Religion and spirituality can be important aspects of a black woman’s life, as is illustrated in the female characters in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Religion and more so spirituality can exist for these women outside of the formal church structure, as well as within it. It is however this informal spirituality outside of the so-called Black Church that shows itself as being the most influential for the female characters in Walker’s book. For the characters in The Color Purple their spirituality evolves from the Black Church teachings that focus on the Bible and portrays God as a white male figure to God being an abstract thing with no gender and being present in everything it makes. It is this spirituality that gave the black women the hope, healing, and will to continue living.
For the main character in The Color Purple, Celie, formal Black Church religious experience is limited. Although attending the Black Church was something she did it is not something she focuses much on in her letters to God, which demonstrates that it was not a key aspect in her continuing spirituality. Celie seems to have at least been introduced to the Black Church and God, as she respects the Reverend and demonstrates some familiarity with it. For example, she seems to take pride in the fact that her daughter is being raised by the Reverend and also gives his wife “horsepitality” when she meets her in town one day. (1) In one of Celie’s letters to God she writes “the women at church sometime nice to me. Sometime not. They look at me there struggling with Mr. ___ children. Trying to drag ’em to church, trying to keep ’em quiet after us get there.” (2) This shows that Celie apparently did go to church and somewhat regularly at least when she was raising her husbands kids, but it seems to have played a minor role in her spirituality because it is very rarely mentioned.
Celie’s spirituality is seen in the beginning of the book through her addressing of her letter to God directly like one would a prayer. All of her early diary-like entries start with “Dear God.” (3) Her spirituality outside the church is mostly characterized as praying and the addressing her diary to God is just one aspect of it. For example, she describes caring for Shug and washing her by saying “I wash her body, it fell like I’m praying.” (4) It is one of the early steps she takes to realizing the God is present in everything and caring for the things he created is spiritual. Celie also turns to prayer in several instances including when Shug returns to having relations with Mr. ____ after Celie and Shug have had relations. (5) Before Celie is influenced by Shug to change her idea of God her spirituality consists of praying and writing to God.
Celie’s original idea of the God she writes to is a male white one, as that is how she saw it depicted in the Bible. It is the Bible that shaped Celie’s image of God. In an account of a conversation with Shug, Celie describes God as being “big and old and tall and graybearded and white” wearing “white robes and go[ing] barefooted.” (6) In this same conversation with Shug Celie experiences her spiritual transformation. She begins to see God as an It. Shug describes God as being part of everyone when she says, “God is inside you and everybody else.” (7) She goes further to describe God as being part of everything by stating that God is “everything that is or ever was or ever will be.” (8) It is this new idea of spirituality that leads to the spiritual transformation from honoring God by praying and writing to noticing and enjoying the beauty in all It created. This transformation can most clearly be seen in how she changes from addressing her dairy to a white male God to addressing it to her sister, Nettie, whom she believes is dead and is a creation of God.
This black spirituality held by Celie and Shug that goes beyond the Black church is not unique to them. It is something that is shared by other black women, although not necessarily all. It is their spirituality whether in the form that Celie had in her early years or later years or some other form that gives them strength. This spirituality is described by Delores S. Williams as the thing that “gives black women the strong will to survive the destructive social and political forces threatening their daily live.” (9) Williams attributes her development of “spiritual power” to the “female members of [her] family: [her] mother, grandmother, and aunts.” (10) For Celie it is also females that influence her spirituality, but it is not just family. The main person that plays a role in Celie’s spiritual development is Shug, who is not family, but is a direct influence on Celie. Shug is the one who helps Celie expand her understanding of God and spirituality to be inclusive of everything that has existed, exists, and will exist. (11) Nettie, Celie’s sister, also plays a minor role in the transformation, but her influence is very indirect with her being off in Africa most of Celie’s life. Despite this difference in spiritual development Celie’s spirituality goes with William’s characterization as it being one that gives black women strength.
Williams recounting of personal experience and Walker’s characters in The Color Purple fit in with bell hooks description of black spirituality. In her article “Walking in the Spirit” bell hooks writes that “black women have relied on spirituality to sustain us, to renew our hope, to strengthen out faith.” (12) Her description of spirituality is very similar to the one that Celie develops through her spiritual development with Shug. It is her spirituality that helped her get through the tough times and grow to be an independent woman. hooks defines spirituality by stating “when I speak of the spiritual, I speak of the Higher Self, the place within that is loving, kind, abundant, joyful.” (13) This is the finding of God within ones self, as described by Shug to Celie. It is this spirituality that sustains them all and allows them to continue living through trying experiences. (14)
Although, for the black women described in this paper religion does occur in the church it is the spirituality that goes beyond the church that is at the center of their faith. This spirituality can be represented as prayer or writing to God, as Celie in The Color Purple does. It can also be represented in everything and enjoying what God creates, as Shug in The Color Purple does and helps Celie come to do. This black spirituality is characterized by being a female thing, such as Williams spiritual development led by her female family members. It is this spiritually in whatever form that gives black women strength and faith that the Black church seems to not offer.
1. Alice Walker, The Color Purple (United States: Harcourt, Inc., 2003): 15.
2. Ibid., 43.
3. Ibid., 1.
4. Ibid., 49.
5. Ibid., 119.
6. Ibid., 194.
7. Ibid., 195.
9. Delores S. Williams, “Sources of Black Female Spirituality,” in My Soul is a Witness: African American Women’s Spirituality, ed. Gloria Wade-Gayles (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 187.
10. Ibid., 188.
11. Walker, 195.
12. bell hooks, “Walking in the Spirit,” in My Soul is a Witness: African American Women’s Spirituality, ed. Gloria Wade-Gayles (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 341.
14. Ibid., 344.