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Published: Thu, October 26, 2017
World | By Lorena Waters

The Color Purple and the Toppling of American Gods - PEN America


Every year, PEN America asks PEN Members and supporters-writers and editors of all backgrounds and genres-to celebrate the freedom to read by reflecting on the banned books that matter most to them. This is our way of taking part in the American Library Association's annual Banned Books Week, which brings together the entire book community in shared support of the freedom to seek and express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular. Check out this year's Banned Books feature here.

Visit our archive of Banned Books essays here.

In 2013, North Carolina's Brunswick County Commissioner Pat Sykes, along with a handful of parents and teachers, made it their goal to remove Alice Walker's The Color Purple from the local schools. In this day and age, we are being sued for using or saying the N word. Look at Paula Deen. "

I do not know if anyone asked Ms. Sykes who this" we "might be, or if anyone thought to question the relevance of Paula Deen's use of slurs to the issue of What literature is appropriate for children But it was the children Sykes cited when describing who needed shielding from this book: "Trash in, trash out," she said of The Color Purple , which she admitted she had never actually read: "To me , We should have standards for our kids. "

The teenage girl who filmed the assault was arrested. The police officer was not charged.

If we're talking about "we," I'm wondering what we mean when we say we should have standards for our kids. I'm wondering what we mean when we say we're protecting them. I'm still wondering who Pat Sykes's "we" is, though I can guess, and it's a "we" that my white womanhood automatically makes me a part of. Our "we" -the white we-can't protect Black children from police entering their classrooms and assaulting their classmates, but by God we will protect them from the book that tells them their abuse is decades old, centuries old, and woven into A system of violence constructed long before they were born. When we say removing books like The Color Purple -like Beloved , like The Bluest Eye , like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings : all of which have been challenged and banned for racial, sexual, and / or supposedly anti-Christian content-is protecting children, it feels like a lie. It smells and tastes like a lie. So if we're not protecting children from The Color Purple , then who or what are we protecting?

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Celie found God in purple. She found God in Nettie, in Shug's voice; That voice that is "sort of like [how] panthers would sound if they could sing." She found it on Shug's nipples, and between her own legs. The women of The Color Purple , in questioning what we-the white we-have called God for so long (whiteness, maleness, purity, heterosexuality) Violence as truth, as the definition of our patriotic and human identities, would attempt to strike down these women? Every chapter's beginning- "Dear God" -is a blasphemy against the old American gods: not always the addressing of a letter but a long slow exhale of awe, the sigh of a witness to Earth's-America's-horror: "Dear God."

Censorship is born of fear. And the gods of America-false gods, the system and idols we have put on thrones and in the sky-do have something to fear from books like The Color Purple . In the Color Purple lies the truth, in its pages lie glorious, flammable ideas: how many fires could be lit with the simple, indomitable truth that to Black girl in the American South is human?

The truth is, there is almost always a "we" floating beneath the surface of challenges like that of Pat Sykes: it is a "we" that is full of fear, the "we" that gazes at the incombustible nature of Truth and trembles at what could happen to the gods we've so carefully constructed, gods whose thrones we've built upon the backs of Celies and Shugs and Sofias, if the prayers of a 14-year-old Black girl could reach the ears Of millions. A book has the power to change history, topple cities: what happens to our kingdom when the censor falls away and the face of our gods peer out with the eyes of Miss Millie?

In a 2012 interview with Guernica , When asked about her feelings about the banning of her work, Alice Walker said: "I had delivered my gift. It was given in complete love to everyone. If they wanted to keep it, it would have to be their work to fight for it. They did. "It was one year later that Sykes and others in Brunswick County, citing Paula Deen, attempted to silence Celie's voice. The fight was fought once more to keep Alice Walker's gift, and it is a fight that must be fought again and again. For The Color Purple is more than a gift: it's an offering not to the gods, but of them. The God found in a field of flowers, in a love song, in a juke joint, in a letter from one sister to another. In "black ... so black the eye is simply dazzled." In a mirror.

We must never let it shatter. Even when we-my we; Pat Sykes's we're ugly. Even when our gods fall down. Purple flowers will replace them.

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