On the 30th anniversary of the publication of "The Color Purple," we speak with author, poet and activist Alice Walker about her groundbreaking novel and its enduring legacy. Set mainly in rural Georgia in the 1930s, the book tells the story of a young, poor African-American woman named Celie and her struggle for empowerment in a world marked by sexism, racism and patriarchy. The novel earned Walker a Pulitzer Prize in 1983, making her the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer for fiction. Walker explains the origin of the book’s title and explores some of its central characters and their connection to her own family history. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
Well, today, in a Democracy Now! special, we spend the hour with the legendary author, poet, activist, Alice Walker. She is the first African-American woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. She won it in 1983 for her renowned novel The Color Purple. The novel also won the the National Book Award for Fiction and was later adapted into a film and musical by the same name. On the 30th anniversary of the book’s publication, we’ll talk about its lasting legacy. Set mainly in rural Georgia in the 1930s, the book tells the story of a young, poor African-American woman named Celie and her struggle for empowerment in a world marked by sexism, racism and patriarchy.
In 1985, The Color Purple was adapted into a film directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, Oprah Winfrey. In this clip from the film, two of the main characters have a tense exchange. A strong, independent woman named Sofia tells long-abused Celie that she’s struggled all her life and won’t let anyone beat her down.
SOFIA: All my life I had to fight. I had to fight my daddy. I had to fight my uncles. I had to fight my brothers. A girl child ain’t safe in a family of mens, but I ain’t never thought I had to fight in my own house! I loves Harpo, God knows I do. But I’ll kill him dead ’fore I let him beat me.
HARPO: And that’s a hoofprint. Isn’t that a hoofprint there, Pa?
ALBERT: No, that look like a fistprint right there.
HARPO: No, no, sir. No, sir, ain’t no fist touch my face. No, sir.
SOFIA: Now, you want a dead son-in-law, Miss Celie? You keep on advising him like you doin’.
AMY GOODMAN: As the novel is based—as the novel it’s based on celebrates the 30th anniversary, we’re joined now by the renowned author Alice Walker herself to further discuss its legacy. We’ll also speak to her about other writings, her social and political activism in support of the Palestinians, and about the coming presidential election.
Alice Walker, welcome to Democracy Now!
ALICE WALKER: Thank you so much.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to be with you. You were yesterday before a crowd of about 1,200 people in the audience at the Fall for the Book Festival in Arlington, Virginia. You read from The Color Purple. You talked about its importance. Tell us, on this 30th anniversary this year, your thoughts about what brought you to write this seminal work.
ALICE WALKER: Actually, I wanted to spend more time with my grandparents—and they had died, you know, long ago—and my parents, and so I set out to write a book in which I could really live for a year or two and be with them by creating characters who resembled them and by giving them a life that they might have had, that, in fact, many of them did not have.
AMY GOODMAN: For especially young people who may not have—definitely they’ve probably heard of The Color Purple, but may not have read it, just lay out the story for us.
ALICE WALKER: Well, the story is about Celie and—who was abused by her stepfather. She lost her own father, who was lynched. And this is part of the story that is rarely talked about, that her own father was lynched because he was so successful as a businessman in the South, when black people were not supposed to be successful. And then she became the victim of her stepfather and raped. And she had two children, who were taken away from her and ended up in Africa with her sister, who had gone there as a missionary’s helper. It basically is the struggle of someone who thinks she has no voice and has no place and writes letters to God because she has nobody else to write to. And then she discovers that the god that she’s writing to is deaf, because he’s basically the Christian god that has been imposed on black people. And at that point, she starts writing to her sister. And eventually she understands that divinity is all around us and that we are a part of it and it’s in nature.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to another clip from the film, The Color Purple. In this scene, Celie finally stands up to her husband, who goes simply by the name "Mister."
CELIE: Until you do right by me, everything you think about is gonna crumble.
SOFIA: Don’t do it, Miss Celie. Don’t trade places with what I’ve been through.
SHUG: Come on, Miss Celie. Let’s go to the car.
SOFIA: He ain’t worth it. He ain’t worth it.
ALBERT: Who you think you is? You can’t cuss nobody. Look at you. You’re black, you’re poor, you’re ugly, you’re a woman—you’re nothing at all!
