Race and domesticity in 'The Color Purple.'
Saturday morning Shug put Nettie letter in my lap. Little fat queen of England stamps on it, plus stamps that got peanuts, coconuts, rubber trees and say Africa. I don't know where England at. Don't know where Africa at either. So I stir don't know where Nettie at. (102)
Revealing Celie's ignorance of even the most rudimentary outlines of the larger world, this passage clearly defines the "domestic" site she occupies as the novel's main narrator.(1) In particular, the difficulty Celie has interpreting this envelope underscores her tendency to understand events in terms of personal consequences rather than political categories. What matters about not knowing "where Africa at" - according to Celie - is not knowing "where Nettie at." By clarifying Celie's characteristic angle of vision, this passage highlights the intensely personal perspective that Walker brings to her tale of sexual oppression - a perspective that accounts in large part for the emotional power of the text.
But Walker's privileging of the domestic perspective of her narrators has also been judged to have other effects on the text. Indeed, critics from various aesthetic and political camps have commented on what they perceive as a tension between public and private discourse in the novel.(2) Thus, in analyzing Celie's representation of national identity, Lauren Berlant identifies a separation of "aesthetic" and "political" discourses in the novel and concludes that Celie's narrative ultimately emphasizes "individual essence in false opposition to institutional history" (868). Revealing a very different political agenda in his attacks on the novel's womanist stance, George Stade also points to a tension between personal and public elements in the text when he criticizes the novel's "narcissism" and its "championing of domesticity over the public world of masculine power plays" (266). Finally, in praising Walker's handling of sexual oppression, Elliott Butler-Evans argues that Celie's personal letters serve precisely as a "textual strategy by which the larger African-American history, focused on racial conflict and struggle, can be marginalized by its absence from the narration" (166).
By counterposing personal and public discourse in the novel, these critics could be said to have problematized the narrative's domestic perspective by suggesting that Walker's chosen treatment of the constricted viewpoint of an uneducated country woman - a woman who admits that she doesn't even know "where Africa at" - may also constrict the novel's ability to analyze issues of "race" and class.(3) Thus Butler-Evans finds that Celie's "private life preempts the exploration of the public lives of blacks" (166), while Berlant argues that Celie's family-oriented point of view and modes of expression can displace race and class analyses to the point that the "nonbiological abstraction of class relations virtually disappears" (833). And in a strongly worded rejection of the novel as "revolutionary literature," bell hooks charges that the focus upon Celie's sexual oppression ultimately deemphasizes the "collective plight of black people" and "invalidates . . . the racial agenda" of the slave narrative tradition that it draws upon ("Writing" 465).(4) In short, to many readers of The Color Purple, the text's ability to expose sexual oppression seems to come at the expense of its ability to analyze issues of race and class.(5)
But it seems to me that an examination of the representation of race in the novel leads to another conclusion: Walker's mastery of the epistolary form is revealed precisely by her ability to maintain the integrity of Celie's and Nettie's domestic perspectives even as she simultaneously undertakes an extended critique of race relations, and especially of racial integration. In particular, Walker's domestic novel engages issues of race and class through two important narrative strategies: the development of an embedded narrative line that offers a post-colonial perspective on the action, and the use of "family relations" - or kinship - as a carefully elaborated textual trope for race relations. These strategies enable Walker to foreground the personal histories of her narrators while placing those histories firmly within a wider context of race and class.
Both the novel's so-called "restriction of focus to Celie's consciousness" (Butler-Evans 166-67) and one way in which Walker's narratology complicates that perspective are illustrated by the passage quoted above. Celie's difficulty interpreting the envelope sent by Nettie at first only seems to support the claim that her domestic perspective "erases" race and class concerns from the narrative. But if this short passage delineates Celie's particular angle of vision, it also introduces textual features that invite readers to resituate her narration within a larger discourse of race and class. For where Celie sees only a "fat little queen of England," readers who recognize Queen Victoria immediately historicize the passage. And if the juxtaposition of the two stamps on the envelope - England's showcasing royalty, Africa's complete with rubber trees - suggests to Celie nothing but her own ignorance, to other readers the two images serve as a clear reminder of imperialism. Thus Africa, mentioned by name for the first time in this passage, enters the novel already situated within the context of colonialism. Importantly, Walker remains true to Celie's character even as she recontextualizes the young woman's perspective, because the features of the envelope Celie focuses upon are entirely natural ones for her to notice, even though they are politically charged in ways that other features would not be (for example, Celie might have been struck by more purely personal - and more conventional - details, such as the familiar shape of her sister's handwriting). Embedded throughout The Color Purple, narrative features with clear political and historical associations like these complicate the novel's point of view by inviting a post-colonial perspective on the action and by creating a layered narrative line that is used for different technical effects and thematic purposes.(6) That Celie herself is not always aware of the full political implications of her narration (although she becomes increasingly so as the novel progresses) no more erases the critique of race and class from the text than Huck's naivete in Huckleberry Finn constricts that work's social criticism to the boy's opinions. This individual letter from Nettie thus provides readers with a textual analogue for the novel's larger epistolary form, illustrating one way in which the novel's domestic perspective is clearly "stamped" with signs of race and class.
But it is not only through such narrative indirection and recontextualization that the novel engages issues of race and class. Walker's domestic narrative undertakes a sustained analysis of race through the careful development of family relationships - or kinship - as an extended textual trope for race relations. Any attempt to oppose political and personal discourses in the novel collapses when one recognizes that the narrative adopts the discourse of family relations both to establish a "domestic ideal" for racial integration and to problematize that ideal through the analysis of specific integrated family groupings in Africa and America.
I. "She says an African daisy and an English daisy are both flowers, but totally different kinds"
Important throughout the narrative, the kinship trope for race relations is articulated most explicitly late in the novel when a mature Celie and a reformed Albert enjoy some communal sewing and conversation. Celie herself raises the issue of racial conflict by drawing on the Olinka "Adam" story that has been handed down to her through Nettie's letters. Beginning with the explanation that ". . . white people is black peoples children" (231), the Olinka narrative provides an analysis of race relations expressed explicitly in terms of kinship.
