Click on the headline to link to a "Wikipedia" entry for author Alice Walker.
February Is Black History Month
March Is Women's History Month
The following is an article from the Spring 1988 issue of "Women and Revolution" that may have some historical interest for old "new leftists", perhaps, and well as for younger militants interested in various cultural and social questions that intersect the class struggle. Or for those just interested in a Marxist position on a series of social questions that are thrust upon us by the vagaries of bourgeois society. I will be posting more such articles from the back issues of "Women and Revolution" during Women's History Month and periodically throughout the year.
Race, Sex and Class:
The Clash Over The Color Purple
By Don Alexander and Christine Wright
"Well, you know wherever there's a man, there's trouble."
—Alice Walker, The Color Purple
'"Why do you always feel the need to castrate the black man?'"
—Ishmael Reed, Reckless Eyeballing
When The Color Purple, Stephen Spielberg's film of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, was released in 1985, it roused loud debates among blacks, picketing and furious letters to the editor across the country. Painting a compelling picture of a terribly abused black woman in rural Georgia between the two world wars, the film really hit a nerve; the controversy quickly got much bigger than the novel. While debates raged in community meetings, feminist supporters of Walker and her liberal and black nationalist critics took up their pens to wage a feud which still soaks up gallons of ink.
Many of Alice Walker's critics accuse her of presenting an image of the black male as a violent monster. Walker has responded that black men don't want to face her "truth-telling." As Marxists, we find what amounts to a highly literary contest for the status of "most oppressed" somewhat beside the point. Nonetheless, the furor over The Color Purple has raised some basic questions about the clash of race and sex in this deeply bigoted, anti-sex society, not least about the explosive tensions between black men and women bred by the destruction of the fabric of life through poverty and oppression.
The Color Purple tells the story of Celie and her struggle to survive and defeat a series of physical and psychological assaults by men. She is raped repeatedly by her father, who gives away her two children against her will. She is married off to a man (Mister) who only agrees to take her if he gets the cow too. Mister treats her worse than a dog, beats her, and has kids as rotten as you can get. As she is later mocked by her husband, "Look at you. You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman. Goddam...you nothing at all."Then, through her relationship with Mister's lover, the blues singer Shug, Celie finds love and sexual pleasure, leaves her husband, goes into business making pants, discovers she is heiress to a fortune and is eventually reunited with her children, who have been raised in Africa by her missionary sister, Nettie.
Alice Walker's novel begins as a masterly evocation of Celie's nightmarish oppression through a series of letters in Celie's own words. But this artistic promise is betrayed to Walker's feminist agenda at the end of the book, which degenerates into a hokey miracle solution: Walker's "message" is that black women, however rotten and wretched their lives may be, can "make it." Celie embodies the liberal idealist myth that sheer individual will—and in her case, rather unbelievably good luck—can break the chains of oppression.
The novel largely ignores the social misery of the black sharecroppers in the rural Jim Crow South, and fails to so much as hint at the convulsive social struggles in the U.S. in the 1930s. The one exception is Celie's daughter-in-law, Sofia, who is destroyed when she tries to stand up to the white boss. Even then, no one else attempts to combat the vicious racism; Walker is already laying the basis for a retreat into "personal liberation." The novel also describes Nettie's experiences as a missionary in Africa, where she witnesses the destruction of tribal life by imperialism. All Walker can counterpose to this brutality is black Christian missionaries and throwbacks to such vicious, anti-woman tribal practices as ritual sexual mutilation.
Walker's brand of bourgeois feminism, which she calls "womanism," celebrates gooey, mystical "female bonding" not one whit different from the standard line in Ms., where she served on the editorial staff for years. Bourgeois feminism, preoccupied with the career advancement of female yuppies and closing porn shops in Times Square, cannot address the very real sexual and racial oppression of black women.
Who's Afraid of Alice Walker?
