Between Celie and Shug in Alice
Walker's The Color Purple
E. Ellen Barker
As Alice Walker asserts in response to those who harshly criticized The Color Purple for its scenes of agonizing physical and emotional abuse, art should "make us better; if [it] doesn't then what on earth is it for"? (qtd. in Davis42). It was Walker's contention that by presenting unrelenting portraits of human weakness, despair, and abuse, she could repair the damage done to the black community in the past, and through The Color Purple "right [or rewrite] the wrongs" (Sadoff 4) of social and literary history. As she firmly stated in a 1972 address to Sarah Lawrence graduates, "[T]he world is not good enough; we must make it better" ("A Talk: Convocation 1972" 37).
Walker describes the pattern like the quilt motif that provides symbolic structure for The Color Purple that has already gradually been making the world better: the unifying bond between black women. It is through "their friendships, their love, their shared oppression" ( Smith182) that they collectively gain the strength to separate themselves from the bondage of their past and piece together a free and equal existence for themselves and for those they love. These interactive relationships, as Walker notes, are preceded by similar connection among black foremothers and grandmothers. It is not just the love that exists between these black women as friends--or occasionally as lovers--that engenders a sense of self, but it is also through their relationship with their mothers, "the root-worker[s]" ( Sadoff 5) of families and whole generations. Through her characterization of Celie, the symbolic embodiment of the black woman who grows from self-negation to selfactualization, and her relationship with Shug Avery, Walker traces the path of wellness culminating in the "survival whole" (qtd. in Parker-Smith479) of the black community.
Shug Avery is at first a friend to Celie, eventually a lover, but always a subtly guiding "mothering" influence ( Perry and Brownley) who, like the mothers of Walker's "generations," enables Celie to evolve into an independent, selfactualized woman, no longer benignly accepting the emotionally crippling conditions that have enslaved her. While Shug does not give literal birth to Celie, she does give her spiritual rebirth, freeing her to finally enter "into the creation" (170).