Why Every Black Woman Should Revisit The Color Purple  

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poster-the-color-purpleBy Tayllor Johnson

My friend and I hesitantly slid to our seats, brushing shins and knocking knees with our work bags, two $15 cups of wine, and a $10 box of Sour Patch Kids to share. We shuffled into our place during the opening number. I didn’t mind that my bag was half spilling into my friend’s lap and her bag leaning to do the same on my side; I didn’t mind that my wine was dangerously close to tipping over from between my thighs; I didn’t mind the passive-aggressive looks from the White gentleman next to me, upset that he had witness me settling into myself to enjoy the show. I didn’t mind it at all because by then the essence of the South already took over the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. The brown bodies took up space like so many grandmothers, aunties, and sisters under less glamorous Broadway circumstances had done… It was then that I felt it; as if I was sitting at the feet of my great-great grandmother’s rocking chair as she began to tell the tale; surrounded by other young sisters, leaning anxiously on our knees waiting for the lessons, the parable, the wisdom from the past to come out and inspire us as we go into our future. In the seemingly mundane activities happening on the stage: the washing of clothes in a basin, picking up the plank of wood to complete the porch, sewing and stitching of the children’s clothes, it seemed to emit a familiar rhythm and connection. Every dip of clothing into the wash bucket was a physical hymn, every placing of wood to build the foundation of home was accompanied percussion or a verse dedicated to the scattered pieces of another life on another land, a foggy dream and nightmare from what they had to call home now: The South. I’ve seen this type of historical memory on my Southern grandmother’s face in the way she threw down in the kitchen, designed my church dresses when I was 10 with nothing but an exacto knife, fabric, and a retired sewing machine; and when she started her own beautician business right on Route 64 in Little Rock, Arkansas less than five minutes from her own home. I can only imagine my grandmother’s South or her mother’s South was not unlike what was setting the tone for The Color Purple on Broadway that night. My South was a commercial interruption to the traffic, palm trees, and beach boardwalks I was accustomed to in Los Angeles California, where I grew up. Going to my great-aunt’s funeral reminded me how the urban life that many Black people fled to was a far cry away from the Southern life. I was thrown back into the harmony of plates gaining weight, gold teeth, “amen,” “yes lawd,” and a type of unspoken synthesis of Black culture that felt less like a gun to your temple and more like a blanket for patients in shock. I was immediately at ease amongst the wasps crawling all over the screened-in porch on my grandmother’s family land; my ears adjusted to the Southern drawl as words dripped into each other on their way out; my legs all of a sudden didn’t mind the weeds and peeled snake skin frying in the afternoon sun. I knew this place, this pace, this life, it was almost as if I inherited it from my late Aunt Bernie through the stories she used to tell me about taking care of crop and family, while being hunted by the White man—and even her own men—while straightening my hair in her kitchen and cooking chitlins. Strangely enough, the stage, the presence, the cadence, felt like a childhood home.

I do not remember when I was first introduced to Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. I do not remember when it became so familiar to me. I do remember the light purple VHS box tucked safely in my mom’s massive movie collection. I would have to assume it was a Saturday, both of my moms had to be out running errands, inspiring my much-needed distraction from my chores. I must’ve been bored and picked out The Color Purple to watch to pass the time until I would hear my mothers’ engine and would run for the broom. Maybe my regular choices from my Disney collection weren’t doing it for me that day; maybe it was the faded nature of the purple VHS case that intrigued me; it had to be old; it had to be watched a few times, maybe rested on top of a TV for a while and took in some Los Angeles sun it was so faded. Who was this Black shadow on the front? What was she reading? Maybe something in my 11-year-old mind knew there was a reason my mom hadn’t suggested this movie to me yet, giving me more reason to watch while she was away. Now was my chance! I’ll watch it and put it back, my mom will never know. That Saturday, in my brothers’ room where they had the only VHS player that wasn’t in the living room or my mother’s room, I timetraveled. To the South, a Black woman’s heart, a natural world, a turbulent past, and a type of dialect at the end that I didn’t understand. I did not comprehend the movie in its entirety the first time but the film resonated enough with me to join the rest of the Black female population who knew the movie by heart, who claimed the story as part of her family tradition, and greeted the book in a high school English literature class like an old friend. The Color Purple never left me, not even when I was being bullied in middle school for having two moms and not being Black enough; not even when I went to college and my first roommate was from West Africa, my first introduction to that part of the world and that part of my past, not even when I dedicated my undergrad career to activism, social justice, community engagement, and created safe spaces for women of color to bond, not even when I continued that work in Edinburgh, Scotland under a different context, not even when I boarded the plane and moved to New York. The Color Purple sat in the passenger seat and offered a comfort that didn’t need explanation. As soon as I was reminded of her existence, I felt it; a connection to a narrative bigger than me; a beauty I could witness triumph against all odds. When my beauty was being undermined, hunted, and exploited, The Color Purple was and is a sigh of relief.

