A Comparison of the Position of Black Women in Alice Walker’s ‘Color Purple’ and Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’.
The history of the Black Women is one of strife and desperation. The fight through the centuries has been a struggle for women to find their identity and detach themselves from the roles forced upon them by both black men and the white people.
Black women were seen as the cook, the cleaner, the mother and the nurse of the family, and were often forced into the demanding commands of a white household. In Alice Walker’s ‘The Color Purple’ and Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ we see this all-consuming role affect the main protagonists.
Both novels have been claimed to be “women’s novels”, following certain ideals associated with the genre, woman’s literature. This is not to say that they are centred round women and dismissing men altogether, but that they display the struggle of a black woman’s position in history.
Although this presentation of black women is not just the main focus in both novels, it is an important issue throughout. It is a message to be passed on.
In ‘The Color Purple’, Celie is under the pressure of having to follow traditional responsibilities; she is required to take care of her own family after the death of her mother, caring for her siblings and her stepfather. This position in consequence forces Celie out of school and leaves her with very little education.
“The first time I got big Pa took me out if school. He never care that I love it. You too dumb to keep going to school, Pa say.”
We can see this clearly through the entries in this diary style literacy. The short sentences used have little correct punctuation or spelling and often contain incorrect information such as when she is speaking of Columbus’s ships, the Santa Maria, the Pinter and the Nina, of which Celie calls the “Santomareater, the Peter and the Neater”.
Celie’s uneducated language is very poignant at the beginning of the novel, but it improves greatly with knowledge and age as she explores emotion and reason in her later entries and letters to her sister Nettie.
The language in ‘Beloved’ is extremely powerful, and alone produces extraordinary imagery. The description of Sethe’s, Paul D’s and Denver’s shadows, “holding hands as they glided over the dust” stimulates the reader. The vivid imagery does not just arouse from light-hearted dictations, but also in times of distress in the novel. Beloved describes the dark where she was kept, as a dark crowded place, surrounded by dead and dying merged together. It is a disjointed chapter, provoking a discomfort in the reader, the short sentences causing glimpses of what the reader perceives as the dark. The descriptions in consequence produce horrific connotations of death, “his breath was sweet and eyes were locked… the man is dead.”
During the late Eighteen Hundreds and toward the mid- Nineteen Hundreds women were seen as not needing education, as their roles were involved around the home and not in the work place. An example of this is in ‘The Color Purple when Celie is ordered to take care of Albert’s children and home.
“I spend my wedding day running from the oldest boy…He picked up a rock and laid my head open…I bandage my head best I can and cook dinner.”
In Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ Sethe did not have the opportunity to even glimpse at education, born into slavery, Sethe was only taught the ways of working the fields and how to care for a family, not even able to look to her mother for guidance. “I didn’t see her, except for once when she was working…”
Celie’s entries are directed toward God. With the reader able to read her personal and most private thoughts and feelings, one cannot help but to feel quite invasive. I think that Alice Walker was trying to put across the idea that in a woman’s position, nothing was kept as a secret.
As a reader we can almost listen in to Celie’s prayers, and make judgement on her- as all women had to suffer during this difficult period in time.
Celie is in a position of complete powerlessness, with the difficult demands of her father, and the responsibility of caring for someone else’s family, to Celie God is the only person she can confide in.
This also emphasises how little support women had during this time. Celie cannot turn to anyone for help; she is left to face her strife alone.
Celie has been so controlled all her life, that when talking to Shug Avery about God, Celie is convinced he is “big and old and tall and grey bearded and white.” This again reinforces Celie’s lack of education and also suggests that with so many years being told what to think, Celie is incapable of thinking for herself.
As a black woman her position was not to have opinions, but to keep the house hold together and be there for when her husband so desired.
In Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’, Grandma Suggs takes up a position as a preacher for the black people. She instructs them to love themselves, as no one else will, especially not “white folks”.
“…We flesh that weeps; flesh that laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh.”
This is a rare example of a woman speaking her mind and instructing other black women to take control. Baby Suggs preaches to others as a struggling black woman and gives them strength to fight toward a better day.
I believe that Toni Morrison created Baby Suggs as a relieving light of a pure soul. She is an elderly woman, but takes on the responsibility of caring for run away children, showing a kind and caring nature. Morrison uses her to give the reader some hope of “woman power” in this dark and twisting novel.
In ‘The Color Purple’, Sofia is a character that rejects the typical roles that black women were supposed to endure, the cooking and cleaning and following the demands of her husband. She fights for her own identity and to improve her status in life. Sofia will not bow down to her husband and will certainly not be depended on. This attitude was extremely uncommon during the Nineteenth Century. Lucy Stone, a black woman living during this time, recorded in her diary a time when she was almost beaten to death by her father for refusing to scrape the mud from his horse’s shoes (Taken from information on the position of black women from a women’s rights home page)
These kinds of ordeals were extremely frequent and we can see events like this unfold in ‘The Color Purple’. Albert beats Celie for no reason; simply to enforce his power over her and make her see she is in a position of insignificance.
