Alice Walker’s 1982 epistolary novel “The Color Purple” documents one 20th century woman’s journey to discovering self worth, intentionally highlighting the Black women who got her there.
When we first meet the main character, Celie, she is young, afraid (“I have always been a good girl,” she says in defense of herself in an early letter to God) and only knows abuse. At that point, the sole reprieve she has is her younger sister, Nettie, a bright, empathetic child who consistently affirms Celie and comes to her aid as often as she can. Though they are physically separated for decades, their bond remains as strong as ever, even when one doubts that the other is even alive. Throughout the book, Black women, even with all of the layered and unbelievable behaviors, are each others greatest supporters and ultimate defenders—a reality that has been in place for as long as any of us can recall.
In addition to her younger sister, Celie finds solace in other women of strength, namely Shug Avery and Sofia. The relationship between Celie and Suge is odd to say the least (Shug is Celie’s husband’s mistress), yet through the connection between the two women, Celie is able to explore her sexuality for the first time and also become a successful business owner. They do not possess an unflawed friendship by any means but even with the unconvention, they are there for one another as best as they can allow themselves to be. It is because of Shug that Celie is able to circumvent further violence and is granted access to crucial letters from her sister that were originally hidden by her callous husband. In return, Shug is taught gentleness by Celie and is able to be a become a better friend.
Celie is also able to build a lasting an honest and lasting friendship with Sofia, her stepson’s wife, though it too is filled with harsh, timely complexities. Initially, Celie is jealous of Sofia’s autonomy, as she has never seen a woman who is so insistent on doing things her own way. When Harpo, her stepson, approaches Celie about the way to best deal with his headstrong wife, her advice is a major betrayal. The two women are able to reconcile and decide to sew a quilt, a symbol of the interwoven nature of the lives of the Black women central to the book.
I too have learned much and healed from the teaching and sheer presence of the Black women who surround me. A Black woman encouraged me to take up art, Black women have edited my writing throughout my career and my Black best friends always make sure I remember my worth. This follows the tradition of Black women as each other’s caretakers.
For decades, centuries even, we have braided each other’s hair before major events, been there when one falls, watched over the children of our friends and gracefully guided each other when one of us errors. This is so because we alone understand the trials that come with navigating a world that prides itself on unkindness towards us. We know the pain of misogynoir all too well and fight it by standing tall and banding with the women who also ball up their fists against it.
Many of the Black women I know are who they are because of the caring souls that are reflections of their own. We are sisters, forever and always.
In “The Color Purple,” Mary Agnes is one of the characters who is sometimes removed from discussions about the dynamic the women share. Called “Squeak,” she is the mousy mistress of Harpo and does not pursue her interests or a true idea of her own happiness early on.
Sofia, who has been at odds with Mary Agnes, is jailed after asserting herself both verbally and physically to a white authority. Since the book is set in the early 20th century, it was essentially a crime to do anything other than silently obey these types of figures. During Sofia’s 12-year sentence, Mary Agnes helps raise her children, making the two women closer once Sofia is able to see them again. Also, because of her proximity to the free spirited, assertive Shug, Mary Agnes decides that she wants to start going by her given name and also take up singing the blues. These decisions bring her joy and are made independently of men, which is something that each of the women strive for. She is shown a great deal about Black womanhood and both literally and figuratively learns the power of her voice.
The tenderness that exists between Black women is invaluable and has saved us all countless times. We lift as we climb, console and exalt when no one else is willing to, or even thinks to. “The Color Purple” shows readers that even with all of the cruelties of the times, we know how to undergird and exercise understanding to our sisters and that we are the greatest gifts to each other. Our love is truly necessary.
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