A guide to understanding the Colour Purple

Since it was first published in 1982, The Color Purple become an icon of literature has become an icon of literature that heals, that enlightens, and that empowers. Its audience has always been broad: the novel garnered major literary awards and dazzled highbrow critics while demonstrating equally strong commercial appeal. Readers from all walks of life have found themselves awed by the novel’s narrator, Celie, a role portrayed onscreen by Whoopi Goldberg in Steven Spielberg’s film version of the story. More recently, producer Oprah Winfrey (who played Sofia in the movie) brought the novel to Broadway in a musical that blends gospel, jazz, blues, and ragtime. Despite these triumphant images, this is a novel that begins with a fourteen-year-old girl’s cry for help. Celie has suffered repeated rapes and brutal beatings by the man she believes to be her father, who tells her, in the novel’s opening line, “You better not never tell nobody but God.” After becoming pregnant by him twice, she is terrified that he has now set his sights on her younger sister, Nettie. Celie’s initial thoughts are shared with us in the form of her letters to God, written in a voice that uses raw realism—the only language she knows—to convey the facts of her life. It is this authenticity that sets The Color Purple apart; critics who feel offended apart; critics who feel offended by Celie’s voice miss the fact that her candor is itself an aspect of her stolen innocence. These opening scenes reveal the dangers of secrecy and misinformation as the heroine pines for one thing: an education. Her tragic home life prevents her from fulfilling that dream. For Nettie, however, fate holds quite the opposite. She joins a missionary family who encourage her in literacy and learning, eventually taking her with them for an exhilarating though dangerous life in colonial Africa. The price of this freedom is that she and Celie are estranged from one another for most of their adult lives. Yet their devotion as sisters never wanes, and, without even knowing whether the other is alive, their mutual and unconditional love sustains them. Set in the Deep South during the first half of the twentieth century, The Color Purple traces the lives of both sisters over a period of decades, and delivers innumerable opportunities for thoughtful classroom discussion. Acceptance and context are the keys to unlocking the novel’s riches. Alice Walker’s classic brings to life American history, world history, women’s history, civil rights history, and the history of one remarkable family—a family that asks us to consider questions about the making of an abuser (what are the true roots of controlling, hurtful behavior?) and the recipe for peace (how can we find the courage to eradicate suffering throughout the world?). We hope that the following discussion topics and activities will enrich your students’ appreciation of this unique, transforming work of modern fiction.


A biography of Alice Walker




Alice Walker was born on February 9, 1944, in Eatonton, Georgia. She worked as a social worker, teacher and lecturer, and took part in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi. Walker won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her 1982 novel, The Color Purple, and is also an acclaimed poet and essayist.

Early Life

Novelist, poet and feminist Alice Malsenior Walker was born on February 9, 1944, in Eatonton, Georgia. Alice Walker is one of the most admired African-American writers working today. The youngest daughter of sharecroppers, she grew up poor. Her mother worked as a maid to help support the family’s eight children. When Walker was 8 years old, she suffered a serious injury: She was shot in the right eye with a BB pellet while playing with two of her brothers. Whitish scar tissue formed in her damaged eye, and she became self-conscious of this visible mark.

After the incident, Walker largely withdrew from the world around her. « For a long time, I thought I was very ugly and disfigured, » she told John O’Brien in an interview that was published in Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives, Past and Present. « This made me shy and timid, and I often reacted to insults and slights that were not intended. » She found solace in reading and writing poetry.

Living in the racially divided South, Walker attended segregated schools. She graduated from her high school as the valedictorian of her class. With the help of a scholarship, she was able to go to Spelman College in Atlanta. She later switched to Sarah Lawrence College in New York City. While at Sarah Lawrence, Walker visited Africa as part of a study-abroad program. She graduated in 1965—the same year that she published her first short story.

