Academic Exchange Quarterly     Spring    2005    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume 9, Issue 1

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Case Study: The Color Purple on the Whiteboard


Rob Baum, Monash University, Australia


Baum, Ph.D., Senior Lecturer in Performance Studies, is a poet, playwright and performer.




The assigned high school reading of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple was intended to rectify an imbalance in gendered and raced texts in the curriculum and increase Caucasian awareness of race. But the school administration failed to adequately prepare its predominantly white population and instead reinforced stereotypes about gender, race, and sexuality.



This case study reveals what happened when the novel The Color Purple was introduced into high school curriculum to correct gender and racial inequity in school readings. Administrators, well meaning but ill-informed, failed to prepare teachers—and therefore students—for the text’s cultural biases. I address The Color Purple’s resistance of canonical writing and the need for re-education of readers approaching unfamiliar cultures.


The Problem of the Canon

Dominant reading sources reflect “the canon”: Euro-American (Western European or North American) literature, almost always written by men, commonly from an unconsciously privileged and/or colonial perspective. A movement to challenge—or unseat—the canon’s dominance resulted in a flurry of sub-literatures by writers labelled “marginal” or “postcolonial,” predictably resulting in alternative canons. The concept of “writing back to the Empire” has engendered a sense of Third World writers speaking for themselves, a required step to multi-cultural consciousness.


But alternative canons do not inherently re-condition readers to re-think plot, character, or voice: structuralist textual expectations prevail, readers adhere to canonical criteria structuring comprehension and predicting preference. Marginalized authors have argued that unless readers themselves shift from a “central” point-of-view there can be no conscious engagement with marginal texts. Readers must learn to read and comprehend in a “de-centralized” manner. Thus, non-canonical works necessitate re-contextualization: students must be encouraged to consider the suppressive forces underprivileged authors face, constructively grapple with ramifications of gender in writing and reading the marginal, and locate themselves within an ongoing academic argument about what constitutes literature and how to read it.


Texts introduced to satisfy gender imbalances in education may stir rather than quiet emotions. Not only an issue of male and female sex characteristics or roles, gender is a complex negotiation between individuals and societies, affecting every part of life. In this study issues of race and its gendering, as well as sexual preference, provoked controversy in and out of the classroom.


Role Modelling

In the early 1990s Woods High School added The Color Purple to its curriculum to rectify its balance of gendered and raced texts. Despite its horrible beginning and middle, this novel about two small African-American girls in the 20th century South, separated in childhood, reaches a happy end in two women reuniting. Celie’s childhood—based upon Walker’s great-great grandmother, whose master raped and impregnated her at age 11—is violently shattered by continuous rapes committed by her father. Pregnancies keep her from school, turning her—briefly—into a teenage mother; her progeny are immediately removed by their (and her) father; she is transferred to another man (“Mr. ___”) for his sexual gratification and abuse. When sister Nettie’s innocence is similarly threatened by Mr. ___, Nettie is serendipitously removed by missionaries, is taken to Africa, and begins the letter writing for which Celie lives. Nettie eventually marries the gentle missionary and, with Celie’s help, returns to Celie’s Southern home. Compounding blessed coincidences, the children stolen from Celie are not really her own siblings but progeny of Celie and her step-father and were raised by Nettie’s missionaries. With Nettie’s return Celie’s family is complete.


In its narrative exchange of letters as the conduit for sisterhood, the novel promotes love of language and writing and displays the possibility of genuine love between unrelated women: the beautiful entertainer Shug Avery, Mr. ___’s long-term mistress, falls in love with Celie and eventually rescues her from a loveless marriage. The novel’s representation of positive female characters is uncommonly powerful and forthright: women defend their honor, family, and rights; care for the sick, needy, and undeserving; work to ensure their families’ livelihood; and keep society from absolute moral decay.


