Dr Mrs. Walker,
I recently read your novel The Color Purple as part of a social justice curriculum at my school. I felt compelled to take the time to tell you what a profound honor it was to read your book. I am so grateful to both you and my teachers for giving me the opportunity to experience something that in all likelihood I would never have had the privilege of experiencing otherwise. I am currently in a humanities program at my school that allows me to have many experiences such as reading your book. We read The Color Purple as part of a unit on gender and sexuality issues from a social justice perspective. These issues were very poignant throughout the duration of the novel and your portrayal of them, along with your portrayal of many other issues was absolutely beautiful to me. However, in particular what were most beautiful to me were your portrayals of the definition of family and as an extension of that, the idea of couples becoming trinities. The way your characters illustrated both of these ideas was new to me; instead of feeling fear and apprehension when faced with the new ideas, I quickly felt that the ideas were comfortable, familiar, and ingenious.
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At the opening of the novel I saw many examples of the importance of the traditional family unit in America. Celie is forced to marry Mr. because in patriarchal American society it is essential that she have a husband. Mr. ‘s father forces him to marry Annie Julia despite the fact that he really loves Shug because he must have a proper wife. After reading the letters containing this information I was expecting a story of the typical family unit. I was not expecting the type of family that is ultimately glorified in the book. My understanding that the family that I would ultimately see in the book would not be a conventional one came with the realization that attitudes towards women in the novel caused men to sleep with several different women. When I say attitudes towards women, I mean the commonly held beliefs that women do not need to be respected, are easily replaceable, and are essentially property. The result of the aforementioned promiscuity is that men have children from different mothers all over the place. It is difficult to establish the traditional two parent, two kid family when there are several different mothers and children involved. Sometimes, as was the case with Mr. and ‘Fonso, a man’s wife will die and he will take another wife. He will often have children by both the first, second, and possibility third wife as Alfonso did. In addition to the men, there are several strong, assertive female characters in the novel that were not afraid to behave the same way in terms of having several husbands/lovers. The result of the behavior of both the men and women is a large group of individuals composed of husbands, wives, lovers, ex-husbands, ex-wives, ex-lovers, still married individuals who have gone off with someone else, and all of their various children. This situation would not normally be very intriguing to me if not for the fact that all of these people are able to come together and truly be a family.
The first time I realized that there was something special about the relationship between all of the characters collectively that made them a family was when Sofia was arrested. Everyone pulled together to try and get Sofia out of prison and it was an amazing display of support and closeness. Initially I believed that the reason all of the Black characters pulled together was because it was an issue of Black versus White. Although I know this was a factor, there were multiple relationships that resulted in the communal love that everyone exhibited towards Sofia throughout the book. This love was most surprising coming from Squeak. Upon Squeak and Sofia’s first meeting, they get into a physical fight and after this one might surmise that they would never be civil to one another again. When Sofia is imprisoned, Squeak volunteers to talk to the warden, her uncle, and ultimately allows herself to be raped by him in an attempt to get her out. This is not the type of behavior one would expect from a jealous girlfriend towards her boyfriend’s wife. However, Squeak learns to love Sofia because Harpo really loves Sofia. Harpo and Squeak’s relationship is the catalyst for the relationship that comes to exist between Squeak and Sofia. Squeak’s sacrificial act is the beginning of the trinity that will ultimately exist between Sofia, Squeak, and Harpo.
In addition to her loyalty to Harpo, Squeak is a representative of the unconventional family that has formed and she is playing her role in that family. When Celie, Shug, the prizefighter, Mr. , Harpo, Odessa, and Sofia’s sister are sitting around and deciding what to do about Sofia’s situation it seems strange initially that all of the aforementioned people would care about Sofia. Sofia left Harpo and Mr. did not like her at all upon meeting her. I did not expect Harpo to “take Sofia back” meaning I did not expect Harpo to come through for her. I expected Mr. to give exactly two cents about Sofia’s well being. When these two individuals in particular showed concern for Sofia it showed me that in this novel the power of the family unit can sometimes transcend the need for male domination. Comparing Mr. ‘s actions in the situation with Sofia with his action towards the communication between Celie and Nettie one can see the unique nature of the definition of family in the book. Celie and Nettie are blood relatives, sisters, but Mr. does not feel at all compelled to keep them together. Sofia was once his daughter-in-law, but Sofia has effectively terminated that relationship by walking out on Harpo which should enrage Mr. . There should be no relationship between Sofia and Mr. – whatsoever, but that is not the case. The feelings of respect and possibly concern that Mr. feels towards Sofia develop because she has existed as part of their little clan and “proved” herself. This makes her more of a member of the family in Mr. ‘s eyes than Nettie could ever be regardless of her blood relation to Celie.
The saga of Sofia continues when Sofia is let out of prison in order to work for Miss Millie and is unable to raise her children. Sofia’s sister Odessa and Squeak raise the children who come to know them as their mamas, but Sofia is still really their mother. The children become everyone’s children because they are raised and loved by everyone. There is no strict definition of who is the mother and who is the father because that is no what defines a family of this group of individuals. Wherever there is love and care there is family. Whoever raises the child is the mama and if this means that there is more than one mother, then so be it.
