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Critical Essay by Barbara T. Christian
SOURCE: "We Are the Ones That We Have Been Waiting For: Political Content in Alice Walker's Novels," in Women's Studies International Forum, Vol. 9, No. 4, 1986, pp. 421-26.
In the following essay, Christian discusses the interdependence of individual and societal change in Walker's novels.
Because women are expected to keep silent about their close escapes I will not keep silent.
There is no question that Alice Walker's works are directed towards effecting social change, that she is a writer with political intent. Black women writers have little choice in this regard. Even if they could manage blindness, deafness to the state of black people, their status, as black, female, writer, a triple affliction, would, at some point, force them to at least consider the effect of societal forces on the lives of individuals. I make this bold-faced statement at the beginning of this essay on political content in Walker's novels, because it seems to me that our supposedly most radical avant garde critics seem to consist upon the unimportance of external reality, that the text ought to be dispersed, deconstructed—that writers do not mean what they write, do not even know what they write, that language is devoid of meaning, and is primarily a system of signs that refer to other signs rather than to anything that exists. Probably many of these critics would agree, if they thought they could say it aloud, that the best text would be silence, and that such a term as a political writer is a backward reactionary one.
I am particularly concerned with emphasizing my disagreement with this point of view, since I believe it would demolish much of the tradition (a bad word, I am told) of Afro-American writers, who have always had to refer to that reality out there which has its all too real foot on their necks. Further, for women, whatever their race, who have been silenced for so long, the very essence of this supposedly radical literary theory would reduce their words to sound and fury without meaning. It strikes me ironic that as groups who have traditionally been silenced begin to 'penetrate' the literary market, we learn that neither the world nor meaning exists. That a text is but a reference to other texts.
Like many other black women writers, Walker intends her works to effect something in the world. That is why she speaks and that is why she writes. But in her work, intention is not the only political factor. The process of political changing, the envisioning of social transforming is central to her work. Her forms, themes, imagery, critiques are marked by her belief in a coherent yet developing philosophy of life (an ideology in other words), which has some relationship to external reality. Her works are not merely her fictions, they are her fictions in relation to the world.
The core of her works is clearly her focus on black women, on the freedom allowed them as an indicator of the health of our entire society. This focus may seem a simple one. But if one considers the reality of black women's conditions in American society, her focus must involve a complexity of vision, if that condition is to be probed. In looking at what it means to be a black woman in the world, one must confront the vortex of sexism, racism, poverty so integrated that the parts of the whole can hardly be separated.
Many of Walker's literary ancestors had attempted to illuminate one part of this vortex, racism, primarily because of the tremendous oppression black women and men have suffered because of their race. But in so doing these writers have not consciously probed the salient fact, that racism is most invidiously expressed in sexist terms and that often the forms used most effectively by racist institutions are based on this interrelationship. Thus, the slave was to relate to the master, the black to the white, as woman was to relate to man, in a submissive, obedient manner essentially, as a role to the real person, who was master, white, male. I wrote about this construct in Black Women Novelists by analysing the patriarchal plantation system, the major ideology that buttressed American slavery. And last year, I discussed this interrelationship as an underlying theme in all of black women's Fiction, though often unconsciously perceived by the writers themselves.
But Walker is certainly conscious about demonstrating the relationship between these two oppressions. One reason why her maternal ancestors had not approached this interrelationship was their fear that the other, the powerful other, whites, were listening, could read their published works, and that any critique of the behavior of black people would further be used by whites to further oppress the race. Walker, however, insists on placing black people at the center of her work both as subject and as audience. In portraying the sexism that exists in black communities and demonstrating its relationship, though not source in racism, she is speaking to her community about itself and its many participants. Walker's focus is itself an important political one, a breaking of silence which overthrows the oppressive stance fostered by racism, that white people are all that is important, that they are to blame for everything, that black people have no responsibility to themselves, their families, their institutions. Like Audre Lorde, another contemporary Afro-American woman poet, Walker proclaims that speaking the truth is necessary to survival, especially for those of us who were not meant to survive.