Most critics of The Color Purple enthusiastically embrace the liberal lies disguised in it. (Although the controversy exploded when Spielberg's movie was released, it's important to differentiate between Walker's novel and Spielberg's unintended parody.) Walker has been accused of reinforcing racist stereotypes because she wrote about a black woman who had been abused, raped and beaten by black men. There has also been a disgusting, moralistic streak in the outcry over The Color Purple, centering on opposition to Walker's sympathetic portrayal of black lesbianism. Black journalist/TV host Tony Brown, sounding like a Moral Majority Reaganite bigot, claims that anyone who liked the movie was either a "closet homosexual, a lesbian, a pseudo-intellectual or white."
Certain layers of the black establishment intelligentsia denounce as "racist" anything that presents black people in a negative or critical light. But this is another liberal lie just as dangerous as Walker's. Blacks are by no means exempt from 'social backwardness, such as anti-abortion and anti-gay bigotry. The real point (and Walker herself has made this point in previous novels such as The Third Life of Grange Copeland) is tha't terrible poverty and oppression breed personal cruelty and degradation such as that described in 7"he Color Purple. For example, in the eloquent film Nothing But a Man (1964), a spirited young black man, Duff, lives in a small Alabama town, where he is targeted by the racists for his independence and sense of pride. In one of the key scenes in the movie, Duff, blacklisted and unable to support his family, goes home to his wife feeling humiliated by racist mistreatment. Thinking that he sees his failure as a man reflected in his woman's eyes, he turns on her in rage, and their marriage is almost destroyed. Both Duff and his wife are victims of the
racist system which denies the black man his dignity.
When Richard Wright's Native Son was published in 1940, controversy broke out over his gripping portrayal of a brutalized and alienated young black man whose poverty and desperation turn him into a vicious anti-social criminal. Wright, influenced by the Stalinist Communist Party in the late '30s and early '40s, had been disturbed that even "bankers' daughters" were weeping over his earlier short stories, Uncle Tom's Children. As he said, "I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears." And so Wright brought his readers face to face with the starkness of brutal racial oppression in the U.S., implicitly suggest¬ing that there was no room for sentimental liberal drivel.
While Walker seems to have even the bankers' granddaughters bawling, many of her critics are no different from Wright's. Such critics want to perpetuate the myth that blacks owe their condition of savage oppression to the fact that they "don't stick together"—another version of blaming the victim. These critics seek merely to uphold the "respectable" image of the petty-bourgeois black establishment, personified by the "black family life" portrayed on TV's The Bill Cosby Show. And guilty liberals—both white and black—cannot acknowledge the truth about racist America: the ugly degradation of brutalized ghetto life that strips its victims of their dignity and humanity.
Clash of Race and Sex
Of all Walker's critics, the novelist and poet Ishmael Reed has made the best case against The Color Purple. Moving beyond concerns with mere image, Reed has raised some of the hard questions, and for this he has been smeared as a "misogynist" by the feminists. But Reed, whose seven novels are brilliant parables against American racism, is no more a misogynist than Walker is a racist. What the feminists can't stand is that he has got their number: drawing a simplistic sex line in society can put you on the wrong side on some fundamental questions. It simply is not woman-hating point out that Walker's man-hating is relentless. Celie says to Mister, "You a lowdown dog is what's,
wrong It's time to leave you and enter into Creation. And your dead body is just the welcome m need." And Celie berates her stepson, "If you had tried to rule over Sofia the white folks never would Pu caught her."
Reed's barbed and effective satire of feminism, Reckless Eyeballing, is the story of Ian Ball, a black dramal who has been "sex-listed" for his play about a black woman who likes having sex (with men). To make peace with the feminists Ball writes a new play in whi the body of a young black man, lynched by a racist mob for ogling (called "reckless eyeballing" in the South white woman, is exhumed so he can be tried for his se ist crime, which the feminists denounce as equally bad as the murder.
Those who think Reed is exaggerating should thir back about ten years to Susan Brown miller's Again Our Will, one of the bibles of contemporary Americc feminism. As part of her thesis that rape (or the threat of rape) is the main way that all women are controlled t all men, Brownmiller reviewed the famous case of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black youth who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for whistling at a white man's wife.