Watching that same story unfold on stage, a storyline that I watched many times and read in multiple predominantly White classrooms, where the disrespect of Black women’s bodies was just a short answer question or at one point even a joke, which I was the butt of, I realized how auspicious this moment was. Now, at 23-years old, I carried in my memory the film, the Broadway show, all inspired from a book that was born over a decade before I was even a thought. To think I felt connected to this piece written in an America I didn’t experience. I only witnessed the crumbs of the 1980s washing away into the new millennia. Post-civil rights, the War on Drugs (or as I like to call it, the war with drugs), the beginning of many Black firsts in politics, sports, and literature, Reagonomics. I missed it. I had no choice but to imagine the America Alice Walker lived in and came out of that inspired her to reach back into a Black past and bring such a universal and timeless comingofage story to the page and juxtapose it to my America.

My America was and is the calm before the storm and the storm itself mixed into one citizenship. Not unlike the 80’s, I too am reminded that this land, which is supposed to be my land as well, is not a home. My America has had no mercy in showing me, through Black body after Black body dropping dead at the hands of a police force sworn to protect us, that I am not safe, my family is not safe, my Blackness is not safe. My America has responded in kind to this violence against Black men with protest and action that takes to the streets by the thousands, shutting down highways in Downtown Los Angeles and bridges in New York City, yet my America has also conveniently forgotten that Black women’s bodies have bull’s eyes on them as well, in more places than one. My America makes a public spectacle of sexual violence without acknowledging those victims of violence; my America leaves us with scars to lick ourselves, claims vaginas are the property of that state they are born in. But my America is tired of excuses, as #BlackLivesMatter (created by womyn) and other national initiatives were born to protect ourselves against our own “home”. My America inspired me to create my own brand, #ImNotYourEnemy, dedicated to uplifting and healing women of color as we relate to one another, rather than exploit and appropriate our culture and history because it is not on America’s to-do list at the moment, it never was. My America bore the first Black President and President-Elect Donald Trump. My America is confused. My America has no problem using biological warfare, tear gas, and sponge bullets to protect themselves from the peaceful protesters. My America is a traumatized one, not unlike Alice Walker’s. So much has changed yet so much remains the same. Redemption, exploration, and healing are still indeed rare and dangerous concepts to those trying to oppress us, asking us to stay complacent and grateful, to wait or pray for liberation to come. And still, nothing ignites freedom faster and makes it spread like wildfire more than the arts and a lack of patience. The Color Purple refuses to ask permission to seek freedom, she refused to shut her mouth for over twenty years, before she made its way to me in Los Angeles. What are the chances that The Color Purple and I would meet again in 2016, a year of Black turmoil, friction, declaration, discovery, and fight? My only guess is that it was God—or Nature, as Celie would grow to call It.

As the first Black woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize for Literature, I did not let myself imagine that we would have much in common, Alice and me. Like my grandmother, she too was the daughter to sharecroppers and eight brothers and sisters. And like me, she was artist to the molecule at a young age and answered the activist calling in college, passing the mic to sharecropper’s voices, Black women’s voices, and the voices for civil rights. She too went to a liberal arts college, Sarah Lawrence, in a new city far from the home she knew. She taught poetry, studied abroad, fought for justice, and representation for her and family’s history, just like me. She wrote, explored, published, studied, and found her voice like what I am doing in the very same city she studied in; leaving my Los Angeles palm trees for snow plows in South Hadley, Massachusetts then finding myself here in New York City, the hub of so much in such little space, looking for my place to grow and blossom.  Alice Walker became more than just a writer, poet, activist, feminist Black woman in my eyes; she became a kindred spirit connecting me to the other kindred spirits in The Color Purple. Celie, Nettie, and Sophia were not mere characters to be analyzed but more fable-like lessons and inspiration points to grow from, confide in, be lifted by.

