In her preface to the Tenth Anniversary Edition of The Color Purple, Walker explains: “This book is the book in which I was able to express a new spiritual awareness, a rebirth into strong feelings of Oneness I realized I had experienced and taken for granted as a child; a chance for me as well as the main character, Celie, to encounter That Which Is Beyond Understanding But Not Beyond Loving and to say: I see and hear you clearly, Great Mystery, now that I expect to see and hear you everywhere I am, which is the right place.” Clearly, this novel is Walker’s spiritual journey as well as Celie’s, which unites the two women as comrades on the journey. In fact, the whole novel focuses on the journeys of its women. Although Walker wrote the novel in 1982 and Celie’s story takes place in the early 1900s (probably 1909–1947), these women fundamentally share a common path.
The Color Purple is often used as an example of a “woman’s novel.” For Walker, womanist writing is that which focuses on African-American women in twentieth-century America. This tradition of novels tends to deal with the oppression of African-American women, not only by means of white domination but also by specific white and black males. In these novels, we often meet women who fight against all odds for their survival and for the survival of their families. In their disjointed and dislocated communities, these women are often mothers who seek to protect and bring together their families for the sake of future generations. Other notable authors who have written in this tradition include Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou. Their female characters have been kept in cages for too long and are finally learning how to sing.
These characters often focus both on protecting the present, in order to ensure a healthy future, and on dealing with the past. For instance, it has often been said that The Color Purple parodies the tradition of the slave narrative. The genre of slave narratives came about when slaves began to tell the tales of their experiences. Some six thousand former slaves gave accounts of their lives during the eighteenth and nineteen centuries. One of the most famous slave narratives is Frederick Douglass’s The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845). Both Walker’s novel and slave narratives reveal the oppression of the speaker, unearthing horrific treatment that had previously gone unchallenged.
Both also stem from the African oral traditions of storytelling and song. The Africans taken to America as slaves were usually prevented from speaking in their mother tongues (not very unlike the suppression of Celie’s speech), so they often devised alternative means of communication, particularly acting and singing. Their tales were of experiences on the plantation as well as tales from their native Africa. These stories were passed on from generation to generation and quickly became the core of much African-American storytelling. Through her storytelling, Celie ensures that her experiences as a black woman in early twentieth-century America are heard and retold for generations to come.
Although there are no specific dates given, we can discern that the novel is set at the beginning of the twentieth century, approximately between 1910 and 1940. After the abolition of slavery throughout the United States after the Civil War in 1865, African Americans still faced huge economic difficulties. By the early twentieth century, there were many more opportunities to succeed. Many received education, and many moved out of the rural South into the industrial North. Those who moved took their culture with them—the songs and the stories—and in the 1920s the Jazz Age dawned. In this environment, African-American music, poetry, and intellectual pursuits came together to form what we now know as The Harlem Renaissance.
In The Color Purple we see such changes occurring. The entrepreneurial Harpo sets up his own juke joint and brings in the already well-known blues singer Shug. Shug’s success is symptomatic of the age in which Celie writes, for she sings Bessie Smith and reflects a time anxious to enjoy itself in its own time, to forget anxiety about the past or the future. By the end of the novel, the progression of opportunity is clear, for Celie is able to set up her own business. Celie works from the same house where her father lived and worked. Thirty years earlier, her father’s life was cut short by white rivals eager to keep him down. In this new generation, however, Walker leaves us with no real concern about Celie’s chances, and we believe that Celie will continue to thrive.
When Walker published the novel in 1982, one of the most highly praised features of the book was its use of language. Mel Watkins of The New York Book Review commented that the novel “assumes a lyrical cadence of its own...The cumulative effect is a novel that is convincing because of the authenticity of its folk voice.” The language was particularly important to Walker. She later explained what happened after she sent her finished novel to a leading black women’s magazine which, she believed, probably would recognize its merits quicker than anybody else. The magazine turned the novel down, however, on the ground that “black people don’t talk like that” (Garrett & McCue, 1990, p. 229). The subsequent success of the novel exposes such totalizing statements as untrue, for it is Celie’s powerfully idiomatic voice that captures her specific situation and that of so many African Americans of her time.