The Color Purple

The Color Purple

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Themes and Colors
God and Spirituality Theme Icon
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Men, Women, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Violence and Suffering Theme Icon
Self-Discovery Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Color Purple, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Race and Racism Theme Icon

The novel takes place in two distinct settings—rural Georgia and a remote African village—both suffused with problems of race and racism. Celie believes herself to be ugly in part because of her very dark skin. Sofia, after fighting back against the genteel racism of the mayor and his wife, ends up serving as maid to that family, and as surrogate mother to Eleanor, who does not initially recognize the sacrifices Sofia has been forced to make. In general, very few career paths are open to the African Americans in the novel: for the men, farming is the main occupation, although Harpo manages to open a bar. For women, it seems only possible to serve as a mother, or to perform for a living, to sing as Squeak and Shug Avery do.

In Africa, the situation Nettie, Samuel, Corrine, Adam, Tashi, and Olivia experience is not that much different. Nettie recalls that the ancestors of the Olinka, with whom she lives, sold her ancestors into slavery in America. The Olinka view African Americans with indifference. Meanwhile the English rubber workers, who build roads through the village and displace the Olinka from their ancient land, have very little concern for that people's history in Africa. The British feel that, because they are developing the land, they "own" it, and the African people who have lived there for centuries are merely "backward" natives. It is only at the very end of the novel, after Samuel, Nettie, and their family have returned from Africa, to Celie's home in Georgia, that Celie and Nettie's entire family is able to come together and dine—a small gift, and something that would be considered completely normal for the white families of that time period, whose lives had not been ripped apart by the legacy of slavery and poverty.

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Race and Racism Quotes in The Color Purple

Below you will find the important quotes in The Color Purple related to the theme of Race and Racism.
Letter 18 Quotes

Sofia look half her size. But she still a big strong girl. Arms got muscle. Legs, too. . . . She got a little pot on her now and give you the feeling she all there. Solid. Like if she sit down on something, it be mash.

Related Characters: Celie (speaker), Sofia
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

Celie is struck by Sofia's strength and independence. In the beginning of her marriage to Mr. ____, Celie had trouble keeping his children in line - they did not appear to want to listen to her, and occasionally, even despite her best efforts, they would fight back, or resist her even modest attempts at discipline.

Sofia, like Shug, represents for Celie a way of behaving, a way of asserting oneself in the world, that is at odds with the modes of feminine behavior in which Celie has been brought up by Pa. Mr. ____, for his part, reinforces Pa's treatment of Celie - Pa himself believed that he took Celie "off his hands" - and so Harp and Sofia's relationship, with a different arrangement of power between man and woman, seems all the stranger to Celie for that. Celie will continue to wonder how she might assert herself in interactions with men as the novel progresses. 

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Letter 26 Quotes

What that song? I ast. Sound low down dirty to me. Like what the preacher tell you its sin to hear. Not to mention sing.

She hum a little more. Something come to me, she say. Something I made up. Something you help scratch out my head.

Related Characters: Celie (speaker), Shug Avery (speaker)
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:

The relationship between Shug and Celie deepens in this scene, as Celie combs Shug's hair. Although Celie and Shug do not yet engage in romantic behavior, there is nevertheless an intimate quality to their interaction here.

Shug is a creative spirit, and eventually goes on to spur that creativity in Celie. Celie has long looked for a creative outlet as a part of her journey of self-discovery - she has attempted to find a way to express herself and her feelings. Of course, Celie has been doing this all along without exactly understanding how or why - she has been keeping a journal of the events of her life, the journal that forms the basis of the narrative that the reader reads as the novel itself. Celie will, later on, begin to understand that she is a writer and storyteller - but, for now, she is content with witnessing Shug engage in her own acts of creation. 

Letter 30 Quotes

I don't know, say Sofia. Maybe I won't go. Deep down I still love Harpo, but—he just makes me real tired. She yawn. Laugh. I need a vacation, she say.