It was not only that Alice Walker broke boundaries and shattered the silence of Black families and Black women in putting our ancestors to paper and our secrets to light. Her journey found its way back to my mind’s eye no matter what age or stage of my development as a Black woman, which is what led me to keep her work closer, even before my own story made it to that Wednesday night at the Broadway show. From banned to translated into over twelve different languages, I was not the only one who connected to the story and the author.  This Broadway production of The Color Purple solidified for me the reasons, after these many years, why I–and so many other Black women–kept this story in the back pocket of our souls. Cynthia Erivo, who returned to play Celie after playing her in the first international production of The Color Purple in 2013, was a revelation. Her performance reminded me how easy it can be to make yourself invisible as a Black woman in the name of safety. Keep your head down, sing a song to yourself to numb your independence, do what’s asked, and they will forget how strong you are; they won’t be intimidated anymore, and they will wrongfully assume they can control you. They, Patriarchy. They, Sexism. They, Misogyny. They, Racism. They, America. But to fight this is certain death, so tread easy. How many times have I walked down the street in New York City utilizing the same tool? I get catcalled only to warn myself that if I should respond the way I want to, I might not make it back home. So I keep my mouth shut as Celie did, look to the floor for a prayer as Celie did, and thank God I made it like Celie did. These are the reasons why men might not see a smile on my face when walking to the train. I am contemplating my safety on repeat as soon as I walk out the door, my peripherals are working double time, and your eye contact can possibly be the last thing I see. A Black male friend once told me that every day that a Black woman makes it home is a miracle. That is not a world that supports my holistic expansion and celebration. But Celie is a prime example that it was indeed possible. I found it hard to believe that the Celie washing her clothes and praying for the return of her children was the same Celie dancing on chairs in bright pants in the afterglow of her own entrepreneurship and healing. I found just as hard to believe that I was seeing a show on Broadway when not a year ago I was telling my mom how much I missed the West Coast and wanted to come back to one season all year and move as far away from my growth spurt days as possible. Figures. There I was, light years from my past selves. Maybe that is why the tears broke free so easily.

Us Black women, we evolve like seasons, we brace the cold, the hurricane, the drought, the flood, and sometimes we become the elements ourselves, and still we rise. Celie had an ancestral command over her story, shrinking in the presence of Mister, whispering her dwindling faith lightly onto the audience while stitching, stretching out to let Shug in, tightening the hinges of her heart to keep Mister out, fighting the elements to let love loose, and finally hammering her existence against the stage lights, us, and beyond her old self to reclaim her new self. The Celie in me was awakened. A Celie that is just as dynamic and in need of healing and celebration. I could not help but think of Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Solange’s A Seat at the Table as in some way, consciously or unconsciously, being inspired by what Alice Walker succeeded so well in portraying 30 years before: our evolution as Black women deserves its space to be, be it begging to a God we don’t believe in or rejoicing to the Nature that never left us, be it in the throes of rage or in the hope of a healed relationship. We are here and our voices are shapeshifters to paint a world rarely seen or experienced outside of our own four walls or the quiet corners we find ourselves in, where we can take a breath for a second and just be. Yes, we still forget that we Black women matter. How many times can our mother tell us in our own home but as soon as we head into Summer, young girls’ faces are getting blown off for uttering the word “no”? How many hashtags have our bodies taken up but no news station shows up to our rallies for the dead? How many of us shrug it off as our lot in life to carry that historically traumatic weight on our shoulders because we have been able to survive that way for generations? How much room do we really have for that without breaking? After looking patriarchy in the face all day long and habitually searching for exits and weapons in public spaces; after pretending that I am not exhausted on social media, and that everything is fine, I do not have enough energy and room for me. That is the problem. That is where The Color Purple frees me. Sitting in that seat witnessing a growth so close to home, I had to ask myself what it will take for me to make peace with all facets of me and find beauty in the complexities of my being without exhausting my spirit in the process but rather setting her free?   

