The Color Purple and Empowerment
by Dawnette Chambers & Christopher C. Thompson | 11 October 2019 |
“What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear, What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!” What do hopelessness and the pain of never feeling loved or appreciated do to a person? How does one experience true communion with God? Another close look at The Color Purple by Alice Walker yields deep truths for Seventh-day Adventists in 2019. The Color Purple won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize, and the 1985 film was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and is revered as a masterpiece, with boundless significance for blacks in America, and Americans in general.
When the book opens, we find Celie in her late teens, pregnant for the second time with her father’s child, and shortly thereafter, sold to her weak, yet violent husband, known as Mister. Celie lives most of her life unwanted, devalued and abused by men, positioned to support and secure her. Hopeless, she starts to write letters to God.
There are several major themes that are prominent throughout the story. By lifting some of those themes some takeaways for present-day Adventism begin to emerge.
Interconnected family systems – “The Village”
The concept that “friends are the family you choose” is evident throughout Celie’s letters to both God and Nettie. Celie lives almost 50 years of her life believing that Nettie is the only person in the world that loves her. She believes her stepfather “Pa”/Alphonso is her father and the father of her two children that he probably killed or sold, as well as physically and verbally abusing her. Through the years married to Mister, every woman she meets grows to have a deep affinity for her and encourages her to fight for/believe in herself. It is through the agency of Sofia, Shug and distantly Nettie, that she grows to understand her own worth.
After Sofia leaves Harpo, we later find both Harpo and Sofia in new relationships with people that are introduced as “friends of the family.” Interestingly enough, a situation that seems burdened with unending drama turns into mutual respect. The “prize fighter” brings all the children to the house and informs the family that Sofia is in jail. Squeak puts her own safety at risk to help get Sofia out of jail and when Squeak decides she is going to leave for Memphis with Celie and Shug, Sofia graciously offers to take care of Suzie Q.
Proverbs 17:17 posits that “friends love at all times and a brother is born in adversity.” These women had no choice but to stand in the gap for each other. Both the families they were born and married into caused a lot of physical and emotional pain and heartache. The unmet expectations of a hard life with a loving husband and grateful children was virtually out of reach for nearly every female character in the book. Each man’s self-interest comes at the detriment of his legacy.
Cycles of brokeness
“You better not never tell anybody but God,” is a disgusting, abusive and manipulative line from Pa to Celie, as he rips her newborn from her arms. The book, film and musical all illustrate the sense that black women are devalued, not only by members of the society at large but especially by the black men in their lives.
Celie, for the majority of her life, watches those around her as her life seemingly passes her by. However, she isn’t the only one broken. Take Harpo and Sofia. Harpo brings a pregnant Sofia home to meet Mister and from the beginning of their relationship, Mister and Sofia have a tense relationship. Harpo, raised by Mister, sees how his father treats Celie and although he loves Sofia and is happy with their life in that he loves cooking, cleaning and caring for their children, he is unable to find freedom in their relationship. Harpo wasn’t raised in a home where love abides and Sofia isn’t living up to his definition of being a wife. Sofia’s independence encroaches upon Harpo’s immaturity and sense of self. He starts to beat her and the cycle of domestic violence, disrespect and depression grows like a winding, poisonous vine.
Throughout the book, it becomes clear that no one’s life has turned out as they envisioned. Celie spends most of her life imprisoned in a forced arranged marriage, thinking that both her children and beloved sister Nettie are dead. Mister has lived off his father’s (Older Mister) land and married two women who, in his opinion, paled in comparison to Shug Avery – the love of his life. Harpo and Sofia’s stubbornness and unmet expectations cause years of pain, mistrust, depression, and loneliness. Even Nettie as a missionary in Africa experiences hostility from Corrine, the Olinka people and white developers who ransack the Olinka village.
John 16:22 addresses the sorrow and future hope and joy that Celie grabs onto when she reflects on the probable death of Nettie and the return of her letters to Nettie, as well as when she states that she might have to wait until she is 90 before she beholds the face of her sister and children.
