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Walker's idea of womanism has a definite impact on the themes of her novels. It reflects her intension to champion as a writer the causes of black people, especially black women: "I am Preoccupied with the spiritual survival, the survival whole, of my people. But beyond that I am committed to exploring the oppression the insanity's the loyalties and the triumphs of black women."(ISMG 250-51) her work confronts such issues as racism, intraracism, sexism, Neocolonialism and imperialism, in order to transform both society and the individual. She says "I believe in change, change personal and change in society"(ISMG 252). This process of political changing, of social transforming is central to her work.
For Walker, feminism and black feminism especially, involves the bounding of as "a continuation of the struggle for self -definition and affirmation that is the essence of what Africans American means" (ISMG-289). She thinks of these women who love other women, sexually or not, as being " whole" from "wholly" or "holy". or, as she says "round women " who also have concern in a culture that oppress all black people (and this would go back very far) for their fathers, brothers and sons, no matter how they feel about them as moles;
"My own term for such women would be womanist. â€¦ A word that said more than that they choose women over men. More than that they choose to live separate from men. In fact, to be consistent with black cultured valuesâ€¦. it would have to be a word that affirmed conceitedness to the entire community and the word, rather than separation."(ISMG.81)
Walker's concept, thus stress the sense of community, that brings about a blossoming in self and society.
The present paper analyses Walker's use of the concept not only through the theme of lesbianism but also in her assertion of the indomitable spirit of black women. It is an attempt to illustrate the womanist aspect in the novel. The term 'womanism' denotes 'black feminism'. It may be defined as an awareness among black women that they have been mistreated in life and misrepresented in literature simply because they are black, female and poor; and a commitment to unite against the racist, sexist and classist forces of American society, and assert themselves as intelligent, capable and sensitive human beings. According to historians, the womanist, or black feminist, movement owes its emergence to the belief that white feminism has served the interests of white women alone, and has failed to address itself to the black women's experience of racism, sexism and classism. In male white American society, invisibility, ill-treatment and marginalization have long been the common woes of woman and black men alike.
The plights of black women have been much worse than that of white women or black men. While white women have suffered for being female and black for being black, black women have had to bear the "double jeopardy" of racism and sexism. As Toni Morrison puts it: "She [the black women] has nothing to fall back on, not maleness, not whiteness, not ladyhood, not anything". (What the Black Woman is Think 63). To cite Gerda Lerner "Belonging as they do two graphs which have traditionally been treated as inferiors by American society-Blacks and Women-they have been doubly invisible. Their records lie buried, unread, infrequently noticed and even more seldom interpreted."(Purple 68). The chief mission of womanist writing is to explode all myths and stereotypes surrounding her, and represent her as an individual of flesh and blood, who feels, thinks and has her own desires; as an individual struggling towards freedom and selfhood. It undertakes to study her psychological growth, her relationship to her husband and children, her society and history. Woamnism is a movement to value the bonds between black women, their culture and their spirit to flight for identity, wholeness and independence.
The intellectual roots of the term womanist can be traced back to Alice Walker's preface to her book of essays, In Search of Our Mother's Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983). She coined and used the term to refer to the black feminist possessed of strength and persistence, which she holds to be prerequisite to personal development. According to Walker, a womanist is a black feminist or feminist of color who is outrageous, audacious, courageous .A woman who loves others woman, sexually and/or nonsexually. A womanist novel is one in which fictional black woman move from physical or psychological enslavement to independence and freedom. It is characterize by the movement from confusion, resistance to the established order and the discovery of a freeing order. Walker's womanist novel includes The Color Purple (1982). The Temple of My Familiar (1989) and Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992).
