This may be an unpopular opinion, but the The Color Purple movie does the book absolutely no justice. That’s not to negate the fact that the book itself caused quite a ripple in the Black community, but the book is so much more nuanced. And despite the uproar from Black male writers who felt it portrayed Black men unfairly, the book offers them more empathy and redemption than this country ever has.
The Color Purple is a Queer love story, but it is also about reimagining what liberation can (and should) look like for everyone across the gender spectrum.
Love is a powerful thing
When I see myself as an extension of the women and femmes in my life, it is difficult to justify hating myself.
In fact, it is now impossible to even utter the thought without being overwhelmed with a sense of betrayal and shame, first for myself and then for those I purport to love.
One of the most insidious functions of heteropatriarchy is turning women against each other. Because as Walker shows us, women finding love in one another evolves into finding love within themselves, and this can move literal mountains.
In the book, Celie has an awakening over time. We see through the epistolary form Walker uses, Celie initially writes to God, telling God all her troubles and sharing all she wonders about the world. He* is an important figure in her life—a place of safety and hope. But how Celie understands God (and herself) shifts as she grows closer to Shug Avery, her husband’s lover who he moves into their home and forces Celie to nurse back to health.
Shug becomes a mirror of possibilities for Celie, possibilities that disrupt the rigid binaries of cis-heteronormativity. They become lovers who are also friends. They don’t attempt to be only one thing to each other. It is a Queer and limitless and rebellious type of love that they share, allowing Celie to see the fullness of herself.
But it is not just Celie who finds freedom through her love for Shug, but so does the biggest villain in the story, Mister.
When Celie becomes independent and no longer lives under the fist of Mister, he is forced to turn inward and reckon with his understanding of gender and power. In a conversation with Celie, he says:
“…tell the truth, Shug act more manly than most men. I mean she upright, honest. Speak her mind…She bound to live her life and be herself no matter what. . . Sophia and Shug not like men…but they not like women either. . . They hold they own...And it’s different.”
He references Sophia, his daughter-in-law, another woman in the story who refused to bend to the will of men. For Mister, it is not until he begins to recognize the personhood of women in his life that he could also see his own humanity. Not only that but he even questions the potential of an in-between space, what us kids today might call, non-binary, gender fluid, or non-gender-conforming. It may not seem like it on the surface, but this too, is one of the functions of love in this book. This is evident when Mister goes on to say:
“I have love and I have been love. And I thank God he let me gain understanding enough to know love can’t be halted just ‘cause some peoples moan and groan. It don’t surprise me you love Shug Avery, he say. I have love Shug Avery all my life.”
Mister becomes a mold of what is possible for Black men. The love shared between him, Shug, and Celie becomes an extension of his own liberation.
As Audre Lorde so eloquently put it in her essay, Sexism: An American Disease in Blackface, “Freedom and future for Blacks does not mean absorbing the dominant white male disease of sexism.” Mister’s interrogation of the gender binary and non-heteronormative forms of love could not come to be without divesting from the same forces that oppress both Black women and men.
Love is transcendent
In 1982, imagine it, a Black woman puts a book out into the world that is tackling sexuality, gender and intra-community power struggles. But a more subtle topic Walker leaves us to ponder is non-traditional relationships, or more specifically, polyamory.
Here’s what Celie says about loving Shug who is never tied down to just one lover: “She got a right to look over the world in whatever company she choose. Just cause I love her don’t take away none of her rights.”
Celie, who has solely been regarded as the property of men from her stepfather to Mister, now rejects the notion that loving Shug somehow trumps her right to experience other lovers.
The idea of not having “ownership” over one’s partner is still controversial even in 2023. But this should make it even more resonant for us, that Walker posed the possibility of women daring to love on their own accord even during a time period when neither the state nor their own communities recognized them as autonomous human beings.
Ultimately, The Color Purple offers an example of what love can look like if we free ourselves from the rigid expectations of the white supremacist patriarchy. Only then can we experience love without restrictions and binaries—that allows us to love ourselves and others – a wholly, abundant love!