The Color Purple' Theme Essay

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This paper aims to cover the topic of African American Literature and literacy about the 1982 epistolary novel by African American author Alice Walker. The paper will shed light on literacy and African American education and intellect as well as Alice Walker’s intent behind making the theme of literacy a main one. The paper will also discuss many related topics that are of importance like womanism and intersectionality about the rights of education and women's writing.


Since the beginning of time, the world has not been fair, and people have chosen to be divided in many ways. Whether it was gender or color or whatever it was, the world has chosen certain traits and claimed that an individual needed to have them to have a better life, having those traits allowed some to claim to be superior and with that superiority comes many privileges. Color has always been an issue for many, some with fairer skins were more privileged and got the best of what this world had to offer and the ones who looked a bit different didn’t get all that much.

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“Literacy is one of the strongest predictors of adult success, yet one in four children are illiterate and 50% of adults cannot read a book that is written on an eighth-grade level. Although African American children from low-income homes are three times more likely than White children to be poor, and at greater risk for illiteracy” -The Journal of Negro Education, 2014, Vol. 83, No.

In the United States, while white people were going to schools to get an education, African Americans were still being sold for slavery, in fact, both the enslaved and the free black individuals were at first discouraged from getting an education or learning how to read or write unless it was for religious purposes until it was made illegal for a person of color to learn in most southern states in the united states. education is the freedom of the mind and of course, how could you be a slave and have a free mind? Literacy for black African Americans was looked at as a threat to the whole institution of slavery. Literacy would potentially educate African Americans about the ways of the world and about what is right and what is wrong, what is fair and what is not. Literacy would also educate African Americans about the successful slave revolution in Haiti in 1804 and the end of slavery in the British Empire in 1833. finally allowing slaves to read would allow them access to more information about the underground railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States of America during the early to mid 19th century and used by enslaved African Americans to escape into free states of Canada, that and other routes to freedom.

The United States of America was the only country known for prohibiting African Americans from education and literacy. Despite that, African Americans whether free or enslaved were keen on learning at least how to read and write, so that they could document their rich history and pass down their beautiful traditions, so they found a way to do so by oral storytelling and music and crafts and drawings. In the northern states, while reading was encouraged for religious purposes and instruction, writing was not. Writing was looked at as a mark of status, for someone to write in general they need to have an established status in society and that wasn’t only for African Americans but for white Americans as well. Finally with the end of slavery came the end of the prohibition of slave education but still, that did not mean that education was available to African Americans and former slaves and their children, racial segregation was at an all-time high at that period and the schools that were made for African Americans were not funded and were very inadequate.

For African American women the case was a bit more different and a bit harder, so to understand their struggle for their basic rights such as literacy it would be appropriate to explain the term Intersectionality a term that was coined by black feminist scholar Kimberle William Crenshaw, Crenshaw began using this term to deal with the fact that many of our social justice problems like racism and sexism are often overlapping, creating multiple levels of social injustices. Crenshaw wants to show the world how while women were faced and struggling with sexism, black women were struggling with sexism and racism at the same time, so while women were fighting for their rights like being more equal to men and the right to vote, black women were still struggling to get their basic human rights like the right to education. after women got their right to vote, the concept of “educated suffragist” was introduced which meant that being educated was legally required to be able to vote. This notion meant that African American women since most of them were not educated, could not be voters and that they were excluded from that right. So African American women had to become more aggressive in their fight to gain equality with men and other women. Literacy for African American women was realized to be more important than gaining equality, so the first African American suffrage association was created and it focused on black women’s education.

Alice Walker, the African American author of the Pulitzer prize for Fiction winner novel The Color Purple who’s also a poet and a social activist was the one to coin the term Womanist, to mean a black feminist of a feminist of color. Despite the segregation that was still going on, Walker was enrolled in school when she was just four years old, and when she got older she had to attend the only school that was available for blacks: Butler Baker High School, where she became valedictorian and was granted a full scholarship by the state of Georgia to attend Spelman college, she was an excellent student with a passion for the intellect that she was granted another scholarship in New York. Walker knew the importance of literacy for black women she even taught a course about black women writers at The University of Massachusetts Boston. Her work has always focused on black people especially women and their struggles, she wanted to shed light on the hardships of African American women not only in society but in their own homes, Walker’s not only articles but also works of fiction like her novel The Color Purple, showcased what happens to black women in that society. The Color Purple was one of Walker’s most successful works of literature, Walker followed a style of writing that was very unique at the time ‘Epistolary’ which is a novel or a work of fiction that is written as a form of letters, or diary entries.

