Coined by one of the most prominent African American writers, Alice Walker, the philosophy of womanism embodies characterizations that are far more substantial and richer than that of feminism. She wrote in her 1983 book In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens the phrase, “Womanism is to purple as feminism is to lavender” to express this ideology (Horsely 1). Womanism is an alternative to feminism as well as an expansion of it, as it specifically adheres to the African American female experience. It is for the black feminist, depicting a woman who has willful and audacious behavior. Womanism represents the female who loves other women, sexually or non-sexually; who appreciates women’s culture, emotional flexibility, and strength. There is the passionate love for the universe, for struggle, and for herself; love is the root of all (Andujo Lecture). These descriptions beg for a deeper substance, like the color purple. While lavender and purple are of the same base hue, lavender does not hold the same richness that purple does, which explains the specificity behind womanism and the lack within feminism. In her novel The Color Purple, Walker exposes the severe truth that the lives of African American women are extremely limited and controlled by the destructive and oppressive forces of racism and sexism; her concept of womanism allows the protagonist, Celie, to undergo bildungsroman and achieve strength and liberation from these atrocious forces in her life.
The epistolary narrative begins with Celie as a fourteen-year-old girl, writing to God. Continuously subject to physical abuse and insults, she decides that the only way for her to survive is to comply with demands and remain invisible, silent. She does little to fight back and her only outlet for self-expression are her letters to God—another male presence she doubts actually cares about her. Her oppression comes from the male dominated society that surrounds her, including her father, Old Mr.____, and her husband, Mr.____, who abuse her, rape her, and insult her nearly all her life. Because Celie’s world only consists of this, her paradigm on life as a black woman is limited and controlled and she becomes stagnant, afraid to fight back due to her early developed belief that she is inferior and worthless. Early on in the novel, Mr.____ expresses one of the many cruel statements towards Celie when explaining to his son Harpo how to handle a woman, “Well how you spect to make her mind? Wives is like children. You have to let ‘em know who got the upper hand. Nothing can do that better than a good sound beating,” (Walker 42). This is the resounding mindset of the prominent male figures within the novel that stifle Celie’s understanding of her individual worth as a black woman.
According to research and analysis by Anna Janusiewicz on womanism in The Color Purple, the “prevalent norm in feminist literary studies before the 1980's was to study representations of and texts by white, middle-class, heterosexual women.” Her analysis goes further to say that around the 1960’s and 70’s when the Civil Rights Movement was under full swing, critics “challenged and questioned” this limited realm of feminism and felt that a new “dimension” was necessary in order to include issues of race and class. Therefore, a study of women of color had to be introduced. Alice Walker develops this new dimension with her theory of womanism. She uses other female characters in the novel to spark motivation within Celie to commence her bildungsroman and develop her understanding of her significance and individuality as a black woman.
One of the first females that Walker uses to represent womanism is Celie’s daughter-in-law, Sofia. From the very beginning of the novel, Celie has relayed Sofia to be a fierce woman of strength, both physically and mentally. When Harpo brings a pregnant Sofia over for the first time to meet Mr.____, she speaks to him with a sharp tongue, “What I need to marry Harpo for? He still living here with you. What food and clothes he git, you buy,” (39). Eventually Sofia and Harpo do marry, and it is quite apparent that she is the one in charge of their growing family. Sofia’s stubborn and strong-willed attitude throws Harpo into a fit, as he “tries to make her mind” (42). Harpo’s understanding of how a woman should act under the presence of her husband was inherited from his father, and Sofia certainly does not align with his convictions. Unlike Sofia, Celie has never fought back against the abusive men in her life. So when Harpo asks her how to make Sofia mind, she regretfully replies, “Beat her” (43).
Sofia confronts her—an action Celie was not expecting—and Celie says that she told Harpo to beat her, “because I’m a fool and I’m jealous of you…cause you can do what I can’t,” which is to “fight” (47). Through Sofia’s willful behavior and fight against the struggle of the oppression of men, Walker illustrates Celie’s introduction to powerful women. Sofia is a woman who fights back not only to her Harpo, but to the white mayor and mayor’s wife, Miss Millie. While she does show Celie what a solid and strong woman of color acts like, she also suffers incredibly because of her actions against the white mayor, which unjustly lands her in prison and eventually as a life-time maid for Miss Millie. This long and painful consequence that Sofia endures initially convinces Celie that the outcomes of fighting back are not worth the effort and she remains stagnant in her abuse with Mr.____, afraid to defend herself. It is not until Walker’s most prominent character of womanism comes into Celie’s life that her perspective and self-confidence start to change.