This is the second time Squeak comes through for Sofia and we see that the initial animosity of their meeting is a relic of the past. Due to their initial connection through Harpo they have come to have their own connection which far surpasses the one that either of them may have with Harpo. The true culmination of the relationship comes when Squeak decides she needs to sing and in order to do that she must go to Memphis. Sofia offers to take care of Harpo and Squeak’s daughter Jolentha while Squeak is gone. It was very difficult for me to wrap my mind around the concept of two women who love the same man and both gave birth to his children wanting to have anything to do with one another. Not only did Sofia and Squeak want something to do with each other, but they also wanted to raise each other’s children and share the same man. They had the type of genuine feelings for each other that I would only expect from sisters.
Harpo’s actions with regard to the trinity should not to be overlooked because they are extremely unique as well. He accepts Sofia back with open arms after she has left him for the prizefighter. Harpo also accepts Squeak back as a member of the family after she has run off with Grady. The traditional male possessiveness that I would expect of Harpo does not seem to exist with regard to his family as a community. The mothers of his children are always a part of the family.
Much easier for me to comprehend than Sofia and Squeak’s affinity for one another was Celie and Mr. ‘s hatred of one another. Celie and Mr. face the same challenge that Sofia and Squeak did of loving the same person. Celie and Mr. both love Shug and their situation is further complicated by the fact that they are married to each other. However, Celie and Mr. come to have a mutual respect for each other by the end of the book as the result of their mutual love for Shug. As with Sofia and Squeak, Celie and Shug have a bond that is much deeper than the relationship either of them share with Mr. . Celie and Shug love each other in a way that is much different than the way Sofia and Squeak ultimately love each other because they help each other “create the self.” Celie frees Shug from the role that everybody wants her to fit into, and Shug frees Celie from the psychological bonds that have always kept her from making of her life what she wanted it to be. Shug is not only a lover for Celie, but a friend, idol and teacher as well.
Mr. ‘s dominating personality makes his relationship with Celie, his wife, a volatile one and when Celie helps Shug realize that she no longer loves him it does not help matters. Somehow, Celie and Mr. are able to get past the anger they feel towards one another. Mr. ‘s change in attitude towards Celie is not actually influenced by any action on Shug’s part, but by something that Celie and Harpo do. When Celie decides to leave for Memphis, she puts a curse on Mr. that she claims will cause everything he does in the future to be a failure. He will suffer ten times the pain that he has made her suffer. Mr. becomes so afraid of the curse that he locks himself in his house and begins to rot away until Harpo gets him to pull himself together. He sends Celie the rest of the letters that Nettie wrote and begins to try to be a better person. Through these efforts, Mr. begins to see the error of his ways and by the time he encounters Celie again he treats her with a great deal more respect. Celie has suffered so much from the actions of Mr. that it takes a little more for her to forgive and forget. It is not until Shug runs off with Germaine and Celie moves home to the house left to her by her real father that a civil relationship begins to develop between Celie and Mr. . Ironically, Shug has left Celie, the same way Shug left Mr. when Celie helped her realize that she no longer loved him. This shared experience, along with Mr. ‘s new attitude towards life create an environment where Celie and Mr. can actually begin to spend time together. They share the pain of loosing Shug and understand each other’s experience in a way that no one else can. Mr. eventually allows himself to become vulnerable enough with Celie to share his childhood love of sewing and inability to pursue it because it would make him less of a man. Not only does Mr. share this with Celie, but feels comfortable enough to allow her to help him relearn how to sew. Considering Mr. ‘s past treatment of Celie, their new relationship is difficult to understand at first. It is truly a testament to the power of the family, that two people with so much pain between them could find common ground. Celie and Mr. find common ground in their mutual love for Shug, but also in the fact that their lives are inexplicably intertwined because of their family. They both care about so many of the same people that it becomes impossible for them not to share much of each other’s lives.
The last two pages of The Color Purple were a beautiful testament to what a family should be and a confirmation of all of the things I had observed throughout the novel. When I realized that the “family reunion” was a reunion of all of the people I had come to know as a family, Celie, Shug, Mr. , Squeak, Sofia, Harpo, Odessa, Jack, Nettie, Tashi, Adam, Olivia, and all of the various children, it brought a huge smile to my face. The shared lovers and husbands, the children from all over the place, these things initially made The Color Purple seem like somewhat of a soap opera to me. I realized that if it were truly a soap opera, Squeak probably would have taken revenge on Sofia by kidnapping her children, not by allowing herself to be raped in order to help Sofia. I realized that for all the pain that the characters suffered, the love they shared for each other is something that we should all aspire to.
I have always felt that I was extremely lucky to have the level of love, understanding, and trust that exists within my immediate family. My immediate family refers to my parents and brother. I feel like there is more love in my family than in many of the families I have come across in my life. However, I have been thinking for some time and The Color Purple helped me realize that there might be a type of family that is missing from my life. I have always wanted to be a part of a community of friends, teachers, lovers, of men and women who love each other without being related to one another, but I never thought of that type of a community as a family. Being a student in CORE 11 and reading your novel have made the desire to belong to something stronger than ever. By the end of the novel I was very envious of the level of connection that the characters managed to achieve with each other. I fear perhaps that it is something I will never experience, however, reading your book has helped strengthen my resolve to make sure that does not happen. The beauty of The Color Purple for me lies not so much in the struggle of women, but in the struggle of everyone to find a place to belong. I now realize that my family is wherever I feel I belong. Just as the self is not something one finds, but rather creates, so to must I learn to create the family that I will ultimately belong to. Only by creating my family can I find the place where I truly belong.
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