The Color Purple and the Toppling of American Gods
Every year, PEN America asks PEN Members and supporters—writers and editors of all backgrounds and genres—to celebrate the freedom to read by reflecting on the banned books that matter most to them. This is our way of taking part in the American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week, which brings together the entire book community in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.
In 2013, North Carolina’s Brunswick County Commissioner Pat Sykes, along with a handful of parents and teachers, made it their goal to remove Alice Walker’s The Color Purple from the local schools. Its racial and sexual content was at the heart of the complaints, and Sykes was quoted writing in her challenge: “In this day were [sic] we are being sued for using or saying the N word. Look at Paula Deen.”
I don’t know if anyone asked Ms. Sykes who this “we” might be, or if anyone thought to question the relevance of Paula Deen’s use of slurs to the issue of what literature is appropriate for children. But it was the children Sykes cited when describing who needed shielding from this book: “Trash in, trash out,” she said of The Color Purple, which she admitted she had never actually read: “To me, we should have standards for our kids.”
The argument for banning books has numerous variations, but at the root of them all is the premise that by censoring the story in question, someone is being protected. Most often this means children. Profanity. Obscenity. Sexuality. Violence. Children aren’t prepared to handle this type of content, the argument goes, and need the sense and wisdom of adults to defend them. Of course, the counter-argument is that children and young adults are already exposed to violence and sexuality on a regular basis: it’s happening in their homes, on their commute, and in the various forums of visual media they consume here in the Digital Age. It’s also happening in their classrooms. In 2015, a white male police officer entered a high school classroom in South Carolina and demanded that a Black female student surrender her cell phone. When she refused, he choked her, flipped her, and dragged her across the room in a headlock.
The teenage girl who filmed the assault was arrested. The police officer was not charged.
If we’re talking about “we,” I’m wondering what we mean when we say we should have standards for our kids. I’m wondering what we mean when we say we’re protecting them. I’m still wondering who Pat Sykes’s “we” is, though I can guess, and it’s a “we” that my white womanhood automatically makes me a part of. Our “we”—the white we—can’t protect Black children from police entering their classrooms and assaulting their classmates, but by God we will protect them from a book that tells them their abuse is decades old, centuries old, and woven into a system of violence constructed long before they were born. When we say removing books like The Color Purple—like Beloved, like The Bluest Eye, like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: all of which have been challenged and banned for racial, sexual, and/or supposedly anti-Christian content—is protecting children, it feels like a lie. It smells and tastes like a lie. So if we’re not protecting children from The Color Purple, then who or what are we protecting?
Never mind how absurd, how arrogant, it is to ban a book on the grounds of being anti-Christian or anti-white—as these arguments imply that the system in which such books exist is, by default, both white and Christian at its core—what does it mean that the system in question holds these concepts so dear that they must be protected by censure? When we examine that which the likes of Pat Sykes would gag the First Amendment in order to protect, we are looking the true gods of America in the face. What have we worshipped in America’s short, brutal history if not maleness, violence, and white supremacy? To be anti-white supremacy, to be anti-male violence, to be anti-white violence is, to many, to be anti-God. The Color Purple is one of the most banned books in America—a book that challenges what we (the white we) believe is good, moral, godly, human—and it is because Celie looks in the face of what she’s been ordered to worship, and not only decides (after nearly a lifetime of abuse) to fight, but does so by means of uplifting the love of Black women and putting it on a throne of its own spirituality.
Celie found God in purple. She found God in Nettie, in Shug’s voice; that voice that is “sort of like [how] panthers would sound if they could sing.” She found it on Shug’s nipples, and between her own legs. The women of The Color Purple, in questioning what we—the white we—have called God for so long (whiteness, maleness, purity, heterosexuality)…is it really a wonder that a country that has upheld violence as truth, as the definition of our patriotic and human identities, would attempt to strike down these women? Every chapter’s beginning—“Dear God”—is a blasphemy against the old American gods: not always the addressing of a letter but a long slow exhale of awe, the sigh of a witness to Earth’s—America’s—horror: “Dear God.”
Censorship is born of fear. And the gods of America—false gods, the system and idols we have put on thrones and in the sky—do have something to fear from books like The Color Purple. In The Color Purple lies the truth, in its pages lie glorious, flammable ideas: how many fires could be lit with the simple, indomitable truth that a Black girl in the American South is human?
There were no banned books in my parents’ house. Or, rather, there were plenty of books that had been banned, but none that I was banned from reading. I was ten when I first encountered The Color Purple there on my father’s shelves, the 1982 edition, and it was my self-centeredness that drew me to it: I flipped through the first few pages and saw my name. Olivia. I thought, “I’m in this book,” and I was, but it was only when I was older, re-reading it, that I realized just where I appeared. Strange that my eagerness to see myself is the same reason the story of Celie was the 17th most banned book from 1999-2009. What does whiteness seek to do but center itself? What do we do when decentered, when the mirror held before us reflects something hideous? The Color Purple was removed in Summerville, South Carolina in 2001 after a school board member called it “a filthy, filthy book.” It’s been called “vulgar.” It’s been called “immoral.” But, yes, books are mirrors, and Oscar Wilde was on to something when he said that the books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its—our—own shame.
The truth is, there is almost always a “we” floating beneath the surface of challenges like that of Pat Sykes: it is a “we” that is full of fear, a “we” that gazes at the incombustible nature of truth and trembles at what might happen to the gods we’ve so carefully constructed, gods whose thrones we’ve built upon the backs of Celies and Shugs and Sofias, if the prayers of a 14-year-old Black girl could reach the ears of millions. A book has the power to change history, topple cities: what happens to our kingdom when the censor falls away and the face of our gods peer out with the eyes of Miss Millie?
In a 2012 interview with Guernica, when asked about her feelings regarding the banning of her work, Alice Walker said: “I had delivered my gift. It was given in complete love to everyone. If they wanted to keep it, it would have to be their work to fight for it. They did.” It was one year later that Sykes and others in Brunswick County, citing Paula Deen, attempted to silence Celie’s voice. The fight was fought once more to keep Alice Walker’s gift, and it is a fight that must be fought again and again. For The Color Purple is more than a gift: it’s an offering not to the gods, but of them. The God found in a field of flowers, in a love song, in a juke joint, in a letter from one sister to another. In “black…so black the eye is simply dazzled.” In a mirror.
We must never let it shatter. Even when we—my we; Pat Sykes’s we—are ugly. Even when our gods fall down. Purple flowers will replace them.
Olivia A. Cole is an author and blogger. Her work has been published in The Oregon Literary Review, The Comstock Review, The Huffington Post, The Daily Dot, xoJane, and others. She published her first novel, Panther in the Hive, in April 2014 and its sequel, The Rooster’s Garden, in February 2016. Her next book is due out January 2018 with Katherine Tegen Books, a HarperCollins imprint.