According to the Olinka creation narrative, Adam was not the first man but the first white man born to an Olinka woman to be cast out for his nakedness - or for being "colorless" (231). The result of this rejection was the fallen world of racial conflict, since the outcast children were, in Celie's words, "so mad to git throwed out and told they was naked they made up they minds to crush us wherever they find us, same as they would a snake." Offered specifically as an alternative to the Judeo-Christian account of Adam, this parable also offers readers an alternative account of Original Sin - defined not in terms of appropriating knowledge or resisting authority but precisely in terms of breaking kinship bonds: "What they did, these Olinka peoples, was throw out they own children, just cause they was a little different" (232). Significantly, by retelling the Olinka narrative, Celie is able to express naturally some rather sophisticated ideas concerning the social construction of racial inferiority, since the myth defines that inferiority as a construct of power relations that will change over time. For the Olinka believe that someday the whites will "kill off so much of the earth and the colored that everybody gon hate them just like they hate us today. Then they will become the new serpent" (233).
The Olinka creation narrative also raises a question central to the novel's larger design: Is progress in race relations possible? Some Olinka, notes Celie, answer this question by predicting that the cycle of discrimination will repeat itself endlessly, that ". . . life will just go on and on like this forever," with first one race in the position of the oppressor and then the other. But others believe that progress in racial harmony is possible - that Original Sin may be ameliorated - through a new valorization of kinship bonds: ". . . the only way to stop making somebody the serpent is for everybody to accept everybody else as a child of God, or one mother's children, no matter what they look like or how they act" (233).(7) These latter Olinka, then, express a domestic ideal for race relations, one that counters the sin of discrimination - based on an ideology of essential difference with an ethic of acceptance that is grounded upon a recognition of relation, or kinship.
But the universalist ethos of the domestic ideal for race relations is put to the test by the larger narrative's development of historically situated, integrated kinship groupings in both Africa and America. Of particular importance are two family groupings: the white missionary Doris Baines and her black African grandchild in Africa, and Sophia and her white charge Miss Eleanor Jane in America. In both cases the specific integrated domestic groupings serve to expose and to critique the larger pattern of racial integration found in their respective countries.
Nettie meets Doris and her adopted grandson on a trip from Africa to seek help for the recently displaced Olinka in England, a trip Nettie calls "incredible" precisely because of the presence of an integrated family on board ship: It was "impossible to ignore the presence of an aging white woman accompanied by a small black child. The ship was in a tither. Each day she and the child walked about the deck alone, groups of white people falling into silence as they passed" (193). Compared to the overtly racist actions of the other whites who ostracize Doris and her grandson, the English missionary's relationship with the boy at first seems in keeping with the ethic of treating all people as "one mother's children." Indeed, Doris describes her years as the boy's "grandmama" as "the happiest" ears of her life (196). Furthermore, Doris's relationship with the African villagers also seems preferable to that of other white missionaries because, rather than wanting to convert "the heathen," she sees "nothing wrong with them" in the first place (195).
But the relationship between the white woman and her African grandson is actually far from ideal, and Nettie's letters subtly question the quality of their "kinship." If the boy seems "fond of his grandmother" - and, Nettie adds, "used to her" - he is also strangely reticent in her presence and reacts to Doris's conversation with "soberly observant speechlessness" (196). In contrast, the boy opens up around Adam and Olivia, suggesting that he may feel more at home with the transplanted black Americans than with his white grandmother.(8) Indeed, the boy's subdued behavior around his grandmother raises questions about the possibility of kinship across racial lines, while his ease with the black Americans suggests that feelings of kinship occur almost spontaneously within racial groups.
The nature of Doris's honorary "kinship" with the Akwee villagers is questioned more seriously still, beginning with her reasons for taking up missionary work in the first place. As a young woman Doris decided to become a missionary not out of a desire to help others but in order to escape the rarefied atmosphere of upper-class England and the probability of her eventual marriage to one of her many "milkfed" suitors, "each one more boring than the last" (194). Although Doris describes her decision to go to Africa as an attempt to escape the stultifying roles available to women in English society, it is important to note that Nettie does not take Doris's hardships very seriously and draws upon fairy-tale rhetoric to parody the woman's upper-class tribulations: "She was born to great wealth in England. Her father was Lord Somebody or Other. They were forever giving or attending boring parties that were not fun."(9) From Nettie's perspective as a black woman familiar with the trials of the displaced Olinka, Doris's aristocratic troubles seem small indeed, and Nettie further trivializes the white woman's decision to become a missionary by emphasizing that the idea struck Doris one evening when she "was getting ready for yet another tedious date" (194).
The self-interest that prompts Doris to become a missionary also characterizes the relationship she establishes with the Akwee upon her arrival in Africa. There she uses her wealth to set up an ostensibly reciprocal arrangement that in fact reflects her imperial power to buy whatever she wants: "Within a year everything as far as me and the heathen were concerned ran like clockwork. I told them right off that their souls were no concern of mine, that I wanted to write books and not be disturbed. For this pleasure I was prepared to pay. Rather handsomely." Described as a mechanism that runs "like clockwork," Doris's relationship to the Akwee clearly falls short of the maternal ideal for race relations expressed in the Olinka myths. In fact, Doris's relationship to the villagers is decidedly paternal from the outset, since her formal kinship with the Akwee begins when she is presented with "a couple of wives" (195) in recognition for her contributions to the village.(10) The fact that she continues to refer to the Olinka as "the heathen" in her discussions with Nettie implies that, in spite of her fondness for her grandson, Doris never overcomes a belief in the essential "difference" of the Africans attributed to her by the Missionary Society in England: "She thinks they are an entirely different species from what she calls Europeans. . . . She says an African daisy and an English daisy are both flowers, but totally different kinds" (115). By promoting a theory of polygenesis opposed to the Olinkan account of racial origins, Doris calls into question her own ability to treat the Akwee as kin. The true nature of her "reciprocal" relationship with the Akwee is revealed when she unselfconsciously tells Nettie that she believes she can save her villagers from the same displacement the Olinka suffered: "I am a very wealthy woman," says Doris, "and I own the village of Akwee" (196).