Walker's critiquing of her own community, her demonstration of the relationship between sexism and racism is already focal in her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland which was published in 1970. At a time when the prominent black writers of the day emphasized confrontation between the beleaguered black community and the powerful white society, Walker's novel showed how that confrontation affects the relationships between black women, men, and children in other words the family. If the family is the core of the community, within which values are nurtured, the place where black people relate to each other on the most intimate level, then one needs to look at that interaction in order to discuss political reality, political possibility. As in her other two novels, Meridian and The Color Purple, Walker traces the development of three generations of a black family. In contrast to her second and third, however the focus in Grange Copeland is on the Copeland men, their mistaken acceptance of the definition of maleness as power, an attribute they cannot possibly attain and how that results in their brutalization of their wives and children.
This subject was certainly a taboo one in the early 1970s since black writers were intent on idealizing nationhood. What Walker did was to show how racism is capable of distorting the individual's relationship to his own kin, because he is encouraged to blame everything on the white folks and not accept responsibility for his own actions. No nationhood was possible if violence in the family persisted. Too, she does not hesitate to expose the destruction of black women by their own relations. But Walker also shows the coming to consciousness of Grange Copeland in this novel, his awareness that his resistance against whites must begin with his love of himself and his own family. This is a part of the novel that many who condemn it for its pessimism refuse to acknowledge, stunned as they are by a critique that they do not wish to confront. Yet this coming to consciousness is an essential part of every Walker novel—an integral part of her political statement.
Walker's first novel is an indicator of her political stance, but also of her insights into political process. As in her other two novels, Grange Copeland also analyses how economic struggle is linked to racism and sexism for the people she focuses on are southern sharecroppers. Her protagonists must contend with the restrictiveness of the economic order, of capitalism on their lives, even as they do not understand its nature. The effects of capitalism on the southern black family cannot be understood only in terms of the present. Thus all her novels span generations, in other words, are rooted in history.
The process by which Walker interweaves the overall history of the Copeland family with the story of each generation of that family is an important aspect of her political vision. She uses quilting, a Southern womanist form, as a model for her first novel. Just as her maternal ancestors took bits of waste material and transformed them into patterned works, at once useful and beautiful, so Walker stitches together motifs repeated in each generation into a coherent pattern. Thus we are able to see how essential the motifs of racist terror and sexual violence are to the pattern of this family's history. Only when Grange learns to love himself and his granddaughter Ruth is the destructive pattern changed and a regenerative pattern begun. Even so the force of the previous history is so strong that the old pattern of destruction threatens the new one, as Brownfield Copeland attempts to destroy his father, Grange. By concluding the novel with the appearance of Civil Rights workers, Walker suggests the necessity not only for the personal change that Grange Copeland undergoes, but also that the pattern of this quilt will not be changed for long unless social change begins to occur.
Paradoxically, although Walker uses a womanist form in her first novel, the adult Copeland women are destroyed precisely because they do not understand the social forces that are arrayed against them as black women. Convinced by their culture that they can be 'the perfect wife' regardless of their economic and social context, they are defeated by the men in their own families, as well as by white society. Walker courageously opposes the widespread belief that black women always 'endure,' as she shows how terrifying are the oppressions that assail them. Such a portrayal was practically heresy in 1970, when black women were being continually exalted for their superhuman ability to survive anything, the implication being that they did not need, as urgently as others, relief from their condition. Although Margaret and Mem Copeland are destroyed, Ruth, the girl-woman of the Copelands' third generation has the possibility of surviving for she is given by her grandfather the knowledge about her culture and about white society that she will need. As importantly, she has a greater possibility of 'surviving whole' because asocial movement against racism may affect her life.
