Black Women Writers @ Southwestern University

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

Cyclical Gains (or Losses)

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In The Color Purple, Celie slowly generates a history for herself and the people she knows through her letters. These letters often speak to the loss or gain of agency among a group of people. Early on in the novel, Celie introduces the reader to Mr. ___ (her husband) and Harpo. We learn about some of their characteristics and motivations. But, what really makes these characters interesting is the actions they do or do not perform and how these actions are echoed across generations. When Mr.___’s father comes, he makes sure to remind Mr.___ that he is still his benefactor. He clears his throat before telling Mr.__ “Well, this is my house. This my land. Your boy Harpo in one of my houses, on my land…” Previously, the reader is led to believe that Mr.___ has full ownership over his land. Mr.___ controls his property and the people that live on it as if it were his own, making sure to remind everyone (especially Harpo) of the power he has. The men of one generation rely on the men of previous generations but not necessarily in productive ways. Mr. ___ and Harpo place importance on owning land and having property but do not work to attain their own land and property, separate from their father’s land and property. The men sometimes work but it is clear that the men rely on the hard work of their women and children to work the fields and maintain the house.

Another pattern repeated among the men is working to prevent the agency of the next generation and to discourage other men from diverging from the biases and opinions accepted as the norm. Old Mr.___ expresses his disappointment of Mr.___ because he chooses (or rather wants to choose) a woman who is not socially accepted by society. This continuous expression of disapproval influences Mr.___ to abide by societal norms for his group. Mr. ___ begins to stop expressing any opinions he had before and starts losing the ability to make choices that would distinguish him as an individual within the group. Mr.___ passes on the tradition and does the same to his own son. But, there is hope in the fact that we can see Mr.___ and Harpo trying to fight this cycle. Sometimes, they stop to think about their actions, what would make them truly happy or how the world could be.

The reader can also see patterns in how the white community has treated the black community over time in different parts of the world. We learn that the white people in Celie’s community have both lynched and exploited black men. This parallels how the white people in Nettie’s new community in Africa are treating the black people. In Nettie’s village, the Africans take on full agency.They work hard to provide for their families and the families of others in the village. They make the best of their resources and they try to learn new knowledge when they can. Unfortunately, the Africans learn that their new white visitors plan to take and destroy their land without worrying about how the people will survive. Though Nettie views this particular phenomenon for the first time, history tells us that this was happening for a very long time in Africa.

Alice Walker does not try to explain why these cycles exist. Walker seeks to show the reader that these cycles factor into the actions of groups of people and sometimes create large problems. Though solutions to these problems are not readily available, we can still find their roots and try to understand how these problems affect the world around us.


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