Alice walker-a renowned novelist, short story writer, essayist, poet, critic, and author of children’s books-sees the corruption in the world and writes to portray the struggles that African American women encounter. The snags that they have in everyday society are largely copious, however, Alice Walker does wonders writing specifically about racism and sexism. In two of her famous novels, The Color Purple and By the Light of my Father’s Smile, she addresses these two matters along with other topics stemming from them.
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The most prevalent themes in Alice Walker’s novels, The Color Purple and By the Light in my Father’s Smile are sexism and male dominance; celebrating a person’s sexuality, Womanism, and how the male persona shapes a female’s life.
What most people would consider feminism, the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men, Alice Walker elaborates and turns into Womanism. More specifically, Walker uses the term Womanist to describe women of color especially women in African culture (Alice Walker 37).
Alice Walker goes in further in depth to say that a womanist is A woman who loves another woman, sexually and/ or non sexually. She appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility… [she] is committed to the survival and wholeness of an entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically for health… loves the spirit…. loves struggle. Loves herself. Regardless. (LaGrone 10) This plays a large role in Walker’s novels. She explores the notion of a womanist and rising against male oppression (Alice Walker 66). Walker uses her novels to get rid of the barriers that are set by men and uses the male dominance as power (Alice Walker’s…133).
In the beginning of The Color Purple, Celie is treated like an object as are other women in Walker’s writing (Alice Walker’s…130). Celie is early-on sexually abused by her step-father. After Celie’s mother leaves, her step-fathers rapes her. “He start to choke me, saying You better git used to it.” (The Color Purple 1). Celie should be able to trust her stepfather, Pa, but his abuse disables her from growing independent, gaining self-esteem, and becoming whole because she is not raised on family and moral dynamics (LaGrone 7). Instead, Celie is treated as a marginal (Alice Walker’s… 130). Celie is given away by her stepfather. He bargains with the Albert to take her because she’s ugly and not smart (The Color Purple 8). By being put down because of her physical appearance at an early age, Celie becomes self-conscious and hateful against her inner self (LaGrone 7) Celie succumbs to the abuse and male authority by referring to what she was taught a child-to honor her parents through everything (Modern Critical Views…71).
Just as Celie is taught what to believe as a child, beliefs are also passed through generations (Modern Critical… 69). Harpo, who Celie meets as her step-son later in The Color Purple, is told by his father to beat his wife to “make her mind” (Alice Walker 44). The women of the Olinka Tribe, just as Celie lives what she is taught, also teach their daughters to obey the male and fear him (Modern Critical…69) Walker describes the men of the Olinka tribe as sexist and male dominant. Nettie is told that she is not worth much by the Olinka tribe who don’t believe in educating the girls (The Color Purple 156). They believe that females are only good for work and are nothing without a husband (The Color Purple 155). It is here that Nettie is reminded of the way she was treated and how she addressed her father (Alice Walker’s…135). One character Celie meets Sophia.
Sophia is strong-willed and independent woman. Celie’s relationship with Sophia starts her journey to becoming her own person (LaGrone 9). Sophia sparks Celie’s curiosity about speaking out against oppression (…A Critical Companion 96). The two form a type of sisterhood bond and it is here that Celie is first seen as Walker’s portrayal of a womanist (…A Critical Companion 100). The Womanist sisterhood will lead to the eventual selfhood that Celie needs in her life (LaGrone 10). Sophia plants a seed in Celie’s mind. “Through exploration and education they instruct members of the sisterhood about the twin evils of racism and sexism and the necessary paths to take to triumph in light of the presence of these destructive forces” (…A Critical Companion 100). Celie and her sister, Nettie, are another bond in The Color Purple that is viewed as a womanist sisterhood. Nettie tells Celie when she escapes their stepfather’s reign that she needs to keep fighting (The Color Purple 17). She also tells her this thorough her letters to Celie over endless years. Women “form bonds by empowering themselves and other women” (…A Critical Companion 100).
The letters Nettie writes to Celie are not only key to Walker’s view of a womanist but are her way of trying to empower her sister to end male dominance and move on with her life (LaGrone 9). Walker uses womanist relationships and community to overcome violent cultural inequities (Code 484). Throughout The Color Purple, Celie is physically and mentally abused by her stepfather and her husband but confides in Shug Avery, her husband’s mistress, who eventually teaches Celie to love herself and gives her the courage to leave her marriage (“Introduction”). Shug teaches Celie that she is not an object by telling her that she is a virgin (LaGrone 10). “If her body has been devalued by the men in her life, Celie not only discovers her own sexuality in the relationship with Shug, but she also learns how to love another” (Modern Critical Views 73).