Related Characters: Celie (speaker), Sofia, Harpo
Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:

Sofia and Harpo's marriage forms a counterpoint both to Celie's marriage to Mr. ____ and to Celie's burgeoning relationship with Shug. Sofia controls Harpo physically, often berating him and beating him - and this causes Harpo to want to retaliate, to eat so much that he grows in size. Sofia, understanding that Harpo merely wants to control her, does what she can to imagine a world where she does not rely on any man - just as Celie imagines this world for herself.

The idea of a "vacation" from anything in the novel is, for the characters involved, an inherently humorous wish - as most characters do not have the resources to take a break at all from their working lives. Celie's imaginative life is rich, and she longs, deep down, to live with Shug, and to throw off the burden of caring for Mr. ____, just as Sofia longs to be rid of Harpo. But at this point in the text, these can only be wishes and fantasies - not transferable into reality. 

Letter 40 Quotes

I don't know, say the prizefighter. This sound mighty much like some ole uncle Tomming to me.

Shug snort, Well, she say, Uncle Tom wasn't call Uncle for nothing.

Related Characters: Shug Avery (speaker), Buster Broadnax (speaker), Shug Avery, Buster Broadnax
Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis:

Shug is extraordinarily clever, and wishes to release Sofia from her imprisonment by whatever means are available to her. She understands that one role white men and women are comfortable with, for African Americans, is that of maid or servant - and although Shug recognizes that this would in fact be difficult for Sofia to manage, it would be far, far better than Sofia remaining in prison. And so Shug does what she can to court the favor and approval of white society, causing the prizefighter to argue that Shug is enticing Squeak, and indirectly Sofia, to perform for and act obsequious toward white society. This is "uncle Tomming."

Shug goes on to quip, however, that Squeak is in fact related to a white family in town, and the prison warden is in fact her uncle, so "uncle" would certainly be an apt term in this case. Shug maintains her composure and her ability to joke even in the most serious of circumstances - and nevertheless is capable of helping Sofia to improve her lot despite the punishment she is sentenced to in prison.

Letter 43 Quotes

Sofia say to me today, I just can't understand it.
What that? I ast.
Why we ain't already kill them off.

Too many to kill off, I say. Us outnumbered from the start.

Related Characters: Celie (speaker), Sofia (speaker)
Page Number: 105
Explanation and Analysis:

Sofia's tone here is very interesting. Sofia does not mean seriously to suggest that African Americans ought to kill the white families that oppress them. But she does wonder if that is the only solution that would structurally "solve" the problem of racism in the South. In other words, Sofia seems to understand that only a very, very profound change in the nature of black and white interaction in the South would upend many centuries of prejudice and active discrimination against African Americans.

Celie, however, recognizes something else - that, at this point, American society has been structured around white experience, making it extraordinarily hard to imagine a world in which those advantages are not taken into account. African Americans begin from a position of disenfranchisement; Celie's own experiences of slowly realizing her potential and her own set of skills are an indication in miniature of the effort required to resist anti-black violence in the South, and in America as a whole. Celie is committed to improving her own life, but she recognizes just how much stands in the path of her own progress, and the progress of African Americans more generally. 

Letter 46 Quotes

She singing all over the country these days. Everybody know her name. She know everybody, too. Know Sophie Tucker, know Duke Ellington, know folks I ain't never heard of. And money. She make so much money she don't know what to do with it.

Related Characters: Celie (speaker), Shug Avery
Page Number: 114
Explanation and Analysis:

Shug's success on the touring circuit in the South is one of the emergent features of the novel. Shug's development as a character involves her getting more and more recognition for the quality of her singing. Celie has long been proud of Shug's accomplishments - indeed, she has held her in awe. Shug, for her part, encourages Celie to pursue her own passions.

In a most immediate sense, these passions are physical. In this section of the novel, Celie confides in Shug that she has never had an orgasm, and therefore considers herself to be a "virgin" with Mr. ____. Celie's realization that Shug has gotten what she wants from life by going out into the world and asserting herself, coupled with Celie's continued journaling, causes her to approach her own enjoyment in a more proactive way. This quality will grow in Celie as the novel continues. 