It is not until Sofia is arrested for harassing the major’s wife and forced into the household as a maid that we see how this position can change a strong-minded woman to a fearful slave, “they got me in a storeroom under the house… I’m at they beck and call all night and all day and they won’t let me see my children.”
Shug Avery, a singer and mistress of Celie’s husband, is another woman who seems to discard the roles associated with women during the early 1900s. A beautiful tear- away, Shug seems to make her presence known throughout the novel. She is not afraid to show her true self, flaunting her body and speaking her mind, fascinating Celie with her every move “I think my heart gon fly out my mouth when I see her foots poking through.”
Shug is created to be the complete paradox of Celie, and Celie envies the freedom she possesses. Walker was going through a difficult time in her life when she wrote ‘The Color Purple’, and conjured up Shug to be the embodiment of how she wished she could be- care free and loving life, despite its obstacles and difficulties.
Sex was means of controlling women throughout the Nineteenth Century and it is a prominent issue in both novels. It is referred to frequently throughout ‘The Color Purple’, affecting all women characters. The graphic references are used to disturb the reader, provoking a number of emotions. The opening of the novel for example is an all too clear account of what has happened to a character we have not even met yet.
“He grab hold my titties. Then he push his thing inside my pussy…I cry.”
Sex for Celie is not a pleasurable experience, rape and abuse has changed her and she is afraid. Rape diminishes her position in society further and she is succumbed to maltreatment, wanting to escape every time.
“…I don’t like it at all... Most times I pretend I’m not there.”
‘Beloved’ has just as much of a negative perspective to sex. Pregnant young, Sethe had to struggle to assume any position in society, and the position she found herself in was emotionally distressing. As a woman, white men assumed they could do with her what ever they pleased; so two young men raped her and stole her milk. “… Them boys came in here and took my milk…held me down and took my milk.”
Although we are not directly fronted with this idea, as we read on we are faced with the horrific obscenities that the main protagonist, Sethe, had to endure.
The importance of Sethe’s milk is a reoccurring theme throughout ‘Beloved’. The significance of her milk is that it is the sustenance a woman’s child needs. When a mother feeds her child she is rewarded by the formation of a relationship and the attention she can dote upon her child. After being rapped and her milk stolen, Sethe feel as though she can no longer provide for her children. The rape has lowered her position further, and Sethe feels she is a terrible mother.
These events in ‘Beloved’ are not presented directly to the reader, but instead the narrative switches from present to past, giving the novel a rather surreal result. Toni Morrison stated the reason for the time shifting was because if the novel was read direct, the events would be too emotionally disturbing for the reader to endure at one time. Each chapter touches on certain events that are not concluded until later on in the novel. This structure provokes the reader to read on and discover what the novel holds in store for each protagonist.
Both novels address the position that black women faced during the Eighteen and Nineteen Hundreds. Both novelists were provoked into writing such literacy because of the effects of the past. It was during the Eighteen Hundreds that women were beginning to make a stand for equal rights, and many women organisations came about, fighting for the voice of women all over the world to be heard. An influential and admired speaker for this new found women’s strength was Sarah Grimké. She began her speaking career as an abolitionist and a women's rights activist. Sarah wrote angrily that men were attempting to "drive women from almost every sphere of moral action" and called on women "to rise from that degradation and bondage to which the faculties of our minds have been prevented from expanding to their full growth and are sometimes wholly crushed." Male abolitionists who thought her public speaking was “an illegal responsibility” tried to silence her, but Sarah carried on campaigning for Anti Slavery until her death in the late Eighteen Hundreds.
Although both ‘The Color Purple’ and ‘Beloved’ do portray the struggle women had to face, with inescapable abuse and violence inflicted upon them time after time, there is still the presence of the united voice of determined women.
In ‘Beloved’ the women of Sethe’s community stand together to exercise the evil spirit of her returned dead child, Beloved. They forget their previous maladaptive thoughts toward Sethe, and work together to save her. The fact that the exorcism is a communal act makes a statement about Beloved- the legacy of slavery that she represents is a force that the entire community must stand against.
Alice Walker’s ‘The Color Purple’ also contains references to the strength of women. Motivated by the pent up anger toward Albert for hiding her sister’s letters, Celie eventually finds the courage to face him and declare her intentions of leaving for Memphis with Shug Avery. This is the first time the reader sees Celie find her inner self, and one can not help but feel a pride for her much awaited decision.
After reading both ‘The Color Purple’ and ‘Beloved’ I could not help but feel a great relief that the women within both novels manage to defy the inescapable positions they once endured. However, I am not so naďve to believe that all black women throughout the early Nineteenth Century met this fairy tale ending. Black women were maltreated for years, whether forced into hopeless marriages or worked until death; black women rarely escaped their positions in society.
Both ‘The Color Purple’ and ‘Beloved’ address the positions of black women with such poignancy and absolute clarity, that one feels a part of the struggle these novels represent.
What I take away after reading both novels is the knowledge of the past; that the position of black women were forced into a century ago should never be repeated in our lifetime. The equality of man and women alike should be a message to be passed on.
Copyright to Laura Kings 13.01.2006