This historical dimension which is prevalent not only in Grange Copeland but in all of Walker's novels enables her to analyse the process by which the social order becomes oppressive, particularly of black women while giving her the space to show how they come to consciousness about the nature of their condition. Paradoxically, even as she focuses on the intimate relationships between black women and men, black parents and children, black women and black women, she is able to relate the quality of these relationships to the larger sweep of history. And her novels show, through this historical dimension, not only the repression that blacks have suffered but also their resistance to it. Thus a knowledge of their own history is one source for the coming to consciousness that her protagonists go through, a reminder that black people before them, black women before them have resisted powerful attempts of dehumanization. History, too, is an impetus for black women, a source of their understanding of their right to be themselves whatever the prevailing black ideology may be, as well as an indicator of the often painful process through which they must go to retain their integrity as human beings. Since much of the 'history' that is written omits black women, Walker and her sisters who write are reclaiming that history even as they create visions of new alternatives. And in so doing, they are primary political actors.
'They were women then
My mamma's generation
Husky of voice—stout of
With fists as well as
Meridian, Walker's second novel, is an even more graphic illustration of the importance of herstory to black women's lives. One of the novel's major themes is both a rich critique of the ideology of black motherhood in this country and a celebration of the true meanings of motherhood. By tracing the history of black people, not through battles or legislation, but in terms of the lives of mothers, Walker demonstrates how motherhood is 'an angle of seeing life,' of valuing all life, of resisting all that might destroy it—in other words that motherhood is not merely a biological state but an attitude towards life.
Even as she probes the meaning of motherhood, Walker's use of herstory also allows her to highlight the insidious ways in which both black and white society restrict, punish individual mothers even as they canonize motherhood. The political meaning of this analysis is tantamount to the freeing of woman, who solely has the potential of being a mother, and who has, for much of the world's history, been reduced to that role. Walker then, extends the definition of womanhood beyond the restrictive definition of biological motherhood, even as she beautifully expands the meaning of that state.
But Walker also extends the true meaning of mother, of cherishing life, to that of the revolutionary. For the novel Meridian relates this attitude to the spiritual/political principles of the Civil Rights movement, a social movement opposed to violence, the destruction of life, even as it had violence inflicted upon its members by the ruling classes. Meridian poses a major political question: 'When is it right to kill? Why isn't revolutionary murder, murder?' How does the acceptance of the culture of violence effect those who struggle for positive social transformation. 'What would the music be like?' It is a question critical to our world when revolutions sometimes self-destruct, and when sometimes the only actual change after a political revolution is a changing of the guards. Walker of course does not fully resolve the question but she does probe its meaning reminding us that those who consider killing in order to effect change must prepare themselves to go through their own personal revolution—that social change is impossible without personal change. The flawed Meridian pursues the question of revolutionary violence in the novel, an issue she can perceive, because from her point of view she has violated life at its deepest level. Because she feels guilt about giving up her son to others and about aborting her second pregnancy, Meridian is propelled on a search for spiritual and political health. Having sinned against biological motherhood, she becomes a mother by 'expanding her mind with action' which is directed toward the preservation of all life.
Meridian's form is itself a graphic image of revolution. It is both circular and ascending, the meaning of the word meridian, as Walker intersects the personal histories of Meridian, Truman and Lynne, actors in the Civil Rights movement, with the collective history of black people. Within this form, Walker carefully connects bits and pieces of these histories, as she creates an even more intricate quilt in this second novel. The meridian-like movement of the novel indicates a process of coming to consciousness for Meridian, which Truman at the end of the novel, can use as a source of inspiration and process if he is to become whole. In Meridian then, Walker suggests a process for all those who seek social change. Meridian must go backward in time in order to move forward beyond the point that she is at, continually seeking the connections between her personal history and communal history. It is through this process that Walker the writer is able to show the interrelationship of sexism, racism and economic deprivation not only on individuals and their families but also on the political movements they create. And how, as well, these areas of oppression must be struggled through, rather than ignored or talked out of existence. Only then is ascension possible.
The Nature of this Flower Is to Bloom
Against the Elemental Crush.
A Song of Color
For Deserving Eyes.
