Women Writers Exam 2
“The Color Purple” by Alice Walker is a fictional work that depicts the life of African Americans in the 1930s. “Citizen” by Claudia Rankine is a nonfiction work using Rankine’s personal experiences and international news stories to illustrate modern day ideas of citizenship and being a person of color. Despite being fiction, “The Color Purple” feels true to life and as this essay argues, is realistic to the point of characters in the novel sharing characteristics and experiences with the real world subjects of “Citizen.” In particular, many aspects of Sofia’s life in “The Color Purple,” including her character, her imprisonment, and her personal relationships especially when it comes to Eleanor Jane, are mirrored in “Citizen.” This, in effect, creates a sense of realism throughout the novel as the characters have experiences and responses that match the ideas put forth in “Citizen.”
Sofia is a strong willed character, refusing to be beaten by her husband and dragging the truth out of Celie. Despite this, even Sofia has a tipping point. The idea of the tipping point is discussed in “Citizen” saying, “there is no (Black) who has not felt...simple, naked, and unanswerable hatred; who has not wanted to smash any white face he may encounter.” (pg. 124) In “Citizen” the tipping point is in response to racism and is discussed in the context of Zinedine Zidane, a soccer player who during the final game of his career was provoked into headbutting a player on the opposing team. Lip readers claim that the opposing player was hurling racist insults at Zidane. Having internalized racism for so long, Zidane reached his tipping point and felt the “unanswerable hatred”, retaliating against the opposing player, headbutting him. A similar scene plays out with Sofia in “The Color Purple.” Sophia experiences her own tipping point in her encounter with the mayor and his wife. When the mayor slaps Sofia, Sofia, burdened by the past injustices she’s experienced, retaliates. Also like Zidane, just as Zidane does not want to be ejected in the last game of his career, Sofia loves her family, she is in town with her boyfriend and her children, and does not want to risk getting sent to prison and being separated from them. Despite all this, Sofia feels the “unanswerable hatred” and retaliates against the mayor. There is a clear connection between the actions of Zidane and Sofia, reaching a tipping point of experiencing racism and finally rebuking it. This interaction between Sofia and the mayor draws strong parallels to Zidane’s encounter in the world cup, strengthening the idea that the characters in “The Color Purple” are acting realistically.
After Sofia is imprisoned and forced to work for the mayor she develops a relationship with the mayor’s daughter, Eleanor Jane. However, this relationship is strained by their different races which ties into the idea of the historical self and the self self as described in “Citizen.” The historical self versus self self is explained as, “you mostly interact as friends with mutual interest and, for the most part, compatible personalities; however, sometimes your historical selves, her white self and your black self...arrive with the full force of your American positioning.” (pg. 14) That is to say, no matter how close two people are, a history of race relations will always be present. In “The Color Purple” the idea of the historical self versus the self self is seen in Sofia’s interactions with Eleanor Jane when it comes to Stanley Earl. Sofia and Eleanor Jane have a genial relationship that stems from Sofia taking care of Eleanor Jane as she grew up. This relationship is representative of the self self. However, Sofia does not care for Eleanor Jane’s parents, the mayor and wife who are the cause of her imprisonment, nor does she care for Eleanor Jane’s son, Stanley Earl. This disdain is representative of the historical self, Sofia’s black self and their white selves. When Eleanor Jane confronts Sofia over whether or not she loves Stanley Earl the women are standing off, Eleanor Jane as a white woman and Sofia as a black woman, just as in “Citizen.” No matter how close the women are, they are still different races and their historical selves “arrive with the full force of your American positioning.” (pg. 14) Seeing the reflection of the idea of the self self and historical self in “The Color Purple” enforces the argument that “The Color Purple” presents realistic characters.
Another aspect of “Citizen” present in Sofia’s arc in “The Color Purple” is the idea of contrast. In “Citizen” contrast is explained as, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” (pg. 25) Sofia’s blackness is put into stark contrast when Eleanor Jane has Sofia sit in the back seat of the car that Sofia taught Eleanor Jane to drive. When Sofia is given a day to visit her family, Eleanor Jane does not allow Sofia to sit in the front seat with her, saying, “Have you ever seen a white person and a colored sitting side by side in a car.” (pg. 104) When Sofia was teaching Eleanor Jane to drive, race wasn’t a part of it, both women sat in the front seat, as equals. Now that the women will be going out into public and Eleanor Jane has to keep up appearances as the mayor’s daughter she throws Sofia’s blackness into stark contrast and says they cannot sit together. Sofia is taken aback by this, remarking later, “I don’t think they even notice I was sitting in the back of the car.” (pg. 104) as if she were doing something out of the ordinary. When Sofia was teaching Eleanor Jane to drive, she didn’t feel anything. When Eleanor Jane told Sofia to get in the back seat, Sofia felt black. This idea of contrast also ties back into the idea of the historical self and the self self. When the two women are acting as friends, their self selves, there is not contrast, no race. When the two women are at odds there is the contrast of Eleanor Jane being a white woman and Sofia being a black woman. Being put against a background, or sharp contrast, as explained in “Citizen” is readily apparent in Sofia’s interactions with Eleanor Jane. These interactions strengthen the idea that “The Color Purple” presents realistic character responses.
One topic of “Citizen” that isn’t readily apparent in “The Color Purple” and Sofia’s arc is the idea of microaggressions. Microaggressions are the casual, everyday degradation of a marginalized group. In “Citizen” an example of a microaggression is a black man sitting on a train where there is an empty seat next to him. The microaggression comes from the fact that other passengers on the train have chosen to stand rather than sit next to a black man. For the most part, the racism that Sofia encounters is macro-aggression, especially her treatment after the mayor incident. Once Sofia is back at home the novel primarily focuses on Sofia’s relationship with Eleanor Jane, this relationship is underlined with other topics discussed in this essay but it does not particularly feature microaggressions. However, that’s not to say that just because Sofia doesn’t experience microaggressions that microaggressions do not exist in “The Color Purple.” Early on in the novel Celie is in town in a fabric store when the shopkeeper treats a black customer disrespectfully, not measuring the cloth he cut and forcing her to buy thread that she did not need. This interaction may not take the form of a microaggression such as the train seat in “Citizen,” but it certainly does not fit the macro-aggression of Sofia being sent to prison. This interaction most closely meets the definition of a microaggression as a casual degradation of a marginalized group. The shopkeeper is merely approaching a casual, everyday interaction with an african american woman and treating her poorly. Thus, while it is fair to say that Sofia does not experience any microaggressions, the concept does appear in other locations throughout the “The Color Purple.” These microaggressions within “The Color Purple” are a realistic connection between the fiction of the work and the real world happenings as described in “Citizen.”
It is clear to see how the ideas discussed in “Citizen” such as microaggressions, the self self and historical self, and the tipping point are also discussed in “The Color Purple.” Furthermore it is clear to see how Sofia’s interactions with the mayor, being sent to prison, and her relationship with Eleanor Jane can be seen as reflections of the real world scenarios as described in “Citizen.” Once these connections are seen it is clear that “The Color Purple” presents a fictional, yet realistic take on the interactions and experiences of being black in America as described by “Citizen” and that Sofia’s character especially represents a good portion of “Citizen’s” ideas.