Stripped of both the religious motivation of the other missionaries and the overt racism of the other whites, Doris Baines through her relationship with the Akwee lays bare the hierarchy of self-interest and paternalism that sets the pattern for race relations in larger Africa. Indeed, from the moment that young Nettie first arrives in Africa she is surprised to find whites there "in droves," and her letters are filled with details suggestive of the hegemony of race and class. Nettie's description of Monrovia is a case in point. There she sees "bunches" of whites and a presidential palace that "looks like the American white house" (119). There Nettie also discovers that whites sit on the country's cabinet, that black cabinet members' wives dress like white women, and that the black president himself refers to his people as "natives" - as Nettie remarks, "It was the first time I'd heard a black man use that word" (120). Originally established by ex-slaves who returned to Africa but who kept "close ties to the country that bought them" (117), Monrovia clearly reveals a Western influence in more than its style of architecture, and its cocoa plantations provide the colonial model of integration that defines the white presence elsewhere in Africa - from the port town "run by a white man" who rents out "some of the stalls . . . to Africans" (127) all the way up to the governor's mansion where "the white man in charge" (144) makes the decision to build the road that ultimately destroys the Olinka village. Indeed, the later displacement of the Olinka villagers by the English roadbuilders - the main action in the African sections of The Color Purple - simply recapitulates the colonial process of integration already embedded in Nettie's narrative of her travels through the less remote areas of Africa.
From her eventual vantage point within the Olinka's domestic sphere, Nettie becomes a first-hand witness to this process of colonization - a process in which she and the other black missionaries unwittingly participate. For although Nettie's reasons for going to Africa differ from Doris Baines's in that they, like those of the other black missionaries, include a concern for the "people from whom [she] sprang" (111), she is trained by a missionary society that is "run by white people" who "didn't say a thing about caring about Africa, but only about duty" (115). Indeed, missionary work is tied to national interest from the time Nettie arrives in England to prepare for the trip to Africa:
. . . the English have been sending missionaries to Africa and India and China and God knows where all, for over a hundred years. And the things they have brought back! We spent a morning in one of their museums and it was packed with jewels, furniture, fur, carpets, swords, clothing, even tombs from all the countries they have been. From Africa they have thousands of vases, jars, masks, bowls, baskets, statues - and they are all so beautiful it is hard to imagine that the people who made them don't still exist. And yet the English assure us they do not. (116-17)
Charting the course of empire through a catalogue of the material culture appropriated by missionaries from "all the countries they have been" (and, chillingly, from peoples who no longer exist), this passage brilliantly underscores Walker's ability to maintain the integrity of the narrative's personal perspective - here that of a young girl's wonder at her first glimpse into the riches of her African heritage - even as she simultaneously invites readers to resituate that perspective in a wider context of race and class. In fact, throughout the African sections of the novel, Walker's embedded narrative enables readers to sympathize with the hopes and disappointments of the black missionaries while it simultaneously exposes the limitations of their point of view.
This narrative complexity becomes especially important in the passages concerning Samuel and Corrine's Victorian aunts, Theodosia and Althea, whom the narrative asks readers both to sympathize with and to judge harshly. On the one hand, as representatives of a group of black women missionaries who achieved much against great odds, the narrative asks readers to see these women and their accomplishments as "astonishing":
. . . no sooner had a young woman got through Spelman Seminary than she began to put her hand to whatever work she could do for her people, anywhere in the world. It was truly astonishing. These very polite and proper young women, some of them never having set foot outside their own small country towns, except to come to the Seminary, thought nothing of packing up for India, Africa, the Orient. Or for Philadelphia or New York. (199)
On the other hand, the narrative levies its harshest criticism of missionary work not against the white missionary Doris Baines but against Aunt Theodosia - and particularly against the foolish pride she takes in a medal given to her by King Leopold for "service as an exemplary missionary in the King's colony." The criticism is levied by a young "DuBoyce," who attends one of Aunt Theodosia's "at homes" and exposes her medal as the emblem of the Victorian woman's "unwitting complicity with this despot who worked to death and brutalized and eventually exterminated thousands and thousands of African peoples" (200). Like the other political allusions embedded in Walker's narrative, the appearance of Du Bois in Aunt Theodosia's domestic sphere recontextualizes Nettie's narrative, and his comments serve as an authoritative final judgment upon the entire missionary effort in Africa.
By structuring Nettie's letters around missionary work, then, Walker achieves much. First, that work provides Nettie and the other black missionaries with a practical and credible pathway into the African domestic sphere. Second, the institutional, historical, and ideological connections between philanthropy and colonialism enable Walker to use that domestic sphere and the example of Doris Baines's integrated family to expose the missionary pattern of integration in larger Africa. Finally, the embedded narrative line enables Walker to remain true to her characters even as she anatomizes the hierarchy of race and class that is first pictured in miniature on Nettie's envelope.