SOFIA: ’Til you do right by me, everything you even think about is gonna fail.
AMY GOODMAN: There you have it. That scene, describe it for our listeners and viewers, Alice Walker.
ALICE WALKER: Well, it’s a scene in which Celie basically curses Mister and all the misters in the world and says to them, "Until you do right by me," meaning herself as a person but also "me" as the earth, "everything you do will crumble, and everything you do will fail." And it’s prophetic in that sense, and she somehow knows this. It comes very strongly through her that this is true, that unless people are doing right by the poor of the world, by the downtrodden, and by women, generally, they are doomed. Our culture, our society, our world is doomed.
AMY GOODMAN: And then you’ve got the amazing Shug Avery. I want to ask you about the title of your novel, but first let’s go to Shug, who mentions the color purple in her conversation with Celie.
SHUG: But more than anything, God loves admiration.
CELIE: Are you saying God is vain?
SHUG: No, no, not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it.
CELIE: Well, are you saying it just want to be loved, like it say in the Bible?
SHUG: Yeah, Celie. Everything want to be loved. Us sing and dance and holler, just trying to be loved.
AMY GOODMAN: Shug talking to Celie. Alice?
ALICE WALKER: Yes, and she’s explaining to Celie that, you know, the beauty of nature is what reminds us of what is divine, I mean, that we’re already in heaven, really. It’s just that we haven’t noticed it, and we’ve been diverted by people who want us to believe whatever it is they are basically selling us. But if you pass by the color purple in a field and you don’t even notice it, why should you even be here on the planet? I mean, you should notice what is here, because it is wonderful and amazing and loves you back by its beauty and by its fragrance or however it can love you back.
AMY GOODMAN: And how did that title come to you, The Color Purple?
ALICE WALKER: Because when I was writing the novel, I lived way in the country in Boonville, California, and I went walking through the redwoods and swimming in the river and noticed that in nature purple is everywhere. And it’s interesting because we tend to think that in nature you would see more red, yellow, white, you know, all of those colors. But actually, purple is right there. And in that sense, it’s like the people in the novel. You think that they are unusual, that what’s happening to them is unusual, but actually it’s happening somewhere on your block almost every minute. All the trouble, all of the trials and tribulations of Celie are happening to people all over the planet right now.
AMY GOODMAN: So this book came out 30 years ago.
ALICE WALKER: It did.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about how it changed your life. What had you been doing before, and what happened after?
ALICE WALKER: Well, I live a very secluded life, a very contemplative life and a very meditative one. That is my ideal life. And the notoriety of The Color Purple — and there was a lot of that, as well as, you know, everything else — caused me to be—to feel much more exposed and to have many more demands. When this happened, I didn’t even have an assistant to help me do anything, and so I would handle all of my affairs, including my taxes, by myself. And when I—when all of this happened, a lot of mail and stuff came to my house, and I just put it in a room and closed the door on it for many months, until I realized that I couldn’t actually do that, and I finally got someone to help me. Some of the things are good. Most of the things are very good. But I think that kind of fame that happens in America is actually very destructive, unless you can fortify yourself by whatever practice you can find. Meditation helped me a lot.
AMY GOODMAN: The Pulitzer Prize, first African-American woman to win it for non—for fiction. How did you feel? Where were you when you heard?
ALICE WALKER: I was living in San Francisco, and I thought it was a joke. I had won the National Book Award, I think the week before, and then someone called and said that there was the Pulitzer, which I didn’t know existed for fiction. And it was nice. I mean, I think, you know, I have this thing about prizes, though. I’m suspicious of them. And I think also that they should be delivered to you. They should be brought to your door with flowers and maybe with a violin playing, but that you should never have to leave home to get an award.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. We’re talking with the legendary author Alice Walker. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re on the road in Washington, D.C., on our 100-city Election 2012 tour, headed to Charlottesville, Virginia. I’m Amy Goodman. Our guest is the author, the activist, the artist, Alice Walker. Thirty years ago, her book The Color Purple, came out. In this clip of the film made by Steven Spielberg, the character Sofia, played by Oprah Winfrey, defies Miss Millie, the wife of the town’s mayor, by telling her she won’t be her maid.
