CBR11bingo: Banned Books
The Banned Books bingo square is one of my favorites in CBR Bingo. I like to peruse lists of banned books and see what foolishness is causing people to get up in arms. I also like to combine the square with something I’ve been wanting to read, and Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple was the perfect choice. It’s been on my TBR list for ages, and I was surprised to read it is one of the most frequently banned books since it was first published in the 1980s. I knew it would be a rough read, just based on having seen the movie many years ago (and let’s face it, given that the movie was directed by Steven Spielberg, I knew that would have been a highly sanitized version), but what could be so controversial about it that would cause it to be consistently banned and challenged for 3 decades?
Holy moly! The Color Purple is not only a traumatic emotional journey, it’s a master class in how to get a book banned. Everything to which overly sensitive parents might worry about exposing their child is in this novel. Alice Walker deserved the Pulitzer just for checking off so many boxes! So I’m going to do something a little different in this review and organize my thoughts around ban-able content.
Sexual content: This one’s obvious. When the story begins, Celie, an impoverished, 14-year-old black girl from the rural south, is pregnant by her father. She writes letters to God about her situation, because her father has told her to tell nobody but God, because “It’d kill your mammy.” From her letters, we know that she has 3 children: the first died (or possibly her father killed it), but she thinks he gave/sold the other two to another family. Celie’s father continues to sexually abuse her until he marries her off to another man, Mr. ______, who continues to abuse her. So yeah, it’s pretty rough and may be inappropriate for younger audiences, but certainly high school students can handle this, right? Most of the sexual content isn’t even explicit. Celie refers to her father as “doing it to me.” The only time it starts to get close to explicit is when Celie and female blues singer Shug start to . . . uh oh.
Homosexuality: After being sexually and emotionally abused by her father and her husband, Celie meets Shug, her husband’s mistress. Shug is a total free spirit, and Celie is attracted to her as soon as she sees a photograph of the singer. Eventually, Shug and Celie form a relationship, and Shug teaches Celie that sex can actually be fun. She teaches Celie to explore her own body and be confident in herself. From Shug, Celie gets something she has never received from the men in her life: acceptance and love. Sweet, right? Well, sorry! Girl-on-girl action is never permissible, not even if it promotes positive body image!
Stop looking so happy, ladies, or we’ll ban the movie, too.
Blasphemy: In a 1992 preface to the novel, Alice Walker writes, “I would have thought that a book that begins ‘Dear God’ would immediately have been identified as a book about the desire to encounter, to hear from the Ultimate Ancestor. Perhaps it is a sign of our times that this was infrequently the case.” Oh, Alice. It’s not a sign of the times. It’s a sign of a large swath of the population being unwilling to think of God outside of some very specific parameters.
Even Celie pictures God as a man, “And acts like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgitful, and lowdown.” But Shug entices her to think of God differently, saying yeah, if you read the bible, of course you’re going to picture God as a white man. But maybe, just maybe, God’s bigger than that. “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.” Unless I’m mistaken, that makes Shug a pantheist, which is bound to get a book banned in high schools across the United States. Shug even goes so far as to call God an “It,” which is probably still less offensive to Christians than God being voiced by a woman.
Female circumcision: When Celie’s sister Nettie goes to Africa as a missionary, she meets Tashi, a member of the (fictional) Olinka tribe, which practices genital mutilation as a rite of passage for women. Tashi hadn’t had the procedure done during puberty, but eventually she submits to it. The references to the practice are subtle; in fact, the words genital mutilation/female circumcision) are never used.
Racism: N word. ‘Nuff said.
Race relations: The novel was once challenged as inappropriate reading for an Oakland high school honors class for, among other things, “troubling ideas” about race relations and African history. This is a curious complaint. One of the concepts that makes The Color Purple so thought-provoking is the idea that Nettie and the other black missionaries aren’t accepted by the Olinka nation. Even though the missionaries are African by heritage, they are considered outsiders. That the tribe and others like it may have been complicit in selling slaves is also addressed. Additionally, the abuses that Celie suffers are all at the hands of black men. White people certainly aren’t blameless: white authority/power figures heavily in the story arc about Sofia, the fiery and independent black woman who eventually breaks. But the dynamics between the black individuals and communities demonstrate that race relations are complex. Parents, please note that unlike yourselves, your honors student doesn’t need everything to be in black and white.
You know, I was on the fence about this novel. Pulitzer Prize notwithstanding, I can’t say it’s the best book I’ve ever read. But striking so many chords that challenge people enough to make them want to ban a book is a mighty feat and deserves at least 4 stars.
To finish off my Banned Book entry, I’d like to leave you with a quote from The Color Purple that I think is appropriate “You got to fight them, Celie, she say. I can’t do it for you. You got to fight them for yourself.”