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Pyrrhic Victories Colored Purple

Meena Venkataramanan ’21, a Crimson news editor, lives in Adams House. Her column usually appears on alternate Wednesdays.

Yesterday I turned nineteen, and the summer marches on like a heartbeat.

Of the many literary journeys I’ve taken over the past two months, Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” spoke to me like few others works have. Chronicling the parallel lives of two sisters bound by the forces of unfettered love, it whispers powerful words of hope and empowerment alongside its vivid descriptions of heart-wrenching struggle.

Walker’s magnum opus cuts deep into the social fabric of the early 20th-century American South, exposing the physical and emotional bloodshed of the black women who shaped it. Simultaneously, it paints provocative images of postcolonial West Africa tainted by centuries of internalized oppression. 

And in its raw portrayals of life at the nadir of multiple social ladders, Walker proffers a path to freedom molded by none other than a collective resilience, a will to love one another amidst what seems like inescapable desolation.

If Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” is protofeminist, Walker’s “The Color Purple” is womanist — celebrating irrevocable bonds among strong, capable women who find themselves shackled by intersecting layers of abuse at the hands of the men in their lives.

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Just one day after finishing the novel, I began a whirlwind of a week mentoring a group of high school girls at a political leadership program. Tasked with ensuring these young women felt comfortable and confident throughout the week, I facilitated nightly discussions to reflect on the preceding day’s events.

“Empowered women empower women,” one young woman told the rest of us on the first night. “So don’t be afraid to share your gift with others.”

Immediately, my mind flashed back to “The Color Purple,” in which the empowerment of the main character, Celie, entirely depends on the women around her — each of whom uses her own feelings of empowerment to build Celie up and help her realize her self-worth. Each woman leads by example, harnessing her own aspirations to bolster Celie’s self-confidence and help find her voice.

Though it portrays the lives of women of color in the early 20th-century South, “The Color Purple” resonates well-beyond its immediate setting. Through universal themes of love and sacrifice, Walker’s book transcends its time and tou ches lives across the spectrum of color and class. And when it touched mine nearly four decades after its publication, it left a message loud and clear: As women, we must build each other up instead of tearing each other down.

My week at the young women’s leadership program was a breeding ground for Walker’s message. In the absence of their male counterparts, the girls were tasked with stepping up to a plate from which women have long shied away. They participated in a mock legislature, political party convention, and presidential election, simulating the processes of American government and taking steps to uplift one another as each debated bills, casted votes, and ran for office.

But a few young women opted to take the competition beyond the ballot box. I watched them thinly veil verbal attacks on one another with saccharine niceties. I saw them bandage their own insecurities by feasting on each other’s vulnerabilities. And perhaps most damagingly, I witnessed their subtle exclusion of one another from conversations, denying one another a voice in a space meant to afford each woman her own unique one.

This brand of emotional destruction among women and girls is universal. It regularly seeps into casual conversations between women who sniff out each other’s weaknesses, wage concealed threats in the form of false compliments, and refuse to engage in honest discussions to address problems by instead resorting to malicious gossip.

While the question of why women tear each other down is a complex one largely rooted in centuries-old patriarchal systems and isn’t exclusive to women, the answer to how to rectify such damaging behavior is more straightforward. In addition to pushing for structural and institutional gender equality, we as women need to lift one another up in our personal interactions.

We need to empower each other in ways that transcend the verbal banner of gender equality. We need to push feminism beyond the confines of its eight letters. Unless we do, our cause will culminate in a Pyrrhic victory.

Whether it’s choosing candor over clandestinity, celebrating the strengths of our female companions, or honoring the principles of sisterhood, we may look to “The Color Purple” as a guiding light.

In portraying unconditional love amongst women who could all-too-easily choose to resent one another, Walker not only paints each of their dynamic stories in the color purple, but weaves them together in a rainbow of solidarity. And, in the end, this very union is what makes her book that much more powerful, that much more timeless.

Yesterday, I celebrated my nineteenth birthday by attending the Broadway musical based on Walker’s novel. I celebrated what life has brought me this past year, beginning with the powerful bonds I’ve developed with the women around me.

In many ways, the last 12 months have changed me profoundly. But in some ways, I’m the same.

I’m still an optimist. I still believe in sisterhood. My favorite color is still purple.

Meena Venkataramanan ’21, a Crimson news editor, lives in Adams House. Her column usually appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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