By the time we meet Shug Avery, she is physically broken, stubborn, loved by most but detested by many. Shug doesn’t seem to care about the children her parents are raising or that she is an unrepentant homewrecker.
The Color Purple is actually a story about faith, and how we respond when our faith is tested. The story opens with a letter written directly to God. That’s actually another cycle in the story. Talking to God. Whenever trauma happens, Celie talks to God. She simply does so through the writing of letters. These letters are an anthology of elaborate prayers that demonstrate Celie talks to God about everything she’s experiencing. In many ways she is isolated. Her only escape is to talk to God. While she is not overtly religious or pious, she demonstrates vibrant faith in that she prays so consistently and fervently. Her faith is real.
There is also an important element that must not be overlooked. Shug is no saint, but she’s everyone’s angel. She models strength and joy to several people; especially Celie. In the film, she comes to faith in the resolution (which in itself sends a powerful message about redemption), but in the book, she helps Celie overcome the crisis of faith that she encounters. It reminds us that for so many people faith may not be traditional, but it is central.
It’s likely that the most important theme in the entire story is that of empowerment. Specifically, the story is about how these women in obscure rural Georgia became empowered. As was mentioned earlier, their interconnected network is the primary agency through which they gain power. Each woman supports another, and they empower each other in several ways.
The turning point in the story takes place when several women gain power all at once. The scene is masterfully played in the film as Sofia, broken and battered by the prison system and dehumanizing servitude begins to reflect on a time when she received unsolicited and unexpected help from Celie at an especially low point. The story which Sofia recounts ends when Celie motions to Sofia to keep her head up. When Sofia recounts the experience she sheds tears of joy as she recognizes how timely it was to have her friend and mother-in-law step in to lend a hand.
It’s at that moment that the levee breaks. Celie goes on a fearless tirade that has been mounting since the day that Mister took her from her home of origin. She announces her plans to leave Georgia for Memphis with Shug. Celie pronounces a curse on Mister, and let’s loose every truth-filled barb she can muster. Suddenly, Squeak announces that she intends to leave too. In one moment, three of the women gained their power. It’s the scene that ushers in the resolution.
Each woman lends and leans on one another to develop strength and agency for times they will need it most. And here’s the most important point. The community cannot truly thrive until the women are fully affirmed and empowered within it.
It’s been over thirty years since The Color Purple hit the shelves. It’s timeless wisdom makes it appear that it was written yesterday. The story yields some deep lessons and quite a few that will apply directly to our present-day circumstances as Seventh-day Adventists.
Authentic faith experiences are inextricably tied to authentic cultural experiences
A restrictive and exclusive faith serves no one. When we determine that faith only functions our way, and only affirms one way of looking at the world, we lose the opportunity to engage with countless people who are sincerely searching.
Celie’s crisis of faith is the place where we learn the meaning of the title of the book. Shug tries to convince Celie that God is a lover of beauty and it makes God angry if you don’t recognize the beauty around you; as in a field full of purple flowers. It’s in the midst of this conversation that Celie confronts her long-held conviction that God is an old white man.
Shug asks Celie what she thinks God looks like. Celie admits that she’s never imagined God as anything other than an old white man. Her entire life has been marked by victimization at the hands of men. She comes to the conclusion that if God is a man, then he too must be “trifling, forgetful and lowdown.” In Celie’s mind, the evidence that her suspicions about God are correct is that after all of the praying she’s been doing, she’s still suffered terribly (at the hands of men). Therefore, God must be a man, and he must be complicit or at least enabling.
Shug’s entreaties to Celie remind us that God is not a man. God is Spirit (see John 4:24). And rather than a chauvinistic, egotistical, white supremacist, God is actually in the business of making things beautiful and desires that we should live lives characterized by beauty and joy.
It’s important here to clarify that there is no attempt or intent here to make a wholesale affirmation of the type of theology that Alice Walker espouses here through Shug. Nevertheless, we should also be careful to reject the restrictive, nationalistic, and sexist constructs that are manifest in the theological frameworks that Celie determines to reject. The irony here is that Shug Avery, a self-proclaimed and unabashed “sinner” promotes and argues for a more balanced view of the nature of God. Though not a traditional view, Shug Avery’s perspective is actually a corrective to the theology of white supremacy and reckless patriarchy that Celie has cherished for years.
