Colonialism in The Color Purple

The influence of politics

The Color Purple is a political novel, with strong opinions transmitted on the problems that affect the African-American descendants of slaves in a post-colonial context, as well as the Olinka people of Africa, victims of white colonial expansion.

Walker situates Celie’s birth only fifty years after slavery had been abolished. She lives in a society where the economic and social structures of slavery are still evident. White dominance influences the characters in the American South, and Nettie and her missionary companions in a colonised Africa.

Abuses of power

Much of the conflict in The Color Purple springs from the tension that exists between people of different ethnicity and social standing. Men abuse women, white people abuse black people, and colonial empires abuse their colonial subjects. The abuse of power whether wielded by black or white characters, underpins nearly all the inter-personal conflict in the story: 

  • Alphonso (Pa) exercises complete control as an abusive and violent father
  • Albert (Mr_ ) exercises the same control over his children and both his wives
  • Samuel and Corrine, as representatives of a colonial system, attempt to impose a European Christian ideology to control the lives and beliefs of the Olinka people
  • As white upper-class people in a world order that privileges them over those who are black and poor, Miss Millie, Eleanor Jane and Doris Baines exert control over both African-Americans and Africans.

Colonialism in Africa 

Active oppression

The tragedy of the Olinka tribe is the most significant example of active colonial oppression in the novel. While both French and Dutch imperialism is mentioned in the novel, Samuel and Corinne’s missionary work is administered through London, so it is the British Empire that has the most direct impact. Walker does not explicitly criticise their colonial greed, but simply illustrates how the English rubber planters destroy the Olinka village, the yam crop which keeps them healthy and the roofleaf that is honoured as a covering for their homes.

Well-intentioned help

Even well-meaning efforts to help Africans can be regarded as colonialist. Nettie, Samuel and Corinne naively attempt to connect with their slave ancestors, discover their ancestral roots and convert their heathen brothers and sisters to a white-based Christianity, yet natives do not see this as being relevant to their African culture. The complicity of the missionaries becomes clear when the Olinka village is destroyed. They are incapable of criticising the exploitation of the Olinka people, who have neither the technology, military power, political influence nor understanding of the processes of modernisation to oppose colonial development.

Even the hoped for ancestral connection fails. Samuel and Corinne find that the Africans do not care about American slavery or its effects, but regard the Americans as useless, alien outsiders. Ultimately, unable to truly connect or stop what is happening to the Olinkas, Nettie and Samuel have no choice but to leave and return to the United States. There is a sense in which both black Americans and Africans are the victims of white oppression, yet little evidence that either can be of help or assistance to the other.

Independence Day

The colonial and imperial past of the United States is clearly addressed at the end of the novel, when Celie's extended family is reunited on July the Fourth, which is a national holiday to celebrate American Independence from British colonialism.

Harpo remarks that the family can enjoy being together because, while white Americans celebrate Independence from the UK, black people can have a day off work to ‘celebrate themselves’ instead.

The sarcastic comment is aimed at white people’s understanding of white American history and a white definition of patriotism. Harpo, a descendant of slaves, sees little significance in a celebration that has nothing to do with the freedom of black men, but is concerned only with white men’s struggles for political control of a newly colonised continent.

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