Alice Work’s works contain a “Latent Eurocentricism” perpetuating the colonist vision of the African subcontinent as primitive. Examine with particular reference to the portrayal of the Olinka community in The Color Purple
The Color Purple is novel by the Afro-American author Alice walker. It is in epistolary form of narration where Celie, the protagonist writes letters to God reciting her sufferings as an Afro –American woman, living in the Southern part of the United States during the 1930s. The latter part of the novel contains a set of letters from Nettie who talks about the Olinka community and their life.
According to an article from Shodhganga: “Every American writer of African descent works within and against the dual tradition — oral and literary, African and European, male and female — that he or she inherits as part of his or her North American cultural legacy and in which, however marginally, he or she participates in the elusive quest for status, power, and identity.”(1) Alice Walker has tried to bring out the colonial impositions on the African community, through racist portrayal of the second class status of the African Americans. Although the American Civil War fortified the abolishment of Slavery, the Africans continued to be looked down upon by the Americans whose ideologies became to be known as the “White Supremacy”. This is evident through the character of Sofia who is sentences to twelve years in prison for attacking the mayor of the town, who is a white. However, Walkers portrayal of these racist inadequacies is limited to those Afro-Americans, while it takes a Eurocentric turn when it comes to the Olinka community.
The distinctive history of the Black Americans had an impact on their adaptation to a particular culture. They are, “Africa, slavery, the Middle Passage, the Southern plantation, Emancipation, Reconstruction, Post-Reconstruction, Northern migration, and urbanization, and most importantly racism.”(1) This led to the state of double consciousness in the minds where the “creative dynamics of African-American ethnic culture and Character” (1) . According to an Article from Shodhganga, “Du Bois defines the African-American experience of double consciousness as a complex socio-cultural and socio-psychological duality of Americans of African descent whose humanity and culture were institutionally devalued and marginalised by people of European descent.”(2)
Therefore, the African-American novels falls back on the oral and literary traditions of African-American culture which is a hybrid of the traditions, to which their ancestors belong to and to which they are exposed themselves. This form of literary discourse of the Afro- Americans is symbolically borrowed from the Western culture and adapted in such a way that it suits their “quest for status, power, and identity in a racist white, patriarchal North American social arena.” (Shodhganga, 2)
Alice Walker is one such novelist of the twentieth century, who uses novels as a medium to explore the inconsistency between colonial impositions and African- American reality. The Color Purple is a novel that examines the varied effects to colonial dominance on cultures. They include the mixing or separation of culture, the transformation from one culture to another or the creation of new identity of one’s own. These are portrayed through the various characters in the novels such as the people belonging to the South who are still discriminated and oppressed against those in the North who lead a normal life. The Blacks from America who go to Africa to realize their alienated nature to the African Culture is conflicted against the Olinkas whose peace among the community is jeopardised due to the colonial powers.
Alice Walker is a victim of double oppression, by being a victim of colonialism and also by being a woman. Therefore her explorations are in turn on the Black women and, through her novels, Walker takes an effort to get rid of the prejudice about the Afro American Women community. For Instance, Walker in her In Search of Our Mothers ’ Gardens looks into the autobiographies of Black women, referring them to be the crucial sources in the field of Black literature. Thus, “The African-American novel, in other words, is not a solipsistic, self-referential linguistic system, but a symbolic socio-cultural act.” (Shodhganga , 1)
Walker’s novels include those struggles of the Afro American women who silenced voices are evoked through, say, Celie’s speech with God in first person. Likewise, Walker instils new methods to highlight the racial reality of the black women, such as the new structure of language and narration in her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland ,the emphasize on the inner reality of her novel Meridian is emphasized through her unexplanatory form of narrative . “In her collection of short stories, In Love and Trouble, Walker creates an encoded language-structure introducing different signs of objects, metaphors, and images to emphasize the inner struggle of black women against their subjectivity and subjugation.” (4)
However, Walker’s focus on the Black women of Africa becomes a single dimensional affair which it comes to her take on those still living in her home country. Although, Walker apprises on the exaltation of the Black community, the latent Eurocentricism is evident through her vision of the African subcontinent as primitive. One of the eminent novels of Walker, which portrays this ideology is Possessing the Secret of Joy which shows a woman, torn between two culture, Olinka and the Western. Tashi, inorder to honor her Olinka roots wants to perform the female genital operation following which she undergoes a trauma, emphazizing on the main idea of Walker ,” Torture is not culture”. According to the article , Alice Walker’s Africa: Globalization and the Province of Fiction, “ For Walker, the practice of genital mutilation serves to contain women sexually and socially; above all, it is a violation of each woman’s right to the integrity of her body. Consequently, the practice should, in its various forms and cultural contexts, be held as a human rights violation, one that can be repudiated on the grounds of a universal ethical standard. In a climate where the world has, as they say, become a village, Walker’s position is bound to be controversial.”( Olakunle George, 355). In the novel, Possessing the Secret of Joy, Walker speaks more about the “subjectivity and female agency than Walker appears to intend.” (George,359) According to George’s observation, although the novel represents a fictional Africa, it tends to question Walker’s understanding of the culture according to her inner logic. Therefore, it reflects the attitude of Walker who regards the cultural practice of the Olinka community as hard and misogynistic.
