Study Guide

The Color Purple Race

By Alice Walker

Race

Letter Thirty-Seven

Sofia and the prizefighter don’t say nothing. Wait for her to pass. Mayor wait too, stand back and tap his foot, watch her with a little smile. Now Millie, he say. Always going on over colored. Miss Millie finger the children some more, finally look at Sofia and the prizefighter. She look at the prizefighter car. She eye Sofia wristwatch. She say to Sofia, All your children so clean, she say, would you like to work for me, be my maid?

Sofia say, Hell no.

She say, What you say?

Sofia say, Hell no.

Mayor look at Sofia, push his wife out the way. Stick out his chest. Girl, what you say to Miss Millie?

Sofia say, I say, Hell no.

He slap her. (37.13-19)

This passage doesn’t end with Sofia simply being slapped, but being beaten nearly to death and dragged off to jail. As a black woman, white people like the mayor and his wife assume that it’s a great honor to be a white lady’s housemaid. Because Sofia is unwilling to place herself in a degrading position, the white mayor and police beat her in order to reassert their racial dominance.

Letter Forty-Three
Celie

She seem like a right sweet little thing, I say to Sofia.

Who is? She frown.

The little girl, I say. What they call her, Eleanor Jane?

Yeah, say Sofia, with a real puzzle look on her face, I wonder why she was ever born.

Well, I say, us don’t have to wonder that bout darkies. (43.21-25)

Sofia and Celie joke about the differences between white folks and black folks. Sofia, because she’s been a victim of racism and racial violence, is puzzled that a white child can be nice.

Letter Forty-Four
Sofia

Fine, she say. Fine. Well git in.

Well, say Sofia, I was so use to sitting up there next to her teaching her how to drive, that I just naturally clammed into the front seat.

She stood outside on her side the car clearing her throat.

Finally she say, Sofia, with a little laugh, This is the South.

Yes ma’am, I say.

She clear her throat, laugh some more. Look where you sitting, she say.

I’m sitting where I always sit, I say.

That’s the problem, she say. Have you ever seen a white person and a colored lady sitting side by side in a car, when one of 'em wasn’t showing the other one how to drive it or clean it? (44.20-27)

Sofia describes a moment of social awkwardness when the mayor’s wife insists upon typical social protocol. Even the external semblance of racial equality is not to be tolerated by the mayor’s wife.

Yes ma’am, I say. I’m slaving away cleaning that big post they got down at the bottom of the stair. They act real funny bout that post. No finger prints is sposed to be on it, ever.

Do you think you could teach me [to drive]? she says.

One of Sofia children break in, the oldest boy. He tall and handsome, all the time serious. And mad a lot.

He say, Don’t say slaving, Mama.

Sofia say, Why not? They got me in a little storeroom up under the house, hardly bigger than Odessa’s porch, and just about as warm in the winter time. I’m at they beck and call all night and all day. They won’t let me see my children. They won’t let me see no mens. Well, after five years they let me see you once a year. I’m a slave, she say. What would you call it?

A captive, he say.

Sofia go on with her story, only look at him like she glad he hers. (44.5-11)

Sofia describes her position at the mayor’s house as slavery, but her son refuses to let her think that—he’s got too much pride for that. We don't know about you, but it sounds like Sofia's got a pretty honest opinion of her situation. She's only allowed to see her kids once a year, for crying out loud. 

Letter Fifty-Five
Nettie

Oh, Celie, there are colored people in the world who want us to know! Want us to grow and see the light! They are not all mean like Pa and Albert, or beaten down like Ma was. Corrine and Samuel have a wonderful marriage. Their only sorrow in the beginning was that they could not have children. And then, they say, "God sent them Olivia and Adam." (55.13)

Nettie learns that the cruelty she experienced as a child is not the way of the world, nor the way of black folks as a whole; it is simply the way of her father and Celie’s husband.

Letter Fifty-Six
Nettie

Think what it means that Ethiopia is Africa! All the Ethiopians in the bible were colored. It had never occurred to me, though when you read the bible it is perfectly plain if you pay attention only to the words. It is the pictures in the bible that fool you. The pictures that illustrate the words. All of the people are white and so you just think all the people from the bible were white too. But really white people lived somewhere else during those times. That’s why the bible says that Jesus Christ had hair like lamb’s wool. Lamb’s wool is not straight, Celie. It isn’t even curly. (56.3)

Nettie describes how overjoyed she was to realize that the Bible is full of black people—just like her. One manifestation of racism had just been that white people had whitewashed the bible.

