Alice Walker’s ‘The Color Purple’: A Marxist Critique. By: Suryashekhar BiswasRead Now
The decade of 1980s in the U.S.A is remembered, among other things, for its rightward political shift. The eighties were marked by Ronald Reagan’s term as President, his staunch concern for ‘traditional family values’, and his hostility towards even the tiniest of social-welfare programs. The previous government of Carter had played the role of ossifying public opinion and presenting a certain softness in foreign policy, in order to reassure a citizenry that had grown bitter after the Vietnam war. Unlike the Democrat Carter, the Republican Reagan had no need to hold back. He went on to dissolve the ‘Fairness Doctrine’ of the Federal Communications Commission, which had earlier posed some requirement for broadcasters to air dissenting political views. U.S hegemonism and aggressive foreign policy would be obscured by a sense of ‘super-patriotism’, and the President’s humour and aura would be sufficient justification. From the Sandinista revolutionaries of Nicaragua, to the progressive government in Afghanistan, none would be spared from the outreaches of the U.S.A that would culminate in the Reagan Doctrine (Zinn, 2009).
In the same decade a text would be written, which would later go on to capture the nerve of left-leaning realpolitik in the U.S.A and beyond. The text was an academic paper titled ‘Demarginalising the Intersection of Race and Sex’, written by academic-lawyer Kimberlé Crenshaw. This was the text that led to the escalation of the term ‘intersectionality’ from obscure jargon to everybody’s woke watchword. The paper inspects certain cases of legal battle, which involve racial and sex discrimination. Crenshaw argues that socio-economic and legal systems are not neutral, but designed to uphold and multiply bias against marginalised identities, in this case women and people of colour. She noted that by looking at women (sex identity) and POC (racial identity) in a way that is mutually exclusive, is harmful and will inevitably ignore the conditions of oppression where both the identities ‘intersect’. Whatever the merits of its original implications, the text would go on to become the manifesto for the divisive, hateful, self-obsessed, identitarian politics that is dominant in the left today. We may view the text as a mirthful reflection and product of the political and ideological contradictions of the times, which I described at the start (Crenshaw, 1989).
In the same decade, another text was published – which is the subject of this essay. Alice Walker’s epistolary novel ‘The Color Purple’. The book would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1983) and the National Book Award for Fiction. It would be met with a film adaptation, directed by Hollywood’s Steven Spielberg (1985). Recognising the appeal and positive reception of the novel, it would be no exaggeration to argue that it captured the sentiments of its time, and reflected the zeitgeist of its time. By inspecting and resolving the contradiction posed in the novel, some assessment can be made of the political scenario in which it was written, read, appreciated and adapted.
The Color Purple
‘The Color Purple’ is set in Southern U.S.A, in the early 1900s. The story revolves around African-American families. The novel is written in an epistolary form, primarily as letters that the protagonist Celie writes to ‘God’, where she describes her everyday life and tribulations, in gruesome detail. Celie is sexually abused by her ‘father’ and later married off to a man referred to as Mister __, who had originally desired to marry Nettie, Celie’s 12-year old sister. Unable to bear with her abusive ‘father’, Nettie makes her run to Celie’s dwelling at Mister __’s house. She reunites with her sister, but only to be chased away from there (Walker, 1992).
Mister __’s son Harpo marries a woman called Sofia. Mister __’s male-chauvinism compels Harpo to exercise domination over his wife, Sofia. Harpo’s attempts are overpowered by the outspoken Sofia, who ultimately leaves the house having grown weary of it. Some time then, a jazz-singer Shug Avery (who was also Mister __’s long time mistress) finds her way into his house. Initially hostile to Celie, she soon befriends her. The novel has vivid descriptions of the homosexual relationship that Celie and Shug develop, which have not passed without controversy.
Celie and Shug discover, that Celie’s sister Nettie is indeed alive and has been writing letters from Africa. The letters had been confiscated by Mister __, without Celie’s knowledge. Nettie reveals in the letters that she travelled to Africa with a missionary couple, Samuel and Corrine. She writes of her experiences with tribal groups there. The letters also reveal that Alphonso, the man Celia and Nettie had thought to be their father, is actually their step-father. Reading those letters, Celie discusses her rising scepticism towards ‘God’. Shug explains to her that God isn’t a white man in the sky, but something more sublime. Shug’s affirmation towards Celie, has a profound impact on the latter who eventually musters the courage recognise how she has been wronged and decides to leave Mister __.
