‘The Color Purple’: A sublime portrayal of lesbianism ahead of its time

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The first Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, then known as the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, was awarded in 1918 to a book by a white man about white people. Sixty-five years later, in 1983, Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” made her the first Black woman to win the prize. And 31 years after that, when I was 15, I made it my personal mission to read as many Pulitzer Prize-winning novels as possible. 

If I wasn’t world-weary when I made this decision, I’m certainly world-weary now. Even now, the precedent set by that first 1918 prize has been hard to shake. Even now, “The Color Purple” is the only Pulitzer-winning novel to feature a lesbian protagonist and also be written by a woman. While Walker has never openly conformed to any one label under the “women-loving-woman” umbrella, she was openly and romantically involved with the singer Tracy Chapman in the 1990s, telling the Guardian, “(It) was delicious and lovely and wonderful and I totally enjoyed it and I was completely in love with her but it was not anybody’s business but ours.” 

Subsequent endeavors, however, have tried to erode the significance of protagonist Celie’s romantic relationship with Shug, her husband’s mistress who pushes her to break free from the cycle of oppression and abuse that has worn her down. While the book is explicit both about the sexual encounters between Celie and Shug and the fact that they are in love with each other, Steven Spielberg’s 1985 cinematic adaptation reduces their relationship to one kiss. Spielberg was criticized for this omission, but has also said he wouldn’t do it differently if he could. 

Given how many other themes “The Color Purple” grapples with — race, class, gender, sexual assault, domestic abuse, religion, the South — some might shy away from calling it a lesbian novel, which would seem to suggest that it is a book only about lesbianism. But to downplay Celie’s lesbianism, which is significant for furthering and understanding the conversation around all these other topics, is to downplay how deeply intersectional Walker’s novel is, created at a time when it was dangerous to put this kind of work out into the world. 

In addition to being the only work featuring a lesbian relationship written by a woman to win a Pulitzer, “The Color Purple” was also the only such work assigned to me in high school, and thus far in college. During a class discussion about the book, a fellow classmate talked, at length, about how Celie must find comfort in Shug and have an aversion to men as a result of being sexually assaulted and physically abused by men. Others in the class agreed.

Aside from being a tone-deaf conception of Celie’s sexuality, readings like this fail to take into account the novel’s commentary on compulsory heterosexuality. This commentary ties into Celie’s mistreatment at the hands of men throughout her life, and a more complex, thoughtful reading of these narrative elements requires an awareness of how intentionally intersectional “The Color Purple” is. Celie’s history of abuse informs her journey of self-discovery, but not what she ends up discovering: “(Men) look like frogs to me. No matter how you kiss ‘em, as far as I’m concerned, frogs is what they stay.”

In a 1984 essay, literary historian Trudier Harris criticizes the novel, in part because it “reads like a political shopping list of all the IOUs Walker felt it was time to repay. … She pays homage to the lesbians by portraying a relationship … that reads like a schoolgirl fairy tale in its ultimate adherence to the convention of the happy resolution,” as Harris writes.

Yet it is this “happy resolution” that makes Celie and Shug’s relationship — a relationship between two lower-class Black women, no less — so radical. The novel’s revolutionary nature is further bolstered by its immediate introduction to the Western canon by way of award prestige, as the novel also made Walker the first Black woman to win the National Book Award. 

“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it,” Shug says in the novel. The color purple has also historically been associated with lesbian desire. Through the emergence of lesbian love comes the emergence of Celie’s self-love and ultimate liberation, which leads to a “happy resolution,” even though it isn’t entirely clear whether Celie and Shug’s final reunion means they’re reunited as lovers or as friends. 

If Walker teaches us anything through the poignancy of her writing, it is that these different themes do not take away from each other, but rather, are necessary to talk about as a collective. “The Color Purple,” in all its complexities, is a singular gem of sublime lesbian representation in a century-long tradition of Pulitzer prestige.

Alex Jiménez covers literature and LGBTQ+ media. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @alexluceli.