The Color Purple as a Parable For Community Healing
I’m a nonfiction person.
I’ve struggled to embrace the novel. Baldwin, Ellison. Henry Miller reads like a novel, but is in fact a hybrid, as is Anais Nin. I read one Terry McMillan book and have some Octavia Butler, too. I decided to dive head first into some ‘classic’ fiction, particularly fiction by black women.
I bought several Toni Morrison books – Bluest Eye, Beloved, Jazz. And then I bought the Color Purple by Alice Walker.
I avoided this book and the movie of the same name like the plague. I heard, even in my drunken stupor, all of the charges and counter charges about Walker’s book being an attack on the black man, the questions asking: “of all the books about black folks, why the hell are they gonna use this manhating, blah, blah, blah…”
I bought that shit for many years and just never wanted to delve into it. But, I bought it a couple of weeks ago. I bought it in hopes of delving into myself, my fears around ‘what I heard,’ my fear of engaging with subject matter that might teach me about myself. A book that might teach me about black women and their grievances against us.
What a surprise, what a beautiful surprise. Once I traveled through the thicket of Mister’s abuse and that of his son Harpo, his daddy, what captured my attention was the relationships between the women. The love, the resistance, the range of behaviors that the sisters in the book used to deal with a system of oppression. An intersectional system of oppression.
The strength of Shug, of Sofia, of Nettie and of course, Celie was beautiful. What a surprise then that over the years, the men bent, became not more rigid but elastic. The men meaning Harpo and Mister. Did they become angels from heaven? Uh, no. Did they shift, open up, loosen, let go – of their overwhelming control and brutality and allow their black sisters space to be themselves? Yes they did.
Can black people of this day and age shift, open up, loosen, let go – of their overwhelming control and brutality towards one another? Can they, can we own our propensity for martyrdom? Our propensity for emotional and verbal “blackmail” and abusiveness, self righteous abusiveness? Can we make a commitment to get the psychological help that we need to heal before we attempt the impossible: trying to have a grounded grown folks conversation. A grown folks conversation that precludes us vomiting daggers into each other?
I don’t know. Many of us are so far gone, co-opted by this white culture of death, consumed with internalized hate. One of the things I learned once I got sober was how my disease manifested within me.
I believed when I was a drunk, that if I drank enough to cut off all emotional feeling – that I would eliminate the greatest impediment to my being able to think rationally. My emotions, in my view, were a major liability. If I could suppress them, I could win. Nothing could touch me, no feeling could intrude on my “super-rational project.”
What I discovered was that having a ‘Spockian-intellect’ was the liability, that emotion, rather than hindering was a massive aid to me being my truest black self. That having ‘healthy’ emotions, married to a functional intellect was the height of health. My ‘lone brain theory’ had been my disastrous guide and downfall.
Feeling, feeling my feelings, letting my feelings be my guide, getting assistance in dealing with the wreckage of my past and using my head as an able assistant instead of a tyrant – that was “how I got over.”
I ain’t done mind you, but I am like Mister. I am a work in progress. Like Shug, I am powerful and passionate. Like Celie, I was meek, mild, beaten down; now I’m rising up, filling out my body, my skin, rather than hiding in a corner. And like Sofia: under the right conditions, I’m the wrong nigga to fuck wit.
The Color Purple seems like a template, an emotional/psychological template for black community healing. One day, when we get beyond needing an oppressor, a violator, an enemy, when playing the victim no longer pays our spiritual bills and we move to a place of personal healing FIRST, perhaps we will be able to heal the race. If we could move from complete dysfunction as the group in this book does – and encourage and allow each other our process and time to heal our inner wounds without throwing salt in them – “oh happy days!”
Until then…I pray that we can get together, regardless of color(ation), gender or any other pseudo-impediment on the real, on a truthful, authentic basis and lay our shit on the table. Too many of us, in the words of Dunbar, wear the mask…
“WE wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!”