The school administration intended a positive and powerful gender and race identity role in author Alice Walker, a female African-American writer. Where single texts—or teachers—represent whole categories (concepts found in many high schools and perpetuated at the tertiary level), Walker appears a superb choice. For Walker, a forceful personality in American literature, “black and female” are only two possible signifiers. She is Southern, representing a regional voice typically granted to white males. (Even Margaret Mitchell’s inclusion affirms wealthy white landowners with slaves as capital. In contrast, John Howard Griffin’s 1962 novel Black Like Me, a romantic liaison between a black man and blind white woman, suggests that both are viewed as disabled: race is an issue only clinical blindness can overcome and only romance can mitigate.)


Forthrightly identifying with Africa, Walker imports Roots writer Alex Haley’s “authenticity” to a postmodern female context. Daughter of poor Georgia sharecroppers, educated in “prestigious American colleges,” and “scarred by the poverty of her origins” (Christian 15), Walker says, “Because I’m black and I’m a woman and because I was brought up poor and because I’m a Southerner...the way I see the world is quite different from the way many people see it. I could not help but have a radical vision of society” (Davis 106).


Walker also writes sympathetically about lesbianism without placing same sex desire before plot, reality, or heterosexual discourse. [1] Travelling a feminist route that espouses non-feminist writing, Walker bypasses those critical of all feminist or lesbian platforms, calling herself “womanist”:

A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility...and women’s strength. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or nonsexually. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically, for health. Traditionally universalist, as in “Mama, why are we brown, pink, and yellow, and our cousins are white, beige, and black?” (Walker 1983: xi)


With this personal mandate Walker rejects social labelling that fixes categories and dictates behavior. She does not apologize for or explain her desires; periodic political changes; or inclusive vision of color. This makes Walker a palatable representative of race, gender, even same-sex desire—tempered with heteronormativity.


And fame. The Color Purple (1982) swept the U.S. with its story of two black girls whose loyalty cannot be severed by separation, expatriation, or dehumanization. In 1983 the novel, on The New York Times best-selling list for weeks, earned both the American Book Award for Fiction and the Pulitzer Prize. With Steven Spielberg’s decision to screen the novel—maintaining its name—Walker was catapulted to the celebrity recognition reserved for actors.


Woods High administrators’ first priority was to study a female writer’s work. The Color Purple’s measurable financial success made Walker a solid role model for all students, many encountering female writing in the curriculum for the first time. Yet the majority did not share Walker’s racial characteristics; the minority opposed Walker’s “universal” platform; and it is difficult to explain how a work making so positive a statement about lesbianism evaded the careful censorship applied to high school curricula.


Big Screen

When Warner Brothers approached Walker to write the screenplay for The Color Purple, Walker did not know who Spielberg was. Although she later gave up on writing the screenplay, ostensibly because she did not support the project, in 1985 Walker permitted adaptation, telling her daughter, “Well, maybe if he can do Martians, he can do us” (Dworkin 68).


The comparison was not an idle one: the novel did uncommonly celebrate common people. The Color Purple is brilliant, engaging, and deeply moving; Walker writes simply but eloquently about domestic violence and child sexual assault. The novel is exhilarating for its direct treatment of love between women and veneration of women in general, whether societally unattractive (ugly, big, or strong) or accustomed to the male gaze and the dubious privileges sexual objectification carries. The majority of the epistolary novel is comprised of Celie’s letters, in uneducated, phonetically written speech, including secret letters to God in which she divulges her father’s violations.

All the virtues of the book—its gumption and directness and the potency of its private, vernacular vision of anguish—are evident in the first half of this section. Walker hauls you in by serving up rape, incest, and infanticide on the first two pages, reported by a fourteen-year-old girl who doesn’t know what’s happening to her. It’s a shock the reader doesn’t recover from until, sixty or seventy pages later, the bells of sisterhood begin to peal so loudly that they drown out everything else in the book. (Vineberg 95)