Written in epistolary and autobiographical form, the novel imitates the slave narrative that has not only influenced and shaped African American writing but has also helped the African American slaves to move from object to subject. It repudiates the bourgeois morality and replaces the conventional heterosexual plot with black lesbianism. Generally speaking, it depicts the antagonism between black woman, it concerns black woman victimized by black men physically, sexually and economically, their lesbian bonding against the tyrannical forces of patriarchy, and their ultimately gaining triumph over them. Speciafically, however, it is the story of two sisters, Celie and Nettie, who are forced to live far apart for thirty long years. During this, they keep writing to each other about their suffering and struggle. These letters and those written by Celie to God form the fabric of the novel. Celie's suffering ranges from her forced incestuous relationship with her stepfather to her merciless beating, sexual exploitation and economic enslavement at the hands of her husband. As a result of her incestuous part, she is thrown into a neurotic phase of self-censure and confusion, and suffers from frigidity. A helpless psychological victim of incest to begin with, she is incapable of any resistance and simply continues to endure her lot and suffering. But later her erotic relationship with Shug, a blues singer and her husband's mistress, her emotional relationship with Sophia and Squeak, and Nettie's animating and emboldening letters revive her sexual instinct, improve her self-image and infuse strength into her, enabling her to flight her way to lesbian identity and economic independence. Towards the end, she becomes an entrepreneur, and her violent and oppressive husband is seen sitting at her side, calm and docile, learning the female art of sewing.
The novel ends with the happy reunion of the long separated mother and children, and sisters. Thus, following the tradition of a bildungsroman, Walker starts out introducing Celie as a confused and helpless victim of physical, sexual and economic oppression and than her psychosexual growth and economic freedom through lesbian relationship. Womanism can be traced in the form as well as content of The Color Purple. Its epistolary form in itself is suggestive of lesbian sexuality: within the framework of lesbian-feminism, the letter means the female body, and correspondence between two women is suggestive of lesbianism. To cite Wendy Wall:
Letters become the surrogate body for Celie, an inanimate form that serves a dual Purpose; it fends of pain by siphoning of her feelings of degradation, as well as allowing her to express and thus feel the intensity of her emotions, Her self-division is imposed upon her by her external circumstances; yet by displacing a part of herself onto this second body, she keeps intact that division, She Compartmentalizes a Suppressed 'Self' through her letters. The letters become the tenuous skins of her body, framing her internal thoughts in a realm separate from her outward action. (262)
Alice Walker places herself within a tradition of black female creativity. Furthermore, the plot of the novel allows black females to hold center stage in comparison to black males, and pushes whites-both male and female-to extreme margins. The novel's theme and content are also thoroughly womanistic. It strategically repudiates the bourgeois morality, and replaces conventional marriage and heterosexuality with sexual and loving relationship between Women. According to walker her main aim in writing the novel was to replace the typically patriarchal concerns of the historical novel.
Celie's offering herself sexually to her stepfather to save her sister from being raped by him provides one of the most touching examples of womanism in the novel:
I ast him to take me instead of Nettie while our new mammy sick. But she just ast me what I'm talking bout. I tell him I can fix myself up for him. I duck into my room and come out wearing horsehair, feathers, and a pair of our new mammy high heel shoes. He beat me for dressing trampy but he do it to me any way. (Purple 08)
Mutual longing and solicitude are not limited to the two sisters. In fact, all the other black women in the novel show a similar and persistent tendency to fall into a bond of mutual sympathy, love and admiration. And as an essential part of her womarist strategy, Walker puts this womanistic proclivity in the context of sexism, racism and classism; and focuses on it as the outcome of, and a conscious as well as unconscious defence against, the various types of oppression the black women undergone. As the story unfolds and the reader becomes acquainted with these women's victimization, he is fully aware that it is the shared sense of exploitation that draws and binds them emotionally, there by making them strong enough to fight the despotism of patriarchy. Such anti-patriarchal sympathetic bonding is reflected in Nettie's concern about Celie's ill treatment by Albert and his children; "You got to fight you got to fight"(Purple 18). It is also perceptible in Albert's sisters Carrie and Kate's instant falling for Celie: "one thing is for sure. You keep a clean house (Purple 20) Kate even makes it a point to urge her brother to buy her new clothes and remonstrate with him for not lending her a hand with household work, though this only comes home to roost, and she has to pack up and leave, saying to Celie: "You got to fight them for yourself"(Purple 22) An example of empathy and sacrifice to the point of accepting rape, which parallels the case of Celie, is offered by Squeak, who endures rape by the warden of the prison to get Sofia out of it.