For its Self.
The forms that Walker creates then have political content. Perhaps, even more than Meridian, the form of her most recent novel, The Color Purple is dramatically political, for she employs a technique that is both associated with every day life and with women. The Color Purple is written entirely in letters. Not only is this a tour de force for Walker, the novelist, letters along with diaries were the only forms allowed women to record their herstory. Letters both express Celie's view of herself and her view of the world even as they show her development from a victimized girl to a woman who becomes strong enough to change her condition and to love herself. Letters are both a source of subjective information, Celie's feelings about herself, and objective information, the world in which she moves. Letters proclaim the woman-centered focus of this novel, a political statement in itself.
Also Walker distinguishes her woman protagonist as a black women by her language. Like Walker's other two novels, Color Purple traces three generations of a family, most emphatically this time from a woman's point of view. Like Grange Copeland the novel is a story about a rural Southern family, though not sharecroppers but small landowners. But Color Purple is distinguished from these other two novels by its use of black folk language which too develops in complexity as Celie becomes stronger, more articulate, older. By using this language in contrast to standard English, Walker affirms the value of Afro-American culture. This is no small political assertion. Attempts are always made to discredit the language of a people in order to discredit them; for it is in their language that a people's values are expressed. If there is any significant idea (and there are many) that Walker has learned from her literary maternal ancestor Zora Neale Hurston, it is this one.
Perhaps the most obvious measure of The Color Purple's political direction is the novel's focus on sexism within the black community. This is not a new subject for Walker. All her work exposes how sexism, is, tragically, a part of black mores, a question of power in the black community as it is in all other human cultures we know. But in The Color Purple, Walker protests incest, a taboo subject in the black community. Just as she approached in 1970 the taboo subject of family violence in Grange Copeland, in 1976 the myth of black motherhood and the idea that revolutionary violence should at least be questioned in Meridian, in 1983 Walker again approached a taboo subject among black ideologues. Her exposing of incest in The Color Purple has precipitated more discussion within her community on sexism than ever before, as Walker insists that black people adhere to the value of life for black women. By critiquing her community she affirms our right to take responsibility for ourselves, by speaking to her community as her audience, she demonstrates how central black people are to her vision.
As if breaking the silence about incest in black families were not enough, the intrepid Walker gives Color Purple a distinctly womanist thrust by having Celie triumph over brutality, wife-beating, incest—through her sisters—through Shug who becomes her lover and friend, through Nellie her blood sister who writes letters to her from Africa, and whose letters she finally can answer, and through Sophie, her sister-in-law who resists her husband as well as white peoples' attempts to beat her down. Again Walker explores another taboo subject, for physical as well as spiritual love between women is the core of the novel. By presenting this love as natural and freeing, Walker protests homophobia in the black community. Sisterhood among women is Color Purple's theme and form as Walker proclaims bonding among black women as a necessary ingredient if we are to be free.
Walker, however does not ignore racism among women. Through Sophie's experience with the Mayor's wife which results in this black woman being jailed and taken away from her children, Walker questions whether sisterhood across racial lines is possible until white women descend from the unnatural pedestal they stand on and eliminate racism in themselves. But Walker also insists that sexism, though affected by racism is not derived from it. Nellie's sections in Africa has as one of their focus, the sexism African women are afflicted with as Walker exposes another taboo subject amongst black ideologues. Nellie's sections also emphasize the impact of colonialism and imperialism on African peoples as Walker protests in one bold stroke the doctrine of white supremacy and capitalist expansion.
But Color Purple goes beyond the protest of sexism, racism, and homophobia. Perhaps the novel's most significant contribution to Walker's expanding political vision is the pivotal role the erotic plays in Celie's movement toward freedom. The title of the novel itself is a celebration of the beauty, the pleasure of living and how that celebration is at the core of spiritual and political growth. It is through Celie's awareness of her right to the passion, creativity, satisfaction possible in life that she empowers herself. Once she experiences the erotic, the sharing of joy, she fights for her right to participate in it. Celie's story beautifully exemplifies Audre Lorde's words in her essay 'The Uses of the Erotic, the Erotic as Power':
In touch with the erotic I become less willing to accept powerlessness or those other supplied states of being which are not native to one such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial.