II. "He said he wouldn't do it to me if he was my uncle"
If the integrated family of Doris Baines and her adopted African grandson exposes the missionary pattern of integration in Africa as one based on a false kinship that in fact denies the legitimacy of kinship bonds across racial lines, the relationship between Miss Sophia and her white charge, Miss Eleanor Jane, serves an analogous function for the American South. Sophia, of course, joins the mayor's household as a maid under conditions more overtly racist than Doris Baines's adoption of her Akwee family: Because she answers "hell no" (76) to Miss Millie's request that she come to work for her as a maid, Sophia is brutally beaten by the mayor and six policeman and is then imprisoned. Forced to do the jail's laundry and driven to the brink of madness, Sophia finally becomes Miss Millie's maid in order to escape prison. Sophia's violent confrontation with the white officers obviously foregrounds issues of race and class, as even critics who find these issues marginalized elsewhere in The Color Purple have noted. But it is not only through Sophia's dramatic public battles with white men that her story dramatizes issues of race and class. Her domestic relationship with Miss Eleanor Jane and the other members of the mayor's family offers a more finely nuanced and extended critique of racial integration, albeit one that has often been overlooked.(11)
Like Doris Baines and her black grandson, Sophia and Miss Eleanor Jane appear to have some genuine family feelings for one another. Since Sophia "practically . . . raise[s]" (222) Miss Eleanor Jane and is the one sympathetic person in her house, it is not surprising that the young girl "dote[s] on Sophia" and is "always stick[ing] up for her" (88), or that, when Sophia leaves the mayor's household (after fifteen years of service), Miss Eleanor Jane continues to seek out her approval and her help with the "mess back at the house" (174). Sophia's feelings for Miss Eleanor are of course more ambivalent. When she first joins the mayor's household, Sophia is completely indifferent to her charge, "wonder[ing] why she was ever born" (88). After rejoining her own family, Sophia resents Miss Eleanor Jane's continuing intrusions into her family life and suggests that the only reason she helps the white girl is because she's "on parole. . . . Got to act nice" (174). But later Sophia admits that she does feel "something" for Miss Eleanor Jane "because of all the people in your daddy's house, you showed me some human kindness" (225).
Whatever affection exists between the two women, however, has been shaped by the perverted "kinship" relation within which it grew - a relationship the narrative uses to expose plantation definitions of kinship in general and to explode the myth of the black mammy in particular. Separated from her own family and forced to join the mayor's household against her will, living in a room under the house and assigned the housekeeping and childraising duties, Sophia carries out a role in the mayor's household which clearly recalls that of the stereotypical mammy on the Southern plantation. However, as someone who prefers to build a roof on the house while her husband tends the children, Sophia seems particularly unsuited for that role. And that is precisely the narrative's point: Sophia is entirely unsuited for the role of mammy, but whites - including and perhaps especially Miss Eleanor Jane - continually expect her to behave according to their cultural representations of the black mother. It is, in fact, these expectations that get Sophia into trouble in the first place, for when Miss Millie happens upon Sophia's family and sees her children so "clean" (76), she assumes that Sophia would make a perfect maid and that Sophia would like to come and work in her household. Similarly, Miss Eleanor Jane assumes that Sophia must return her family feelings in kind, without considering Sophia's true position in her household. The young white woman's stereotypical projections become clear when she can't understand why Sophia doesn't "just love" her new son, since, in her words, "all other colored women I know love children" (224-25).
An historical appropriation of domestic discourse for political ends, descriptions of the black mammy were used by apologists for slavery to argue that the plantation system benefited the people whom it enslaved by incorporating supposedly inferior blacks into productive white families.(12) And Sophia explicitly ties her employers to such plantation definitions of racial difference: "They have the nerve to try to make us think slavery fell through because of us. . . . Like us didn't have sense enough to handle it. All the time breaking hoe handles and letting the mules loose in the wheat" (89). But through Sophia's experience in the mayor's household, the narrative demonstrates that it is Miss Millie, the mayor's wife, who is actually incompetent - who must be taught to drive by Sophia, for example, and who even then can't manage a short trip by herself. Thus, when she suddenly decides to drive Sophia home for a visit, Miss Millie stalls the car and ruins the transmission, the mistress unable to master driving in reverse. Too afraid of black men to allow one of Sophia's relatives to drive her back home alone, Miss Millie reveals her childlike dependence upon Sophia, who must cut short her first visit with her children in five years to ride home with the distraught white woman. Sophia's position as domestic within the mayor's household thus enables Walker to subvert the discourse of plantation kinship by suggesting that it actually supports a group of people who are themselves incompetent or, in Sophia words, "backward, . . . clumsy, and unlucky" (89).
Predicated on this plantation model of integration, relations between whites and blacks throughout the American South reveal a false kinship not unlike that of Doris Baines and the Akwee. But in this instance the false kinship is doubly perverse because it conceals an elaborate network of actual kinship connections. Thus Miss Eleanor Jane's husband feels free to humor Sophia by referring to the importance of black mammies in the community - ". . . everybody around here raise by colored. That's how come we turn out so well' (222) - while other white men refuse to recognize the children they father with black women. As Celie says of Mr. _____'s son Bub, he "look so much like the Sheriff, he and Mr. _____ almost on family terms"; that is, "just so long as Mr. _____ know he colored" (76-77). Like the apologists for slavery, then, the Southern whites in The Color Purple keep alive a counterfeit definition of family while denying the real ties that bind them to African Americans.
