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Throughout history, the topic of racial and gender discrimination in America has been heavily discussed and researched. As Anderson and Collins state, “Sex, gender, race, sexual identity, and class profoundly influence individuals’ knowledge, experience, and opportunities” (qtd. in Tahir). It is not hard to see that historically Blacks have been treated different than whites, from slavery to segregation, the color of people’s skin has determined many things that they can and cannot do. It can also be seen throughout history that women have been treated as inferior to men. Women were often given the stereotype of homemaker, and they did not have the same power and voice as men. Seeing that both race and gender play a role in the way people are treated, it can be seen that historically Black women were the some of the most oppressed people in American society. Many authors have tried to bring the struggles of Black women to light in society, and Alice Walker is one of those writers. Alice Walker was a mid-twentieth century Black woman who experienced racial and gender discrimination, and she used the characters in her writings to display the oppression that Black women were experiencing in the mid to late 1900s. This can be seen most clearly in her book The Color Purple and her story ‘The Flowers.
Alice Walker grew up in a time soon after the civil war ended, and the aftermath of that war was still heavily affecting society. Slavery affected not only the physical state of Blacks, but it also heavily impacted their emotional wellbeing. Alice Walker states, “Black people had been cast outside of the circle of goodwill for hundreds of years. . . Many of them like women who lived in cultures that despised and willfully obliterated the feminine, would never experience the connection to earth and humanity that was their birthright”. Blacks had experienced terrible oppression as slaves. Their physical and emotional pain would last a lifetime, and still have effects on later generations. While slavery negatively affected both Black men and women, history often suggests that Black men suffered more than the women did. The images of Black men being worked to death, beaten, or lynched dominate the imagery people have about slavery. In reality, Black women suffered just as much as Black men did during the years of slavery. Black women were sometimes lynched and beaten, but more significantly, “enslaved Black women were deprived of their humanity”. They were “treated as livestock and used for breeding purposes to provide children (often the children of their masters) for the market”. This frequent physical abuse would often lead to the death of the Black woman. If not a physical death, it would surely kill her spirit. Not only were Black women raped and abused by their masters, but they were commonly abused by those in their own home. Black men saw their masters raping the women in their homes, and the Black slaves followed in that pattern. Black males started to act violently and abusively towards females affecting the physical and psychological state of the female Black slaves.
Alice Walker, who was born in 1944, grew up in the aftermath of these terrible events. The effects of slavery were still lingering, and the oppression that Black women were experiencing was far from over. Alice Walker’s “parents were tenant farmers, and the family endured the oppression of the share cropping system and witnessed many incidents of violent racism”. The oppression and segregation of Blacks in America lasted long after the civil war. While Alice Walker did not live in a world of slavery, she experienced many of the lingering effects of that previous time period. One experience of racial oppression that Walker experienced as a young child was when a stray bullet from her brother’s BB gun when into her eye and blinded her in that eye, and “because of her race, she was not able to receive proper medical treatment. In many ways, this loss honed her powers of observation and opened her remaining eye to the injustices that surrounded her”. This is just one of the many injustices that Alice Walker experienced during her lifetime. Not only was she oppressed because of her race, but also her gender.
Because Alice Walker experienced racial and gender oppression, she made it a theme in her stories to display the oppression that Black women have experienced. Alice Walker does not have a pleasant view of America, she “describes the American Society as a ‘racist, sexist and colorist capital society’ where white women have to fight for their feminism and Black men for their rights as human beings, but Black women have to fight for both their human rights as well as for their rights as women”. Walker acknowledges that there is oppression experienced by Black men and all races of women, but she uses her writings to display the oppression of people affected in society because of both their race and gender. Pasi states, “For Walker, African American women have suffered a triple oppression of gender, race and class. They have been long ‘regulated to the corners and ill-fittingly described’”. Because Alice Walker is Black, and she is a woman, she has seen and experienced the oppression of both race and gender. Walker embraces her identity, and she uses her writings to “celebrate the lives of the American Black women by giving a voice to the oppressed and voiceless”. Alice Walker knew that Black women were experiencing oppression in many different ways. Madsen states that one of the overarching themes through many of Walker’s writings is, “Women may remain second class citizens but they are no longer silent, invisible second class citizens. And that is the beginning”. Walker knew that Black women were being severely oppressed, so she chose to give a voice to the oppression of these women. She used her powerful writings to make known to her readers what these Black women have endured throughout their lives.
In her story The Color Purple, Walker explores the issue of violence and gender discrimination with the Black community, and she portray the oppression that Black women are experiencing within their own home. Tahir says that the issue of gender plays a significant role in Alice Walker’ book The Color Purple. He states, “Afro-American women were beaten, raped, degraded, and abused simply because of their gender. . . Black males used all types of violence against their wives, daughters and lovers as a means of oppression”. Walker uses Celie in The Color Purple to display the abuse and oppression that is found within the Black community. Some of the oppression and abuse that Celie experiences is that she was, “repeatedly exposed to sexual molestation. . . her husband deprives her from contacting her sister Nettie, Celie is moneyless and economically dependent on the husband Albert”. Alice Walker enlightens the readers to the many oppressions that Black women faced. Women are supposed to be able to rely on their husbands for strength and protection, but in Cecil’s case, her husband was molesting her and abusing her. She was being oppressed and had no easy way out because her husband sustained her economically. Walker does a wonderful job of demonstrating the dilemmas Black women faced within their own homes. Pasi states that because Walker focuses on the contradictions within the Black community, she is well aware that Black women are being oppressed by the males within the community. Pasi continues to say, “Ironically, this is what they have been fighting against, and yet they reinforce oppression among themselves. By physically violating the woman, the Black man continues the legacy of slavery, hence the slave master relationship between husband and wife”. Walker takes a unique stance on the oppression of Black women in that she does not simply blame white people for the oppression Black women are experiencing, but she brings to light the dilemmas of oppression and abuse that are occurring within the Black community.
