Writer and activist Alice Walker was born in 1944 in Putnam County, Georgia, the youngest of eight children. Her books include seven novels, four collections of short stories, four children’s books, and several volumes of essays and poetry. She’s best known for her 1982 novel, The Color Purple, about women of color in rural Georgia in the 1930s. The novel won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, making Walker the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer for fiction. It was adapted into a critically acclaimed 1985 film and a 2005 Broadway musical by the same name. The novel’s protagonist, Celie, is a poor, uneducated girl forced to marry a man identified only as Mr. _____ . He abuses her and brings his mistress Shug, a lounge singer, to live with them. The two women become friends and later lovers. The book takes the form of letters that Celie writes, first to God and then to her younger sister, Nettie. The following is excerpted from The Color Purple, by Alice Walker. Copyright © 1982 by Alice Walker. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Digital rights granted by the Joy Harris Literary Agency. All rights reserved.
I don’t write to God no more. I write to you.
What happen to God? ast Shug.
Who that? I say.
She look at me serious.
Big a devil as you is, I say, you not worried bout no God, surely.
She say, Wait a minute. Hold on just a minute here. Just because I don’t harass it like some peoples us know don’t mean I ain’t got religion.
What God do for me? I ast.
She say, Celie! Like she shock. He gave you life, good health, and a good woman that love you to death.
Yeah, I say, and he give me a lynched daddy, a crazy mama, a lowdown dog of a step pa and a sister I probably won’t ever see again. Anyhow, I say, the God I been praying and writing to is a man. And act just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgitful and lowdown.
She say, Miss Celie, You better hush. God might hear you.
Let im hear me, I say. If he ever listened to poor colored women the world would be a different place, I can tell you.
She talk and she talk, trying to budge me way from blasphemy. But I blaspheme much as I want to.
All my life I never care what people thought bout nothing I did, I say. But deep in my heart I care about God. What he going to think. And come to find out, he don’t think. Just sit up there glorying in being deef, I reckon. But it ain’t easy, trying to do without God. Even if you know he ain’t there, trying to do without him is a strain.
I is a sinner, say Shug. Cause I was born. I don’t deny it. But once you find out what’s out there waiting for us, what else can you be?
Sinners have more good times, I say.
You know why? she ast.
Cause you ain’t all the time worrying bout God, I say.
Naw, that ain’t it, she say. Us worry bout God a lot. But once us feel loved by God, us do the best us can to please him with what us like.
You telling me God love you, and you ain’t never done nothing for him? I mean, not go to church, sing in the choir, feed the preacher and all like that?
But if God love me, Celie, I don’t have to do all that. Unless I want to. There’s a lot of other things I can do that I speck God likes.
Like what? I ast.
Oh, she say. I can lay back and just admire stuff. Be happy. Have a good time.
Well, this sound like blasphemy sure nuff.
She say, Celie, tell the truth, have you ever found God in church? I never did. I just found a bunch of folks hoping for him to show. Any God I ever felt in church I brought in with me. And I think all the other folks did too. They come to church to share God, not find God.
Some folks didn’t have him to share, I said. They the ones didn’t speak to me while I was there struggling with my big belly and Mr. _____ children.
Right, she say.
Then she say: Tell me what your God look like, Celie.
Aw naw, I say. I’m too shame. Nobody ever ast me this before, so I’m sort of took by surprise. Besides, when I think about it, it don’t seem quite right. But it all I got. I decide to stick up for him, just to see what Shug say.
Okay, I say. He big and old and tall and graybearded and white. He wear white robes and go barefooted.
Blue eyes? she ast.
Sort of bluish-gray. Cool. Big though. White lashes. I say.
Why you laugh? I ast. I don’t think it so funny. What you expect him to look like, Mr. _____?
That wouldn’t be no improvement, she say. Then she tell me this old white man is the same God she used to see when she prayed. If you wait to find God in church, Celie, she say, that’s who is bound to show up, cause that’s where he live.
How come? I ast.
Cause that’s the one that’s in the white folks’ white bible.
Shug! I say. God wrote the bible, white folks had nothing to do with it.
How come he look just like them, then? she say. Only bigger? And a heap more hair. How come the bible just like everything else they make, all about them doing one thing and another, and all the colored folks doing is gitting cursed?
I never thought bout that.
Nettie say somewhere in the bible it say Jesus’ hair was like lamb’s wool, I say.
Well, say Shug, if he came to any of these churches we talking bout he’d have to have it conked before anybody paid him any attention. The last thing niggers want to think about they God is that his hair kinky.
That’s the truth, I say.
Ain’t no way to read the bible and not think God white, she say. Then she sigh. When I found out I thought God was white, and a man, I lost interest. You mad cause he don’t seem to listen to your prayers. Humph! Do the mayor listen to anything colored say? Ask Sofia, she say.
But I don’t have to ast Sofia. I know white people never listen to colored, period. If they do, they only listen long enough to be able to tell you what to do.
Here’s the thing, say Shug. The thing I believe. God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into the world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it. And sometimes it just manifest itself even if you not looking, or don’t know what you looking for. Trouble do it for most folks, I think. Sorrow, lord. Feeling like shit.
It? I ast.
Yeah, It. God ain’t a he or a she, but a It.
But what do it look like? I ast.
Don’t look like nothing, she say. It ain’t a picture show. It ain’t something you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself. I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found It.
Shug a beautiful something, let me tell you. She frown a little, look out cross the yard, lean back in her chair, look like a big rose.
She say, My first step from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds. Then other people. But one day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed. And I laughed and I cried and I run all around the house. I knew just what it was. In fact, when it happen, you can’t miss it. It sort of like you know what, she say, grinning and rubbing high up on my thigh.
Shug! I say.
Oh, she say. God love all them feelings. That’s some of the best stuff God did. And when you know God loves ’em you enjoys ’em a lot more. You can just relax, go with everything that’s going, and praise God by liking what you like.
God don’t think it dirty? I ast.
Naw, she say. God made it. Listen, God love everything you love — and a mess of stuff you don’t. But more than anything else, God love admiration.
You saying God vain? I ast.
Naw, she say. 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 somewhere and don’t notice it.
What it do when it pissed off? I ast.
Oh, it make something else. People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.
Yeah? I say.
Yeah, she say. It always making little surprises and springing them on us when us least expect.
You mean it want to be loved, just like the bible say.
Yes, Celie, she say. Everything want to be loved. Us sing and dance, make faces and give flower bouquets, trying to be loved. You ever notice that trees do everything to git attention we do, except walk?
Well, us talk and talk bout God, but I’m still adrift.
Trying to chase that old white man out of my head. I been so busy thinking bout him I never truly notice nothing God make. Not a blade of corn (how it do that?), not the color purple (where it come from?). Not the little wildflowers. Nothing.
Now that my eyes opening, I feels like a fool. Next to any little scrub of a bush in my yard, Mr. _____’s evil sort of shrink. But not altogether. Still, it is like Shug say, You have to git man off your eyeball, before you can see anything a’tall.
Man corrupt everything, say Shug. He on your box of grits, in your head, and all over the radio. He try to make you think he everywhere. Soon as you think he everywhere, you think he God. But he ain’t. Whenever you trying to pray, and man plop himself on the other end of it, tell him to git lost, say Shug. Conjure up flowers, wind, water, a big rock.
But this hard work, let me tell you. He been there so long, he don’t want to budge. He threaten lightening, floods and earthquakes. Us fight. I hardly pray at all. Every time I conjure up a rock, I throw it.