A breakdown of the plot and the characters of the novel:

Celie, the protagonist and narrator of The Color Purple, is a poor, uneducated, fourteen-year-old black girl living in rural Georgia. The book is a story about the life of African Americans in the United States. The main characters are sisters Celie and Nettie who were very close and practically had only one another to care for and love and protect, especially Celie being the older sister. unfortunately for them, the man who raised them and thought to be their real father separated them by marrying Celie to a man named Albert. Celie was raped by the man she believed was her father and then married off to an older man to raise his children and take care of him and serve him which shaped her up to be a very insecure scared broken-down character. In the early 1900’s she starts talking to god about how she believes she saw the daughter that she gave birth to, the product of her being raped, on the street one day with a strange woman. One day Nettie runs away from their father and goes to see Celie. Celie is the oldest yet she’s been broken down by life, she doesn’t know how to fight

Nettie tells Celie that she needs to fight and Celie responds that she only knows how to stay alive.

Celie tells her sister she can’t stay long or Celie's husband might sexually assault her so they are faced with the fact that they have to be separated yet again. So they have to find a way to stay in contact but neither of them can read or write so Nettie decides that she’s going to go to school and learn for the both of them so that they can write for one another. Nettie starts learning and teaching Celie everything she’s learning. When Celie’s husband tries to make a move on Nettie one day when she is heading to school, she hits him drops all her books, and runs away. Enraged Albert decides to kick Nettie out of their house, the girls cry out tears of sadness as they clutch onto one another not wanting to get spectated once again. But they knew this day might come which is why they took up learning as a way to stay connected with one another in case this day came and it did. As he carries her to throw her out of his land, Celie yells out “Write” to her sister Nettie.

The days and the years passed and Celie kept waiting for a letter from Nettie but nothing arrived so Celie continued to write letters to god instead. The years pass and Celie assumes Nettie has passed away because she said only death would keep her from writing but as it turns out Albert has been hiding the letters that Nettie has been sending for all those years and keeping them away from Celie, Celie finds the letters starts reading them by order. Happy and overwhelmed she reads about how Nettie had become a teacher and how she’s now living with Celie’s two children the ones she had from her father and were given away and now Nettie is raising them, so in one way fate brought Nettie to them so they’d be close to family. After learning about the letters Celie decides to stand up for herself and pack her things and leave her Albert.

The Significance of “Learning” in The Color Purple:

Learning in general is a big part of the story’s plot, it’s not just about educational learning, it’s about learning facts, facts about life. Celie learns the truth about what happened with her children, Nettie learns the truth about who their real father is and learns about life in Africa after moving there to become a teacher. Learning overall is an emphasized theme in the novel. Celie emphasizes that her children in Africa are living a better life and learning new languages, she connects the concept of a good life or a better life with learning. Learning new things would open up doors for you, just like how learning how to read opened up a whole world for Celie herself.

In the novel, illiteracy is seen through some certain acts and behaviors of the characters. specifically the illiteracy of African Americans at that time. One thing that is noticed majorly in the novel, is Alice Walker's usage of a broken English language. The characters in the book speak based on their level of literacy. Starting with Celie before learning how to read or write, the language that she used was grammatically and linguistically incorrect.