Early Works

After college, Walker worked as a social worker, teacher and lecturer. She became active in the Civil Rights Movement, fighting for equality for all African Americans. Her experiences informed her first collection of poetry,Once, which was published in 1968. Better known now as a novelist, Walker showed her talents for storytelling in her debut work, Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970). Walker continued to explore writing in all of its forms. In 1973, she published a set of short stories, In Love and Trouble; the poetry collection Revolutionary Petunias; and her first children’s book, Langston Hughes: American Poet. She also emerged as a prominent voice in the black feminist movement.


Conversation with Myself

 Chapter 1 : Deep time

 From a letter to Joy Mosieloa , dated 17 February 1986

When a man commits himself to the type of life he has lived for 45 years, even though he may well have been aware from the outset of all the attendant hazards, the actual course of events and the precise manner in which they would influence his life could never have been clearly foreseeable in every respect. If I had been able to foresee all that has since happened, I would certainly have made the same decision, so I believe at least. But that decision would certainly have been far more daunting, and some of the tragedies which subsequently followed would have melted whatever traces of steel were inside me.

From a Conversation with Richard Stengel

I was being groomed for the position of chieftaincy . . . but then ran away, you know, from a forced marriage . . . That changed my whole career. But if I had stayed at home I would have been a respected chief today, you know? And I would have had a big stomach, you know, and a lot of cattle and sheep.

From a Conversation with Richard Stengel

Most men, you know, are influenced by their background. I grew up in a country village until I was twenty-three, when I then left the village for Johannesburg. I was of course . . . going to school for the greater part of the year, come back during the June and December holidays – June was just a month and December about two months. And so all throughout the year I was at school . . . And then in [19]41 when I was twenty-three, I came to Johannesburg and learned . . . to absorb Western standards of living and so on. But . . . my opinions were already formed from the countryside and . . . you’ll therefore appreciate my enormous respect for my own culture – indigenous culture . . . Of course Western culture is something we cannot live without, so I have got these two strands of cultural influence. But I think it would be unfair to say this is peculiar to me because many of our men are influenced by that . . . I am now more comfortable in English because of the many years I spent here and I’ve spent in jail and I lost contact, you know, with Xhosa literature. One of the things which I am looking forward to when I retire is to be able to read literature as I want, [including] African literature. I can read both Xhosa and Sotho literature and I like doing that, but the political activities have interfered . . . I just can’t read anything now and it’s one of the things I regret very much.

 From a letter to Nomabutho Bhala, dated 1 january 1971

 Your letter was one of the shortest I ever received. Yet, it is one of the best I had read for a long tome. I had thought that our generation of rabble-rousers had vanished with the close of the fifties. I had also believed that with all the experience of almost 50 yours behind of me, it would not be easy for me to be carried away by mere beauty of prose or smooth flow of one’s oratory. Yet the few lines that you scrawled moved me much more than all the classics I have read. Many of the personalities that featured lived simply, all without written record, some 3 centuries ago… They were unusual men ; in so far as their economy and implements were concerned, they lived in the Stone Age, and yet, they founded large and and stable kingdoms by means of metal weapons…

I find the explanation for your dream in the simple fact that you read deeper lessons in our ancestry. You regard their heroic deeds during the deathlesscentury of conflict as a model for the life we should lead today.

I am very fond of great dreams and I particularly liked yours. Perhaps in your next dream, there will be something that will excite not only the sons of Zita Ntu, but the descendants of all the famous heroes of the past. AT the time when some people are feverishly encouraging the growth of fractional forces, raising the tribe into the final and highest form of social organization, setting one national group against the other, cosmopolitan dreams are not only desirable but a bounden duty, dreams that stress the special unity that hold the freedom forces together.

Conversations with myself, Mandela, p.33-p40, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010

Biography of Nelson Mandela


  • Occupation: President of South Africa and Activist
  • Born: July 18, 1918 in Mvezo, South Africa
  • Died: December 5, 2013 in Johannesburg, South Africa
  • Best known for: Serving 27 years in prison as a protest against apartheid

Nelson Mandela was a civil rights leader in South Africa. He fought against apartheid, a system where non-white citizens were segregated from whites and did not have equal rights. He served a good portion of his life in prison for his protests, but became a symbol for his people. Later he would become president of South Africa.

                                         Where did Nelson Mandela grow up?