In Alice Walker’s stories, women experience both physical and psychological abuse. Tahir states that in The Color Purple, the pain that Black women experience is described in graphic detail, “they were beaten, raped, humiliated, and abused merely because of their colors and genders.” Alice Walker uses the main character Celie to display the psychological and emotional oppression that Black women experienced. Not only was Celie sexually abused by both her father and her husband, but she was also emotionally and psychologically traumatized. The rape that Celie experiences “causes Celie to have low self-esteem, low self-worth, nervousness, and disconnection, and it makes her seem defenseless against her abuser ‘I don’t know how to fight. All I know how to do is stay alive’. As she sees herself as a victim of sexual assault, she has no ability to regard herself of someone worth respect and love”. Because Celie had been raped so many times, she could no longer trust those around her, and she started to become emotionally dead. Her only purpose was to be an outlet for the men in her life to satisfy their desires. Pasi states, “Through numerous rapes and beatings, Celie’s status is reduced to that of an object.” Alice Walker does not hide the brutality that Black women experienced. Walker fully displays that these women were affected physically and emotionally. If the oppression that Black women experienced did not kill them physically, their mental well being was often close to death. Women were forced to feel inferior, often to the point where they felt as thought their humanity was gone.
Because of the physical and psychological oppression that Black women endured, there are lasting effects of these traumas on the lives of Black Women. Walker displays the emotional effects that Black women of all ages experience because of their history of oppression. Not only does Walker display the emotion pain that Celie endures in The Color Purple, but Walker displays that gender and racial oppression is experienced by children. In Walker’s story “The Flowers” ten-year-old Myop has her world shattered and her innocence taken away when she sees a rotted noose that has killed a man of her race. She knows the historical significance of that noose, and she can never view the world the same because of the color of her skin and the history attached to it. Petry state, “Even ten-year-old Myop. . . has her childhood — and ultimately, her attitudes towards her self and her world — shattered by the blunt social reality of lynching”. Myop is no longer able to mindlessly roam the land picking flowers and seeing the beauty in the world. Instead, her view of the world is forever tainted by what she saw that day. Alice Walker does a masterful job of not only enlightening her readers to the oppression that Black women experienced, but also to the lasting effects it has on those women. Black women will never see the world without the history they have endured. Their view of the beauty in the world is forever altered by the oppression that their race and gender has experienced.
While it is a very evident theme in Walker’s stories that she depicts the oppression of Black women. Some may argue that she actually depicts the power and strength of Black women. Pasi states, “Walker is actually celebrating the renewal of the Black community; she shows how her Black women who have attained self-realization are able to form new relationships with their former male oppressors and with society, thus creating mutual dependence.” It is true that a lot of the characters in Walker’s stories end as being free, independent women, but that freedom is only realized because of the oppression the characters have experienced. In The Color Purple Celie is one of the characters who undergoes this change. Tahir states, “Although Celie the central character suffers terribly from the impacts of the plight of sexism and racism, she does not give in and finally she was victorious.” Walker does a masterful job of creating dynamic characters who undergo changes in her stories, but the central theme of her writings is to bring to light the oppression that Black women are experiencing. Cutter states, “Walker’s female character ‘achieve psychological wholeness when they are able to fight oppression. . .’” The only reason that Walker is able to portray the characters in her stories as strong, independent women is because they have endured some of the worst oppression imaginable. The fact that they were able to overcome that oppression is what gives them a sense of purpose and freedom.
Alice Walker has a unique way of presenting the plight of Black women in her writings. Alice Walker lived through a time of hardship herself, and she emphasized and brought to life what many of her gender and race had no ability to say. The oppression and abuse of Black women made them feel invisible and unimportant for many years. Alice Walker made it her mission to unveil the terrible things that Black women had experienced in a truthful way. She wrote her stories about the oppression of Black women, but she never believed that her stories should stop there. Black women were not made to live under oppression. Alice Walker believes that Black women have a fighting spirit. Throughout many of Walker’s books it can be seen that, “women emerge as strong and powerful resourceful individuals who achieve selfhood in an emotional and intellectual community with other women”. Alice Walker’s goal is not to leave the Black woman’s story in oppression, but her goal is to write stories that bring to light the oppression that Black women experienced to show how it shapes the culture today. A person of different race or gender will never see the world in the same way that a Black woman will, but Alice Walker intentionally displays the hardships that Black women have endured so that those of different race and genders can take a moment, while they are reading the story, to step into the shoes of someone who is not like them, and try to understand the experiences that they have endured. Never will anyone but a Black woman see the world the same way that Black women do, but because of the writings of Alice Walker, the world is enlightened to the history and pain that will forever be a part of a Black woman’s life.
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