“Shug acts more manly than most men . . . he says. You know Shug will fight, he says. Just like Sofia. She is bound to live her life and be herself no matter what. Mr. ______ thinks all this is stuff men do. But Harpo is not like this, I tell him. You do not like this. What Shug got is womanly it seems like to me. Especially since she and Sofia are the ones who got it.” A quotation from the book shows how Celie’s language is broken and the following is another quotation “Why are you call her Olivia when that ain’t her name”. Africans have always used broken English even to this day it has become part of their culture to speak grammatically broken sentences, the illiteracy in the characters is shown by the variation of the seriousness of that brokenness. One more interesting fact about the character Celie and how she uses writing as a way to gain dominance is how she never uses Alberts's real name in her letters. She would always refer to him as seen above as Mr, blank space. That can be seen as her way of taking control of the narrative, it’s her story, her handwriting, and she doesn’t wanna give him presence by denying him a name or a title. Illiteracy can also be seen through the behaviors of the characters, vile behaviors like rape and incest, and marrying off girls to older men at a very young age.

As we’ve mentioned before literacy and education of African Americans can be seen as a threat, and then we discussed intersectionality to make things more clear on how the struggle is seen as doubled for women. In this case, we see in the characters of the story how an educated woman and a woman of literacy can pose a threat to the other characters. In the novel Celie knew her place and was able to defend herself after finding those letters from her sister, had she not learned how to read, the outcome of her story would have been a lot different.

In the article gender and Genre: black women’s Autobiography and the Ideology of Literacy, the author refers to black women writers: “Women are keenly aware of the limits of the literacy-as-freedom ideology, due to their multiply marginalized position in the social order, and they express everything from mild tension to outright suspicion of the power of the Written Word to provide freedom, economic security, and a restructuring of social formations of power.” Therefore black women as a result of the multiplied and doubled marginalization are not only seen as a threat to society but it is harder for them to climb the social latter and breakthrough what feminist Angela Davis described as the “glass ceiling feminism” to explain how the social hierarchy works and how the only people who can break through that glass ceiling are the people who are already on top of that hierarchy, which black women fall at the very bottom. Angela Davis’s Women, Race, and Class, first published in 1981 examines a different aspect of feminist struggles for equality throughout history, though they are united by one very important theme: the notion that racism has interfered with the ability of women's rights movement to truly achieve equality, Davis argued that the white feminist movement did not understand the needs of the black community. Davis writes extensively on the ways that black women, who were legally freed from slavery, were still oppressed through more contemporary forms of work and oppression. For example, black women were often confined to the worst working conditions, which were not much of an improvement over more overt forms of slavery. They were also frequently confined to domestic labor where they often experienced violence at the hands of male employers. What Davis is trying to convey here is that just because black women were no longer held back by slavery does not mean that they were free to pursue education as it was still seen as a luxury for them to have.

Literacy and education for African Americans are very important to better the lives of the generations to come. This realization has become apparent since studies have shown that women of color especially African American women are more likely to get not only a basic education but a higher education as well. This would seem like such an improvement for our societies, racial justice is finally becoming more and more achievable in this day of age. Nonetheless, thriving for a better society can’t stop women’s literacy only but also family literacy.

“The importance in my opinion is quite simple. Intergenerational illiteracy and poverty cannot be broken until the family as a whole begins to learn and realize the importance of education. Then, the family tries to use that knowledge to begin to become productive members of society. Too many programs focus on just the adult or just the child. The value of family literacy is the focus on the family as a whole. -Kim Starr ('Why Is Family Literacy Important?”2006).

Annotated Bibliography

    • Walker, Alice. The Color Purple, New York. Harcourt 1982.

The source material and the work are used to give a literary example of the subject matter at hand. Walker’s work of fiction is the color purple. two quotations were taken from this source plus an analysis of the plot of the novel is included within the research.

    • Alice Walker Biography. Retrieved April 12, 2012.

Information about the life of the author and writer of the novel The Color Purple. Some facts about the author were included in the research paper.

    • Clay, Katherine. Gender and genre: black women’s Autobiography and the Ideology of Literacy 1992.

A quotation was used and cited within the paper to provide a critical opinion on the subject of black women authors and the issue of intersectionality.

    • Chaney, Cassandra. Bridging the gap: promoting intergenerational family literacy among low-income, African American families. Louisiana State University. 2014.

This article was used in the research paper to provide evidence on the illiteracy in the African American society

    • Davis, Angela. Women, Race, and Class. 1981.

The idea of the glass ceiling feminism and black women’s struggle for equal opportunities in societies.                    

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