MISS MILLIE: Your children are so clean. Would you like to work for me, be my maid?
SOFIA: Hell no.
MISS MILLIE: What did you say?
SOFIA: "Hell no."
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: What did she say?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: Hey, can’t you pump that crude a little faster?
MAYOR: Gal, what did you say to Miss Millie?
SOFIA: I said, "Hell" —
SWAIN: No, Miss Sofia. No, Miss Sofia, no!
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Hey, did you see what she did?
MISS MILLIE: Hey! I can’t believe you did this.
SOFIA: Get my children out of here! Take them home! Get my children home! Get my children out of here!
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: You black slut! Who do you think you are?
SOFIA: Don’t touch me! Leave me alone! Don’t touch me!
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: Who do you are, you fat nigger?
SOFIA: God, dear God! Sheriff, help me! Help me!
AMY GOODMAN: Alice Walker, why don’t you describe what happened to Sofia as she’s told the mayor’s wife she wouldn’t work for her as a maid, what the mayor did?
ALICE WALKER: Well, the mayor basically assaults her. And she ends up being their maid after all, because in that time there was something called contract labor, so that if you really wanted a black person to be a servant, you could have them arrested, and then they could be released into your care, and basically your service, and be your personal prisoner. So this is what happened to Sofia.
AMY GOODMAN: What happened when Steven Spielberg approached you? Did you know him?
ALICE WALKER: Not at all. I never heard of Steven. And my daughter took me to see E.T., so that I could be prepared. And I loved E.T. And when Steven appeared himself, I really loved him, as well. He was very open, knew what he was about, wanted very much to do this film. And we collaborated as much as possible. And I think we both feel very pleased, although in the beginning I didn’t like the film, because it just felt so outlandish. It’s very weird having a book of yours made into a film. Everything looks like a cartoon. But I got used to it, when I saw it in a theater with lots of people. The first time I saw it, there were only three people—me and my partner and a friend—in a huge theater that they had hired just to show me the film. And it just—it was strange.
AMY GOODMAN: It was nominated for something—what, 11 Oscars?
ALICE WALKER: Eleven, mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: But it didn’t win one.
ALICE WALKER: No, it didn’t win any Oscars, and I felt fine about it, because I didn’t know any of the people who were making the decision not to give the awards. And I distrust not knowing—you know, I distrust this part of it, that it’s better if you know the people who are deciding something so important. And I think, for instance, there were no people of color making the decision, and I don’t think any women of any shade.
AMY GOODMAN: And then it went and became a musical in New York.
ALICE WALKER: Mm-hmm, yes, it became a really wonderful musical. Some of the things I had wanted more of in the film, we were able to put into the musical.
AMY GOODMAN: Which was?
ALICE WALKER: Development of the relationship between Celie and Shug, which is so precious and beautiful in the musical.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about that relationship.
ALICE WALKER: Well, they have a love relationship. They fall in love with each other. Celie is enamored of Shug, even before she meets her. She sees a photograph that Mister has, because Mister is Shug’s lover, has been, and the father of some of Shug’s children, actually. They have a very long-term love affair. And Celie, you know, has never been loved by anyone except her sister Nettie, who ends up being sent off to Africa. So, the relationship that they have really develops Celie’s sense of herself as a person, a real person, instead of a drudge.
AMY GOODMAN: The world has now seen this movie and read your book, people all over the world. What is the response internationally? How do people talk about this as a global story?
ALICE WALKER: Well, everybody seems to understand that it is a global story. I was talking yesterday to the people in Georgetown—George Mason University about how when I went to China in 1983, just after the book was published, it was already a bestseller in China. They didn’t tell me about it, but it was. And so, I said to them, "Well, why do people respond so deeply to this novel?" And they said to me, "Well, Alice, it’s a very Chinese story, because the oppression of women is global. It’s not just, you know, in the black community." And I felt badly that many black people, I think, felt that I was saying that it was, you know, our problem. But I think nowadays—
AMY GOODMAN: Black male violence.
ALICE WALKER: Yes, the critics. But I think now people understand that this oppression of women and the abuse of children, you know, all of these things are global issues.