Learning Empathy – Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple”

I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.

colorpurple-picture-4– Alice Walker, The Color Purple

The Color Purple is a story of the lives of African-American women living in Georgia in the early 20th century. The novel, written by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Alice Walker, creates an intricate storyline of relationships in an African-American community – particularly how the women in this community relate with their abusive male counterparts and each other. The story centers around Celie, the author of the letters the book is made up of. The book follows her life from adolescence to old age. Walker spares no detail. The reader is given a brutally honest look into what life was like for African-American women in the early 1900s. The resulting plot will leave the reader certain of two things – we must never take our freedom for granted and we must strive every day to grant that freedom to others.

Throughout the epistolary novel, the protagonist Celie’s everyday life is recounted as an uncensored autobiography. Walker wastes no time in setting the tone for her novel. In Celie’s first letter to “God”, she writes of her father raping her and leaving her pregnant with his child, for the second time. Peter Prescott, author and Newsweek book critic, states “[Walker’s] story begins at about the point that most Greek tragedies reserve for the climax…” (Newsweek, 1982) From this moment on, Celie’s letters tell a story of abuse, social injustice, family, love and ultimately, forgiveness.

colorpurple-picture-1From her abusive encounters with Mr.______, her husband, to the self-discovery and love she experiences with Shug, her best friend/lover and husband’s lover, it is clear this story values love and kindness to others over the morality and ethics of relationships.

At times, the book may leave readers feeling unsettled. Walker uses graphic accounts of abuse, rape, racism, and poverty to expose readers to the everyday injustice experienced by African-Americans in the early 20th century. The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1983, making Walker the first African-American woman to win the prize. The content of this book, however, caused outrage among many critics. The American Library Association has a list of most frequently banned books – The Color Purple ranks 17th on the list. During the time the book was first published, Walker sent excerpts of the book into a popular Black women’s magazine. She hoped that they would see how the book gave a voice to African-American women. “The Black woman is one of America’s greatest heroes,” Walker states, “she has been oppressed beyond recognition.” The magazine refused to publish the excerpt saying that it presented an ugly side of African-American culture; a side the magazine did not want to publish during the 1980s (a time when parts of American still opposed equality.)

Walker stood by her novel, persisting that until the Black community could acknowledge the truth to her book, there could never be healing. Walker’s attachment to her writing eventually lead to a divorce and also an ended relationship with her daughter. Her persistence did succeed. The Color Purple is now a common addition to high school and collegiate English courses. Her story was turned into a successful Steven Spielberg movie and The Color Purple is currently a hit Broadway musical with two Tony awards.


In no way is The Color Purple an easy, or even at times, enjoyable read. It is, however, an important read. As a music therapy major, issues of abuse, social injustice, and relationships deeply influence the field that I study. As a therapist, I will need to be able to empathize with patients who experience these situations on a daily basis. While I have not experienced many of the abuses Celie’s life is composed of, reading this book has shown me what it might be like to live through and process these experiences.

I would recommend The Color Purple to readers who want a deeper understanding of injustice in our country. I learned so much from this historical fiction about what life was like for those society left unnoticed. As the teachers, business men, doctors, parents, and leaders of our generation, it is our job to learn to empathize with those who are left unnoticed.

Abby Mercer is a sophomore in the Honors Program, and she is majoring in music therapy.


One Comment

  1. A new racism, it is claimed, has become a dominant feature of contemporary American politics. According to the theory’s originators, the new racism has largely replaced the old racism, which was based on the alleged biological inferiority of blacks. The new racism, referred to as “symbolic racism” or, more recently, “racial resentment,” by contrast, is defined as a conjunction of antiblack feelings and American moral traditionalism. According to its proponents, this new racism now structures and dominates the racial thinking of whites generally. Howard Schuman has suggested, however, that the index used to measure racial resentment may be fundamentally flawed because it may be conflated with the measurement of attitudes toward racial policies. The authors’ analysis supports Schuman’s suggestion. They conclude that racial resentment is not a valid measure of racism, which raises questions about the extent to which a new racism now dominates the thinking of white Americans.
    there is no doubt that the GOP is grounded in racism. But, many of it’s players are so well off that they don’t need to worry abut racism. So…they just support the corporate world who does the best job of discriminating in the country. Why do stupid poor White people vote republican. LOL….. indvspaklivehighlights.com how dumb are these people? They have been doing it since Reagan. Reagan cut their benefits and the poor whites kept voting for him because they wanted to see Black people hurt. Meanwhile….they are sitting in their trailers hungry as all hell with a Big Elephant stuck on their bumper. Go figure. smh….Poor White Republicans. How stupid.

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