Tag Archives: Alice Walker

Womens’ History Month: Alice Walker’s The Color Purple

The Color Purple has a special place in my reading heart.

I often write about books that few other people have read.

This time, I am sure this is not the case.

Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is one that I’ve continued to reflect on since I first read it shortly after its publication in the 80s, and is one of the books whose characters I’ve had the deepest connection with over time.

The story is set in early 20th century rural Georgia.

Celie, the protagonist, is raped by her stepfather and abused in many ways by Mr., the husband to whom she is married off and who keeps from Celie the many, many letters Celie’s sister sends to her.  Throughout the course of the book, Celie’s relationship with Shug, an entertainer and Mr.’s lover, becomes the catalyst for her finding her voice, shedding Mr., reconnecting with her sister and becoming a successful businesswoman.

I want to be clear that Celie’s growth is not spurred only by knowing Shug, and she is a critical person in Celie’s evolution.

The Color Purple has many gripping moments.

I think often about the scene when Celie is entertaining murderous thoughts while shaving Mister.   The moment when the feisty Miss Sofia, another character who is married to one of Mr.’s children, comes homes after being imprisoned and her daughter introduces herself because she does not recognize her mother, always makes tears spring to my eyes.

I have thought a lot about the reconciliation Celie reaches with Mr., when she agrees to be his friend, but not his lover, after getting the strength to leave him.

And, for me, the climax of the book comes when she is departing from the house that has been the scene of so much suffering and abuse.  Having told Mr. that everything he has done to her will come back to him, she starts to ride off in the sunset.

He hollers a few final demeaning words her way.

She answers,  “I’m poor, black.  I may even be ugly.  But I’m here.”

That statement of resilience and survival, that assertion of presence, always moves me as a testament to what people can, in Faulkner’s words, not only endure, but prevail.

Celie does prevail.

Some may find the ending a bit treacly, and I wouldn’t argue with that assessment.  Still, the rendition of Jim Crow era Georgia, the plight of women, the power of community, the rumble of music and the unbreakable bonds of sisters all are powerfully, and, in my mind, beautifully rendered.

I’m open to hearing what others thinkg about this work, both in terms of Alice Walker’s other works and relative to other writers.  For me, I’m looking to another reading of the book that I first read in the mid to late 80s and which has stayed with me since.

Uncovering the life of George Washington Williams

George Washington Williams is the subject of a well written biography by the late John Hope Franklin.

George Washington Williams is the subject of a well written biography by the late John Hope Franklin.

I’ve been on a bit of a John Hope Franklin kick recently, and read a book yesterday of his that I enjoyed a lot.

As its name suggests, George Washington Williams: A Biography is about George Washington Williams, an African American who crammed an awful lot of life into his 41 years on the planet. 

Starting from very humble beginnings, Williams was at different points a solider in two wars, a pastor at Roxbury’s Twelfth Baptist Church, the first black state representative in Ohio, an accomplished historian who wrote respected and pioneering histories of black people, a nominated diplomat and a fearless traveler who confronted Belgium’s King Leopold about his country’s treatment of people in the Congo, Williams and his story were largely unknown when the recently deceased Franklin began his studies of him.

Franklin’s purposes are both to recover Williams’ story and to place it squarely in the tradition of mid- to late- nineteenth century America. 

As with many of his other works,  including his most widely circulated work, From Slavery to Freedom, Franklin’s subject is a critical element of his belief about what constitutes legitimate history.  

By writing about Williams, Franklin is making a strong statement both about who should be included in the American story, and, beyond that, that Williams’ personal qualities and actions place him firmly within the mainstream of American life, rather than on the margins.

George Washington Williams includes a recounting of the various chapters in the protagonist’s life, with summarizing analyses and transitions at the end of each chapter. 

Franklin does not hesitate to show his subject’s weak points: he often fudged personal details and other facts, for instance.  The author assesses these faults by saying they make Williams human, and, in some ways, underscore his remarkable nature and accomplishments.

The book also has a fascinating and unusually personal introduction titled, “Stalking George Washington Williams” that recounts Franlkin’s efforts across many states and countries to learn about this previously ignored man.  In a section reminiscent of Alice Walker’s essay about searching for Zora Neale Hurston’s grave in Florida, Franklin describes a similar process with Williams.

Like much of Franklin’s work, George Washington Williams is clearly argued and accessibly written. And, more than some of his other books, this one gave me a sense not only of his subject, but of the times and how Williams reflected, and, to a small degree, shaped them.

I recommend giving it a read.

Ruth Rosen shows how the world split open.

Ruth Rosen provides a lively and informative account of the modern American women's movement.

Ruth Rosen provides a lively and informative account of the modern American women's movement.

Women’s History Month has ended, but the issues raised by it extend throughout the months, years, decades and centuries.

Ruth Rosen has written a lively and informative history of the modern American women’s movement, The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America, that is a helpful companion for those people looking to learn more about women’s past, current struggles and future. 

An historian and journalist, Rosen brings both of her professional skill sets to bear on her topic.  She includes a helpful timeline of major events in American history for women, with items that worked against women’s advancement typed in bold.  The timeline is a useful framing device for the work.

Although she dips into nineteenth century women’s history, Rosen’s focus is on the latter half of the twentieth century in America and the beginning of this millennium.  She covers a wide range of topics. starting with the post-World War II move of many families to the suburbs and housewives’ accompanying ennui that Betty Friedan depicted so vividly in The Feminine Mystique.

Drawing its title from a Muriel Rukeyser poem, Rosen’s work includes social, literary, cultural and political aspects.  She traces the growth in women’s consciousness and increased political activism through the decades, and does not hesitate to tread on touchy topics within and without the movement.  She writes about women who broke taboos about talking about incest and rape, on the one hand, while also tackling the issue of how some  women undermined other women’s accomplishments, on the other. 

The World Split Open is also noteworthy for the effective balance it strikes between talking about individual women who made significant contributions to American history and between women’s collective orientation and accomplishments.  As a result, readers learn about movement stalwarts like Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem and Dolores Huerta in addition to the political movements that led to organizations like the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective.

Modern American feminism at times has been taken to task for focusing too often on the concerns of white women, but the same cannot be said of Rosen’s book.  She examines the experiences of women of color within their own communities as well as in occasionally contentious relationships with white women.  Rosen  explores the experience of lesbians, too.

The World Split Open is replete with excerpts from women’s authors.  These include the words and thoughts of writers of landmark works like Friedan, Steinem and Kate Millett, literary giants like Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Tillie Olsen and lesser-known but important women writers.

In short, Rosen’s book is an informative and engaging overview of the women’s movement.  For those people looking to learn more about this ongoing struggle for equality, The World Split Open is a fine place to start.