Nelson Mandela was born on July 18, 1918 in Mvezo, South Africa. His birth name is Rolihlahla. He got the nickname Nelson from a teacher in school. Nelson was a member of Thimbu royalty and his father was chief of the city of Mvezo. He attended school and later college at the College of Fort Hare and the University of Witwatersrand. At Witwatersrand, Mandela got his law degree and would meet some of his fellow activists against apartheid.

                                                  What did Nelson Mandela do?

Nelson Mandela became a leader in the African National Congress (ANC). At first he pushed hard for the congress and the protesters to follow Mohandas Gandhi’s non-violence approach. At one point he started to doubt that this approach would work and started up an armed branch of the ANC. He planned to bomb certain buildings, but only the buildings. He wanted to make sure that no one would be hurt. He was classified as a terrorist by the South African government and sent to prison.
Mandela would spend the next 27 years in prison. His prison sentence brought international visibility to the anti-apartheid movement. He was finally released through international pressure in 1990.
Once released from prison, Nelson continued his campaign to end apartheid. His hard work and life long effort paid off when all races were allowed to vote in the 1994 election. Nelson Mandela won the election and became president of South Africa. There were several times during the process where violence threatened to break out. Nelson was a strong force in keeping the calm and preventing a major civil war.

                                            How long was Nelson Mandela in prison?

He spent 27 years in prison. He refused to bend on his principals in order to be released and stated that he would die for his ideals. He wanted all people of all races to have equal rights in South Africa.

                                            Some facts about Nelson Mandela

  • Nelson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
  • July 18th is Nelson Mandela day. People are asked to devote 67 minutes to helping others. The 67 minutes represents the 67 years Mandela spent serving his country.
  • Invictus was a 2009 movie about Nelson Mandela and the South African rugby team.
  • He had six children and twenty grandchildren.


Mandela by Obama



A little more than two decades after I made my first foray into political life and the divestment movement as a college student in California, I stood in Mandela’s former cell in Robben Island. I was a newly elected United States Senator. By then, the cell had been transformed from a prison to a monument to the sacrifice that was made by so many on behalf of South Africa’s peaceful transformation. Standing there in that cell, I tried to transport myself back to those days when President Mandela was still Prisoner 466/64 – a time when the success of his struggle was by no means a certainty. I tried to imagine Mandela – the legend who had changed history – as Mandela the man who had sacrificed so much for change. Conversations with Myself does the world an extraordinary service in giving us that picture of Mandela the man. By offering us his journals, letters, speeches, interviews, and other papers from across so many decades, it gives us a glimpse into the life that Mandela lived – from the mundane routines that helped to pass the time in prison, to the decisions that he made as President. Here, we see him as a scholar and politician; as a family man and friend; as a visionary and pragmatic leader. Mandela titled his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. Now, this volume helps us recreate the different steps – as well as the detours – that he took on that journey.

By offering us this full portrait, Nelson Mandela reminds us that he has not been a perfect man. Like all of us, he has his flaws. But it is precisely those imperfections that should inspire each and every one of us. For if we are honest with ourselves, we know that we all face struggles that are large and small, personal and political – to overcome fear and doubt; to keep working when the outcome of our struggle is not certain; to forgive others and to challenge ourselves. The story within this book – and the story told by Mandela’s life – is not one of infallible human beings and inevitable triumph. It is the story of a man who was willing to risk his own life for what he believed in, and who worked hard to lead the kind of life that would make the world a better place. In the end, that is Mandela’s message to each of us. All of us face days when it can seem like change is hard – days when our opposition and our own imperfections may tempt us to take an easier path that avoids our responsibilities to one another. Mandela faced those days as well. But even when little sunlight shined into that Robben Island cell, he could see a better future – one worthy of sacrifice. Even when faced with the temptation to seek revenge, he saw the need for reconciliation, and the triumph of principle over mere power. Even when he had earned his rest, he still sought – and seeks – to inspire his fellow men and women to service.

Barack Obama in Nelson Mandela, Conversations with Myself; Farrar, Straus and Giroux Editions, 2010