Academic Exchange Quarterly Spring 2005 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 9, Issue 1
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Case Study: The Color Purple on the Whiteboard
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.
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
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.
the early 1990s
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.
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),
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)
this personal mandate
fame. The Color
Purple (1982) swept the
High administrators’ first priority was to study a female writer’s work. The Color Purple’s
measurable financial success made
Warner Brothers approached
comparison was not an idle one: the novel did uncommonly celebrate common
people. The Color
Purple is brilliant, engaging, and deeply moving;
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.
powerfully presenting the issues, the movie soft-coats the unremitting horror
of Celie’s childhood, the girls’ epistolary
achievement, and occludes
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) 
film’s portrayal of black life and female friendship was unusually apt; but
many spectators protested Spielberg’s trivializing of
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).
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
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,  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.
 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).
 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).
 Karen Ross critiques the “forgettable and
undemanding” characters Whoopi Goldberg has played in
a career beginning with award of
Bobo, Jacqueline. Black Women as Cultural
Bobo, Jacqueline. “The Color Purple: Black
Women as Cultural Readers.” Female
Spectators: Looking at Film and Television. Ed. E. Deidre Pribram.
Christian, Barbara T., ed. “Everyday Use:” Alice Walker. NJ:
M. “Alice Walker’s Celebration of Self in Southern Generations.” “Everyday Use:” Alice Walker. Ed. Barbara T. Christian. NJ:
Dworkin, Susan. “The Making of The Color Purple.” Ms. Magazine (Dec 1985): 68.
c. why small
letters “Defining Differences: The
Lavender Menace and The Color Purple.” Lesbian Configurations.
Daughters of Desire: Lesbian
Representations in Film.
Peacock, John. “Adapting The Color Purple: When
Folk Goes Pop.” Adapting
the Contemporary American Novel to Film. Ed. Barbara Tepa Lupack.
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.