Historical Perspective

A Black-White Relations in the Rural South

After slavery, the social and economic relations for African Americans remained much the same. While no longer slaves, many blacks remained on the land as sharecroppers. They tilled the soil, but the land was owned by their former slave masters. After 1915, economic opportunities in cities of the industrial North encouraged many blacks to leave the South. Those that remained continued to live isolated from white society. Schools and churches were segregated, as well as housing. There were few opportunities for blacks to establish themselves outside of sharecropping. During the period of the novel, segregation between blacks and whites was enforced legally to the point that blacks had to sit in separate parts of movie houses and drink out of separate fountains, and were forbidden from eating at white lunch counters. The laws that were passed to enforce this segregation were called Jim Crow laws, named after a pre-Civil War minstrel character. In The Color Purple Sofia is victimized by this social policy. When she shows defiance to the white mayor’s wife who insults her, she is arrested and given a stiff jail sentence for her actions. The difficulty in relations between black men and women had its source in white male-dominated society. Within white society, men were expected to control the family and had status over women. This attitude filtered into black culture, but the black male, unlike his white counterpart, was humiliated daily for the color of his skin. In frustration, many black males turned their anger towards women. Black women then experienced the double oppression that Alice Walker explores in the novel.

Lynching, murder by a mob, was prevalent in the South from the 1880s to the 1930s. Celie’s real father had been lynched in the 1900s because he had established a business that competed with white businesses. White southern businessmen felt economically threatened when a black business took black customers from them. Retaliation by lynching went unchallenged until the United States Congress tried to pass an anti-lynching law in 1937. Southern senators killed the bill by not letting it come to a vote in the Senate.

B African-American Religion

In their letters, Celie and Nettie talk about God. Celie confesses that she sees God as white, but Nettie replies that being in Africa has made her see God differently. Her African experience has made her see God spiritually rather than in the physical form that is represented in Western Christianity. While most African Americans were either Baptist or Methodist during the first half of the twentieth century, the way they expressed their religion in church was much different from white congregations. Infused into the services were elements from their African roots, particularly a distinct musical style and delivery of the sermon in a moving manner. The congregation answered the preacher at key points in the service, and singing was accompanied with expressive physical movements, like clapping and swaying. The main reason that African Americans were drawn to the Baptist and Methodist churches was that these two denominations had opposed slavery early in American history. By the late eighteenth century, blacks were forming congregations within these Protestant sects. In 1816 religious leaders from the black community met in Philadelphia and established the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), which still has sizable congregations throughout the United States.