The Color Purple: Historical and social structures

Black challenges to white economic dominance

A post-slavery culture

After the abolition of slavery, the social and economic structure of life for African-Americans in the rural South remained largely unaltered. Although no longer slaves, many black people remained on the land, working as sharecroppers. They grew crops but the land they worked was still owned by their former white slave masters. Following the African-American migration to the Northern states in 1915, the black sharecroppers who stayed in the South became more isolated from white society. Schools, churches and housing were segregated and there were few opportunities for blacks to make a living from anything other than sharecropping.

However some entrepreneurial African-Americans were able to establish themselves as businessmen. In The Color Purple, increasing black prosperity signifies the developing sense of pride in personal - and corporate – identity for its black characters.

Economic enterprise

Walker creates two African-American characters who own property and run prosperous farms and a dry goods store. Both challenge the social norms of the early part of the twentieth century in the rural South:

  • Celie’s stepfather, Alphonso (Pa) runs a dry goods store that eventually enables him to build a comfortable house on a large acreage of land
  • His friend Albert (Celie’s husband) also owns property and land, which provides employment for his son Harpo and living space for an extended family.

Although both men are successful within their own community, Walker also illustrates the savagery of racial prejudice with the revelation that Celie’s natural father, the original owner of the store, was lynched by a white racist mob. Lynching was prevalent in the South from the 1880s to the 1930s and Celie’s father was killed because his business was seen as an economic threat to white-run enterprises, taking away black custom from white stores. It is ironic therefore that a black man (Fonso) benefits and later a black woman (Celie) will, when the successful enterprise ‘Folkspants’ is based there.

Folkspants and freedom

Celie not only breaks free from gender stereotypes when she leaves Albert and establishes ‘Folkspants’, making unisex clothing for men and women, but also achieves a level of economic independence which is uncharacteristic for women in African-American society of the time.

Having never ‘worn the trousers’ in a relationship before (trousers or breeches historically being associated with male attire), she now literally manufactures garments that signify this autonomy. Her flourishing business enables her to become wealthy which, alongside her property, provides the financial security she’s never previously had. Thus wearing and making trousers symbolises Celie’s liberation from patriarchy and sexism, as well as illustrating her increasing self-confidence.

Black challenges to white social dominance

Sofia’s story 

Racial discrimination and victimisation was endemic in the United States and is particularly illustrated by Walker’s account of Sofia’s defiance of the white Mayor and his wife, Miss Millie.

Sofia is a rebel in that she rejects both black and white oppression:

  • As a black American woman reared in the South in the 1930s, she is expected to remain absolutely subservient to whites, both economically and socially
  • As the wife of an African-American male, she is expected to be subservient to her husband. 

However, Sofia is neither willing nor able to accept the norms of subservient black wife or compliant black maid.

She wants her marriage to be a partnership, not a master-servant relationship and defies Harpo’s assumption of dominance. She is too honest to act in a way other than she feels, but her strength of character is always acknowledged and valued by its members and she enjoys a significant level of status within the African-American community.

Relationships with white people, however, are more problematic. It is ironic that the value that Sofia places on fighting back is the very thing that prevents her from living an independent life. Her resistance to injustice means that she is beaten, imprisoned and forced to work without pay as the Mayor's prisoner-maid, losing much of her strength and dignity. The experience leaves her scarred, but ultimately it does not crush her determination to remain independent of spirit. Sofia is not a tragic figure but a symbol of courageous womanhood – a strong black woman whose courage lies in her resilience and her determination to survive in an unjust racist world.

What Sofia’s story illustrates 

Just as the black male characters in the novel use violence to assert dominance over their wives, so white society uses violence to enforce dominance over all black people, whether male or female. Sofia suffers because of her gender, race and social class and her story emphasises how hard it is to escape the institutional racism and patriarchal power structures of the American South.