What began as a pleasant Wednesday evening, became a spiritual revival. I was forced to confront my own evolution as a Black woman, check in with myself and ask how I could help me embrace my womanhood, my power, my Love, and my God. I use to be a fraction of a whisper, hiding from myself. I am not sure if there was anything to define. When telling my journey to poetry and performance I always say that before Poetry found me, I was in black and white, a dull hue. I had no idea how much shine I had to share. Having two mothers who saw my light helped. They encouraged me to apply to a summer writing program and helped me raise the money to attend, one BBQ chicken dinner at a time. One fateful Summer day, my life changed forever. I was mistakenly placed in a spoken word poetry class and I became technicolor in 3D. Suddenly, I had words coming out of me, stories, narratives. I became aware that the definition of my Blackness was dependent on me, not my friend group, not diploma, not this country; it didn’t occur to me that my hair defied gravity for a reason; that my words and my poetry were more than outlets but the fire, kindling, and smoke signals all in one. I now had a way to heal and connect. I could stand, I could fight, I could command. But more importantly, I could see. I could use my words to fill in the blanks of my world and slowly with the help of mentors, family, and friends a Tayllor was born that was not only technicolor but 4-D. I learned, as Celie did, how to claim my own flame. I learned, as Nettie did, how to be fearless and expand. I learned, as Sophia did, how to love and accept love in return. I then had a responsibility to myself and to the world to share my light. If you told me in high school that I was going to be graduating from Mount Holyoke College and immediately moving to New York City because I agreed to perform one poem and I refused to hide, I would’ve laughed in your face. I think we as women, especially us Black women, cannot afford to ignore our own evolution and celebrate where that leads us. If Alice Walker can do it, we really don’t have an excuse.

It was only when my friend tapped me asking for a piece of candy without taking her eyes off of the stage that I realized that she too had been swept into another world of her own. The music would move us so much that we would look at each other, teary-eyed, and embrace, laughing and wiping our tears away as they fell. Sisterhood is a verb in The Color Purple. Be it stage or movie screen or the book, you see Black women discovering and preserving sisterhood. What the play brings to life poignantly is the unpredictable nature of that journey. How we find our sisters, our tribe, our people, is not linear. We sometimes fight our sisters when they want to help us. Many times, we don’t know we have sisters until they reveal themselves and we realize that we are worth being supported. Danielle Brooks, who made her Broadway debut playing Sofia, immediately embodied the discomfort of that journey and wore it as clearly as her bright blue slacks Celie gave her. Her voice is the last bit of gumbo at the bottom of yo momma’s cast iron pot; the piece we forgot, mental illness. Sophia is one character that you get to see in her rawest form. From beat by police and jailed to being mute and having nothing to do but accept love is a lesson that we all need to be reminded of. There was a time in particular that I was forced to come to terms with my own fragility when it came to mental illness and abuse. My friend and sister was right there, she held me by the shoulders as I went upstairs to confront a person on my college campus who went too far. She stood outside like a guardian until the conversation was finished and carried my depleted and defeated body back to my dorm. She supported me in remembering and forgiving when I wanted to forget. When my spirit was battered and bloodied by the hands of someone I thought I could call friend, sisters came out of the woodwork with my favorite meal to my inner jail cell, cloth for my wounds and burns, and love to meet my silence. Sisterhood always wins. On Wednesday, November 8, amongst my own tears and my two White roommates’ silent sobs at the news being finalized of who will be the next President, I was bombarded with text messages from women of color from all corners of my life saying that they loved me, that they would fight for me, be there for me–that we would be there for each other through this, whatever this was. That is the definition of the color purple.

