Dear Alice Walker,
How did they ever turn your beautiful book into a musical? Musicals aren’t known for their complex characters or understatement and The Color Purple has both.
Celie is one of literature’s most compelling protagonists. Her letters to God and her long-lost sister assess her situation and relationships with such aching candor. She is victim and survivor and hero. She is scared and confused and certain and right and wrong. She wants to love and be loved. Others might consider her life inconsequential, but you, Alice, portray her as so abundantly real and human.
The Color Purple is not flashy or plotty. There is trauma and violence in Celie’s life, but the novel doesn’t focus so much on those moments as on the ripples through lives and families and communities that follow. Rape and assault have immediate consequences, but it takes Celie years to clearly see the thumbprints of these events all over her past. Novelists who can write about events are a dime-a-dozen; you, Alice, are in that small and exalted company who are able to depict life in all its complexities and contradictions.
Most of all, The Color Purple strikes resonant chords about faith and relationships. Celie learns about love from her husband’s mistress, Shug. She eventually learns to befriend the husband who used to beat her. But the most powerful relationship in the novel is the one that hardly exists. The friendship and love between Celie and her sister Nettie stretch across years and oceans. They spend most of their lives unable to speak or write to each other, but their bond is unbreakable and even the mere idea of each other is a comfort. That is faith. The novel begins with “Dear God,” but its lesson about faith is not a religious one. For Celie and Nettie, faith in each other is grants far more hope than divine intervention. Thank you, Alice, for showing the power of “sisters before misters.”
In all of this, I don’t think I’ve given enough credit to you, Alice, or your novel as a masterwork of both American Literature and African-American Literature. The Color Purple illustrates the systematic and institutional oppression of Black Americans and the particularly harsh and corrosive effects that oppression has on Black Women. Celie’s complexity, her humanity, and her stoicism understates the horrors of her life. But they are there and they are heartbreaking from first to last.
Literature is a window to the world, to perspectives and experiences that are not (and cannot be) our own. The Color Purple does this, yes, but I am struck in the end, Alice, at how much the human experience has in common.
Up Next: Carl Sandburg: selected poems ed. Paul Berman & a Reading with Ms. Holmes post coming soon!
Why? It seems like an appropriate political moment to revisit Sandburg’s perspective on the working man and the industrial age.