|Imagine you are at a book burning. Everyone cheerfully throws novels into the flames. Imagine you are on a committee responsible for deciding what books to ban from a high school. What books are these, which are destined to be constantly banished from a library or thrown into flames? One of these is The Color Purple, by Alice Walker. Throughout the years, this book has been censored and banned for violence, sexual content, and racism, even though it has been applauded by some as a beautiful, meaningful story. Who is right and who is wrong? You be the judge.
The book begins with Celie writing to God about her horrible childhood, where she is raped and her children are taken away from her. Even when she’s married off, her living conditions don’t get any better. Her husband, Albert, sends off her sister, Nettie, beats Celie, and dares to bring home a woman whom he’s having an affair with, Shug Avery. Celie tells God everything, all about her relatives- her stepson, Harpo, her daughter-in-law Sophia, and Harpo’s girl friend, Squeak (or Mary Agnes). They have hardships as well, which she tells to God, along with her own sorrow.
Yet despite all this, she finds away to enjoy life, by befriending Shug, who helps her get through tough times. Eventually, they fall in love. Celie finds Nettie’s letters, which her husband had been hiding from her. They tell of her children, growing up in Africa with missionaries, and of life there. Nettie’s life is also a great presence in the book. But the letters also reveal a dark secret- Celie’s “Pa” is not her father. Her father was lynched.
But life goes on as usual. Celie begins writing to Nettie instead of God, when she starts becoming “blasphemous”. With Shug's help, though, she keeps up her faith and eventually leaves her husband. Shug, and Mary Agnes move with her to Memphis, finding careers and lives radically different then before. Things are still complicated, though, with Celie doubting Shug’s love.
She comes back home though, inheriting the house from her mother and real father. Celie make’s pants for a living, starting her own business. She’s even made peace with her husband…and her sister, after writing letter after letter of her life and family in Africa, comes home as well. The book ends, after all the sorrow and worry, with joy at the reunion of the two sisters.
The woman who wrote this controversial novel is Alice Walker. She was born February 9, 1944, in Eatonton, Georgia. Her parents, Willie Lee and Minnie Lou Grant Walker, were sharecroppers. Her poor black southern background is also evident in The Color Purple, as the main characters experience a lifestyle she was probably familiar with.
The Color Purple is her third novel. She is a civil rights activist, and she also speaks for the women’s movement. Her dream of equal treatment for all sounds strongly through her book. She also wrote the book partially to honor her ancestors. Alice Walker told Ester Inverem in an interview at seeingblack.com: “"I always felt their [her ancestors] help. I always felt supported. I have never felt alone in that sense, you know? I mean, even when I was alone with all the people doing whatever they do, I always felt my ancestors. And, over time, I guess, it just got really clear that they are the most honest and reliable critics and appreciators of one's work.”
Alice Walker has won many awards for her book The Color Purple, and for other novels. Her most impressive achievement was when she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983. She also won the American Book The Color Purple, along with others for this popular book.
Shortly after Alice Walker wrote her award winning third novel, the criticisms and challenges began. There are many different reasons for questioning the appropriateness of this book: violence, sexual content, and racism are the most common.
The Color Purple has been challenged and banned often for its violence. One example of this was when it was challenged at AP English classes at Northwest High School in High Point, N.C. (1996) because it is “graphic and violent.”
It was also challenged because of its violence on the Round Rock Texas Independent High School Reading list the same year, 1996.
A passage that may be one of the reasons this book is considered violent is found on page 84, where Alice Walker describes Sophia’s condition after she was beaten:
“I see Sofia and I don’t know why she still alive. They crack her skull, they crack her ribs. They tear her nose loose on one side. They blind her in one eye. She swole from head to foot. Her tongue the size of my arm, it stick out tween her teef like a piece of rubber. She can’t talk. And she just about the color of eggplant.”
Sophia, a character who has been appraised in the book for her kindness, strength, and independence, is described here with wounds and a horrible description of her condition. Was it really necessary to go into detail, and make it so depressing? Many say it’s completely unnecessary to be described so brutally.
Another violent scene is at the beginning of the book, on page 1, when Celie is raped:
“When that hurt, I cry. He start to choke me, saying You better shut up and get used to it.”
It’s horrible to hear about children being abused this way. Even though there wasn’t much description, the mere notion is cruel and violent as well as depressing, because it’s the main character, whom we emphasize most with, that’s being abused.
Violence was not the only reason this book was considered so controversial. This book was probably banned the most for its graphic sexuality. Indeed, one literary criticism, “Lettered Bodies and Corporeal Texts in The Color Purple” says: “The very form of The Color Purple produces an analogue to the female body…within the text, as both are continually fragmented and remembered. Letters within the text, however, are similarly connected with the female body. Mr.------ conceals Nettie's letters because she refuses to be seduced by him; he rapes her language because he is denied her body.”
The rape scenes especially contributed to challenges- in 1990, parents in New Bern, North Carolina, say: “I plan on pushing it until it’s out of the system. What it says is what children see…” These parents made this decision after reading one of the rape scenes in their children’s book. Indeed, Alice Walker starts off the book with a rape scene on the first page!:
“Just say ‘You gonna do what your mammy wouldn’t.’ First he put his thing up gainst my hip and sort of wiggle around. Then he grab hold my titties. Then he push his thing inside my p---y.”