In fact, the underlyIng system of kinship that exists in the American South has more to do with white uncles than black mammies, as is clear from the scene in which Sophia's family and friends consider various stratagems for winning her release from prison. By asking, "Who the warden's black kinfolks?" (80), Mr. _____ reveals that kinship relations between whites and blacks are so extensive in the community that it may be assumed that someone will be related by blood to the warden. That someone, of course, is Squeak. Hopeful that she will be able to gain Sophia's release from the warden on the basis of their kinship, the others dress Squeak up "like she a white woman" with instructions to make the warden "see the Hodges in you" (82). In spite of the fact that the warden does recognize Squeak as kin "the minute [she] walk[s] through the door" (83) - or perhaps because he recognizes her - the warden rapes Squeak, denying their kinship in the very act of perverting it. As Squeak herself recounts, "He say if he was my uncle he wouldn't do it to me" (85). Both an intensely personal and highly political act, Squeak's rape exposes the denial of kinship at the heart of race relations in the South and underscores the individual and institutional power of whites to control the terms of kinship - and whatever power those definitions convey - for their own interests.(13)
It is specifically as an act of resistance to this power that Sophia comes to reject Miss Eleanor Jane's baby and thereby to challenge the Olinka kinship ideal for race relations. From the time her son is born, Miss Eleanor Jane continually tests out Sophia's maternal feelings for him, "shoving Reynolds Stanley Earl in her face" almost "every time Sofia turn[s] around" (223). When an exasperated Sophia finally admits that she doesn't love the baby, Miss Eleanor Jane accuses her of being "unnatural" and implies that Sophia should accept her son because he is "just a little baby!" (225) - an innocent who, presumably, should not be blamed for the racist sins of his fathers. From Sophia's vantage point as a persecuted black woman, however, Reynolds Stanley is not "just a sweet, smart, cute, innocent little baby boy." He is in fact the grandson and namesake of the man who beat her brutally in the street, a man whom he also resembles physically. A "white something without much hair" with "big stuck open eyes" (223), Reynolds Stanley also takes after his father, who is excused from the military to run the family cotton gin while Sophia's own boys are trained for service overseas. To Sophia, Reynolds Stanley is both the living embodiment of and literal heir to the system that oppresses her: "He can't even walk and already he in my house messing it up. Did I ask him to come? Do I care whether he sweet or not? Will it make any difference in the way he grow up to treat me what I think?" (224). Reminding Miss Eleanor Jane of the real social conditions that separate her from Reynolds Stanley in spite of his "innocence," Sophia articulates a strong position counter to the Olinka kinship ethic of treating everyone like one mother's children: ". . . all the colored folks talking bout loving everybody just ain't looked hard at what they thought they said" (226).
In subverting the plantation model of kinship in general and the role of mammy that it assigns to black women in particular, then, Sophia's position as an unwilling domestic in the mayor's household underscores the importance of the personal point of view to the novel's political critique of race relations. Indeed, the personal point of view of The Color Purple is central to its political message: It is precisely the African American woman's subjectivity that gives the lie to cultural attempts to reduce her - like Sophia - to the role of the contented worker in a privileged white society.(14)
III. "White people off celebrating their independence. . . . Us can spend the day celebrating each other"
The Color Purple closes with a celebration of kinship, its concluding action composed of a series of family reunions: Sophia patches things up with Harpo; Shug visits her estranged children (for the first time in thirty years); and the novel's two narrators, Celie and Nettie, are joyfully and tearfully reunited. Even Albert and Celie are reconciled, his change of heart signaled by his earning the right to have his first name written. Coming after Celie has achieved both economic independence and emotional security, the reunions at the end of The Color Purple testify to the importance of kinship to the happiness of every individual. Appropriately, then, when the two sisters fall into one another's arms at last, each identities her kin: Nettie introduces her husband and the children, and Celie's first act is to "point up at [her] peoples . . . Shug and Albert" (243). But in addition to suggesting that the individual realizes her full potential only within the supporting bonds of a strong kinship group (no matter how unconventionally that group might be defined), the conclusion to The Color Purple also addresses the vexing question posed by the Olinka Adam narrative: Is progress in race relations possible? By bringing to closure two earlier narrative threads - one dealing with Sophia and Miss Eleanor Jane, and the other with Sophia's relationship to work - the novel suggests that progress in race relations is possible. But the narrative's ending also contains arresting images of racial segregation in both Africa and America that complicate the idea of progress and ultimately move the narrative toward a final definition of kinship based on race.
After their falling out over Reynolds Stanley, Sophia and Miss Eleanor Jane are reunited when the mayor's daughter finally learns from her family why Sophia came to work for them in the first place. Miss Eleanor Jane subsequently comes to work in Sophia's home, helping with the housework and taking care of Sophia's daughter Henrietta. Clearly an improvement in the domestic relationship between the two women, this new arrangement expresses Miss Eleanor Jane's new understanding of their domestic history together: To her family's question "Whoever heard of a white woman working for niggers?" Miss Eleanor Jane answers, "Whoever heard of somebody like Sophia working for trash?" For her part, Sophia's acceptance of Miss Eleanor Jane in her own home also signals progress, although when Celie asks pointedly if little Reynolds Stanley comes along with his mother, Sophia sidesteps the issue of her own feelings for the child by answering, "Henrietta say she don't mind him"(238).(15) Sophia's comment maintains the legitimacy of her own hard-earned attitudes toward the child, even as it reserves the possibility that different attitudes may be possible in future generations.
Sophia's employment in Celie's dry goods store also seems to signal an improvement in race relations, not only because it represents Sophia's final escape from her position as mammy but also because shops are used throughout The Color Purple to represent the status of economic and social integration between blacks and whites. Thus early in the novel Corrine, a Spelman graduate, is insulted when a white clerk calls her "Girl" (14) and intimidates her into buying some thread she doesn't want. Later the novel contrasts the histories of Celie's real Pa and Step-pa as store owners, histories that comment on the ability of African Americans to achieve economic integration into the American main-stream.(16) Celie's real father, in the tradition of the American success story, works hard, buys his own store, and hires two of his bothers to work it for him. Ironically, his model of industry and enterprise fails, since the store's very success leads "white merchants . . . [to] complain that this store was taking all the black business away from them" (148) Refusing to tolerate free competition from a black-owned and black-operated business, whites eventually burn the store and lynch Celie's Pa and his two brothers. The tragic history of Celie's real Pa thus compels readers to reinterpret Celie's family history in terms of the historical lack of access of African Americans to the "American Dream."
