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The contemporary society has considerably advanced on the way to establishing ethnic and racial equality, equity, and justice from the most advanced economies such as the USA and Europe to the most remote parts of the world in Asia, Middle East, and Africa. Nevertheless, there the presence of the aching past with deep wounds and injustice is still looming in the minds of African Americans who have been experiencing the severe forms of oppression, segregation, and discrimination in the American society less than a century ago.
The ugliest evidence suggests that African Americans suffered from inequality, violence, and oppression not only from the side of white superiors, but also within their own race; women have always been the most victimized members of the African American community. Suffering from the constant emphases of their inferiority in the white society, they also experienced violence, sexual abuse, and dependence in their own families. The stories about child molestation, the continuation of the horror during marriage, the absence of rights and the right to decide – all these features were the haunting reality of African American women throughout the 20th century.
No matter how hard the literary works exhibiting the injustice and trauma suffered by African American women were banned and excluded from the bookshelves, there is still rich literary heritage explicating the dramas of black women. One of the splendid examples of literary pieces commemorating the tragic life of an African American woman and then celebrating her path to regaining her own identity, increasing her self-esteem, and finally gaining her independence from men torturing her, and from the society, is the novel of Alice Walker The Color Purple. It was written in the 1980s when the segregation of African American was officially over more than two decades before.
Though the majority of critics and literary analysts claim that the figure of Celie as a victim of abuse is central in the present novel, it should also be noted that alongside with a weak and tortured Celie, there are many characters who are stronger and who give her life examples to move forward and become stronger. Hence, the figures of Sofie, Shug, and Nettie as strong, independent women who have gained their positions in the male-dominated African American community present the expected outcome to which Celie moves throughout the work. Moreover, her work on self-discovery and growth should be largely attributed to the influence of these strong women, which makes her character not central but forming under the influence of these three female identities.
The Formation of Celie’s Identity
The composition of the narrative in The Color Purple is presented in the form of ninety letters that Celie writes to her sister Nettie, or just for herself, as a form of a diary in which she ponders over the questions she can ask nobody, or tries to resolve some inner dilemmas that her hard life presents her with. However, if the letters are taken not separately, but as a continuous fabric of Celie’s life, one can hardly dismiss the fact that the novel presents the story of “transformation and empowerment” that Celie goes through (LaGrone xiii).
Smith admitted that “while African American men and women have been silenced because of race and class, African American women’s silencing is compounded, both within and without the black community, by gender” (3). Hence, the narrative of The Color Purple represents Walker’s response to the deprivation of African American women of their own identity, the right to form and comprehend it.
The silence and oppression in which the African American women were urged to live were the unbearably unjust and hard environment enforced by white and black male norms; hence, Walker explored the gradual empowerment story of her protagonist Celie to show the ways in which every black woman can be liberated from these negative social aspects of her life.
Following Smith’s idea, Celie appeared a hero for all African American women, and she possessed all heroic features such as the ability to triumph over challenges, to solve lingering problems, to dissolve the concerns of the modern society, etc. (4). Hence, Walker has created a myth about Celie as a hero who constructed her own identity and came out as a new, remade woman of the 20th century unconquered and unsubordinated by the African American men.
Sexuality and femininity also play a decisive role in the formation and development of Celie’s identity. As Grebe indicated in her analysis, Celie was first presented as a woman deprived of control over her own body that was brutally possessed first by her stepfather and then – by her husband.
Hence, Celie was victimized from her early years through sexual abuse, parental neglect, and violence, and during her adolescence, the period typically associated with the urge towards identity construction among teens, Celie was totally uninterested in self-exploration (5). Celie was not willing to “identify with her body and sexuality during puberty”, mainly because “her body is always treated as an object, whether it is for work or the act of sex” (Grebe 5).
For this reason, Celie was first presented to the reader without any clear identifiable identity because of shame and guilt regarding her stepfather’s deeds, and later – her traumatic marriage. It was not until the meeting with Shug that her sexuality, and consequently, identity started awakening and let her comprehend herself in a new way, without the shame and disgust towards herself as a tool, and not a human being deserving happiness and contentment. Hence, the meeting with Shug and the beginning of a romantic relationship with her helped Celie comprehend herself, develop a stronger identity, and finally realize what she wanted and did not want from her life (Grebe 5).
