‘I am a feminist, and what that means to me is much the same as the meaning of the fact that I am Black: it means that I must undertake to love myself and to respect myself as though my very life depends upon self-love and self-respect.’ ‘ June Jordan
The position of black American women is one that only few people would desire. For centuries these women have struggled to find their identity and free themselves from oppression by white people, but also from sexism and classism. Of course we had the civil rights movement and feminism flourishing in the 60’s and 70’s of the last century, but what had these movements meant for black American women?
Women had played a vital role in the civil rights movement, they mobilised the people to participate and initiated various successful demonstrations for the movement. However, black women received little recognition for their efforts. They were given positions behind the scenes whereas men were placed in controlling positions. In the famous March on Washington in 1963, many speakers and civil rights movements were able to present their ideas. One group, however was silenced and was denied the opportunity to speak in the March: black women. Civil rights activist, Dorothy Height, states that:
“There was an all-consuming focus on race. We women were expected to put all our energies into it [the March]…there was a low tolerance level for…questions about women’s participation” (Height, 2001).
Although inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, in which black women had gained experience in civic organising, no black women were granted an important role in the Feminist Movement. The Feminist Movement was led by middle class white women. White women had to be convinced that black women were also entitled to enter the Feminist Movement, and to share power within the organisation. However, due to racism and classism, black women were not given equal roles.
We can easily conclude that the role of black women in both the Civil Rights Movement and the Feminist Movement was marginalised by subsequently sexism and racism/classism. The dissatisfaction women felt with their position in both movements, led to the rise of Black Feminism. Black Feminism argues:
“that the experience of being a black woman cannot be understood in terms of being black, and of being a woman, considered independently, but must include the interactions, which frequently reinforce each other.” (Crenshaw & Thomas, 2004).
This intersectionalist approach clarifies that the race and gender problems black women face, are very much entwined and thus more complicated.
At the dawn of feminism, with the civil rights movement declared dead, but black feminism still alive, black women writers entered their literary renaissance in the late 20th century. Fuelled by their experiences in the era in which the civil rights movement and feminism flourished, oppression of black women is the central theme in most novels by Afro-American women writers of this time. Award winning novelists Alice Walker and Toni Morrison emphasize the intersectionalist problems black women face in their novels. In this essay, I will explore how the theme of racial, class and gender oppression is discussed in two Pulitzer prize-winning novels of the second black women renaissance: The Color Purple by Alice Walker and Beloved by Tony Morrison. By looking at the novels from an intersectionalist point of view, I will focus on how racism, classism and sexism are portrayed and intertwined.
The novels Beloved and The colour Purple are drenched with violence and other forms of oppressive behaviour towards women. The women in the novels endure gender, class and racial discrimination, which is often expressed through violence and sexual abuse. Both stories are set in a post slavery, all black, rural community around the turn of the previous century. Unlike The Color Purple, Beloved uses flash backs to take us to the time of slavery at the plantation of Sweet Home. However, set in the time after slavery, Bergthaller (2006) concludes the following:
“It is thus only consequential that the novel puts its characters at a temporal remove from their own experience of slavery: the diegetic present of the novel is set in the year 1873, and the former lives of the characters as slaves are presented in a series of flashbacks as the novel unfolds. Properly speaking, then, Beloved is a novel not so much about slavery itself as about its effects on those who live in its wake.” (Bergthaller, 2006).
In the two novels, race plays an important role, although described from a very different angle. In Morrison’s Beloved, racial oppression is the most important theme. The issue is dealt with through describing the horrors of slavery and, even more so, the trauma it caused, whereas in The Color Purple the racial tension is present throughout the novel, but with feminist concerns as the key topic.
Although all black people, at the time, suffered from racial oppression, women seem to have a worse position because of their gender and their ability to have children. One of the main disadvantages women had, was that they could increase the slave owner’s wealth through the production of more slaves, and were therefore systematically raped.
Rape is a frequently reoccurring phenomenon in both books. In their recent study West and Johnson (2013) describe the history of rape of black women since the early days of slavery. Even before arriving in America the women were systematically raped by the crew members during their Middle Passage. To the slave owners the value of women was mainly in the fact that they could produce children and with that increase the slave owner’s wealth. But even after slavery was abolished, rape was still widespread due to poor legislation that did not recognise the sexual molestation of black women as rape.
“Historical Overview: Throughout much of U.S. history, the rape of Black women was widespread and institutionalized. The legal system offered little protection and stereotypes about Black women’s hypersexuality were used to justify limited social support for Black rape victims. Black women developed a culture of silence and engaged in anti-rape organizing to cope with their victimization.” (West & Johnson, 2013)
In her novel ‘Beloved’, Toni Morrison writes about the cruel history of rape in Afro-American history during the time of slavery. On page 62 we learn about the brutalities during the Middle passage. Although Morrison’s word choice is quite subtle and veiled, we can conclude that the story she tells is gruesome: Sethe’s mother and Nan were repeatedly raped during their transatlantic trip. Sethe’s mother threw all resulting children (except Sethe) overboard, and Sethe was given the name of a black man.