While powerfully presenting the issues, the movie soft-coats the unremitting horror of Celie’s childhood, the girls’ epistolary achievement, and occludes Walker’s seminal arguments about female agency and friendship. There is no acknowledgement of the depth of passion between Celie and Shug, but instead the chaste, companionable female love of Victorian novels. No lesbian romance supersedes the heterosexual, only a tepid bath scene in which desire is made apparent—and apparently doused. Kabir writes,

The presence of lesbian sexual desire in the written texts has been deliberately erased in the screen versions, possibly because the film industry has until recently been reluctant to grant screen space to something as progressive and disruptive as lesbian identity. (Kabir 113)


Public reactions were extreme:

Since its premiere…The Color Purple…provoked constant controversy, debate and appraisals of its effects on the image of Black people in the U.S. [However,] one of the problems most of the film’s reviewers have in trying to analyse the film… is to make sense of the overwhelming positive response from Black female viewers. (Bobo 90-92) [2]


The film’s portrayal of black life and female friendship was unusually apt; but many spectators protested Spielberg’s trivializing of Walker’s statements about sexuality and relationships. Most disappointingly, Celie’s and Nettie’s sisterhood, enduring grievous assaults on body and memory, was presented as the accomplishment of male intervention.


Student Reception

Woods High School students found the novel so compelling that they forgot the author’s involvement, completely negating Walker as a positive role model—or, because of autobiographical nature of essays at secondary level—conflated Walker with her novel’s subjects, seeing her alternatively as an ugly, abused black woman (neglecting Celie’s many successes) or an exotically beautiful yet dependent black woman (Shug Avery). Students’ access to the movie is probably most to blame for this latter identification. John Peacock notes, “While far behind the number one and two best-sellers up until then…The Color Purple had the distinction of being the only video in the top hundred all-time best sellers to date that was concerned with black feminist issues” (Peacock 127 n.1).


It is also possible that teachers, ignoring tutorial design, skipped over the biographical material, plunging directly into the text. In any case, students were not guided to adopt a different reading protocol towards non-canonical, specifically raced and gendered texts. The Walker “capsule,” moreover, failed to distinguish between story and stereotype. Harpo and Sofia emulated Stepin Fetchit’s comic timing; Goldberg’s tremulous coming of confidence became a comic scene ending in a grinning media caricature. [3] Thus one student commented: “Black people, well—they’re naturally funny, aren’t they?”


Walker’s beautiful specificity was lost in the translation from teacher objective to student reception. Students variously described the story:

It was really sad, how black people live. I mean, the black people are all poor because they were slaves. They aren’t slaves in the book though, but they’re still poor and they don’t know how to read or write...


And the girl has a baby because she’s ugly and can’t get married, so her father does it to her, but because she gets pregnant he has to kill the baby...


But later the man who does the rape is okay, because he puts the sisters together again, so all is forgiven.


While these students felt they had understood the novel, and indeed achieved an empathetic relationship to the primary female characters, what they understood contravened curricular intentions. The module in fact presented what the students received—but the film interfered:

Then she gets married to Danny Glover. But her husband can’t stand her, ‘cause he loves the beautiful one. Celie loves her too, only she can’t really because Shug isn’t like that. She wasn’t beaten up and...wasn’t raped...she’s a normal woman.


The students unfortunately made a connection—common to fairytales upon which they were raised—between physiognomy and virtue. Both Shug and Nettie are sexually objectified, and mostly good things happen to them; Celie, repeatedly labelled ugly—even by Shug herself— suffers a range of brutality by male perpetrators. Finally, Sofia, who defies women’s normative behavior, is grossly punished by white society.


White students’ mixing of character and actor is indicative of the association they feel exists between black Americans’ story-life and reality. These students didn’t personally know blacks because of a faithful economic demarcation securing relatively wealthy white kids in private schools close to their own elite neighborhoods, and blacks, Chicanos, and disadvantaged whites in public schools at the outskirts. Apart from the rare (and speedy) drive past rough, lower class neighborhoods, blacks were visible only on television, which featured three seasoned representations of black family life: The Cosby Show, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and Family Matters—sitcoms dedicated to proving rich black folks just as vapid, materialist, and apolitical as rich white folks. Renunciation of the novel’s same-sex pathos demonstrates the students’ inability to de-centralize or allow novelties in race and gender to suggest other differences. While reading, therefore, students received impressions of American blackness that supported what they heard of inner-city black life and opposed what they saw of black life.