In today’s America, sisterhood is one of the things that has kept me sane. I use to believe that sisterhood didn’t exist. I was constantly hurt by my peers of color. I wasn’t Black enough, hood enough, too White. So eventually I had enough and stopped looking for sisters… and much like Sofia, my sisters found me and told me that I was enough. To their credit, it couldn’t have been easy. I had to unlearn many of the images that portray Black women and “sisterhood”: centered around men, sex, sabotage, and betrayal. That is not the sisterhood I have today and that is not the sisterhood that Alice Walker creates in The Color Purple. The sisterhood I witnessed was organic, complex, resilient, and radiant. It was what I want my sisterhood to be with my sister family, no matter what happens, we will be there for each other. Even when you don’t think you need us we will remind you that you are capable of not only surviving, but thriving. Immediately I was brought back to my college days, walking into the Blanchard Café on a Friday evening and spotting one of my sisters eating or studying. It wouldn’t take an hour before I and five other women of color squeezed into the same table laughing, joking, debating. It became the beauty shop, the corner store, the place for everyone to check in, be themselves, and not have to explain their existencea safe space. I believe that is why one way or another we are always revisiting The Color Purple. How many times have we said “All my life I had to fight!” then erupt with laughter. Not long after someone would chime in, “I loves Harpo!” Then another walking by would stop, “God knows I do!” Laughter followed by more laughter. No explanation was needed because we knew what was up, we knew what was at stake between our chuckles; we knew what it felt like to be alone and need cliff notes for our very existence. Sitting in that theatre seat, I didn’t even notice the White man next to me, or the White row of people. I got to breathe easy. No explanation needed. The Color Purple cast didn’t need to explain, my friend beside me didn’t need to explain, and for once there was room for me to be.

I was curious, considering what I remembered from the book and film, how they were going to portray a love like Celie’s and Shug’s in 2016. I will admit, I was not hopeful. From my mother’s experience being queer and Black to my many queer friend’s experiences, even in 2016 they do not feel their narratives are represented. For the longest, Celie’s and Shug’s relationship was explained to me, in regards to the film, that they were good friends, very good friends. Sisters that were very close, so I continued to think just that. It wasn’t until later when I was older, while my mom and I watched the film together that she explained to me the nuance of their relationship; that they were actually in love and were lovers. She told me themes and characters like this were considered taboo when the film was released in 1985, especially since the book was unapologetic in revealing the true nature of that relationship. Having two mothers and witnessing their battle for claiming space without questions, persecution, and discrimination in today’s America put in perspective what the ‘80s had to offer in terms of acceptance for two women falling in love with one another. I was told by those who saw the first Broadway rendition of The Color Purple that Celie’s and Shug’s relationship was carefully explored on the surface, “It was very Disney” I remember a friend saying. This year’s revival was far from Disney. I applaud the director and the creative forces for having the humanity to give ample space for Celie’s and Shug’s love to evolve like any other relationship, with intimacy, conflict, valleys and peaks, without explanation. Marginalized individuals are tired of explaining themselves. We are tired of explaining why we matter, why we don’t want to buy or bury our family members at the hands of those who are supposed to protect us, and why we are tired of hiding from bull’s eyes in the name of God, in the name of shock, in the name of history.

As an ally, a Black woman, a daughter of a queer mother of color, and a human being, it wasn’t only important to me to have love present itself on love’s terms, but also to have that love represented between two women of color. Going to a women’s college provided me the auspicious opportunity to hear from my queer peers, who for some it was the first time that they could express their sexual identity without fear of prosecution, exposure, disownment, or incarceration (yes, incarceration). It was difficult for me to imagine hiding my boyfriend from my parents and pretending someone that I loved was “just a friend,” as I’ve been welcomed and encouraged to date. While others can happily announce their union casually, some are constantly reminded that their identity should be hidden in the shadows for their safety.  I have had too many conversations with my queer friends of color who feel as though their love is not represented in any other spaces but their own. Either their identity is nonexistent, oversexualized, or completely forgotten until it’s convenient or just too late, as it was during the Orlando Shooting not too long ago. Representation of love in all forms matter. It warmed my heart to see little rainbow flags in the audience being waved during the last number, hands in the air, and partners loving each other without fear.