To break free of the silence from male oppression is the only way a women can become one with herself and become whole with another female (Alice Walker’s…133). Shug Avery becomes the mothering, sistering, and sexual relationship that Celie has never had (Modern Critical Views 72). Celie needs to find love, self-esteem and empowerment due to the loss of her children because of her stepfather (…A Critical Companion 98). Celie finds this in Shug and lets her traumatic experiences go by talking to her (LaGrone 11). Celie’s relationship with Shug allows her to escape from a man’s world (…A Critical Companion 96). In this relationship of Shug and Celie, Celie gains confidence in herself and learns to love herself for who she is and embrace her sexuality. She is not drained of sexual desire because her abuse by man has caused her to not want them, but the female instead (Alice Walker’s…131).
Even though she has desire for a women as a man would, Celie does not think of females in a derogatory sense. She sexually praises them and almost treats them as spiritual beings (Alice Walker’s…131). At one point Celie began to doubt her humanity because she was deprived of the feeling of anger (Alice Walker’s…130). Shug helps Celie to break the male dominance barriers by moving to Memphis with Shug (LaGrone 13). Not only that, but Celie is able to forgive herself, Albert, and her stepfather which allows her to be whole (…A Critical Companion 100). Feeling pain for the first time in a long time when Shug moves away from Celie, makes Celie one with herself (LaGrone 13).
Although abuse in By the Light of My Father’s Smile is not as extensive as in The Color Purple, male dominance and a single beating lead the book to Walker’s theme of sexism and the character learning to love herself and her sexuality as does Celie. Magdalena early in the novel falls for a native boy named Manuelito. Defying her father, Magdalena has sexual relations with Manuelito (By the Light…26). After her Father discovers this, he gives her a terrible hiding using a belt her lover made her (Schechner). Watching through the keyhole of her their bedroom, Susannah’s life changed forever (By the Light… 27). Watching the abuse from an outsider’s perspective as opposed to Celie in The Color Purple, Susannah would never be able to love her Father the same way again (By the Light…27) Magdalena’s Father, Senor Robinson, separates the two love-birds sending Magdalena into a downward spiral turning her morbidly obese (Bates 133). “It was as if my memories were lodged in my cells, and needed to be fed” (By the Light…125). She felt that eating would get rid of her anger at her father and her sadness of Manuelito (By the Light…125)
In By the Light of My Father’s Smile, the sisters’ father had caused them turmoil. Magdalena eventually turned on her own sister at one point of the novel giving her a black eye and biting her arm down to the bone. She states her reasoning: “…it had been building up in me for a thousand years. I couldn’t stand it that you had been loved and I had not.” He doesn’t realize that the girls need more love than they do dominance (Bates 142). “He is so consumed with being the patriarch, the leader and the controller, that he forgets to embrace his girls in the full demonstration of his human emotion” (Bates 142). Alice Walker uses the character of Magdalena to show how important a male figure is in a female’s life (Bates136). After being beaten, Magdalena’s life began to be shaped. Rooted from her father’s missionary work, Magdalena started to hate the church after being beaten by her father for being herself (By the Light…73). To show her hatred for the church, Magdalena pierced her labia and hung a crucifix from it (Schechner). Not only does she hate the church because of her father, but she turns her back on sex and her sexuality almost completely due to her father’s lack of understanding and compassion for her (Bates 137).
In opposition, Susannah moved toward a happier sex-life (Bates 137). She is almost thankful for what she has encountered as she tells her lover, Pauline, that she did not really know herself until their relationship (Schechner). Although her heterosexual relationship did not last, Susannah’s hatred for her father leads her to never look at a man in the same light again (Bates). By embracing her sexuality and taking pride in herself, Susannah enables herself to grow in life and forgive her father. Although selective scenes are graphic, The purpose of Walker’s depictions of female erotic intensity is to redeem African American female sexuality… Pauline and Susannah not only share a long-term relationship but also share the pursuit of economic independence and financial success. Their unity as couple as aspiration and as reality is strong, each gleaning from it human emotional needs that are both foundations and systems of support. (Bates 143) The male persona, her father, sends her on a rocky road at first, but after she embraces her sexuality, she grows as a person for the better and lives a happy life.
In both novels, The Color purple and By the Light of my Father’s Smile, Walker uses similar themes including but not limited to sexism and male dominance; celebrating a person’s sexuality, Womanism, and how the male persona shapes a female’s life. Alice Walker’s main characters both encounter some of the same situations and have to tackle them day by day. Walker gets her message across to the world by captivating her reader and portraying the realities African American women face daily while entertaining the same themes throughout her works.
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