Believing that Celie's real Pa "didn't know how to git along," Alphonso, her step-pa, expresses a different path to economic integration:
Take me, he say, I know how they is. The key to all of 'em is money. The trouble with our people is as soon as they got out of slavery they didn't want to give the white man nothing else. But the fact is, you got to give 'em something. Either your money, your land, your woman or your ass. So what I did was just right off offer to give 'em money. Before I planted a seed, I made sure this one and that one knowed one seed out of three was planted for him. Before I ground a grain of wheat, the same thing. And when I opened up your daddy's old store in town, I bought me my own white boy to run it. And what make it so good, he say, I bought him with whitefolks' money. (155)
Alphonso's decision to pay off whites and buy a white boy to work in the dry goods store establishes him in the tradition of the trickster who plays the system for his own benefit; however, the model of integration he represents is finally seen as accommodationist. Alphonso, in fact, is identified with white power from the beginning of the novel, where he is seen going off with a group of white men armed with guns (11-12). After he has made his fortune, Alphonso recalls the compromised African president described in Nettie's letter - like him Alphonso lives in a house that now looks like a "white person's house" (153), and like him he establishes paternalistic relationships with other blacks. Thus when Shug asks Alphonso's new wife, a "child" not "more than fifteen," why her parents allowed her to marry him, the girl replies: "They work for him. . . . Live on his land" (154). Alphonso's marriage thus makes explicit the degree to which his identification with white paternalism shapes his domestic relationships with other blacks.
In the context of these earlier histories, Sophia's coming to work in Celie's dry goods store has wider significance than just her finding suitable work outside the home. Indeed, for the first time in its history the store has an integrated workforce, since Celie keeps the "white man" who works there even as she hires Sophia to "wait on" blacks and "treat 'em nice" (245). In direct contrast to the white clerk who intimidated Corrine earlier, Sophia refuses to coerce customers and turns out to be especially good at "selling stuff" because "she don't care if you buy or not." Importantly, Sophia also resists the white clerk's attempts to define their relationship in the terms of plantation kinship: When he presumes to call her "auntie," she mocks him by asking "which colored man his mama sister marry" (237-38). While race relations in Celie's integrated store are obviously not ideal, Sophia's employment there is nonetheless both a personal and a communal triumph: Sophia finds employment that suits her as an individual, and the black community is treated with new respect in the market-place.
Significantly, these small steps toward progress in race relations come not from some realization of the Olinka ideal or any recognition of identity between the races but from an evolving separatism and parallel growth in racial identity within the African and African American communities. The possibility of treating everyone like "one mother's children" is achieved within but not between racial groups by the end of The Color Purple. Instead, the conclusion leaves readers with images of an emerging Pan-Africanism in Africa and a nascent black nationalism in the American South.
In Africa separatism is represented by the mbeles, warriors who "live deep in the jungle, refusing to work for whites or be ruled by them" (193). Composed of men and women "from dozens of African tribes," the mbeles are particularly significant because they comprise a remnant group defined not by traditional village bloodlines but by their common experience of racial oppression and their shared commitment to active resistance, which takes the form of "missions of sabotage against the white plantations" (234). In the mbeles, The Color Purple accurately depicts the historical origin of many African "tribes" or nations in the reorganization of older societies decimated by colonization. Their plans for the white man's "destruction - or at least for his removal from their continent" (217; italics added) - also reflect a nascent pan-Africanism among the disenfranchised. Including among their number "one colored man . . . from Alabama," the mbeles represent a form of kinship that is defined by racial rather than national identity.
In America, a parallel growth in black identity is suggested by Celie's final letter in The Color Purple. Indeed, the spirit of celebratory kinship with which the novel closes is achieved by Celie's group specifically in isolation from whites, as Harpo explains: "White people busy celebrating they independence from England July 4th . . . so most black folks don't have to work. Us can spend the day celebrating each other" (242). By juxtaposing "white people" and "black folks," Harpo distinguishes his kinship group from the kinship of whites, defined by privilege and national identity. Importantly, the "folks" that Harpo refers to now include Celie's African daughter-in-law, Tashi. Also significantly, that group does not include Miss Eleanor Jane, no matter how strained her relationship with her own family or how successful her reunion with Sophia. Tashi's easy integration into the black community effaces her earlier fears that coming to America would rob her of all kinship ties, leaving her with "no country, no people, no mother and no husband and brother" (235). Instead, Tashi's quick acceptance by the Southern women, who make a fuss over her and "stuff her" with food (244), suggests once again that feelings of black identity make it easy for people to treat others as "one mother's children."(17)
But if the conclusion to The Color Purple suggests that feelings of racial identity can transcend national boundaries, the novel provides no such reassurances that the boundaries between races can be successfully negotiated. That sober conclusion is confirmed by the outcome of two other attempts at integration. The first is that of Shug's son, a missionary on an Indian reservation in the American West. The American Indians refuse to accept her son, Shug explains, because "everybody not a Indian they got no use for" (237).(18) The failure of Shug's son to become integrated into the American Indian community contrasts with Mary Agnes's successful integration with the mixed peoples of Cuba, but her experience there also emphasizes the importance of racial identity to kinship definitions. Indeed, it is because she is a person of color that Mary Agnes is recognized as kin: Even though some of the Cuban people are as light as Mary Agnes while others are "real dark," Shug explains, they are "all in the same family though. Try to pass for white, somebody mention your grandma" (211). Thus in Cuba - as well as in Africa and North America - feelings of racial identity among marginalized peoples become the basis for definitions of kinship by novel's end.
Finally, it is not surprising that, in elaborating her domestic trope for race relations, Walker is able to foreground the personal experience of her narrators while simultaneously offering an extended critique of racial integration. As Walker's integrated families remind us, the black family has seldom existed as a private, middle-class space protected from the interference of the state; therefore, the African American household is particularly inscribed with social meanings available for narration. Rather than opposing public and private spheres, Walker's narrative underscores their interpenetration. If her narrative does reveal an opposition, it is not between public and private discourse but between the universalist ethos of the Olinka ideal for race relations and the historical experience of African Americans as reflected in the narrative's analysis of specific integrated family groupings. For if the Olinka ideal questions the true nature of kinship in the novel's integrated families, these families also serve to criticize the Olinka myth for tracing the origins of racial discrimination back to some imaginary sin of black people, rather than to real, historical discrimination by whites.
