The Color Purple as a modern slave narrative

Genre characteristics

Slave narratives were written with a particular purpose: to record the effects and the impact of slavery on African-American slaves and to persuade white readers that slavery was an unjust and cruel institution. The narratives were often prefaced by letters or statements written by white men, as a way of authenticating the truth of the contents. Authentic slave narratives:

  • Focus on key individuals within a group
  • Have narratives based on practical and emotional ways of overcoming oppression
  • Often emphasise how education and literacy were central keys in the fight for freedom.

Although a few original works were written by African-American women, the genre was traditionally focused on the experiences of black men.

Gender replaces race

In The Colour Purple Walker manipulates the slave narrative genre by writing from the point of view of female African-American characters who are oppressed primarily by African-American males. Black men, not white slave owners, are the oppressors and black women are brutalised, mistreated and effectively condemned to domestic and sexual slavery. Notable exceptions are Sofia’s experiences at the hands of the white Mayor and his police force, and Squeak’s rape at the hands of her white uncle, Bubber Hodges, but overall the inequality and injustice primarily occurs within the African-American community.

Walker’s critics

According to critic Calvin Hernton, who describes The Colour Purple as a ‘womanist slave narrative’, Alice Walker not only reclaims the genre and redefines its focus, but does so from a specific ‘womanist’ viewpoint. Hernton commends this but also criticises the epistolary form that Walker has used. He argues that the letters of both sisters are not in keeping with the style of an authentic slave narrative and Nettie’s ‘voice’ in particular is too stylised and ‘middle-class’ to be considered as ‘womanist’.

Critic bell hooks (sic) also claims that The Color Purple does not fit the slave narrative genre because it does not reflect the concerns of the wider African-American community. Rather than creating a narrative that links the central narrator/character to the plight of all black people, Walker only concentrates on Celie’s individual experience.

In addition hooks argues that Celie’s story is ‘not representative’ of all African-Americans and there are very important differences between the experiences of individual females in the novel. Shug Avery, for example, is not a victim of African-American male domination and Sofia does not allow her father, brothers or her husband, Harpo, to impose patriarchal control over her or to inform her sense of self.

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