Like Lorde, Celie comes to demand from all of her life—her relationships, her work, whatever she is engaged in—that deep satisfaction. In guiding her to that knowledge Shug, her friend and lover, helps Celie to initiate change in all these aspects of her life. And in changing herself, Celie helps to change her entire community. Political change in The Color Purple occurs because of life-affirmation. From my point of view then one of the most important political statements of Color Purple is its emphasis on the right to happiness for even the most oppressed of us all, for poor black women, and that our happiness can be imagined, pursued, achieved through the growing strength of the community of black women:
We are the Ones We have been Waiting for.
From her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland to her most recent, The Color Purple, Walker shows how lasting political change is impossible without personal transformation. But she also emphasizes in her work that personal change is inevitably linked to a community of changers. The individual cannot effect lasting change for the self without some corresponding societal change. And for Walker, personal change is most indelibly achieved through the process of working for change with others.
In Grange Copeland, change begins to occur for the Copeland family when Grange, like so many others, goes North, the traditional escape for Southern blacks since slavery. When he discovers, as did so many others, the ineffectiveness of this solution he begins to work for change in his granddaughter's life in the South. But though his personal transformation has meaning, he is killed by the system he opposes. In ending the novel with Civil Rights workers, a growing community of changers, Walker suggests that other Granges are beginning to come together in their need and desire to change their society. Walker's second novel Meridian explores that historical development for the novel is as much about the principles of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements as it is about her characters. Meridian, her major protagonist, both affirms and challenges the underlying concepts of these movements of the 60s. As a black woman, as a black mother, she struggles to be free within herself even as she encounters sexism, elitism, violence within the Movement. The themes of The Color Purple build on Meridian's pilgrimage to freedom, for Walker's most recent novel explores basic tenets of the women's movement of the 1970s. Thus she protests violence against women and racist violence among women, while celebrating the bonding that women must develop in their struggles to achieve selfhood. Too, she expands feminist thought by placing the erotic, the right to satisfaction in women's lives at the center of the novel. Black women loving each together and working together are the community of changers in The Color Purple, through which individual black women and men come to demand and experience more of life.
Walker therefore scrutinizes historical movements that have had significant effects on the lives of black women. In celebrating these movements she both celebrates and critiques them. Walker's peculiar sound as a political writer has much to do with her contrariness, her willingness at all turns to challenge the fashionable beliefs of the day, to examine them in the light of black women's herstory, of her own experiences, and of dearly won principles that she has previously challenged and absorbed. It is significant that 'the survival whole' of black people which Walker focused on in Grange Copeland is extended to the value of life she illuminated in Meridian and is further developed into the relationship between freedom and happiness in Color Purple, particularly for her women characters. While Margaret Copeland and men are destroyed in The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Meridian 'expands her mind with action.' But in pursuit of spiritual health, Meridian goes through a period of 'madness,' paralysis of the body, then self-abnegation. Celie completes the cycle of Walker's women. Like Mem Copeland she is physically abused; like Meridian she goes through a painful period of healing. Celie however comes to full bloom in her entire self, physically and spiritually.
Survival whole—the value of all life—the right to happiness—these are increments in an ever-expanding philosophy of Walker's fiction. And for her, these goals can only be imagined as possible, pursued, and believed in, if we take responsibility for ourselves, and undergo the process of struggle historically, personally and collectively necessary to make ourselves physically, passionately, spiritually healthy. Only then can we achieve a sense of the oneness of creation, as symbolized by the color purple. Further, for Walker, black women must do this for themselves and each other, if the unnatural hierarchies of sexism, racism, and economic exploitation are to be eliminated: 'We are the ones we have been waiting for.'
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