“‘ were taken up many times by the crew” and “She threw them all away but you. The one from the crew she threw away on the island. The others from more whites she also threw away. Without names, she threw them. You she gave the name of the black man.” (Beloved p.62)
Just like her mother, Sethe experiences rape when enslaved. She is sexually violated by her master’s nephews. Although again not described explicitly, we can read that the two sexually and physically molested her while she was pregnant and took her milk. (p. 16) + 251. The experience deeply influences Sethe as we can conclude from her actions taken when, after having fled to Baby Suggs House, Schoolteacher arrives to take her and her children back to Sweet Home. Sethe kills her daughter so that
“no gang of whites [would invade] her daughter’s private parts, [soil] her daughter’s thighs’ (Beloved, p. 251)
Through this horrific act, Sethe demonstrates her belief that death is a kinder alternative than rape. To her, it is the only way she can protect her child.
In the book Morrison reports on numerous other instances of rape of women during slavery: Vashti, Stamp Paid’s wife was forced to have sex with her enslaver, Baby Suggs was forced to have sex with her straw boss and with an overseer, and Ella was locked up and repeatedly raped by a father and son.
However, in Morrison’s Beloved, not only women suffer from rape by the hands of white men. Paul D describes how he gets raped during a chain gang. Every morning the prisoners are forced to fellate the white guards. Field (2007) remarks that
“Race, not gender, makes Paul and Sethe vulnerable to the trauma of rape; and rape, in turn, signifies the many atrocities of slavery through which Paul, Sethe and ‘Sixty Million more’ suffered.” (Field, 2007)
In my opinion, Field’s remark is partially correct. In Beloved both men and women are raped because they are black. But with this, she disregards the fact that the extent in which rape occurred with women, because they could produce offspring, is of a different magnitude.
As indicated before, racism plays an important role throughout The Color Purple. Although not the main theme, it seems that the effects and consequences of slavery and racism are an underlying cause for what happens in the story. An example of this, is that late in the novel we learn that Celie’s and Nettie’s real father is lynched by white men for no other reason than being a successful store owner. One could argue that the loss of her father is the cause for Celie’s mistreatment in her youth.
It seems that in the post slavery, rural community, black men and women are trying to rediscover their identity. As we have seen in Beloved, Slavery has taken away the identity of the slaves leaving them numb and animal-like. Especially men are trying to find a way to shape their masculinity and position towards women. More about this will follow in the paragraphs about gender discrimination later in this essay.
Women too are trying to find a position in life. Throughout the novel, there is the belief that ‘bright skin’ is more beautiful. Squeak, who is of mixed race, is aware of this division and asks Harpo, ‘Do you really love me, or just my colour’?.
The most explicit example of racism is the incident between Sofia and the mayor’s wife who offers Sophia to become her maid. Sophia answer is a short “hell, no!” on which she is slapped by the woman. Sofia however stands up for herself and hits back. The beating she receives from the police is disproportionately severe. Celie visits her and witnesses the gruesome results of the beating:
Celie: “When I see Sofia I don’t know why she still alive. They crack her skull, they crack her ribs. They tear her nose loose on one side. They blind her in one eye. She swole from head to foot. Her tongue the size of my arm, it stick out tween her teef like a piece of rubber. She can’t talk. And she just about the color of a eggplant.” (TCP, p. 88)
Harpo’s wife Sophia is sentenced to 12 years in jail. After several years, Sophia is released and sent to work for the mayor’s wife, and with that confined to servitude and domesticity within her home. Sophia described work as slavery. (TCP, p. 102-108)
But racism is not only present in America, Nettie understands that although she has the same colour skin, cultural differences separate her from the Olinkas. She states:
I think Africans are very much like white people back home, in that they think they are the center of the universe and that everything that is done is done for them. (TCP, p. 65.2)
Olivia expresses one of the most political statements of the book, recognizing that sexism and racism are similar forms of oppression.