Woods’ students emotional kinship with black tv families was actually usurped by exposure to The Color Purple: if black people could behave so badly and live so poorly, then they were truly Other. Black segregation was, ironically, justified by a text denouncing black shame and exploitation.


Unable to grasp the people they encountered in novel form, they also failed to distinguish between norms inculcated by inferior financial status, economic hardship, and white heterosexist ideology. This is not the novel’s fault, [4] but a problem in reading. Bobo explains the necessary act of reading from the margins:

A viewer of a film (reader of a text) comes to the moment of engagement with the work with a knowledge of the world and a knowledge of other texts, or media products. What this means is that...she/he does not leave her/his histories, whether social, cultural, economic, racial, or sexual at the door. An audience member from a marginalized group (people of colour, women, the poor, and so on) has an oppositional stance as they participate in mainstream media. The motivation for this counter-reception is that...mainstream media has never rendered our segment of the population faithfully. (Bobo 96)


Marginalized readers learn to locate themselves in dominant texts. The practice typically employed by dominant readers is to whitewash privilege for the duration of the reading. For all its humility, humanity, and delightful audacity, The Color Purple could not be accepted as the text it is, but only as the text it appeared to be, refracted by whiteness into an impoverished picture of African-American life.



[1] Many lesbian critics hesitated to embrace The Color Purple as a lesbian novel. renée c. hoogland’s “unequivocal ambivalence” about Celie’s lesbian—or sexual—subjectivity is a case in point (hoogland 1997).


[2] Black and white women viewers were positive for different reasons; Bobo’s thesis is interested only in articulating the black female debate. Bobo expands upon this chapter in her book (Bobo 1995).


[3] Karen Ross critiques the “forgettable and undemanding” characters Whoopi Goldberg has played in a career beginning with award of Hollywood’s Golden Globe for Best Actress in The Color Purple. She adds: “But perhaps part of Goldberg’s appeal may be precisely that her characterizations provide a comforting respite from the constant negotiations about race which other films featuring black performers require, since her ethnicity is never a controversial issue. [When] the storyline does turn on racial identity...race is not really prefigured in any meaningful way” (Ross 24-25).


[4] When an Oakland, California mother decreed the novel offensive, the book faced banning. It was later acquitted (Walker 1988).



Bobo, Jacqueline. Black Women as Cultural Readers. NY: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Bobo, Jacqueline. “The Color Purple: Black Women as Cultural Readers.” Female Spectators: Looking at Film and Television. Ed. E. Deidre Pribram. London: Verso, 1988. 90-109.

Christian, Barbara T., ed. “Everyday Use:” Alice Walker. NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994.

Davis, Thadious M. “Alice Walker’s Celebration of Self in Southern Generations.” “Everyday Use:” Alice Walker. Ed. Barbara T. Christian. NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994. 105-122.

Dworkin, Susan. “The Making of The Color Purple. Ms. Magazine (Dec 1985): 68.

hoogland, renée c.  why small letters  “Defining Differences: The Lavender Menace and The Color Purple.Lesbian Configurations. NY: Columbia University Press, 1997. 11-23.

Kabir, Shameem. Daughters of Desire: Lesbian Representations in Film. London: Cassell, 1998.

Peacock, John. “Adapting The Color Purple: When Folk Goes Pop.” Adapting the Contemporary American Novel to Film. Ed. Barbara Tepa Lupack. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Press, 1994. 12-130.

Ross, Karen. Black and White Media: Black Figures in Popular Film and Television. NY: Polity Press, 1996.

Vineberg, Steve. No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade. NY: Macmillan Books, 1993.

Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982.

Walker, Alice. Living By The Word: Selected Writings 1973-1987. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1988.

Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.