The Color Purple as a postcolonial text

Post-colonial readings of texts examine the ways in which communities and the people within them are or were affected by different cultures, religions and belief systems, imposed upon them by colonising powers.

North American slavery and the legacy of racism

North America was colonised primarily by European settlers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The early colonies were run as private business enterprises, producing large amounts of indigo, tobacco, sugar, cotton and other crops that were sold back to England. By 1700, a planter could buy an African slave for life for the same price that he could purchase a white servant for ten years, so there was a massive increase in the importing of slaves from Africa to cultivate major cash crops in the North American colonies.

Over the next two centuries, white colonists and their descendants, especially in the rural South, established the institutions and ideas that would come to be known as ‘white supremacy’, an ideology that was based on a belief that black people were ‘subhuman’ and naturally inferior to whites; thus racism was born. Although the American Civil War secured the abolition of slavery, racism itself was not abolished. On the contrary, the ideology was reconstructed to create second-class status for black Americans, dividing the United States into superior and inferior races, according to their origins.

The varied effects of cultural identity 

The Color Purple is a novel which examines:

  • How cultures may either integrate or remain separate
  • How individuals or groups move from one cultural identity to another
  • How individuals discover or create new identities of their own.

Walker’s characters include:

  • Black people from the rural South, still oppressed and discriminated against
  • Black people in the North who amaze Nettie because of their ‘normal’ lives
  • Black American missionaries who go to Africa, who discover how alien their cultural values are
  • An African tribe, the Olinka, who suffer the tragic effects of European colonisation.

Central to the narrative is the character of Celie, through whom Walker symbolically recreates the slave-journey of every colonised African-American, from being sold into slavery to liberation and independence. She undertakes this journey in the company of strong independent black women like her daughter-in-law Sofia and her lover, Shug Avery.

British colonialism

The letters written to Celie by her sister Nettie describe the effects of British colonial rule on the members of the African Olinka tribe:

  • Some of the Olinka attempt to resist colonisation directly through resistance groups called mbeles, who move back into the forest away from the colonisers so that they can harass the European plantations
  • Other villagers choose to maintain their tribal and cultural identities by embracing rituals and customs such as scarification and female genital mutilation. The young woman Tashi, for example, chooses both to demonstrate that Olinka customs are still important, even though the white Europeans have taken away ‘everything else’. Nettie is revolted by the act, calling it a ‘mistake’ (Letter 81).

The function of Doris Baines

Nettie’s letters recount the experiences of a white English missionary called Doris Baines, whom she meets on a voyage to England. Miss Baines is an ambiguous character whose decision to become a missionary in Africa seems primarily to have been made in order to escape the constraints of a patriarchal upper-class background and marriage. In Africa, using her family’s wealth, she is able to help local people, building a hospital, school and college. However, she calls Africans ‘the heathen’ and tells Nettie and Samuel that her involvement with ‘her’ tribe is the price she was willing to pay for a peaceful life. Her main reason for staying in Africa was to write novels under her masculine pen name of Jared Hunt.

Doris Baines embodies Western colonial arrogance and, despite her altruism, she shows a significant lack of empathy with the African people she claims that she wants to protect, boasting that her wealth enables her to ‘own’ the village where she lives and works.

Nettie’s role

Although Walker uses Nettie’s character as a means of criticising the theme of colonialism, Nettie has herself absorbed white cultural values. Her use of English is, for example, very European, unlike Celie’s African-American ‘folk language’ and some of her opinions about the Olinka seem at times to convey a similar patronising attitude to that shown by Doris Baines.

In addition, Nettie is not always sure of her missionary ambitions and how useful her and Samuel’s work is to the Olinka people, which could indicate that her position is actually ambivalent and that she shifts between cultures. Although an African-American herself, Nettie’s role is at times more similar to the role of the white colonisers than to the Africans she is trying to help.

Sofia’s story

The story of Sofia explores racial issues in the rural South of the United States and the effects of racism on one character and her friends and family. Sofia is beaten and sentenced to twelve years in jail for attacking the town’s white Mayor after he hits her for impertinence to his wife, Miss Millie.

Sofia never fully recovers from the physical and psychological effects of the beating (described in Letter 37). Although she copes with prison life by behaving submissively, she dreams of murdering the white supremacists who have abused her. However, she is forced to accept the job as a prisoner-maid to Miss Millie’s family and to endure an enforced separation from her own children which lasts for many years.

Sofia is a strong and independent woman, but her independence is only recognised within the African-American community and only then by other females such as her sisters and friends, Celie, Squeak and Shug Avery. When Sofia tells the Mayor’s daughter, Eleanor Jane, that neither she nor any black female servant loves the white children they care for (Letter 87) the reader is made sharply aware of the gap that exists between white and black understanding of the nature of love itself.

Whereas Celie represents a submissive African-American woman who is oppressed by the world, Sofia is the exact opposite. When she wishes to make a statement, she does so, even if the consequences are violent. If she is physically threatened, she retaliates in kind and the key to her character is that she is unafraid to fight. Walker’s description of Sofia and her sisters as ‘Amazons’ illustrates the place of women like Sofia in a racist world and their need to fight against the injustice and tyranny that is shown not only by white supremacists, but also by the men in their own community.

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