“In Search of the Color Purple” Explores the Extraordinary Healing Power of Stories

I was in middle school in 1982 when Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple was published. I was in high school in 1985 when Steven Spielberg’s movie based on the novel was released. I didn’t read the book or see the movie until a few years later and, even then, I didn’t fully understand the cultural watershed both represented. I recognized the newness of the novel, I think — its epistolary style, its use of Black dialect, its depiction of sexual assault and lesbianism. I could have written a paper, perhaps, about how it was “an American novel of permanent importance,” as Peter Prescott wrote at the time in Newsweek. For me, at its core, it was a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl named Celie who “journeys toward selfhood” and triumphs despite rampant racial inequality, sexism, and violence.

But for Salamishah Tillet, author of In Search of the Color Purple: The Story of an American Masterpiece, and for others, too, the novel was about much, much more. It was about finding “solace and sisterhood” in Celie’s journey. It was a model for learning about “healing,” about “transformation from oppressed subjects to empowered citizens.” It was as if Walker had held up a mirror to the everyday lives of Black women and said, “Look! This is about me. This is about you. This is about us.” And Black women saw themselves. It was revelatory.

Tillet is the Henry Rutgers Professor of African American and African Studies and Creative Writing at Rutgers University–Newark. She is a contributor to The New York Times and, with her sister, co-founder of the nonprofit A Long Walk Home, which uses art to empower young people to end violence against girls and women. In Search of the Color Purple is her homage to Alice Walker and to The Color Purple, which earned Walker the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction — the first ever awarded to a Black woman. It is also a love letter to the “triangle of women” who inhabit the novel — Celie, Shug, and Sofia — and who gave Tillet so much comfort.

The book begins with a foreword by Gloria Steinem, a personal friend of Walker’s and an early advocate of the novel, followed by an introduction in which Tillet expounds upon the power and beauty of The Color Purple and its influence in her own life — particularly what it meant to her in the process of healing from two rapes. Its eight chapters are a heady mixture of Tillet’s personal experience; information gleaned from interviews with Walker about her novel, and with Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, and other luminaries about the screen and stage adaptations; and historical accounts of the story’s critical reception.

The dynamic between Walker and Spielberg, as he “auditioned” to be the director of a film based on her novel, was fascinating. “There are a few of us who actually still think with our hearts,” Walker said of Spielberg, “and after talking to Steven, I had a lot of confidence that he was one.” Despite the fact that the movie garnered 11 Oscar nominations and was the first all-Black-cast movie to earn $100 million in American ticket sales, Walker was ultimately disappointed in how it turned out: “I fear I failed the ancestors,” she said.

Equally fascinating was Tillet’s discussion of the cultural backlash against the book and the movie. Walker’s portrayal of Celie’s father Alphonso and Celie’s husband Albert offended many, particularly Black men, and particularly the Coalition Against Black Exploitation, members of which felt the novel portrayed Black men unfairly. The controversy took such a firm hold in part, Tillet writes, because “it drew upon a stereotype that at the time was well-known among African Americans but far less familiar to white people: the black woman as race traitor.”

Reading about the controversy surrounding the novel and the movie in the early to mid-1980s made me realize how little the world has changed since The Color Purple was published. According to Tillet, the issues in the novel are “more mainstream than ever,” especially given the ongoing flash points of marriage equality, Black Lives Matter, and the “male accountability and atonement” brought on by the #MeToo movement. I can’t disagree with her. The novel was prescient.

And for Tillet, for Oprah, and for many others, the book is a “talisman,” a magic charm, a totem of good luck. Tillet made me think deeply about the power of story to heal. There’s a poem by Sean Thomas Dougherty called “Why Bother?” in his 2018 book, The Second O of Sorrow. It reads:

Because right now there is someone
Out there with
a wound in the exact shape
of your words.

I think Alice Walker instinctively knew this. Seeing oneself in literature is a powerful thing. Representation matters.

In Search of the Color Purple: The Story of an American Masterpiece
By Salamishah Tillet
Abrams Books
Published January 12, 2021
Paperback January 18, 2022