It may be, however, that the growing sense of racial separatism at the conclusion to the The Color Purple is not necessarily at odds with the Olinka ideal for race relations. Past discrimination itself may dictate that improved relations between the races must begin with the destruction of false relations - the discovery of kinship among the disenfranchised the necessary first step, perhaps, toward recognizing all others as part of the same family. Like the Olinka Adam myth, the conclusion to Walker's novel raises the question of the future of race relations, but also like that myth, the novel offers no certain predictions. One thing is certain, however. Critics who believe that The Color Purple sacrifices its ability to critique the public world of blacks in favor of dramatizing the personal experience of its narrators not only run the risk of reducing the narrative's technical complexity, but also of overlooking the work's sustained critique of racial integration levied from within the domestic sphere. Through its embedded narrative line and carefully elaborated kinship trope for race relations, The Color Purple offers a critique of race that explores the possibility of treating all people as "one mother's children" - while remaining unremittingly sensitive to the distance that often separates even the best of human ideals from real historical conditions.
1. By characterizing the novel's point of view as "domestic," I mean no criticism, as my paper will make clear. My approach to The Color Purple is in sympathy with recent revaluations of the domestic sphere in literature. See, for example, Barbara Christian, who charts in her discussion of George Simms (20) the well-known nineteenth-century denigration of sentimental fiction by male writers; and Jane Tompkins, who has argued that earlier interpretations of sentimental fiction were shaped by critics who taught "generations of students to equate popularity with debasement, emotionality with ineffectiveness, religiosity with fakery, domesticity with triviality - and all of these, implicitly, with womanly inferiority" (123). Closer at hand, Alison Light has attributed critics' "fear" of the happy ending in The Color Purple to similar attitudes toward sentimentality in fiction; Light points to an" 'androcentricity' implicit and produced" in the "making" of public and private spheres (92) and notes that "terms like 'sentimental' and 'idealistic' are not themselves transparent descriptions of knowledge or response" but "carry with them cultural prescriptions and assumptions and have themselves to be historicized" (93). See also Susan K. Harris and Claudia Tate.
2. Called Walker's "best but most problematic" novel by Bernard Bell (263), The Color Purple has generated controversy since its publication in 1982 and especially since the appearance of the 1985 film of the same title. It should be noted that academic discussions of Celie's point of view in The Color Purple are paralleled in interesting ways by a controversy in the popular media over the representation of black men in novel and film. In "Sifting Through the Controversy: Reading The Color Purple," Jacqueline Bobo concludes that arguments in the public media focus on two values that sometimes seem in conflict: the need for positive images of black people in the media and the recognition of "the authority of black women writers to set the agenda for imagemaking in fiction and film" (334).
3. By placing my first reference to race in quotation marks I am following the practice of Gates and others in "Race," Writing, and Difference. The quotation marks indicate that "race" does not refer to some essential nature or fixed difference between people. Gates's collection illustrates a variety of critical approaches to what he calls "the complex interplay among race, writing, and difference" (15).
4. Hooks also objects specifically to Walker's linking of the slave narrative form to that of the sentimental novel, an association that she believes "strips the slave narrative of its revolutionary ideological intent and content" by linking it to "Eurocentral bourgeois literary traditions" ("Writing" 465). But hooks's criticism is problematic in light of the classical slave narrative tradition itself. Female authors of slave narratives often draw heavily upon the tradition of the sentimental novel to tell their stories. Note, for example, the case of what today is probably the best known woman's narrative, Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Until recently Jacobs's autobiographical narrative was thought to be a sentimental novel. Jean Fagan Yellin details the textual history of the narrative in her edition of Incidents. See also Sekora's discussion of the genre of the slave narrative as a "mixed form" that syncretizes several literary traditions. While disagreeing with hooks about the genre of slave narratives in general and with her assessment of Walker's use of that tradition in particular, I want to acknowledge my debt to her work elsewhere on plantation family structures (as discussed in n14, below).
5. Unlike George Stade and bell hooks, Lauren Berlant and Elliott Butler-Evans seek not to criticize Walker's handling of the epistolary form but to uncover one effect that they believe follows from her chosen approach. Butler-Evans believes that the "restriction of focus to Celie's consciousness enables the novel to erase the public history and permits Celie to tell her own story" (166-67). Similarly, Berlant discusses Walker's "strategy of inversion, represented in its elevation of female experience over great patriarchal events" (847). Both critics detect an opposition or separation of discourses in the text, but their analyses differ in important ways. While sympathetic to Butler-Evans's method of analyzing the "politics of narration" (17) and especially to his analysis of sexual oppression, I believe his focus on the gender issues at the center of Walker's narrative leads him to underestimate both the extent and the importance of the novel's representation of race. Berlant's sophisticated argument cannot be summarized here, but if she means to limit - as I believe she does - her analysis of "nation" to Celie's understanding of the term, then our analyses may not be so much in conflict as they first appear. My own interest is in analyzing the narrative's embedded text on racial integration rather than in defining any particular characters understanding of race or nation. In other words, I believe that the implied reader of Walkers text is provided a political vantagepoint wider than that of any particular character in the novel, including its primary narrator, Celie.
6. Gates has analyzed the extent to which The Color Purple signifies upon Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (Signifying 239-58). Note that, because of its layered narrative line, Walker's text is capable of another form of "doubleness" - an ability to signify upon itself.
