Critical Essays on Alice Walker

By Ikenna Dieke | Go to book overview

Alice Walker's Womanist Magic: The Conjure Woman as Rhetor

Catherine A. Colton

The Color Purple has been a much-discussed novel since its publication in 1982. In this essay, I will examine it as a rhetorical work, that is, as an illustration of language aimed to effect change in the minds of readers and/or in the world. Drawing in part on the African American traditions of voodoo and conjure and their reliance on the power of language to invoke change, Alice Walker creates Celie, conjure woman and rhetor par excellence. Celie story raises consciousness, opens up new possibilities for building communities, and argues for a womanist version of justice. These are all acts of rhetoric.

Voodoo is a religious system born of the contact between the religion Africans brought as slaves to Haiti and the Roman Catholicism that their masters attempted to impose. Since these Africans came from different countries and cultures, their religious beliefs varied; when brought together in Haiti, however, those elements held in common were highlighted in the adapted religion ( Courlander26). Key elements of African religions are beliefs in a spirit-infused natural world, reverence for spirits of ancestors, and a perceived unity between the spiritual and physical worlds. Magic--inhering in people's ability to make good or ill use of their connections with the spiritual world--is a part of this religion. The practice of voodoo was a way for displaced Africans in Haiti to maintain some of their own traditions, develop a sense of community, and organize a network between slaves on different plantations. In 1804, Haiti achieved its independence from France. Laguerre writes that "while voodoo was not the only factor in the success of this revolution, it was partially confidence in Voodoo loas [spirits], the political instructions of their followers and the unifying effect of this belief" that led to political independence (66).

In the United States, the religious/magical traditions of voodoo and conjuring were also used to preserve and pass down African cultural beliefs and traditions, to resist oppressors, and to maintain order in the community. Historian John Blassingame writes:

Because of their superstitions and beliefs in fortune tellers, witches, magic and conjurers, many of the slaves constructed a psychological defense against total dependence on and submission to their masters. Whatever his power, the master was a puny man compared to

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