Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Identity and Gender Roles

            After reading these three scholarly articles I was immediately struck by the wide range and often conflicting interpretations of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. All three articles at some point discuss the dichotomy between African American men and women in the novel. Ann duCille discusses the tendency of black male critics to criticize Walker on the grounds that she dehumanizes the African American men in the novel. Trudier Harris was faced with a similar problem in her classroom when one of her male students disliked the novel because it portrayed the men as frogs, none of which “can turn into princes.” (Harris 159). Both of these authors were faced with men who were upset with the portrayal of African American men in the novel; however, they responded quite differently. DuCille focused on the tendency all people have to interpret literature under certain societal lenses. She admits that she tends to read novels such as The Color Purple from an African American feminist perspective. Her main defense for Walker is that she was not trying to attack the image of black males in literature; rather, she was constructing a new lens through which African American culture could be viewed.  Harris was upset with the novel because she found it degrading towards African American women. She saw Celie as a character that never acted and was constantly being acted upon. She did not believe it was empowering for African American women, she only believed that The Color Purple was seen as a critical success due to the media frenzy and shock factor surrounding it. The final article articulated seven questions posed by W.E.B. Dubois surrounding the nature of African Americans in literature. His first question asked whether black writers were held under certain limitations when constructing black characters to which one scholar, Eugenia Collier, responded. She argues that the problem with The Color Purple is that it deepens the schism between African American men and women rather than healing it. She finds that it grants neither gender any sense of individuality.

            All three articles discuss the nature of an African American identity being forged in literature. It is interesting that this is their focus because it is parallel to the main driving plot in The Color Purple, which is Celie’s journey to become an independent, individual woman rather than an object. It is beneficial to compare these articles to the text because I only saw Celie as lacking an identity upon first read. However, maybe as several authors suggested, every character is lacking a true identity. They could all be filling several gender and/or racial stereotypes. The novel then becomes not solely fixated on Celie but on the process of African Americans constructing their own social identity in the white dominated culture of the early twentieth century. If this is the case, Walker is highlighting the need to include a multitude of viewpoints in constructing a distinct African American culture so that it does not become male dominated. 

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