Identity and Belonging in The Color Purple

The Color Purple written by Alice Walker raised questions involving the concepts of identity, belonging and purpose. One of the many recurring themes was the questioning of identity, who we are. This theme opened the door to other questions such as where do we belong?  The question who are we is a daunting question, but there are many obvious answers for example, we are human, babies, children, adults, males, females, Canadians, Americans, students, athletes etc. The not so obvious question beyond this is who are we and in relation where do we belong? In The Color Purple Walker utilizes the feelings, experiences and development of  characters from a variety of backgrounds to question the concepts of identity and belonging.

 The first example of this is seen with Samuel and Nettie’s experience with the Olinka’s in Africa. Samuel and Nettie travelled to Africa as missionaries. Although Samuel identifies as an African American he has trouble fitting in with the Olinka’s. The natives viewed the missionaries as outsiders and showed their indifference to them on multiple occasions. Such as when Nettie is told by a tribal member that the Olinka’s do not need to listen to the missionaries because most of them will die anyway. Samuel struggles with his feeling of belonging when he realizes the Olinka’s do not appreciate his presence. He states 

 “The Africans don’t even see us. They don’t even recognize us as brothers and sisters they sold. Why don’t you speak our language? They ask. Why can’t you remember the old ways? Why aren’t you happy in America if everyone drives motorcars” (p.235).  

Walker’s use of Samuels feelings realizing he is not accepted as a true part of the Olinka tribe after many years shows the theme of identity vs belonging. The effect of reading this passage entices the reader to question even though our identity places us in certain categories does it mean we belong there? Samuel later finds his identity and belonging with Nettie when they marry and he spends his life with her. 

The second example of The Color Purple challenging the idea of identity is through the character of Tashi. She was born and raised with the Olinka tribe. She grows up learning that girls only need to learn wife responsibilities and that girls do not go to school. This is very different than the beliefs in America. She goes through the women scarification ceremony which is also uncommon in America but truly places her identity as Olinka. When Adam asks to marry her she refuses;

“Because of the scarification marks on her cheeks, Americans would look down on her as a savage, and shun her and whatever children her and Adam might have”(p.276). 

Walker uses Tashi’s experiences as an Olinka person and feelings towards America to show her conflict with identifying with the Olinka’s and not belonging in America. Adam’s response to this is joining Tashi and completing an Olinka sacrificial ceremony to resemble the same scars on his face as well as saying to Tashi that she would have  

“ A country, people, parents, a sister, husband, brother and lover and that whatever befell her in America  would also be his own choice and his own lot” (p.277). 

Adam saying this as well as joining in on Tashi’s culture makes her feel accepted and happy to go to America with him.  The effect of Adam’s feelings and actions towards Tashi makes the reader focus on Tashi’s and Adam’s strong bond. In turn questioning if belonging can be defined as a person and not a place in society?

The third and main example of struggle with identity and belonging is Celie’s character. In Celie’s early life her identity was masked by submission and the overshadowing of her abusers like Albert and Alfonso. She was lost and her feelings were suppressed. Walker uses Celie addressing her letters to God in the beginning of the novel to show that she only identifies with God and struggles with feeling alone. Through the progression of the novel Celie’s true identity and feelings begin to show. She starts feeling emotions such as anger at Albert or love for Shug.

“Before I knew it tears met under my chin. And I’m confuse”(p.72). 

Walker’s use of Celie expressing emotions for Shug for the first time in the novel shows the reader that Celie finally discovers a different part of her identity by exploring her sexualilty. Her letters start to be addressed to Nettie instead of God the effect of this shows Celie’s belief of her and Nettie belonging together.  When Celie receives Alfonso’s house she describes it to Nettie in a letter as

“A house big enough for us and our children, for your husband and Shug” (p.244).

expressing her feeling of want to be with Nettie and Shug.  Thus allowing the reader to realize even though in the past Ceile has identified as submissive with no emotion she does not anymore. Celie realizes she is better than a toxic relationship with a man like Alfonso or Albert. Walker’s uses Celie’s feelings and bonds show that a sense of belonging is not only determined by one’s past identity but also by those who genuinely accept us and love us.

Personally the belief that our identity does not define where we belong is something that resonates with me. As a person who is a dual citizenship holder as well as physically portrays a different nationality then both those citizenships I have a lot of identities. This has me questioning where I belong. I don’t fully fit in with Canadians because I appear different. I don’t fully fit in with my grandparents and extended family because I don’t speak the native tongue or practice the religion.  This makes me an outsider to both groups similarly to how Samuel felt in Olinka’s or how Tashi feels about Americans.  The one thing I do have is the people who I am surrounded by who support me, my friends and family. The people that I have shared similar experiences with and who I bond with. They are where I truly belong.

Who we are and where we belong, although closely related, are not solely dependent on each other. This concept leads to the second philosophical question brought up by this novel: what is the purpose of life?  This question can open up all new conversations and perspectives but I think it’s crucial to mention Albert’s answer to  this question in the novel. When asked what our purpose is by Celie, Albert responds by saying;

“I think us here to wonder, myself. To wonder. To ask. And that in wondering bout the big things and asking bout the big things, you learn about the little ones, almost by accident. But you never know nothing more about the big things than you start out with. The more I wonder, the more I love” (p.281).

Celie responds to this by saying “And people start to love you back, I bet” (p.281). This again ties in theme of belonging with those who you love and those who love you. Overall, Walker uses the characters in The Colour Purple to compare and contrast the themes of identity and belonging. Through the characterization of feelings and experiences the reader discovers that identity is not always shaped by who you are or where you come from but by those that love you.

For Samuel this is Nettie, for Tashi this is Adam, as for Celie she belongs with Shug regardless of their identity in the past, present or future. 

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