The sexual facet of womanism in the novel, Celie's relationship with Shug provides a solitary example. Except for her, all the other women are heterosexual, while maintaining a relationship of sisterhood, affection and mutual help among themselves. However this should not lead one to overlook the importance that the central treatment of Celie's lesbian sexuality has; not to ignore the fact that Celie is lesbian in the absolute sense, i.e., both physically and emotionally. Her presence at the heart of the novel illustrates walker's preoccupation with both the physical and emotional facet of womanism. Her attraction to and relationship with Shug are overtly sexual, where as she is drawn to the other women by emotion. Of this difference, she becomes aware when Albert brings the blues singer home in a sick state, asking her to nurse her, and she has the opportunity to look at her naked body while washing it:
First time I got the full sight of Shug, Every long black body with it black plum nipples, look like her mouth, I thought I had turned into a man. What you staring at? She ast. Hateful. She weak as a kitten. But her month Just pack with claws. You never seen a naked woman before? No ma'am, I said. I never did. Cept for Sofia, and she so plump and ruddy and crazy she feels like my sister. She say, well take a good look. Even it I is Just bag of bones now she have the nerve to put one hand on her naked hip and bat her eyes at me. Them she sucks her teef and her eyes at the ceiling while I wash her. I wash her body, It feels like I'm praying. My hands trembling and my breath short. (Purple 51)
From the very beginning, Celie feels sexually dead to Albert, or to any other man for that matter, and cannot help picturing. Shug or Nettie, or pretending that she is somewhere else during the intercourse with him, As she speaks of it to Shug, it is as if he were "Going to the toilet" (Purple 81) on her. On the other hand, even a glance towards Shug makes her feel like a man, and she finds it sexually exciting to run her eyes over her body:
Shug wearing a gold dress that show her titties near about to the nipple. (Purple 84).
All the men got they eyes glued to Shug's bosom. I got my eyes glued there too. I feel my nipples harden under my dress. My little button sort of perk up too. Shug, I say to her in my mind. Girl you look like a real good time, the Good Lord knows you do (Purple 85)
It may also be noted that she has her first sexual consummation with Shug and has her erotic urges directed exclusively to her, though Shug remains bisexual throughout her sexual life.
Besides sexual and economic, the black women in the novel also undergo racial oppression. As far as Celie is concerned, an inquiry into her parental history reveals, as she herself comes to know through Nettie's letter, that her father's murder and her resultant economic enslavement follow upon racial violence. If her father were not killed by the white marchants, she would not sustain rape and incest and economically would be no slave to anybody. Squeak's rape by the white warden of the prison and Sofia's suffering at the hands of the white mayor, which bring Squeak, Shug, Odessa and Sofia into a strong emotional tie, are the additional unmistakable evidence of racial oppression in the novel.
Celie is portrayed as a victim of a whole range of oppressions. She is not treated as a human. Her husband does not even look here in the face: "He look at me. It like he looking at the earth" (Purple 21). She is beaten like a child because, as her husband instructs his son, " Wives is like children. You have to let 'em know who got the upper hand. Nothing can do that better than a good sound beating." (Purple 37). She is conceded little status as a subject in sexuality; her reproductive organs are controlled by men; And her babies are given away without her permission. Harpo's heavy-handedness to his wife Sofia, which parallels his father's to Celie, and Nettie's commentary on the Olinka people's discrimination against their women, consistently with walker's womanist design, suggest the fact that gender oppression is not limited to the African American community in American south, but pervades the entire world of black men and women.
African Americans as well as Africans avoid looking their women in the face while speaking; "They look at the ground and bend their heads towards the ground"(Purple 168). They confine them to the care of children, and "Among the Olinka, the husband has life and death power over the wife. If he accuses one of his wives of witchcraft or infidelity, She can be killed "(Purple 172) This is also true of African Americans in a sense, for in one way of another, wives and mistresses are caused to die in child birth, or are shot down at whim. The death of Celie's own mother in childbirth and Annie Julia's murder by her lover are a case in point.
It is to resist all these sexual, racial and economic oppressions that the black women in the novel turn to lesbianism. For them, it not only serves as an oasis of relief from all types of oppression, but also facilitates their psychological growth by imbuing them with self-esteem, self-identity and strength, and helps them to present a united front against them.
Walker sets herself to expose as well as oppose all the various ways in which male American society tyrannizes over them; and, instead of simply making a sensational story of Celie's victimization, undertakes to offer a psychological insight into her inner world, her early self-in-significance and confusion and eventual sense of triumph and clarity. The novel is characterized by the womanist element in its exclusive devotion to the theme of black lesbianism, in its allowing the black women to predominate over the black men in the end, in its launching an atteck against all sorts of oppression endorsed by patriarchy, and in its being structurally rooted in matrilineal tradition of African American writings.