It is also essential to note that Celie successfully learns from certain role models who guide her on her path to identity construction and comprehension. This way, for instance, Sofia, Harpo’s wife, represents a feasible model for Celie in terms of resisting the surrounding harsh reality of abuse and violence. The main attribute ascribed to Sofia by Celie is “solid”; though Celie is awkward in describing her associations with this feature, it is still felt that Celie identified Sofia with a strong force that can crush obstacles in case she decides to (Walker 34).
Besides the evident physical strength, Sofia possesses a considerable level of internal resiliency and force, which helps her relentlessly protect her right for autonomy and independence. The present behavior is next to unthinkable for Celie because she cannot even imagine at the beginning of her path towards self-exploration how a woman can be so strong; she envies Sofia, but in fact, she takes much from her example in her later self-identity creation (Smith 9).
The sincere discussion with Sofie is the first step of Celie towards evolution of her inner self. Sofie shares an experience of her mother who also could not do anything about her father’s violence and abuse, and at the same time, displays the example of a strong and daring woman who can do anything, and stands out of her husband’s control.
Though Celie does not share her intimate traumas with Sofie, she gets a hands-on example of the possibility of escape from the slavery in which she found herself in her marriage. Hence, the initial impetus towards seeking her own identity and forming her internal personality may be attributed to her acquaintance with Sofie (Smith 9).
The role of Shug in the identity pursuit of Celie can hardly be underestimated; Walker introduced the figure of Shug to grant Celie refuge from her harassers inside and outside her mind and body. As Smith indicated, “as guide and rescue figure, Shug nurtures and protects Celie and teaches Celie a new language through which she is able to create an alternate context of her developing self” (10).
As it has already been noted, the sexual pleasure Celie comprehends with Shug makes her shift the focus from her body as a disgusting, unloved object of sexual pleasure for surrounding men to the tool for pleasure and contentment she can elicit from a romantic relationship. In this context, Smith emphasized, Walker’s focus was not on displaying a lesbian sexual relationship as the only possible resort from male violence, but as a culmination of women’s culture, women’s sisterhood, mutual respect, and emotional bonding in which the personality of each member is nurtured (10).
Finally, the figure of Celie’s sister, Nettie, is monumental in her path towards the discovery of her identity. As Eder admitted, Nettie had the chance for receiving education that Celie was deprived of, and this helped her to get education, and to share her knowledge with Celie, which contributed to Celie’s further ability to read and write (7). As Celie recollected at the very beginning of her tragic narrative, her stepfather never bothered to think of what his children would like to do, and frivolously deprived Celie of the opportunity for gaining basic literacy through education:
- “The first time I got big Pa took me out of school. He never care that I love it. Nettie stood there at the gate holding tight to my hand. I was all dress for first day. You too dumb to keep going to school, Pa say. Nettie the clever one in this church” (Walker 9).
As one can see from the novel, writing becomes the powerful tool for self-expression, and further – self-expression, self-analysis, and self-advancement for Celie. Without the basic literacy skills Nettie provided to her, Celie would remain incarcerated in her illiterate body, and the way in which she finally obtained independence would be closed to her. Hence, Nettie and the symbol of literacy, enlightenment, and education that she brings into Celie’s life can hardly be ignored in the process of self-establishment of Celie as a personality.
Self-Esteem, Self-Respect, and Personal Growth in The Color Purple
Self-esteem and self-respect are the indispensible attributes of a full and independent personality adequately functioning in the contemporary world, knowing what he or she deserves and wants, having certain objectives and values in life, and striving to certain successes. Hence, for Celie, the creation of self-respect and self-esteem was the fundamental step to coming out of the environment of oppression and abuse.
The main strength of any woman against male oppression is her own feeling of self-worth that reduce her endurance regarding abuse and violence she experiences. Women with no feeling of self-worth are able to endure sufferings for a much longer period simply because they do not believe they are worth anything better. Hence, the long-standing history of oppression and injustice towards African Americans, and black women in particular, has created an aura of violence acceptance in which women stopped seeking decent attitude and normal relationships.
Chung admitted in this context that The Color Purple functions as bildungsroman, educating women regarding the need to struggle for their life targets, and for developing as humans (6). The concept of bildungsroman is associated with the inspiration for self-learning (Chung 7). Hence, Walker inspired women from low classes to explore enlightenment and wisdom, to explore their identity, and to protect their right to hold that identity, and explore it as other people do. The lesson of Celie taught by Walker was that every woman could be liberated; however, to gain independence and freedom, she had to construct her own identity, to create self-respect, and to make others respect her.