In Search of the Color Purple Discussion Guide

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I N T R OD UCT ION  Alice Walker’s iconic novel The Color Purple was met with controversy, because of its portrayals of incest, domestic violence, same-sex desire, southern Black vernacular speech, and characterizations of Black men. Soon after publication, the book was produced as a film, which intensified the controversy, much of it holding Walker in contempt. Salamishah Tillet shares the histories of the novel, the film, and the Broadway musical, through a personal journey to learn everything possible about The Color Purple in its various manifestations.

DISCUSS ION QU EST IONS   1. H ow does The Color Purple assist Tillet on her path to healing the effects of the sexual violence she endured? 2. T illet states that The Color Purple “helped birth” the Me Too movement. How are the book and the movement, though decades apart, connected? 3. W hy do some members of the various Black communities feel that the Black writer’s political responsibility is to ensure that Black literature presents only positive imagery? 4. How do works of fiction influence readers’ versions of reality? 5. W hat aspects of Celie, Shug, and Sofia’s “way of being in the world” could be defined as feminist/womanist? 6. T illet places Walker along a continuum of Black writers that include Richard Wright and Amiri Baraka. Why is Walker’s reclamation of the genius of Zora Neale Hurston so significant to this continuum and to her work? 7. S ome critics believe that Walker’s novel had racist images of Black men. What stereotypes were they referring to and why did they think the novel reproduced them? 8. D uring the early era of the blues, many of the female vocalists were bisexual or lesbian, who, despite the constraints of living in a sexist, homophobic society, held a kind of freedom. How does Shug exemplify this? 9. T illet shares Sofia’s fate after she “rebuffs attempts by the mayor’s white wife, Millie, to pet her children and hire her as a maid. After becoming frustrated by Sofia’s refusal of her offer, Millie enlists her husband to punish Sofia. . . . The tragic scene ends with the sheriff [and] a group of white men, pistol-whipping and beating Sofia on the ground.” How is this scene similar to the “weaponizing” use of public servants, such as elected officials and police officers, by some white women against Black people? 10. In her afterword, Walker’s close friend Beverley Guy-Sheftall quotes from Walker’s journal, “It has been black men (as well as black women and Native Americans) who have provided in this culture the most inspiring directions for everyone’s freedom. As a daughter of these men, I did not hear a double standard when they urged each person to struggle to be free, even if

they intended to impart one. When Malcolm said, ‘Freedom, by any means necessary,’ I thought I knew what he meant. When Martin said, ‘Agitate nonviolently against unjust oppression,’ I assumed he also meant in the home, if that’s where the oppression was.” How does Walker writing The Color Purple fit within, or even expand, Malcolm and Martin’s conceptions? 11. T he author has a strong and enduring bond with the original text when she first reads it as a teenager. Is there a book that has affected you the same way? 12. B oth Tillet and her interview subject, Oprah Winfrey, responded so strongly to The Color Purple because of their own histories with sexual violence. What about The Color Purple or the environment in which it was published do you think made the book speak so powerfully to them? 13. H ow do you think the researching and writing of the book affected Tillet as she touches on in the text? Did you have a similar reaction to reading it?

A DDI T IONA L R ESOU R CES   1. Getrude “Ma” Rainey is considered the mother of the blues. Here is an example of a tune that mentions same-gender sexuality:

“Prove It On Me Blues” 2. “Sister” is the song that Shug sang to Celie in the jook joint. Here is a live performance by Tata Vega, the vocalist who sang it in the film: 3. B oth Tillet and Walker are part of a long line of womanists who existed across the centuries. Here are other examples. Frances E.W. Harper was a supporter of women’s right to vote and a founding member of the American Woman Suffrage Association. Read her 1866 speech, decrying racial inequities in the suffrage movement here: Like Walker, Fran Beal was also a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) worker in the civil rights movement. In 1969, she penned “Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female.” Combahee River Collective comprised Black women who felt that Black feminists were integral to all struggles against oppression. Read their 1977 statement here: 4. The Color Purple was adapted as a film in 1985, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Whoopi Goldberg and Danny Glover. Learn more about the film here:

Guide written by Karen D. Taylor

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