Forgiveness was a more nuanced kind of love that caught me by surprise. Maybe it is because I am a survivor of violence that I was able to casually skip over the moments of forgiveness when re-reading the book. I was not able to give too much mental space to the moment Celie and Mister talked about life and she said that they could be friends. Friends?! That was probably the passage I didn’t read as closely. I couldn’t. But there is no running when you are watching Celie’s healing process in real life and you’re five seats away from the exit into the lobby. I had to watch Celie grow from a victim to a survivor; from shock to rage to forgiveness. There was something painfully personal about the thought of sitting on a blanket with a past abuser and having a “normal” conversation. What is there to say? What could we talk about? How much does a “sorry” weigh after being abused or betrayed? Alice Walker in creating this narrative had to have thought about these questions herself and the answer to these questions were hidden in not only Celie’s healing process but also Mister’s. Yes, Mister the predator, was given the humanity to grow and heal on stage. I could not deny Celie’s or Mister’s humanity when watching their relationship unfold. Mister, played by Isaiah Jackson, embodied the friction that is healing from violence. It’s a two-way street, like many things. It’s uncomfortable to have to offer an antagonist like Mister the opportunity to suffer, to heal, and to be at peace with himself. It is a type of grace that I have to assume Alice Walker has within her own journey and relationships. Amongst all the praise and misplaced backlash during her own career, it was surprising to see the critique come from her own daughter, Rebecca Walker, who publicly speaks against her mother’s choice of artist over motherhood.  Alice Walker in all her genius, craft, activism, and prestige, still is deserving the space to heal and mend her own wounds. As do the rest of us. What a challenge, to offer humanity holistically to every party affected by violence. I believe Walker was doing more than affirming Black women’s existence in The Color Purple, she was also challenging the 80s and many coming generations on what humanity, sexuality, sensuality, love, and religion can be and mean when we allow it to evolve and unfold naturally.

Accepting the world as She reveals Herself became a life lesson re-learned in watching The Color Purple. Nature has always been my Higher Power, even before I could accept it myself. My Higher Power is a Black woman. She has always been there. The way I chase rivers, waterfalls, trees, and ocean shores, in my life and my writing. It is the easiest way for me to connect to God. Before going off to college, my mothers took me to the beach so I could find the strength in the waves to move forward. Before moving to New York, I begged again to be taken to a waterfall near their new home in Portland to pray and prepare myself for the transition. And just a month ago, I asked once more to go to the same waterfall if only for ten minutes to check in. Being near nature and worshipping the beauty that happens effortlessly is the surest way to know that I am going to be okay and the world is more wondrous than any of my fears or White heterosexual man-made systems that want to convince me otherwise. Nature is my God. I know that for a fact now and Alice Walker knew the language to speak to Nature worshipers like her and me.

Please note, it does not matter what seat you have when seeing The Color Purple on Broadway, as it doesn’t matter whether you are reading the book or watching the movie on a kindle or iPad. You are going to feel it no matter where you are in the theatre. And that it is going to speak to you directly as a woman of color, no matter your age or place in life.  I might as well have been on stage sitting amongst the chorus of town gossipers or the lovely worker men swooning over Shug. I felt my grandmother, my mother, my Aunt Bernie, I felt me. Me. I felt the weight of all the growth I had to fight for the space to gain. The timing was too perfect. I was at a loss for where my writing was going, what space my activism would be most helpful, when my career was going to start… The Color Purple was a wave crashing into my present moment.  It had to be God. It had to be. The God in me, the God in the play, and the God that Alice Walker revealed through The Color Purple and discovered herself before she was 10 years-old.  

By the end of the play my friend and I were in church. We had caught the holy ghost! Tears streaming down our faces, our hands reaching towards the stage, our feet stomping. The White man next to me turned to look as if I was a possessed, unnatural, crazy, and inappropriate. Despite his looks, I never felt more at home. Celie proclaimed that she is beautiful, she is here, she is lovable, and that she and everyone in her light will be oaky. Whew! How many Black women need to hear that in the morning? How many Black women need to witness the potential of their revolution, as scary as it may seem at first? We as Black women needed the representation 30 years ago and we need it today, and we will need it 30 years later and 30 years after that… We will always need the reminder of our beauty and humanity in a world that conveniently forgot our story and our mother’s story and our grandmother’s story. The Color Purple on Broadway succeeded in embodying that reminder.  The color purple being my favorite color, lavender being my alter, any worries I carried about my body, my Blackness, my womanhood, my past, my future all dissipated by curtain call. No matter how afraid I was before entering that theatre about what it meant to be a writer, to be a poet, to be a sister, to be in love, to be successful, and to be a Black Woman in America, as long as I saw the color purple in everything, as long as I had Nature on my side, God on my side, sisterhood on my side, my ancestors on my side, there was nothing that could keep me from becoming who I am supposed to be.