Other complications arise and slowly resolve. Celie inherits a house after Alphonso’s death. Shug and Nettie come to Celie’s new home. Mister __ (Albert) returns as a changed man, and is forgiven.
The theme of injustice dominates the novel. Different characters experience injustice in different forms, and find different ways to ‘overcome’ it. At many instances, characters are presented as helpless, almost as victims of their destiny, condemned to suffer at the hands of the inhumane who have power. Injustice manifests through verbal and sexual abuse, violence and mistreatment, subjugation and control. Male dominance runs at the vein of it, and so does the reality that the characters are African-American. Therefore injustice and justice here, are not abstract concepts. Idea of justice is rooted in the material reality and determined by social and economic conditions, and also the realities of male-dominance and racial subjugation. Somewhat of an ‘intersection’, many would instantly remark.
From Plato and Aristotle, all the way to John Rawls, justice has been understood in a desertist sense (i.e. desert theory of justice.) This means that justice is understood as the delivering of rights and material goods that an individual deserves. Injustice, therefore, is the situation where individuals get what they don’t deserve, or don’t get what they deserve. Plato elucidates his idea of justice in Republic, as intrinsically linked to virtue – justice is delivered when the virtuous individuals are rewarded, and the vicious are punished. Aristotle drew a distinction between distributive justice and corrective justice. During the Enlightenment, philosophers appealed to ‘reason’ and ‘human nature’, and called for extending political rights to all individuals. As the dictum went, “All men are born equal.” Today, there is no reasonable objection to the idea that everyone deserves equal political rights. There is still debate about the just distribution of material goods (Xinsheng, 2015).
It is vital to recognise that all hitherto existing theories of justice make no remarks whatsoever about property relations and ownership. Even with the evolving understanding of justice, the concept of desert continues to underlie all of them. Each must get his due. An individual’s due (or desert) is implicitly assumed to be the due that he is entitled to because of his existing social position, and ownership of property. There is the assumption that the economic relations are themselves just, in the way that they exist, therefore justice is to be delivered over and above those economic relations, and without striving to change those relations. Private property is deemed to be just and imagined as eternal, and not as something that has been appropriated historically over years through primitive accumulation in the hands of the already advantaged mercantile classes. Desert theories of justice take private property and ownership as the premise of the argument for what is deserved in terms of income and wealth. Private property is just and eternal. This assumption is usually implicit and not conscious, but has began to grow more explicit with the rise of neoliberalism, one of whose pioneers was President Reagan.
In ‘The Color Purple’, Celie finds ultimate freedom and independence when she inherits private property from her step-father. This reinforces the same desert theory of justice. Celie has overcome her emotional subjugation, and has been empowered to stand up to her abuser simply by being more confident in herself. It seems as though that there is no need to fight the material basis of patriarchy and male-dominance, and trying to overthrow existing patriarchal systems, family institutions or property relations. Celie is now an independent woman who will not have anyone put her down. She is now a property owner.
The notion of ugliness is repeated at several instances in the novel. Celie is deemed as ugly, at least in comparison to her sister, by their step-father Alphonso. The main reason that Celie is married off with Mister __, is because she is considered the uglier of the two sisters, and Alphonso refuses to let go of Nettie, who is deemed pretty. There should be no doubt here, that the abstract notions of beauty and ugliness, have nothing to do with aesthetic or intrinsic beauty. They have more to do with what is known in sociology as ‘sexual capital’ or ‘erotic capital’. The phrase was first used by sociologist Catherin Hakim, adding upon Bourdieu’s concepts of economic, cultural and social capital. Erotic capital is subversive, and can be used for upward social mobility. Therefore, there is always an attempt from the powerful, to suppress an individual’s erotic capital, lest they rise up the social ladder (Hakim, 2011).
Since beauty is subjective, not much can be commented on the precise ways in which this works in the novel. It can surely be added that even here, injustice that both the sisters (Nettie and Celie) suffer, are intrinsically linked to property relations, in this case through the means of erotic capital. Celie is repeatedly deemed ugly by her male subjugators and at one instance by Shug Avery. This can be understood as a reflection of the need to suppress her potential erotic capital, using which she could rise above her subjugators.