This monstrous racist murder was a touchstone on th race question. But as a feminist, Brownmiller disgustingly insisted that Till and J.W. Millam (one of th murderers) had something in common: "They both understood that... it was a deliberate insult just short o physical assault, a last reminder to Carolyn Bryant tha this black boy, Till, had in mind to possess her." As result, Brownmiller says, "Today a sexual remark on the street causes within me a fleeting but murderous rage.' Brownmiller's sex-war politics put her in bed with i racist lynch mob.
In the course of Reckless Eyeballing, successful black woman playwright Tremonisha Smarts (who some say was modeled after Alice Walker) was accosted by a man who:
"tied her up, and shaved all of her hair off. His twisted explanation: this is what the French Resistance did to those women who collaborated with the Nazis. The man had said that because of her 'blood libel' of black men, she was doing the same thing. Collaborating with the enemies of black men."
The horrifying racist murder at Howard Beach in December 1986 inspired Reed to make his definitive argument against Alice Walker and other black feminists in an essay serialized in the Amsterdam News in January-February 1987. But when Reed takes his argument out of the realm of fiction, where poetic license allows him to get at a core of truth, he goes astray. Citing the fact that Jon Lester, the teenager who led the lynch mob that murdered Michael Griffith, was said toj be "real emotional" about the film The Color Purple Reed argues that the description of black male violence incites race-terror. He claims that black feminism's "group libel campaign" against black men "is the kind of propaganda spread by the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party." Reed has a point when he describes his "justifiable paranoia"—he knows it could have been him killed on that highway in Queens. (As black comedian Godfrey Cambridge said , "Paranoia is the occupational disease of black people.")
But the strutting little Mussolinis in Howard Beach could care less what black men do to black women in Harlem, and to lay the blame on "bad propaganda" is a dangerous trivialization of the real threat the race-terrorists pose. It is, however, to Reed's credit that in the days of the black nationalist anti-Semitic demagogue Farrakhan, Reckless Eyeballing savagely denounces anti-Semitism. The book's title page quotes an epigram: "What's the American dream? A million blacks swimming back to Africa with a Jew under each arm." Characters in Reed's novel include a psychotic New York City cop notorious for blowing away blacks and Puerto Ricans, and a Jewish writer who is beaten to death by a mob at the mythical Mary Phegan College. (Mary Phegan was in fact a young white woman murdered in Georgia in 1915; a Jewish businessman, Leo Frank, was framed up for the crime and lynched. The racist upsurge led to the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.) Reed uses such themes to calculate by sex and ethnic group the chances of being murdered in the U.S. As the critic Darryl Pinckney said: "Reed's subtext might be that the rape of black women and the lynching of black men are part of the same historical tragedy" (New York Review of Books, 29 January 1987). As a vivid picture of the viciousness of social relations in the United States, Reckless Eyebslling is eons ahead of The Color Purple—and a much better read, too.
The Talented Tenth Squares Off
In a certain sense, the literary debate over The Color Purple reflects the careerist interests of the black intelligentsia, struggling over shrinking economic opportunities in the absence of any movement for radical change. Thus Walker can snipe at black men from her sanctuary at Ms., the darling of white bourgeois feminists, while Reed raves that there is a publishing conspiracy against black male writers. (We thought this was even nuttier than it is, until we tried to buy his books and discovered they were all out of print!) While seemingly Reed and Walker are at loggerheads, they have at bottom the same program. Walker envisages a female Horatio Alger; Reed sees the "solution" in independent black art. Both posit individual struggle within capitalist society, which necessarily pits one section of the oppressed against another. Their message is, "see, you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps," ignoring the fact that the majority have no boots.
What lies behind these squabbles is the frustration of the "talented tenth"—the tiny selection of minority people who have been able to integrate into the professional layers of American society. In the face of the swift elimination of the token and reversible gains of the civil rights movement and in the absence of any mass struggle for social change, such debates among the black intelligentsia take on the air of a dispute over the shrinking job market.