Many people would think that she didn’t need to describe Celie’s abuse so graphically, but rather just say that she was raped. It’s depressing as well to hear about the main character getting abused. Many parents want to keep their children protected from hearing about sex until their older. Even some adults consider it inappropriate to read this in a book.
Yet another “inappropriate” scene in the book is found on page 109, when Shug and Celie first get intimate with each other:
Page 109: “She say, I love you, Miss Celie. And then she haul off and kiss me on the mouth. Us kiss and kiss till us can’t hardly kiss no more. Then us touch each other… Then I feels something real soft and wet on my breast, feel like on of my little lost babies mouth. Way after while, I act like a little lost baby too.”
Not only is this a very detailed sexual scene, it is also between two women. This is probably beyond some peoples’ comfort levels, even if it weren’t about Lesbians. There are many who don’t want them or their children exposed to the idea that two women, who are portrayed as heroes, to sleep together. Proof of this was when this book was challenged in Oakland, California honors class of 1984, for: “Troubling ideas about… human sexuality.”
Last but definitely not least, The Color Purple was banned for racism. Although Racism was a big part of life in the South, it is still very controversial. Many critics also still can’t see why, even though hundreds of years after slavery was abolished, it still is discussed and incorporated in authors like Alice Walker. She does mention slavery often, as well as racism.
Also, in An Interview With Alice Walker (by seeingblack.com), it says about the criticism on her award winning book: “…some took it as validation for the Black feminist voice, while others said that the awards only proved that Black women writers were being awarded for bashing Black men.” That’s just the reason this book was challenged in 1995, in Junction City, because of “negative image of black men,” In truth, most of the men in the book, such as Celie’s husband Albert and her “father” are abusive and cruel.
An example of its banning for this reason was when it was challenged in Oakland California for “troubling ideas about race relations.”, as well as sexual content. Some of these “race relations” that might be “troubling” can be found on pages 82-83:
“All those children, say the mayor’s wife…say, and such strong white teef… Miss Millie finger the children some more…”
In this passage, the Mayor’s wife treats African Americans like they were animals to buy and fuss over. For example, she was examining their teeth the way one would a horse. This unjust behavior many would prefer not to read about.
Yet another passage of racism is found on page 99, when Sophia, Celie’s daughter in law works for a white girl:
“I’m sitting where I always sit, I [Sophia] say. That’s the problem, she say. Have you even seen a white person and a colored sitting side by side in a car, when one of ’em isn’t showing the other how to drive or clean it?”
If an African American were to read this, they might feel offended, because it’s demeaning to their ancestors. It might also be controversial that Whites considered themselves superior, a notion that many don’t want others exposed to for fear that they might think that that’s the way to act.
After hearing so much proof of The Color Purple’s vulgarity and so many cases in which people have decided they wanted it banned, there may be some doubt in your mind as to whether this book should remain in libraries and schools. Some believe that the proof in this paper is enough to ban it everywhere, all over the world, while others believe that its powerful message is more important then the controversial material. I put myself in the latter group after reading this book. Violence, sex, and racism, was and probably still is part of everyday life. To ignore it, or to only mention it lightly, would not have the powerful effect on readers that make them connect with the story and characters. This book is also historical fiction, and if Alice Walker had not conveyed a sense of what life was like for poor African Americans in that time period, then I do not believe The Color Purple would be as interesting a book. This does not mean that children should read the book, but this book is not just a random collection of inappropriate or controversial things as some people make it out to be. Men and women who are looking for controversy will find it- but if they believe this book is pointless and obscene, then they have missed the beauty of the novel.
It has already been stated that Alice Walker was a feminist and active in the civil rights movement, fighting against racism, which later on became one of the reasons her masterpiece was banned. The Color Purple tells us the injustices of an older America, while at the same time, spinning a story of individual people who endured them. It was as though they were on a ship at sea, having to steer through the many storms to enjoy a few moments of warm sunshine. In my opinion, anyone mature enough to handle this book should read it, and it should be available to them through schools and libraries.
Is this the book so many wish had never been written? Sadly, it is, for ever since The Color Purple has been published, it’s undergone challenges and banns, keeping people from its message, all because of it’s violence, sexual content, and racism.
Note: The last part is my opinion on this book. Feel free to tell me yours!
Source #1: Alice Walker. [online]http://www.ontalink.com/literature/alicewalker/. November 18, 2005.
Source #2: Aninniina’s Alice Walker Page. [online] http://www.luminarium.org/contemporary/alicew/ November 18, 2005
Source #3: An Interview With Alice Walker. [online] www.seeingblack.com/2003/x022803/walker.shtml November 18, 2005
Source #4: N. Foerstel, Herbert. Banned in the U.S.A. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.
Source #5: Kane, Matthew. New Found Growth- The Color Purple Themes [online] http://homepage.ntlworld.com/matt_kane/themes.htm November 10, 2005
Source #6 Wendy Wall, "Lettered Bodies and Corporeal Texts in The Color Purple." Studies in American Fiction 16, no. 1 (spring 1988): 83-97
Source #7: P. Doyle, Robert. Banned Books Chicago, Illinois: Mid-American Printing, 2004.
Source #8: Walker, Alice. The Color Purple.
Source #9: The Color Purple.[online] http://title.forbiddenlibrary.com November 10, 2005