We need contextualized faith that is responsive to the needs and mores in a given community. An old white male God could never help Celie; not to mention that the symbol is actually not biblically accurate. God cannot be male, and God cannot be white. If God is either of those things then God cannot be relevant or much help to those of a different cultural experience.
Our local church’s greatest impact will be found in helping families to be healthy
Families are in trouble. Families are more steeped in cycles of trauma and brokenness than ever before. We need emotionally healthy and spiritually mature saints who will commit to supporting families as surrogates, counselors, and “friends of the family” to help ensure that there is a helping hand whenever it’s needed.
We need to encourage our church members and local community residents to pursue therapeutic support to address traumatic experiences that they endured and buried in the recesses of their hearts and minds. These unresolved issues are bound to manifest in present and future relationships, which will make quality connections more elusive; thus perpetuating those same cycles of brokenness.
We need pulpit preaching, initiatives, and ministries that address the needs of families and seek creative ways to strengthen and empower families. We need ministry tools and resources that will equip families to grow and do life together. We need to teach families new patterns of relating and help them to develop new traditions and values that will ensure the health of future relationships and future generations.
This is the heart of effective parish ministry. The churches that begin to prioritize family support and help families to break cycles of trauma are the new thriving churches. These are the churches that will make the biggest impact in the next twenty years if the Lord delays his coming.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church cannot and will not truly thrive until it completely and truly affirms and empowers women
Here is irony: a church that was partially founded by a woman and has been sustained by the wisdom of a woman is struggling to determine whether it is biblical to affirm the ministerial gifts of women. That is some epic-level irony. Pick an Adventist church—any Adventist church. Here’s what you can almost guarantee: The most active, committed and productive members are likely women. The question is not whether or not women make invaluable ministerial (read pastoral) contributions to the church, but rather will the church acknowledge that those contributions are equally as valuable as the corresponding contributions of men.
Communities that disempower women cannot and will not develop thoroughly. That’s what The Color Purple teaches us. Harpo, Mister, Older Mister, Pa, and all the rest suffer as long as they dishonor, disregard and disrespect the women in their circles. They perpetuate cycles of impotence and loss among themselves, until they wise-up, straighten up, affirm, support and empower the women who have supported them. These women have worked their fields, cooked their meals and cared for their children. The least we can do is rise up and call them blessed. Nevertheless, there is no room for a philosophy that would cause a duly elected conference administrator to be handed a visitor’s pass at the church’s world headquarters. It is entirely unacceptable for women who do the same job as male pastors to receive a different title, a lower pay rate, or lesser opportunities for future service. These are just a few examples of the ridiculous reality of stifling women’s voices and influence. We are only hurting ourselves.
The beautiful thing about The Color Purple is that the women do gain power. They support each other. They develop power themselves with their own interconnected systems of advocacy and agency. Do we expect anything different to happen in Adventism? Every marginalized voice (at some point) will grow louder and louder still. Women who have been denied access to the full gamut of denominational support will at some point receive the honor they are due; whether the power structure wants them to or not. It’s just a matter of time before the cauldron of equality boils over and its scalding hot contents scorch those who have determined to contain these awesome women of God.
Celie is all of us, struggling to numb the pain, make meaning of a cruel world and painful experiences, and to simply be truly seen, heard and loved. If only we could make everyone in our community feel exactly that way; truly seen, heard and loved. When we talk to God, we trust that he’s listening. We pray that every individual, especially those who have experienced tremendous pain, would feel that they too are truly seen, heard and loved, and that they would receive from God answers to all of their prayers.
Dawnette Chambers serves as an assistant professor of communication and public relations program coordinator at her alma mater, Oakwood University.
Christopher C. Thompson works in Huntsville, AL for the Breath of Life broadcast and ministry. He and his wife Tracy have one son, Christopher II.