solvent even during a national economic crisis. She is also able to provide work for a number of women as the business grows.

Grady operates an unusual but successful commercial enterprise growing and selling marijuana when he moves to Panama with Mary Agnes. The reader is not told whether Grady’s enterprise succeeds or not, but given the fact that he smokes a good deal of the product, it would seem unlikely.

Albert runs a large and prosperous farm on land which is extensive enough for him to parcel out sufficient space to build Harpo a house when he marries Sofia.

Minor characters, like Sofia‘s second partner, Buster, and her sister Odessa’s husband, Jack, are be hard-working black men who provide for their wives and children. The fact that Buster owns a car suggests that he is quite well off.


Walker’s references to business are deliberately kept within quite small boundaries. Nevertheless, for the central character, Celie, business success is closely bound up with her personal development and plays a significant part in enabling her to achieve heightened self-awareness and contentment.

For characters like Alphonso, Albert and Harpo, success in business acts to an extent as a mitigating factor in enabling the reader to see them not just as monsters or weaklings, but as men who work hard to maintain their property, despite the challenges which face them as African-American men in a white racist society.

Education and literacy in The Color Purple

For the educational background for African-Americans, see Social and political context > Early twentieth century American black education.

The significance of education

The Color Purple has been described as a didactic novel, intended to teach or morally instruct the reader. For Walker education is more than just learning to read or write. It is a process by which a person can acquire knowledge by studying, or by experiencing life lessons that lead to an understanding of many things. To become educated requires instruction of some sort, generally by way of attending school. In The Color Purple, Nettie most benefits from this, while Celie’s schooling is curtailed because of her unwanted pregnancies and her early marriage to Mr_ (Albert). As a result, Nettie gains skills that enable her to become a missionary teacher, while Celie is bound to an abusive domestic servitude that gives her little chance to develop intellectually.

In Letter 4 Celie tells Nettie to keep learning her ‘books’ so that she can escape, through factual knowledge, from the ‘lies’ that Celie believes killed their mother. Education is a means of escape from a world that is dominated by men. When Nettie begins to write regularly to Celie, she not only educates her sister by sending detailed written accounts of Africa and its people, but also broadens Celie’s horizons (and those of the novel’s reading audience).

Oral teaching

Limited access to formal education means that both male and female characters in The Color Purple instruct one another mainly by word of mouth. Traditional beliefs, patterns of behaviour and customs are ‘fixed’ by constant verbal repetition and once fixed are difficult to challenge or change. Albert, for example, keeps telling Harpo that wives are like children and should be disciplined, implicitly educating another generation of violent men. Shug’s positive verbal reinforcement teaches Celie how to understand and appreciate her own body and also helps Celie to understand the nature of God.

The threat of education

There are however sections of the novel where education is presented as dangerous or is seen as a means of forcing cultural change:

  • The Olinka do not believe girls should be educated, which suggests that African women must remain subservient to men
  • Samuel, Nettie and Corrine attempt to educate the Olinka heathens by teaching them Christian beliefs that are alien to their African culture
  • Darlene tries to interfere with Celie’s language register and style, telling her that the way she speaks is ‘wrong’. It is Shug Avery who helps her understand that linguistic diversity is normal.

Female education and written expression

The themes of education for girls and women’s writing also help to connect the African and American sections of the novel. Nettie teaches Celie in America, in the way that Olivia teaches Tashi in Africa. Both women carry out their tasks in secret, because men resent and fear the consequences for themselves if women achieve independence through education.

The writing of letters from both sides of the world becomes a symbol of defiance. Celie’s letters are both a record and an accusation of neglect and abuse, while Nettie’s letters are full of critical observations and comments on the cruelty of white colonial expansion and also of the way in which African men behave towards women. In this sense writing is seen as a powerful means of expressing and sharing the opinions of women during the time in which the novel is set.

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