The major figure in the process of Tashi’s cure is the European father-figure Car. “On the strength of this aspect of the issue of the enlightened foreigner saving benighted Africans from themselves clearly rears its head. Carl and Pierre is the pre-eminent cerebral figures novel.” (George, 358). Tashi’s reference to Carl as Mzee, ‘teacher”, her recurring dream of being trapped in the tower is interpreted by Pierre as symbolic of the women’s state of being put in a cage by the patriarchal structures. Tashi gains her stability by realising the source of her suffering, through the help of Carl, Pierre, and her international circle of friends. It is through the help of Carl that Tashi realizes that the ‘boulder blocking [her] throat’ (Walker , 81) is her recollection of Dura’s death as a result of the female circumcision. “The novel relies on a legacy of the silent documentary, emblem of colonial anthropology, and simultaneously mounts an attack on male-centred representations of so-called African culture by colonial-educated Africans. If the urge to present a ‘positive’ image of African culture is accepted as a good thing, Walker forces us to ask just what a positive representation entails.” (George, 364) After undergoing the therapy, Tashi goes on to reject the naïve admiration for the nationalist was the leader of the decolonization movement in fictional Olinka. Therefore the novel, Possessing the Secret of Joy, reflects a case of an open-minded , and educated Westerner saving poor black women from their husbands and fathers , who are primitive in their ways.
Walker’s approach to the native Africans is also evident through her novel The Color Purple for where the Tashi in Possessing the Secret of Joy actually originated. Her documentation of the Olinka Community through Nettie’s letter is a exotisiation of the community’s tradition and customs. From an article in Shodhganga, the views of Walker on Black suppression is very clear from her discussion with Claudia Tate, Walker comments thus:
“Twentieth-century black women writers all seem to be much more interested in the black community, in intimate relationships, with the white world as a backdrop, which is certainly the appropriate perspective, in my view.” (12)
The preservation of the black heritage is often looked through the lens of white domination. A frequent theme in most of Walker’s work is her “insistent probing of the relationship between struggle and change, a probing that encompasses the pain of Black people’s lives against which the writer protests.
Paradoxically such pain sometimes results in growth precisely because of the nature of the struggle.” (24) the “black people” here refers only to the Afro-Americans while the natives of African are exoticised.
Quilt-making represents the ancient black community and African tradition of folk art and the legacy of pictorial representations in African culture. According to the article, Extolling Blackness: The African Culture in The Color Purple, “Walker incorporated the image of quilts and quilt-making to associate with the symbolic meaning of sisterhood, family history and self-creation.” (Lei Sun,1) . The use of clothing as representations is central to the works of Black women. However, In The Color Purple, Celie exhibits her liberated and independent mind by wearing pants. This contradiction in the attitude of Walker , ironically points out at the inbuilt necessity to be like the whites inorder to be recognised.