Letter 53 Quotes

But God, I miss you, Celie. I think about the time you laid yourself down for me. I love you with all my heart.

Related Characters: Nettie (speaker), Celie
Related Symbols: God
Page Number: 133
Explanation and Analysis:

Nettie's letters back to Celie - the existence of which Celie does not know about at the time the letters are written - document the "other side" of the narrative. Nettie has escaped the harsh conditions of the rural South, where Celie continues to live. She raises Adam and Olivia, Celie's biological children, as her own adopted children. And Nettie finds, in the care of the Reverend Samuel and his wife Corrine, a kind of sustained, nurturing family environment that was not available to her in her family home.

Celie's journal, then, is braided into the narrative with Nettie's unanswered letters back to Celie. The fact that Celie does not read them, nor know about them and respond to them, does not deter Nettie from continuing to write. In this way, both Nettie and Celie develop the "story" of The Color Purple, even though they have no evidence that anyone will be able to read it. This determination to bear witness to the events of their lives is one of the most profound and affecting morals of the novel. 

Letter 58 Quotes

Did I mention my first sight of the African coast? Something struck in me, in my soul, Celie, like a large bell, and I just vibrated. Corrine and Samuel felt the same. And we kneeled down right on deck and gave thanks to God for letting us see the land for which our mothers and fathers cried—and lived and died—to see again.

Related Characters: Nettie (speaker), Samuel, Corrine
Related Symbols: God
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

Nettie's life is much "larger," geographically, than Celie's is - she travels with Samuel and Corrine into Africa as part of an evangelizing mission, to spread Christianity among African peoples and to share the good news with populations with whom they understand themselves to live in a greater community. Nettie marvels at the seats of African culture and their relationship to black life in the American South. And she wishes that Celie were present to share in this wonderment with her.

Nettie's response to a visit to Africa represents one of many versions of African American cultural revival in the South of this time. For some, like Celie (who has no other choice, in effect), African American life is about living in the United States, about a set of circumstances particular to being born and raised in the South. For others, like Nettie, the African American experience is linked to the African experience, and it is important for her to find the networks that connect one aspect of this broader culture to another. 

Letter 64 Quotes

Today one of the boys in my afternoon class burst out, as he entered, The road approaches! The road approaches! He had been hunting in the forest with his father and seen it. Every day now the villagers gather at the edge of the village near the cassava fields, and watch the building of the road.

Related Characters: Nettie (speaker)
Page Number: 169
Explanation and Analysis:

Nettie teaches school among the Olinka, and part of her job, as Samuel has laid it out, is to "Christianize" the members of that community - to disabuse them of some of their local traditions regarding religion, but without utterly changing the culture they are, in fact, visiting. Nettie, then, is struck by the English intrusion into the Olinka community and by the presence of the road builders. For the road is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, the road can make the Olinka far more connected to other communities - it can link them, for example, to places for trade, and could improve the economic health of the tribe. But these ideas are vastly outweighed, for the Olinka and for Samuel, Corrine, and Nettie, by the possibility of destruction that the road represents. For the road will cut through the community in severe ways, and the road builders do not seem to mind it what direction it goes, or what they must destroy in order to construct it. Furthermore, most of the "interconnectedness" the road will bring is likely to just mean more white colonizers, and therefore more oppression and exploitation of the Olinka.

Letter 72 Quotes

Now the engineers have come to inspect the territory. Two white men came yesterday and spent a couple of hours strolling about the village, mainly looking at the wells. Such is the innate politeness of the Olinka that they rushed about preparing food for them . . . And the white men sat eating as if the food was beneath notice.

Related Characters: Nettie (speaker)
Page Number: 196
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section Nettie teases out what it means to connect, aid, or reconstruct a culture, versus what it might mean to "modernize" and therefore destroy it. The English engineers argue that the road will improve the connection between the Olinka and Western economic structures - just as a road in the American South might help the business relationships between two towns. But Nettie wonders whether this new arrangement among the Olinka would be actually good for the community - or whether it would only benefit the English who are coming in and who eye the land greedily.