Oppression almost destroys Sofia but the strong support of her extended family eventually restores her and provides some reparation for the years of suffering she is forced to endure. The eventual reversal of situation, with Eleanor Jane ‘minding’ Sofia’s daughter, is a sign of hope that the struggle for black equality and autonomy will triumph. Walker also uses Sofia to illustrate female resilience and the power of community, family and friendship.

Female challenges to male dominance

Walker examines in some detail the troubled relationships between men and women. Within the society of the time, men were breadwinners who exerted control over the family and held the dominant role in family life, while women were expected to be obedient, bear children and look after the household. This is as true for Miss Millie as it is for Celie, although the novel portrays the greater honour accorded to a white wife.

Patterns of male oppression

Many black males, lacking power and control in a white dominated society, turned their frustration and anger on their wives, partners and female family members. In consequence, black women were doubly oppressed; firstly by white men and women because of their perceived inferiority as African-Americans and secondly by their husbands, partners and other black males, because they were convenient victims. The combination of male oppression and physical assault in The Color Purple leads to a loss of female identity and individuality in a number of characters, most obviously Celie. Her self-worth and identity is only recovered by the ministry of a woman, Shug.

Walker also addresses various forms of brutal violence, such as domestic incest and rape which reveal the weak internal structures of some African-American families. Fonso’s control of the family’s private resources effectively gives him license to violate his wife and his stepdaughter. Albert’s treatment of Celie reveals a similar lack of respect for women. It is chilling that this model is passed down through the generations. In a patriarchal system older males possess power over younger and make them conform, with brutal control being regarded as a measure of ‘manhood’. That Harpo and Albert are rescued from this pattern is due to Sofia and Shug Avery, who combine ‘masculine’ strength with ‘feminine’ nurture and are quite capable of fighting back.

A parallel situation of patriarchal (and colonial) oppression

Working as a missionary in Africa, Nettie finds that the patriarchal system of oppression of the Olinka women is not dissimilar to the situation she left in America. African women are defined only in terms of the value they have for their husbands; girls are denied education and ritual female circumcision and scarring leaves many African women joyless and spiritually dead. As women, Corinne and Nettie encourage female participation in education which is ultimately respected. But their efforts are thwarted by the greater power of white colonialism, whose economic demands mean that no-one beyond the age of seven is educated. Initially, Tashi’s resistance to the colonists means that she retreats back to the physical oppression of female genital mutilation, until the ‘new man’ Adam convinces her that she can have a secure future as an equal by his side.

The cyclical nature of oppression

Many characters in the novel demonstrate the cyclical nature of violence. Victims of sexism and racism can become perpetrators themselves:

  • Harpo, for example, beats Sofia because his father (Albert) taunts him by saying that Sofia’s strong willed resistance makes Harpo less of a man
  • Albert is violent and mistreats his family much as his own tyrannical father treated him
  • Having been separated from her children for twelve years, Sofia’s deep sense of outrage and hurt leads her to reject Eleanor Jane’s son, Reynolds. Though an innocent baby, he represents everything she despises about the white race as a whole and she is unable to offer him love.

The novel’s resolution

How can the repeating pattern of victim becoming aggressor be addressed? The novel’s message is that women must stand up against physical violence and oppression by helping one another: 

  • Albert’s sisters attempt to help Celie, whilst Shug’s intervention with her lover gives Celie greater freedom within her marriage
  • When Mary Agnes helps Sofia to be released from prison, Sofia looks after Mary Agnes’ child when she decides to go away and be a singer
  • Olivia supports the African girl, Tashi, and in the Olinka tribe the women have strong friendship groups amongst themselves
  • The women also free their men from patriarchal conformity, Sofia encouraging Harpo’s nurturing qualities, whilst Shug and later Celie support Albert’s creativity and compassion.

Individuals like Shug Avery and Sofia can fight for themselves but, alone, many of the women in The Colour Purple are weak. Only when united is their strength and resilience more than equal to resist male domination.

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