In contrast to Morrison’s novel where most perpetrators are white oppressors, we find that in The Color Purple they are mostly black males from within the community. This shows that living in an all black community does not guarantee black women to be much better off. Especially Celie is discriminated against because of her gender. She endures sexual abuse, exploitation and violence only because she is a woman. The Color Purple is placed in a rural setting just after the abolishment of slavery, where traditional roles of men and women were standard. Male dominance is the norm throughout society and therefore men feel that they own women who should obey and submit. One could argue that gender domination being the standard at the time, was similar for both black and white females. However, it seems that women in The Color Purple suffer from a different kind of male dominance than their white counterparts. Many instances of oppression of women/Male dominance in the book show a striking resemblance to what women experienced in slavery. It seems that the men in the story are struggling to rediscover their male identity, which they had lost during slavery. Not being sure how to achieve this, they apply what they have experienced in the past and take on the role of the slave owner.
The novel starts with the most disturbing scene in the book. Here we learn that the man Celie believes is her father, Alfonso, rapes the protagonist, a fourteen-year-old black girl. Celie’s mother is ill and refuses to have sex with her husband because she is too weak. In the process of being raped Celie cries, Alfonso chokes her and immediately makes sure that she knows this behaviour will also occur in future by saying: ‘you better shut up and git used to it.’ (TCP, p. 1) In this case, we see rape is used as an expression of Alfonzo’s belief that he as a man has the right to have sex. He uses Celie as a sexual substitute for her mother and says ‘You gonna do what your mammy wouldn’t”. (TCP, p. 1)
As women in slavery, Celie suffers the sexual abuse throughout childhood and subsequently gets pregnant a number of times. In order to hide the evidence of his sex crimes, Alfonzo takes away the children and lets Celie believe that he killed them. ‘He took it. He took it while I was sleeping. Kilt it out there in the woods. Kill this one too if he can.’. (TCP, p. 2).
Celie’s Marries Mr_. The sexual encounters with him are unloving and might just feel like being raped. “Just do his business, get off, go to sleep” (TCP, p.78)
Besides being sexually abused from her teenage years, Celie has also been exploited. Celie had to follow traditional responsibilities, first by her own family and then in her marriage to Albert. When her mother fell ill, Celie was required to do all the work around the house: cooking, cleaning, washing. Alfonzo pulled her out of school so she could spend more time working around the house.
After a while Alfonzo wants to get rid of Celie and marries her off to Albert (Mr_). Albert is really more interested in Nettie, but Alfonzo tells him about the advantages of taking Celie:
“Well, next time you come you can look at her. She ugly. Don’t even look like she kin to Nettie. But she’ll make the better wife. She aint smart either, and I’ll just be fair, you have to watch her or she’ll give away everything you own. But she can work like a man.” (TCP, p. 8)
The way Celie is given away to her husband resembles the way slaves were sold at a market. By giving her away to a ‘suitable’ man, her father puts the young teenager in a situation in which she has to cope with the abusive relationship she is forced into.
Celie does not call her husband Albert by his first name but refers to him as Mr__. This shows that she is not on the same level as her husband and it resembles the way the slaves used to call their masters. The relationship between the two bears great similarities of that of a slave and her master. In her fifteenth letter to God, Celie tells the reader that she has to work the land, whereas her husband is sitting on the porch smoking a cigar. Celie is expected to work on the land alone.
Celie is also told to look after the house and children and do whatever Albert demands without objecting. One of Mr__’s sisters tells her that
‘When a woman marry, she spose to keep a decent house and a clean family’ (p. 20).
Physical violence is common and used as a manner of control and a way of punishment. Mr_ beats Celie on a regular basis. When Harpo, Mr__’s son asks his father why he beats Celie, Albert says that he does so because she is his wife, and does not listen. From the scene we can read that he has no respect for women.
‘Harpo ast his daddy why he beat me. Mr. ____ say, Cause she my wife. Plus, she stubborn. All women good for’he don’t finish. He just tuck his chin over the paper like he do. Remind me of Pa.’ (TCP, p. 23)
The conversations between Harpo and his father and Celie provide us with an interesting insight in how the young man’s understanding of the role of women and being a man is shaped. In the nineteenth letter Celie reports on an other conversation between Harpo and his father. In this conversation we learn that Harpo wants to control his wife. Although it seems that they have a loving marriage, Harpo is used to men dominating women and wants to do the same. He even feels embarrassed to admit that he has never beaten Sofia. Mr.__ advises Harpo to dominate Sofia the way most men do, by using violence.
“Harpo want to know what to do to make Sofia mind. He sit out on the porch with Mr._________. He say, I tell her one thing, she do another. Never do what I say. Always backtalk.
To tell the truth, he sound a little proud of this to me.
You ever hit her? Mr._________ ast.
Harpo look down at his hands. Naw suh, he say low, embarrass.
Well how you spect to make her mind? Wives is like children. You have to let ’em know who got the upper hand. Nothing can do that better than a good sound beating.” (TCP, p.36)
Much later in the book, when Celie points out that Harpo should not hit Sofia because she is a good wife, Harpo tells her that he wants to dominate Sofia. To Harpo, a good marriage is one in which the woman is totally submissive.
