As you can probably tell, the past few Banned Books posts have dealt with more modern banned books. However, I thought it was especially important to include quite a bit of discussion on classic banned books, as well, because these are books that have faced years – if not decades – fighting to have their voices heard. Plus, there has got to be a reason that these books have been fought against for as long as they have! For those of you who haven’t read the book (or seen the bad-ass movie featuring every great African American actor ever with the exception of Morgan Freeman), here is the Goodreads breakdown:
Celie is a poor black woman whose letters tell the story of 20 years of her life, beginning at age 14 when she is being abused and raped by her father and attempting to protect her sister from the same fate, and continuing over the course of her marriage to “Mister,” a brutal man who terrorizes her. Celie eventually learns that her abusive husband has been keeping her sister’s letters from her and the rage she feels, combined with an example of love and independence provided by her close friend Shug, pushes her finally toward an awakening of her creative and loving self.
This book, I’m sure, was banned for a number of reasons (articles here and here). The profanity is intense, as is the violence and a lot of the sex (most of which, given the context, is sexual violence). There is also drug use, alcoholism, and discussion of imperialism and all of the problems frequently associated with that. This time, I’m not saying that everyone should have unfettered access to this book – it’s a mature story, and requires a mature reader. But who is to say when this maturity comes? I read this book for the first time when I was in the 9th grade, and it changed the way I understood the world around me. It introduced me to African American literature, and how much it was different than the stories I already knew. And, of course, this is one of the things that great books do so well – open our eyes to a world we wouldn’t have known otherwise.
I think that part of the reason this book has been repeatedly challenged the way it has is because a lot of the book is about fighting back. Miss Cecelia, Celie’s stepson’s wife, after being accosted and mocked and beaten in her own home for years, fights back against white men in the street performing the same actions. Shug Avery spends her entire life fighting back against people (and her father’s) expectations of her, as a woman and as an African American woman to boot. But it is Celie herself who finds the independance and strength she needs to fight back. Not only physically. In fact, not physically at all. Celie never hits “Mr”, as she calls her husband, I think mostly out of fear of the fact that he really will kill her if he gets the chance – he spends years abusing her physically, emotionally, and verbally. And we’re talking pretty hard-core abuse. But Celie does find the strength to rediscover a sister she believes lost to her (her only friend in the world, who “Mister” kicks out of his house after she rebukes his attempts to seduce and sleep with her), to find friendship with Shug, and most importantly to get the hell up out of the house that has been her prison and personal hell for her entire life.
The idea of rebellion, especially rebellion from women, especially from women of color, is a scary idea to a lot of people. Especially when these are women who, as anyone who has read the book knows, have been treated their entire lives as if independence was not only not in reach, but a concept too foreign to understand. And I think that, perhaps more than the language and the sex and the racism, is why this book has been as challenged as it has. As my mom would call it, this is a kick-ass book about kick-ass women. Or, at least, women who learn to start to be kick-ass. Wherever you are, happy reading!
PS: Also, one of my favorite color quotes comes from The Color Purple!: “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” — Shug. Now, how’s that for truth AND sass?!