But we must say in passing that even during the heyday of the civil rights movement the reality of sexual oppression was never addressed. The ensuing black social struggle under revolutionary leadership which today allows the fundamentally despairing ideologies of black nationalism and feminism to flourish among those who see themselves as spokesmen for the oppressed. Walker and Reed, in their different ways accepting the basically hopeless framework of the capitalist status quo, see black women's progress as necessarily coming at the expense of black men—and vice versa. Only an anti-capitalist perspective provides the basis for uniting all the oppressed in a fight for freedom at the expense of the class enemy which aims to keep us divided and in chains.
Capitalism and "American Apartheid"
In the 1980s the harsh realities of a decaying class system have become ever more bleak. Especially for blacks, capitalism has less and less to offer. The unemployment rate has soared with the closing of giant industrial plants in the Midwest, which once provided decent union wages and basic social power to a crucial component of the working class. Funding for educa¬tion has been slashed, while segregation in schools and
in housing has increased. Blacks are not safe in many neighborhoods throughout the U.S. as lynch mob terrorists are emboldened by racist government policy. "Political power" for blacks has come to mean more black elected officials, who the Democratic Party has deemed useful to preside over the deterioration of the big cities, where they exact racist cutbacks and enforce "law and order." Philadelphia mayor Wilson Goode, whose police firebombed an entire black neighbor¬hood in order to wipe out eleven MOVE members, including five of their children, is no more a champion of black rights than New York's fascistic Ed Koch.
With the exception of a very few who have "made it," the hellish conditions are compounded for black women through sexual oppression. Unskilled black women remain confined to the lowest-paying, most menial jobs, earning starvation wages as maids, laundresses and waitresses. Black women are made to bear the brunt of devastating cutbacks in social welfare. In the U.S., twice as many black girls are pregnant before the age of 18 as whites, twice the number of black infants die. The American bourgeoisie has long upheld the lie that ghetto poverty and degradation are the fault of the "deviant" promiscuous black "matriarch." In 1969 Daniel Moynihan argued that the black "matriarchy" was responsible for the breakdown of the black family and suggested that young black men should learn the right values by joining Uncle Sam's army. Over the years the black woman has been variously stereotyped as a presumed tower of strength, a sexless and obese mammy, a promiscuous baby machine, an emasculating fiend.
Yet the picture for black men is not much less bleak. The unemployment rate in big cities for a young black man is 50 to 60 percent. There is also the problem of "permanent unemployability"—e.g., black industrial workers, "last hired, first fired," who under today's conditions will never be rehired. Women account for two-thirds of all the professional jobs held by blacks: black women are seen by racist employers as docile,non-criminal, non-militant, non-violent, an upgraded version of what used to scrub floors; whereas that young black man in a suit who seems articulate and ambitious is suspected of being Malcolm X in disguise. In the 3 December 1987 New York Review of Books, the article "American Apartheid" describes the grim reality:
"...black men are more likely [than whites] to be in prisons or the military, or die at an early age. The fact that upward of 20 percent are missed by the census would point up their lack of stable jobs or even settled addresses. Moreover, of those black men the census manages to reach, fewer than half have full-time jobs."
It all comes home to roost in the black family. In a society which defines manhood as the ability to support a family, black men are often denied that very ability. "Single-parent households" are growing throughout the U.S., a phenomenon which affects blacks more heavily but by no means exclusively. Over 56 percent of black families are headed by women. Capitalist society needs the institution of the nuclear family not only to produce the next generation of wage laborers, but as an important force for social conservatism. At the same time, capitalist decay undermines the family through grinding poverty and oppression. The family is the main social institution by which women are oppressed. But in the absence of alternatives, those who fall outside the classic pattern of the family have nothing at all. Thus, this vicious racist system cannot but lead to embittered personal relations between men and women. Out of this rises the frustration which takes The Color Purple controversy out of the literary realm into the community, where it exploded in angry debates.
In this sense, Alice Walker triumphed as an artist: the depth of the controversy shows that she began to lay bare a painful reality. The solution to the reality she and Ishmael Reed have described in their novels lies not in the realm of art or bourgeois politics, but in the struggle for the socialist transformation of society."