13 February 2015

The Color Purple and #BlackLivesMatter

I realize Alice Walker's The Color Purple has been out for longer than I've been alive, but I only just read it last month  at the gym, actually. I've taken to picking up more audiobooks through Audible.com and am working through a backlog of audiobooks I snagged during a big sale last year. It's pretty awesome because I can download them to my phone with my Audible app and listen to them wherever. So since I listen to them at the gym, it's been a very useful motivation to spend more time at the gym.

But I digress.

Alice Walker
A few weeks ago, I turned on The Color Purple while I was on the elliptical. It's narrated by Alice Walker herself, which is a rare treasure. I love listening to authors read their own books when they're good at reading, and Walker is simply incredible. Her voice, both literal and metaphorical, grabs you by the heart and falls. The whole book feels like running downhill, gathering speed, getting faster and faster, getting so fast you couldn't stop if you wanted to, not without falling head-over-tail and continuing to tumble downwards.

I was at the gym a lot that week. I didn't do my laundry. I forgot to pay a bill. I became confused at how to interact with a world in which everybody around me wasn't listening to The Color Purple.

It was a weird, lonely, intoxicating week.

I have been thinking about it deeply for some weeks now, and I can't think of another book that had so profound an impact on my life while I was reading it. I can't think of another book that made me feel as if I was suffocating from lack of air during times I was deprived of it  while at work, for example.

If I were going to leave my boyfriend for a book, it would be The Color Purple by Alice Walker.

The next week, a new coworker told me that Walker wrote more books in the same storyline. I haven't picked them up yet; I'm a little afraid. Afraid that they won't be as good. Afraid that they will be as good and I'll disappear from the world entirely into Walker's story.

It's a hard book. It is. It starts out with a really upsetting scene that I'm used to writers burying in the 7th or 8th book of a series. (Rape.) But life gets better for Celie, the 14-year-old narrator, a black girl living in the south in the 1930s. It gets better slowly, but it does get better.

I think this story is about empowerment of black womanhood. It's about the struggles of black people  men and women  but it's also particularly about womanhood. Or maybe that's just how I took it because that's the part that I most identified with.

The novel spans 40 years and 2 continents, through letters written by Celie in America and her sister Nettie, who travels to Africa as a missionary.

This is a hard book to read. It's hard. Lots of bad things happen to people who didn't do anything to deserve these things  things that nobody could possibly do anything to deserve. It portrays a time and place where people were abused and downtrodden simply for existing. The truly sad thing is that there are many people in America who are still abused and downtrodden merely for existing. People who are killed for doing no more than existing. How many reports of people being killed did we see last year? It was a lot more than zero. While reading The Color Purple, I frequently found myself thinking of the people who have been killed in recent years. Trayvon Martin. Tamir Rice. Akai Gurley. Kajieme Powell. Michael Brown. John Crawford. Eric Garner. Yvette Smith. McKenzie Cochran. Jonathan Farrell. Rekia Boyd. Shereese Francis. The list goes on, and on, and on, and...on.

And it's bullshit, you guys. It's bullshit.

This book is supposedly set in the 1930s and it's capturing a situation that's still so relevant today. Is it still relevant to the same extent? Hell, I don't know. Black people are disproportionately poor, disproportionately incarcerated, disproportionately affected by health problems related to lack of access to proper food. People are still dying. People still have to teach black children how to "not get themselves killed." (No different from teaching women how to "not get themselves raped.") What the actual hell.

I think about my cousin, whose son is black. I think about my boyfriend's supervisor, whose daughters are black. I think about the inner-city kids that are in my friend Patrice Hutton's creative writing program, Writers in Baltimore Schools.

This is bull. Shit.

My hands are shaking as I write this. I'm pissed off and I'm angry, and I'm still pretty affected by Alice Walker running my heart right through the wringer over and over again in The Color Purple. My coworker tells me it's been made into a movie. And I think maybe I'll watch it. Maybe I'll watch it pretty soon.

I'll leave you with this poem written by one of Patrice's students. Their poems were featured in this article in the Washington Post.

Christian Pearson, 13
Mount Royal Elementary/Middle School

The New Jim Crow
Hey, whaddaya know?
It’s our friend Jim Crow.
And nowadays he’s
Running America’s show.
Took Mamie Till’s son
And Michael Brown in Ferguson
Get us running from the cops
And cleaning blood with mops.
Believing old pains and forgotten sorrow,
African Americans, meet the New Jim Crow.