The first time I read The Color Purple, I was fifteen years old and spending the summer in Boston with my dad, preparing to apply for early decision to the University of Pennsylvania. I had just been let go from my part-time canvassing gig at an environmental law center because my boss realized that I was too young to be knocking on people’s doors well past dusk. Since it was too late for me to pick up another summer job, I ended up answering phones, sorting mail, and volunteering at the local NAACP office.
During my breaks I’d pick up the latest of the weekly books that my cousin’s tall, light-brown-skinned girlfriend, Nicole, gave me to read. She was only two years older than I was but already an English major at Penn herself, and sensing that I was on the verge of an identity crisis, she felt obligated to help me build up my armor of African American literature. In turn, three books in particular determined my fate: Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. By the time I returned home to New Jersey and my suburban private high school that fall, I felt armed with a new vocabulary of racial pride and Black feminism.
Walker’s protagonist, Celie Harris, a dark-brown-skinned African American girl born in segregation, made the book all the more fascinating to me. “Dear God,” Celie opens the novel, “I am fourteen years old.
I am I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me.”
What Celie was unable to name was the fact that the man she called Pa repeatedly raped her as her enfeebled mother wasted away in the next room. “You better not tell nobody but God,” he warns. “It’d kill your mammy.” By creating a protagonist who was a victim of racism and repeated rapes—and also a figure who eventually was able to break her silence and tell her story on her own terms—Walker turned Celie into one of the most original characters in all of literature.
I’ve gone back to The Color Purple many times since that summer of 1991: after I was raped by an African American fraternity boy whom I was dating during my first year of college, and again after I was sexually assaulted by a near stranger on my college study abroad program in Kenya. Years later, after struggling with an eating disorder, contemplating suicide, and going to intensive therapy, I poured out all my anger and heartache in my poem “Do You Know What Rape Feels Like.” As I retold my trauma, I leaned directly on Walker’s words. Midway through my poem, I began, in great detail, to break down the intimate horror of my rape.
Do you know what it feels like to have our howls silenced by a fist?
When you are rushed into, pressed down on and opened by a knife.
A blade so thick, so strong, so brilliant
That your insides no longer exist.
Your scraped against insides bleed out into a yell
That only you
And others like you can hear?
Screaming until it stops
No, until you think it stops.
And then from nowhere, from no-one, it keeps on.
He continues to destroy your petals, with his —–.
You don’t even want to say it.
I broke my silence because of The Color Purple. At every stage of my healing, I’ve found something new in the novel, unseen themes or turns of phrase, that I ignored in my previous visits. When my sister, Scheherazade, asked if she could document my healing with her camera, I handed my poem over to her. A few months later, when she adapted her photographs and my story into the stage performance Story of a Rape Survivor, our actress, Rachel Walker, gave life to my words and let Celie’s words be her creative guide. If Celie gave voice to my rape in my teens and early twenties, it was Shug, in her bawdiness and bodily confidence, whom I needed in my thirties as I entered a belated phase of sexual experimentation and exploration. And among the pantheon of Black women characters whom I introduced to my students when I first started teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, Shug meant the most to me. Her sexual fluidity and unabashed desires gave me permission to experiment unapologetically with men and women and long for more.
Now, I live differently with The Color Purple. A lot more healed, yet still tender, I revel in Sofia’s anger. Her rage at being doubly oppressed as Black and a woman fuels me as I raise and protect my black children, a five-year-old boy and an eight-year-old girl, in our age of unbridled racism. In the book, but especially onscreen and onstage, Sofia captures my attention and dares me to be more like her. This is why every time I pick up the novel, even the one I teach from, covered by pastel stickies and with its dog-eared pages, I feel as if it is for the very first time, finding and falling in love with a new moment that I somehow missed before.
I tried not to carry the enormousness of the novel’s meaning for me when I finally met Alice Walker. I wasn’t sure if I should remain professionally detached and not disclose my own experiences with sexual assault. Or if I should tell her that I’d read every poem, essay, short story, and novel that she’d published since 1970 and that she, more than any artist I’d discovered before or after her, gave me permission as a Black woman to be a full-fledged feminist. I was so afraid that my euphoria would spill out or that I’d fumble, that when my sister and I approached her Haiku-inspired house standing at the top of a hill, with only a bunch of periwinkles standing between us and her, I did not hug Alice or thank her for writing the book that made my healing possible. Instead, I put on my writer’s cap, introduced my sister as a photographer, and began to take notes.
A short silver mane crowned Alice’s head and she walked with an unbelievable lightness. And when she took us out onto the back porch of “Temple Jook,” the name that she used for her house in our email correspondence, we three black women stood silently together. Alice, on the verge of her seventy-fifth birthday; Scheherazade, a newly minted forty-year-old; and I, a month into my forty-fourth year, looked out to see only a crescendo of mountains standing between us and the horizon.
After a minute, a deep inhale, and with a wry smile on her face, Walker asked, “Why do we need heaven when we have this?” And when I turned my head to catch her question, I realized that Alice Walker was the freest Black woman I’d ever met.
Excerpted from In Search of The Color Purple: The Story of an American Masterpiece, by Salamishah Tillet © Abrams Press, 2021.
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