Letter Fifty-Seven
Nettie

Millions and millions of Africans were captured and sold into slavery—you and me, Celie! And whole cities were destroyed by slave catching wars. Today the people of Africa—having murdered or sold into slavery their strongest folks—are riddled by disease and sunk in spiritual and physical confusion….

Why did they sell us? How could they have done it? And why do we still love them? (57.4-5)

Nettie reflects on how evil done in Africa by Africans has brought evil back on themselves.

Letter Fifty-Eight
Celie

The president [of Monrovia] talked a good bit about his efforts trying to develop the country and about his problems with the natives, who don’t want to work to help build the country. It was the first time I’d heard a black man use that word. I knew that to white people all colored people are natives. But he cleared his throat and said he only mean "native" to Liberia. I did not see any of these "natives" in his cabinet. And none of the cabinet members’ wives could pass for natives. (58.3)

For the first time, Nettie observes prejudice against Africans from a black man. Instead of distinctions set up between black and white people, it’s between black former descendants of slaves and the black original inhabitants of Liberia.

Nettie

They are the blackest people I have ever seen, Celie. They are black like the people we are talking about when we say, "So and so is black than black, he’s blueblack." They are so black, Celie, they shine. Which is something else folks down home like to say about real black folks. But Celie, try to imagine a city full of these shining, blueblack people wearing brilliant blue robes with designs like fancy quilt patterns. Tall, thin, with long necks and straight backs. Can you picture it at all, Celie? Because I felt like I was seeing black for the first time. And Celie, there is something magical about it. Because the black is so black the eye is simply dazzled, and then there is the shining that seems to come, really, from moonlight, it is so luminous, but their skin glows even in the sun. (58.1)

Nettie begins to revel in the color of black skin, to feel the pride of her heritage.

I think Africans are very much like white people back home, in that they think they are the center of the universe and that everything that is done is done for them. (65.2)

Nettie recognizes the vast cultural differences that separate her from Africans, even though they have the same color skin.

Letter Sixty-Two
Olivia

Why can’t Tashi come to school? she [Olivia] asked me. When I told her the Olinka don’t believe in educating girls she said, quick as a flash, They’re like white people at home who don’t want colored people to learn. (62.10)

Olivia utters one of the most political statements of the book, recognizing that sexism and racism are similar forms of oppression.

Letter Seventy-Three
Shug Avery

Then she [Shug] tell me this old white man is the same God she used to see when she prayed. If you wait to find God in church, Celie, she say, that’s who is bound to show up, cause that’s where he live.

How come? I ast.

Cause that’s the one that’s in the white folks’ white bible.

Shug! I say. God wrote the bible, white folks had nothing to do with it.

How come he look just like them, then? She say. Only bigger? And a heap more hair. How come the bible just like everything else they make, all about them doing one thing and another, and all the colored folks doing is gitting cursed?

I never thought about that.

Nettie say somewhere in the bible it say Jesus’ hair was like lamb’s wool, I say.

Well, say Shug, if he came to any of these churches we talking bout he’d have to have it conked before anybody paid him any attention. The last thing n*****s wan tot think about they God is that his hair kinky.

That’s the truth, I say.

Ain’t no way to read the bible and not think God white, she say. Then she sigh. When I found out I thought God was white, and a man, I lost interest. You mad cause he don’t seem to listen to your prayers. Humph! Do the mayor listen to anything colored say? (73.28; 35-44)

Shug points out that the reason Celie’s lost her faith in God is because she has the wrong idea about God: She believes that God is a white man who treats her just like white men do, like she’s trash, like she’s beneath him. Religion has always been racialized, Shug says, but that doesn’t make it right or true.

Letter Eighty-Seven
Eleanor Jane

I just don’t understand, say Miss Eleanor Jane. All the other colored women I know love children. The way you feel is something unnatural.

I love children, say Sofia. But all the colored women that say they love yours is lying… Some colored people so scared of whitefolks they claim to love the cotton gin. (87.56-57)

Eleanor Jane and Sofia finally have the racial confrontation that’s been coming between them for a long time, not because Eleanor Jane is a horrible person but because she’s blind to the realities of racism that exist around her.