“I want her to do what I say, like you do for Pa.
Oh, Lord, I say.
When Pa tell you to do something, you do it, he say. When he say not to, you don’t. You don’t do what he say, he beat you.
Sometime beat me anyhow, I say, whether I do what he say or not.” (TCP, p. 63)
From Celie we learn that Mr__ abuses her even if she does what he wants.
Not all women are passive and scared to stand up and fight for themselves. Unlike Celie, Sofia doesn’t accept men using violence against her but hits back.
[Harpo and Sofia] fighting like two mens. Every piece of furniture they got is turned over. Every plate look like it broke. The looking glass hang crooked, the curtains torn. The bed look like the stuffing pulled out. They don’t’ notice. They fight. He try to slap her. What he do that for? She reach down and grab a piece of stove wood and whack him cross the eyes. He punch her in the stomach, she double over groaning but come up with both hands lock right under his privates. He roll on the floor. He grab her dress tail and pull. She stand there in her slip. She never blink a eye. He jump up to put a hammer lock under her chin, she throw him over her back. He fall bam up gainst the stove. (20.2)
Sofia’s pride and not independence however results in the dreadful incident with the mayor’s wife, for which she gets imprisoned first and the is forced to work in the mayor’s wife’s household. This shows that even though a woman is strong enough to escape male dominance, racism and classism forces her back into servitude.
Being black around the 1900s is a great predictor for class. All black people in the novels are poor with the exception of Celie’s father in The Color Purple. Her father’s wealth however leads to his death, because white people do not condone blacks to be well off and lynch the man. All other black characters in both books are exploited, poorly educated, and badly housed. It is hard for them, not to say impossible, to better themselves.
For black women the situation is even worse. In addition to whites making it hard to escape class, men oppose women trying to better themselves just as much. In The Color Purple, a young Celie hungers for education but her stepfather pulls her out of school because she is needed to fulfil the traditional role of a woman which means that she has to do work around the house.
Not only in America, we find the idea that women do not have to be educated because they have to fulfil a domestic role. In Africa, Nettie encounters similar problems:
“Why can’t Tashi come to school? she [Olivia] asked me. When I told her the Olinka don’t believe in educating girls she said, quick as a flash, They’re like white people at home who don’t want colored people to learn.” (62.10)
Because black women are poor, we also find examples of prostitution out of desperation. The first instance of this is Sethe’s exchange of sex for engraving het daughter’s tombstone, the second involves the Saturdays girls’ work at the slaughterhouse.
With the recent experiences of The Civil Rights Movement and the Feminist Movement in mind, both Alice Walker and Toni Morrison address the notion of intersectionalism as emphasized by Black Feminism. In Beloved, as well as in The Color Purple we find black women struggling with racial, gender, and class oppression. Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple mainly focusses on sexism within the black community, whereas reminiscences of slavery and racism is key topic in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Although different in focus, in both novels the intersectionalist idea that the problems black women face are very much entwined and thus more complicated, is a major theme.
In her novel Beloved, Morrison addresses the problem of racism and Black American heritage in which black Americans deal with the trauma of slavery. Slavery has left such scars within the black community that it is difficult to leave behind. In addition to describing the general horrors of slavery, she particularly focusses on the trauma’s and experiences of women. On this intersection between race, gender and class (only a slave), being a black enslaved female and able to produce offspring added to the horrors of slavery, because females were consequently raped and impregnated. Being a mother under such circumstances was difficult: women could often not care for the children that were conceived through rape because they were taken away. If children stayed with their mothers, they were often unable to protect them which in Beloved results in Sethe murdering her daughter.
Starting point for The Color Purple, is a more feminist view. Walker challenges the traditional role of women and male dominance. In her novel we follow the struggle of protagonist Celie, for identity and self worth in a situation in which men force her into being a submissive, almost slave-like, housewife. The men in her life use her to exert their masculinity. The way men try to oppress her is very similar to how the slaves were suppressed by the plantation owners. It seems that black men follow by example, and the only example they have, stems from their experiences in slavery.
In both novels black women are unable to better themselves and transcend their class. Black women and slaves are not permitted to educate themselves.
Although the starting point and focus of the two novels is different, we may conclude that the situation for black American women is complicated. Race, gender and class play a huge role in the lives of black women, but they are entwined to such an extend that it is impossible to pinpoint one of the forms of oppression without taking the others into consideration.
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Walker, A. (2003). The color purple: A novel. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
West, C. & Johnson, K. (2013, March). Sexual Violence in the Lives of African American Women. Harrisburg, PA: VAWnet, a project of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence. Retrieved 20/05/2015, from: http://www.vawnet.org