The very moment Celie gets her hands on a photograph of Shug Avery, Celie is mesmerized by the woman. She writes that “all night long [she] stare at it. And now when [she] dream, [she] dream of Shug Avery” (14). Even though Shug has not physically entered Celie’s life yet, her photograph is enough to stir something within Celie, stimulating her to believe that she is “the most beautiful woman [she] ever saw.” This is the first time in the novel that Celie expresses positive and excited emotions towards a person besides her sister Nettie. She notices that Shug is “dress to kill,” revealing how even clothing can indicate oppression or liberation. Celie does not have any extravagant clothing and for most of the time wears the old dresses that have been worn away by the work she is forced to do by her husband. She sees the way Shug dresses in bright, colorful dresses with jewelry and makeup. Celie consistently admires the way Shug is able to express herself, even in clothing, and display her ability to ignore social restrictions and to defy any oppressive forces of sexism that would typically restrict a woman in her individuality.
Shug’s successful, self-assertive, and confident mannerisms and speech are also key characteristics of her personality that support Walker’s womanism theory and drive Celie in her journey. Janusiewivz makes an example of one of the first scenes where a very sickly Shug is being given a bath by Celie. When she stands up out of the bath, she exclaims, “Well, take a good look. Even if I is just a bag of bones now” (56). Before Celie’s eyes stands a malnourished, black woman who at the moment is “just a bag of bones.” Janusiewicz describes Shug as “fully aware of her condition.” Yet even in her poor condition, she spits out the sassy remark, “take a good look,” and she even strikes a confident pose that stuns Celie. Shug is exposed, naked, with all her vulnerabilities out in the open, yet she possesses a steady sureness about herself, displaying her powerful mind, her self love, her womanism.
To act in such a way in front of a person she hardly knows at this point takes courage and is certainly audacious and willful behavior. Because Shug is well aware of her sickly condition, contracted by “the nasty women’s disease,” as the men of the novel put it, she probably also understands that the society surrounding her knows this as well; that her known sexual history and out-of-wedlock children have formed the idea in other peoples’ minds that she is not a proper lady—a pure, submissive, complacent women of color. Walker liberates her from this controlling and oppressive perspective by making her a character of womanism. Shug appreciates her dark body, her sexuality, and uses her voice and love for herself to not be tied down by the limitations that racism, sexism, and male dominance forced upon black women—upon Celie. Celie sees this very clearly in Shug, and desperately wishes to be with her and to be like her.
Shug’s confidence in her sexuality is also indicative of her Womanist character and immensely contributes to Celie’s reformation, as Celie herself has never found the will or self-assurance to display her own sexuality. For all of Celie’s life, sex was an uncomfortable, raw, and male-dominated chore. From being raped at fourteen by her stepfather to waiting for Mr.____ to finish “his business,” Celie has not enjoyed or appreciated sex with any man (84); it was always forced upon her and she reaped the consequences of abuse by having her children taken from her. However, there is clearly attraction and sexual tension felt by Celie towards Shug, which is already suggestive of the beginnings of a Womanist character development.
In her scholarly novel The Search for a Woman: Centered Spirituality, Annette J. Van Dyke writes about how Shug becomes a “teacher” for Celie when it comes to Celie’s sexuality. Van Dyke states that Shug begins her lesson by telling Celie how beautiful her body is, “Then inside look like a wet rose,” which vastly contrasts against everything Celie has ever been told about her appearance by her past sexual partners (85). This goes on to imply that Shug is also Celie’s teacher when it comes to “the possibilities of love,” says Van Dyke. When Celie admits to Shug that, “Nobody ever love [her],” Shug responds with, “I love you, Miss Celie,” and they commence into the first intimate, physical act of love that Celie has ever experienced (116). Walker liberates Celie’s sexuality through the Womanist education of Shug; her experience is healing as it finally allows her to feel loved and appreciated in a way that no man could ever have made her feel.
Throughout the novel, Walker uses Celie to expose how being a black woman elicits a life of abuse and oppression that limits and controls her ability to pursue individuality and appreciation for herself. Yet through the concept of womanism, other female characters are able to redefine and liberate Celie from her abusive life. When Shug decides to take Celie back to Memphis with her, Celie is able to find self-actualization and triumph in acquiring the will to stand up to Mr.____, calling him a “low down dog” whose “dead body” would be “just the welcome mat [she] need” to enter into her new life away from him (201). She becomes independent and able to show love like Shug while standing strong and sharp like Sofia. Her development of mind and character, through her experiences with and education by black females who embody Walker’s concept of womanism, comes to fruition as she recognizes her identity and role in the world.
Andujo, Patricia. "Womanism." Eng. 354: American Literature. Azusa Pacific University, Azusa.
29 Nov. 2016. Lecture.
Horsely, Joey. "Alice Walker: Notable Women International." Fembio.org. Web. 05 Dec. 2016.
Janusiewicz, Anna. A Product of Womanism: Shug Avery in The Color Purple. 2014. Web. 5
Van Dyke, Annette Joy. The Search for a Woman: Centered Spirituality. New York: New York
UP, 1992. Print.
Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. Print.