Click here for a brief biography of Alice Walker.
b) What can you identify about the traditions of women's writing from those authors, as well as other women writers with whom you are familiar?
c) What other African-American women writers have you read--such authors as Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, or Gwendolyn Brooks--and what are the traditions in which they write? To what extent do these writers fit into the traditions of women writers, and to what extent do they also draw on an important tradition of African-American writing and speech (such things as slave narratives and charismatic Christian writing, of which Patricia Raybon's forgiving tone in My First White Friend is an example)?
2) The African-American theorist and writer bell hooks (Gloria Watkins) has argued in an essay, "Writing the Subject: Reading The Color Purple" (in Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ed., Reading Black, Reading Feminist, 1990), that The Color Purple is a parody of the tradition of the "slave narrative"--stories written by male and female former slaves about their experiences under slavery. Some slave narratives were collected among exslaves in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal project in the Southern United States. This powerful literary tradition is characterized by Frederick Douglass's The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845), Linda Brent's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and many others. Drawing on in-class discussion of slave narratives, consider the following questions:
b) Even while Walker shows Celie as part of a community which shares struggles, how does she show that the particular elements of Celie's life are not uniform and universal? For example, compare Celie's experiences with males to Shug's. Compare the degree to which Celie's sense of self is shaped in the early parts of the novel by what patriarchs and men say she is to Sofia's sense of self; how does Sofia define herself? What makes for the differences between Celie's, Shug's, and Sofia's experiences with men?
c) hooks says that the essential part of a slave narrative is that it tells as truthful--meaning factually proveable--a story as is possible. Does Alice Walker do this when she reconstructs Celie's story? Where are "fictions" employed in her novel?
d) hooks argues that a slave narrative emphasizes racial oppression. Does Walker emphasize racial oppression? Or does she emphasize other reasons that Celie is oppressed? To what do you attribute this difference?
e) hooks argues that slave narratives use the fact of their authors' literacy to prove the narrators' worth as intellectual and human souls. Why does Celie write? Are there other ways Celie tells her story than in writing? What is the effect of her telling her story, as opposed to writing it?
4) Compare Walker's representations of rape in this book--especially Celie's rape by a Black man, and Squeak (Mary Agnes)'s rape by a white man. What is going on here? What is Walker saying about sexual violence and womens' reactions to it?
5) Celie's writing letters to God is known as an "epistolary form," because letters to God or in a religious context are called "epistles." Why does Celie write to God? What sorts of things can she tell God that she cannot tell others? What sorts of things does she learn to tell Shug that she is afraid to tell God? Does God ever listen to Celie?
6) Drawing on both Walker's stories about interactions between white and Black women in The Color Purple and Raybon's My First White Friend, discuss where Black and white feminists have parted company. Given the many differing interests women of differing backgrounds have, imagine what would have to take place to build a coalition between feminists of differing races, ethnicities, classes, and sexualities. What would it take?
Prepared by Professor Catherine Lavender for History 182 (Women's History and Feminist Theory), The Department of History, The College of Staten Island of The City University of New York. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Last modified: Friday 29 May 1998