Black Women Writers @ Southwestern University

An English / Feminist Studies / Race & Ethnicity Studies Course Blog

Women Helping Women

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One of the consistently resonant, though I feel under-explored, aspects of The Color Purple is Walker’s ability to demonstrate how women interact with, and more importantly, care for and help one another in an otherwise suffocating, unsafe setting. Walker does this with great subtlety and aplomb: while Celie’s letters/prayers more overtly describe a life that is a product of a horrific system of oppression, they also offer small moments of beauty in which the women in her life bolster and vilify each other. Celie presents these moments as pure fact, often with no introduction or elaboration – perhaps because she overlooks (or does not yet recognize) their power. They occur in swift vignettes, with various women, casually and quickly informing the larger part of Celie’s story, often without her fully realizing it.

Early in the novel, Celie goes shopping with Kate, one of Mr. __’s sisters. (Rather, I should say, Kate takes Celie shopping for new clothes; at this point in the novel, Celie still does not consider herself, does not have the agency or the freedom to luxuriate in such a thought as wanting brand new clothes for herself. Even this act in itself – the suggestion by Kate that Celie should go and purchase new clothes – is a form of care, of an act of solidarity.Additionally, it should be noted that for all the cold distance of Celie’s marriage with Mr.___, that does not stop his sisters, or at least one of them, from interacting openly and warmly with Celie, treating her as an easy friend.) Celie, overwhelmed at the prospect of having clothes made for her, of picking out beautiful colors, “try to tell Kate what it mean””…to which Kate responds “You deserve more than this” (21). At this moment, Celie has an inkling that maybe she does deserve more, but it takes her a long while to embrace (and act on) the idea fully; at any rate, this is probably the most overt (perhaps because it is the first) exchange like this between women — certainly its power is not lost on Celie; it seems her recording of this moment is done with more reverence/understanding than the quick exchanges that happen later.

Later, in a passage at once heartbreaking and comical, Shug encourages Celie to take a mirror into the bathroom and look, really look at her vagina – to look at herself and to understand herself, and ultimately, to love herself. The pace of the passage (pg. 77-79) is such that it feels funny, urgent – the tone downplays the tragedy of the underlying message, which is that Celie has never thought of herself in any sort of beautiful, positive, or pleasurable way – she has only seen herself in terms of her function(s) for others. In this scene, though, the easy camaraderie between her and Shug is uplifting, one of very few constructive (or even fun) moments in Celie’s life.

As Celie grows more comfortable with the idea of her own strength, she even becomes one of these positive forces, at least momentarily. Celie implores Harpo’s girlfriend – “Squeak” – to demand (especially of Harpo) to be called by her real name, Mary Agnes, so that Harpo will take her seriously when she is upset (84). This is a snippet at the end of their conversation, and the moment passes quickly. All of these little moments (and there are undoubtedly others that I have omitted) serve to form a safe, if invisible. if fleeting, sense of community for the women whose lives are dominated by volatile, violent, misunderstanding men. The women create this space for each other, however briefly, seemingly at the exact moments when it is needed most; this space is fluid, it can be passed from woman to woman in the form of help, advice, or any other wise sort of kindness they display. Walker’s ability to include something so empowering, yet gentle, in a a novel replete with brutality is a truly stunning feat.

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