The Taboos and Doubters Alice Walker Defied to Write ‘The Color Purple’

An excerpt from ‘In Search of The Color Purple’

Salamishah Tillet
ZORA

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Whoopi Goldberg in “The Color Purple.” Photo: Warner Bros

To tell Celie’s epic tale, Alice Walker broke multiple taboos. The first was that of incest. When we first encounter Celie’s own private thoughts to herself, we believe, as she does, that “Pa” is her actual father and only learn much later in the novel that a White mob lynched her real father. Without that knowledge, The Color Purple first appears to be an incest story. And while Walker was not the first African American novelist to capture that horror, she was the only one at that time to capture this violation from the point of view of the rape victim.

Both Ralph Ellison’s 1952 bestselling Invisible Man and Toni Morrison’s 1970 debut The Bluest Eye depicted the actual scene of father-daughter sexual abuse through the eyes of the fathers. Unlike Ellison’s novel, whose sympathetic portrayal of the assailant risked turning him into a Southern folk hero, both Morrison’s and Walker’s novels maintained a narrative empathy for their girl victims. However, Walker begins our entire reading experience with the moment of violation and in such vivid detail that she not only subverts our expectations of the bildungsroman but, as the Newsweek review of the book noted in 1982, introduces Celie “at about the point that most Greek…

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Salamishah Tillet
ZORA
Writer for

Professor at Rutgers — Newark; Critic at The New York Times, Author of “In Search of The Color Purple”; Co-Founder of A Long Walk Home