‘Class’ in the social sciences, is understood differently by different schools of thinking. Socio-economic class, when the term is ordinarily thrown around, is understood in a gradational sense: lower, middle, lower-middle, upper-middle, the list is endless. Otherwise it is seen as a marker of occupation: the managerial class, business class. What is often lacking, is a relational understanding of class. Class is to be understood as the relation an individual or group has with the productive mechanisms of the economy. Do they own the mechanisms of productions as their property, or do they work for someone who owns it? Understood in this way, class is linked to the economic base and is much more than a social identity. This is where intersectionality fails. It sees class merely as an identity that intersects with other identities, such as racial identity and gender identity. Thus, even an intersectional understanding of justice, does not challenge the assumptions of ‘desert’ which assume entitlement of justice to those that own property. Instead, intersectionality merely calls for various identity groups to enter the propertied class. It calls for more women CEOs, more LGBTQ+ military commanders or more African-American Presidents, but the core property relations are not altered at the slightest. This is the zeitgeist of resistance politics that have become persistent from the times of Reagan. The same zeitgeist reflects in Crenshaw’s paper and Alice Walker’s novel.
Let us take a close look at the events surrounding Sofia, the outspoken lady who marries Harpo but leaves him, having become deterred by his attempts at subjugation. In a later segment of the book, Sofia is seen to be enjoying an afternoon in a street, with her children and boyfriend. Miss Millie, the wife of the mayor, speaks to Sofia in an insulting way. Sofia gets into a physical altercation with the mayor himself, and injures him. She is immediately arrested and imprisoned. Sofia is eventually released, and starts to work for Miss Millie.
It is not difficult to see the question of race in this segment. The immediate police action and arrest of Sofia, is largely due to her racial identity. What must also be noted, is the question of class, which operates here as a relational economic reality and not merely a social identity. One can draw a modern parallel with the recent BLM protests against the police-murder of George Floyd. While the mainstream discourse very rightly was about racial disparity and mistreatment of African-Americans by a white-dominated police system. There was little talk about the economic reality of class and property relations involved. If the issue is entirely about race, then it can perhaps be solved by sensitisation programs in the police and employment of more African-American officers. But if the issue is about material economic relations, then the solution involves the complete overturn of the existing system, if not some radical police-reform.
It is not merely social identity, but his position in economic relations that compelled George Floyd to pass off a ‘counterfeit’ twenty dollar bill, which was to be the end of him. It is the need to feed a hungry stomach and a hungry family. It is the same need that compels Sofia to serve, albeit resentfully, the mayor’s wife after the former’s release from prison.
Various contradictions such as the ones mentioned in this essay, can be found in ‘The Color Purple’. They all lead to some important questions about the political shift over the years. However, a contradiction is not hypocrisy. Alice Walker’s novel is great literature, and at least part of the appreciation must be due to its literary excellence. An attempt to resolve contradictions, is not to say that the novel is a piece of postmodernist propaganda. Far from it, the novel has themes that go against the grain. An example could be the segment where Nettie’s letter mentions the state of the Olinka tribe, which prohibits girls from getting an education. “They’re like white people at home who don’t want coloured people to learn,” says a witty character. The novel refrains from any form of relativism here.
The novel is born out of lived-experience. Individual experiences and their most beautiful literary expressions can only be translated to political change if they are placed in larger analytical frameworks and within broader political contexts. As lines from the book read:
“I think us here to wonder, myself. To wonder. To ask. And that in wondering about the big things and asking about the big things, you learn about the little ones, almost by accident. But you never know nothing more about the big things than you start out with. The more I wonder, the more I love.”
Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex. Unversity of Chicago Legal Forum , 139-167.
Hakim, C. (2011). Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom. Basic Books.
Walker, A. (1992). The Color Purple. Women's Press: London.
Xinsheng, W. (2015). A Fourfold Defense of Marx’s Theory of Justice. Social Sciences in China , 5-21.
Zinn, H. (2009). A People's History of the United States. New York: HarperCollins.
Suryashekhar Biswas is an independent journalist and researcher, based in Bangalore, India. His research areas include political economy, media studies and literature. He is a member of AISA - a communist student organisation. He runs a YouTube channel called 'Humour and Sickle' (https://www.youtube.com/c/HumourandSickle)
12/27/2021 11:54:40 am
I feel like this essay is very well-intentioned but ultimately misses the mark on a few key connections that ultimately place the piece into a canon of reactionary "anti-woke but make it left" demagoguery. Before you react, let me explain where I'm coming from.
12/29/2021 10:05:17 am
Hello, this is the author of the essay. I appreciate your comment. I think all of your points are valid, and having had some discussions about this with various other folks, I recognise the faulty impact it can have, as you have correctly pointed out.
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