Nettie thinks, too, on the nature of change in this section. The Olinka, of course, cannot stay exactly the same - the community has evolved and changed over time. But it has changed of its own accord, and on its own timeline - it hasn't needed Western involvement for that to happen. In this way, Western involvement seems more like intrusion and less like development. 

Letter 80 Quotes

You may have guessed that I loved him all along; but I did not know it. oh, I loved him as a brother . . . but Celie, I love him bodily, as a man! I love his walk, his size, his shape, his smell, the kinkiness of his hair.

Related Characters: Nettie (speaker), Samuel
Page Number: 244
Explanation and Analysis:

Nettie confides in Celie here, telling her that, after years, she finds herself married to Samuel, and that she has fallen in love with him. Corrine, of course, feared for a long time that this might happen, and Nettie betrays a small amount of guilt for confirming, even if only after Corrine's death, the fear that she long harbored.

But Nettie is happy and has found a way to cement her familial relationship with Adam and Olivia, and to care for the man she loves. As Nettie describes it, this is a love that is affirming both for her and for Samuel - they feel comfortable doing things together, and take a great deal of satisfaction merely from being in one another's presence. Meanwhile, Celie has similarly recognized over the course of the novel that her lifelong love has been Shug, and that this relationship with her has allowed her further to grow and recognize her own abilities. 

Letter 87 Quotes

But guess what else . . . When the missionaries got to the part bout Adam and Eve being naked, the Olinka peoples nearly bust out laughing . . . They tried to explain . . . that it was they who put Adam and Eve out of the village because they was naked. Their word for naked is white. But since they are covered by color they are not naked.

Related Characters: Nettie (speaker)
Related Symbols: God
Page Number: 281
Explanation and Analysis:

This is one of the most important racial passages in the novel. Celie notes (paraphrasing a letter from Nettie) that the Olinka word for naked is "white," meaning "having no color." For the Olinka, being naked is being without color - and because the Olinkans happen to have dark skin, for them "whiteness" has nothing to do with skin color at all. This is a way for Celie to understand both that the Olinkans are proud of their heritage, traditions, and skin, and that they do not consider their "blackness" to be any kind of categorical or immutable category. Olinkans can be white or black, naked or clothed.

The white Englishmen who come into the village, however, have a much different conception of race - for them, the Olinkans are nearly naked and are black - the Olinkans, for them, simply cannot be white. This means that the European conception of race, compared to the Olinkan, is vastly cruder and less informed. The Olinkans have within their culture a well-developed concept of subtle difference, whereas the English see, literally, only in black and white terms. 

Letter 90 Quotes

And I see they [the children] think that me and Nettie and Shug and Albert and Samuel and Harpo and Sofia and Jack and Odessa real old . . . But I don't think us feel old at all. And us so happy. Matter of fact, I think this the youngest us ever felt.

Related Characters: Celie (speaker), Nettie, Mr. _____ (Albert), Shug Avery, Sofia, Harpo, Samuel, Adam, Olivia, Tashi, Jack and Odessa
Related Symbols: God
Page Number: 295
Explanation and Analysis:

This is the marvelous closing passage to the novel. After all that has happened to Celie and to Nettie - after all the miles Nettie has traveled, after all that Celie has been through in remaining in the South - time feels, in this passage, not to have passed at all. It is as though time itself was brought to a halt, or a new kind of time is here introduced. Celie and Nettie, reunited, can now make physical the bond that has united them in letters for years. And this bond is made even stronger by the presence of family, both biological and affiliative, that Celie and Nettie have assembled over the many intervening years. Despite their hardships, Celie and Nettie recognize that their stories are stories of family togetherness, of bonds made and sustained despite the incredible difficulty of their circumstances. The Color Purple thus ends triumphantly, as a celebration of the power of love in the face of violence and hatred.