Corrine and Samuel who are the missionaries of the American and African society, believe to have “born for, missionary work in Africa” (Walker, 116) This is in direct connection to the missionaries who had gone to Umofia in Things fall apart . The traditions and the customs of the Olinka community are jeopardised by their so called brothers and sisters who were sold to another country. What lies unnoticed is that, even though their body belongs to Africa, their thought already began to favour the Eurocentric ideologies. This becomes clearer in Nettie’s conversation with Olivia:
“You will grow up to be a strong Christian Woma, I tell her. Someone who helps her people to advance. You will be a teacher or a nurse. You will travel. You will know many people greater than the Chief” (Walker, 142)
The Olinka themselves had a differentiation towards the Afro-Americans which is evident from Tashi’s fathers conversation with Netties regarding her education and also their presumption that missionaries cannot be black. Walkers approach towards the natives of Africa is evident through the conversation between Nettie and Samuel :
“There’s something in all of us that wants a medal for what what we have done. That wants to be appreciated.And Africans certainly don’t deal in medals. They hardly seem to care whether missionaries exist.
Don’t be bitter, I said How can I not? He said The Africans never asked us to come, you know. There’s no use blaming them if we feel unwelcome. It’s worse than unwelcome, said Samuel. The Africans don’t even see us. They don’t even recognise us as the brothers and sisters they sold. Oh, Samuel, I said .Don’t.
But you know, he had started to cry. Oh Nettie, he said that’s the heart of it, don’t you see. We love them. We try every way we can to show that love. But they reject us. They never listen to how we’ve suffered….”( Walker, 214)
This tendency of “othering” the Olinka community itself reflects the Eurocentric ideologies in the Afro-Americans. The Olinkas are addressed as “the Africans” which is highly sarcastic where readers tend to question their authenticity. Walker has given an exotic essence for the tribe’s practices and traditions which is evident through the indirect way of narration. Nettie’s excitement to go back to America and her view about the African Society leads to the question of who the “Real Black” is:
“I will not find American society such a shock, except for the hatred of Black people, which is also very clear in all the news. But I worry about their very African independence of opinion and outspokenness, also extreme self-centeredness. …. When I think of them in America I see them as much younger as they appear here. Much more naïve…”(Walker, 234)
The esteemed regard for the Eurocentric powers is evident through the need for the Afro American couples to go back to America for an improved life and proper education for their Children. The African traditions especially the face scarring of the female is look disrespectfully by them notwithstanding its importance among the natives. Tashi is displaced from her native to a hybrid culture on the prospects to having a new and improved life.
Gerald Early criticised Walker with regard to the novel The Color Purple, where he suggested that Walker is guilty of a ‘fairly dim- witted pantheistic acknowledgment of the wonders of human potential that begins to sound quite suspiciously like a cross between the New Age movement and Dale Carnegie’ . He suggests that “the book lacks any real intellectual or theological rigor or coherence, and the fusing of social protest and utopia is really. In essence, the book attempts to be revisionist salvation history, and fails because of its inability to use or really understand history. Walker has made no claim as an historian; her self-identification as ‘medium’ suggests that The Color Purple is clearly meant to be outside of the historical realm.”(Hall, 96). In addition to this the release of Spielberg’s film have added to the eurocentricism in the novel because “Walker was accused of having ‘sold out’ to white patriarchy, thereby effecting the kind of cultural imperialism novel was attempting to resist (Terry, 59)
- “Chapter I Introduction.” Shodhganga , https:// shodhganga.inflibnet.ac.in/chapter1/
- Hall, James C. “Towards a Map of Mis(Sed) Reading: The Presence of Absence in the Color Purple.” African American Review, Vol. 26, No. 1, Women Writers Issue (Spring, 1992), pp.89-97. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3042079
- George, Olakunle . “Alice Walker’s Africa: Globalization and the Province of Fiction.”
- Comparative Literature, Vol. 53, No. 4 (Autumn, 2001), pp. 354-372.JSTOR,
- Sun, Lei. “Extolling Blackness: The African Culture in The Color Purple” English Language and Literature Studies; Vol. 7, No. 1; 2017.ResearchGate, http://dx.doi.org/10.5539/ells.v7n1p13
- Terry, Jill. “’The Same River Twice’: Signifying ‘The Color Purple.’” Critical Survey, Vol. 12, No. 3 (2000), pp. 59-76. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/41557063