7. While my purpose here is to focus primarily upon the representation of racial integration rather than gender, I should also note that this domestic ideal is expressed specifically in terms of matrilineal bonds. The recognition of all people as "one mother's children" is in keeping, of course, with the construction of gender elsewhere in the novel. Woman's love, understood as growing out of the experience of identity between mother and child (rather than out of the perception of difference between the sexes) is represented throughout The Color Purple as love that looks beyond differences in how people "look or act." As Celie tells Shug when the singer prepares to leave her, "I'm a woman. I love you. . . . Whatever happen, whatever you do. I love you" (221). For a theoretical alternative to Oedipal theories of maturation, see Chodorow.
8. While the boy's close proximity in age to Adam and Olivia accounts for some of his demeanor, his behavior raises issues of race and class nevertheless.
9. Note that Nettie's use of fairy-tale rhetoric to parody Doris undercuts the gender issues available in the white woman's narration and emphasizes instead issues of race and class.
10. Linda Abbandonato and others have pointed to Levi-Strauss's interpretation of the exchange of women as a "system of bonding men" (1109). Similarly, historian Gerda Lerner argues in The Creation of Patriarchy that the control of kinship - and especially of women's sexual and reproductive powers - leads to the historical development of patriarchal political structures, as power moves from the home and into law. Ironically, Doris leaves England to avoid becoming a wife, only to become an honorary husband in Africa. Doris's money has enabled her to escape becoming an object of exchange but not to escape the petriarchal system of exchange itself, which is seen to reach across continents.
11. Thus, in an article on "alienation and integration," Frank Shelton analyzes four kinds of alienation and integration in the novel - but not racial alienation or integration, probably because he believes that one component of such an analysis is largely missing from the text: "White people," he asserts, are "called a miracle of affliction" and then are "virtually ignored" (382). Rather than being ignored, white people actually function in the latter half of the novel to underscore the presence of race and class hegemony in domestic space and to problematize the family ideal for racial integration.
12. My discussion of the black mammy builds upon the work of Hazel Carby, Barbara Christian, Trudier Harris, and bell hooks (Ain't I a Woman), all of whom have written on literary representations of the African American woman in the plantation household.
13. For other analyses of Squeak's rape, see Christine Froula's reading of Squeak's "self-naming" in light of the sexual violence in the novel (639), and Berlant's discussion of the rape as "the diacritical mark that organizes Squeak's insertion into the 'womanist' order" (844).
14. In doing so, Walker's novel joins the longstanding feminist critique of separate-spheres ideology as a false division used for power's self-maintenance. See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's comment that "the deconstruction of the opposition between the private and public" is "implicit in all feminist activity" (201).
15. Note that Celie's pointed question to Sophia about Miss Eleanor Jane's baby demonstrates her own understanding of the race issues involved in Sophia's relationship with the white baby.
16. See Berlant's reading of Celie's family history, which argues that Celie's "fairy-tale rhetoric emphasizes the personal over the institutional or political components of social relations" such that "the nonbiologized abstraction of class relations virtually disappears from the text" (841-42). According to Berlant, Celie never understands the economic or class issues implied by her family history.
17. The conclusion also suggests that feelings of kinship can transcend gender differences, even when these differences include prior wrongs as great as Albert's abuse of Celie. The novel resolves tensions between the sexes - but not those between the races - optimistically, with partners, husbands, wives, and estates well sorted out by the novel's end.
18. Shug's son may work for the same organization as Nettie, since we learn early on that the "American and African Missionary Society" has also "ministered to the Indians out west" (109). In any case, the American Indians' treatment of Shug's son underscores their own understanding of the colonial function of missionaries. By calling Shug's son the "black white man," the American Indians also complicate racial definitions of kinship by suggesting that the definition of race itself is ultimately located in social hegemony.
Abbandonato, Linda. "A View From Elsewhere: Subversive Sexuality and the Rewriting of the Heroine's Story in The Color Purple." PMLA 106 (1991): 1106-15.
Bell, Bernard. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1987.
Berlant, Lauren. "Race, Gender, and Nation in The Color Purple." Critical Inquiry 14 (1988): 831-59.
Bobo, Jacqueline. "Sifting through the Controversy: Reading The Color Purple." Callaloo 12 (1989): 332-42.
Butler-Evans, Elliott. Race, Gender, and Desire: Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1989.
Carby, Hazel. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and The Sociology of Gender. Berkeley: U of California P, 1978.
Christian, Barbara. Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976. Westport: Greenwood, 1980.
Froula, Christine, "The Daughter's Seduction: Sexual Violence and Feminist Theory." Signs 2 (1986): 621-44.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., ed. "Race," Writing, and Difference. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986.
-----. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.
Harris, Susan K. 19th-Century American Women's Novels: Interpretive Strategies. New York: Cambridge UP, 1990.
Harris, Trudier. From Mammies to Militants: Domestics in Black American Literature. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1982.
Hooks, bell. Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. Boston: South End, 1981.
-----. "Writing the Subject: Reading The Color Purple." Reading Black, Reading Feminist. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Meridian, 1990. 454-70.
Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Told by Herself. Ed. Jean Fagan Yellin. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987.
Lerner, Gerda. The Creation of Patriarchy. New York: Oxford UP, 1986
Light, Alison. "The Fear of the Happy Ending." Plotting Change. Ed. Linda Anderson. London: Edward Arnold, 1993. 85-96.
Sekora, John. "Is the Slave Narrative a Species of Autobiography?" Studies in Autobiography. Ed. James Olney. New York: Oxford UP, 1988. 99-111.
Shelton, Frank W. "Alienation and Integration in Alice Walker's The Color Purple." CLA Journal 28 (1985): 382-92.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. "Explanation and Culture: Marginalia." Humanities and Society 2 (1974): 201-21.
Stade, George. "Womanist Fiction and Male Characters." Partisan Review 52 (1985): 264-70.
Tate, Claudia. Domestic Allegories of Political Desire: The Black Heroine's Text at the Turn of the Century. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.
Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.
Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. New York: Harcourt, 1982.
Linda Selzer teaches at the Pennsylvania State University, where she is a member of the American literature, African American literature, and American Studies programs.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1995|
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