“When Literature Hurts and Texts Do Not Bring Healing”: Teaching “The Color Purple”
Teaching Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” (TCP) for a second time is never an easy task for me. When I first began to teach the book last fall semester (2018), I thought that I was emotionally fit and intellectually strong to do it. The more I study and understand the violence, oppression, and abuse–sexual, economic, verbal, psychological, societal, systemic, structural, spiritual, mental, patriarchal–the women characters (i.e. Celie Nettie, Shug, Sofia, Odessa, Olivia) in the text suffer and experience, and compare the shared experiences of women to the various forms of human evil, masculine strongholds and assaults, and toxic forces haunting the lives of women in the contemporary American society, I begin to bear some of those burdens, psychologically and mentally. TCP exposes the reality of psychological fragmentation and emotional burden in the female experience and feminist consciousness; the novel is also an inescapable discourse of textual crisis.
Last fall semester, as I was teaching the novel, a male student stopped attending the course for a month because he could no longer sustain the emotional burden of the text–as he informed me privately. In the middle of class lecture, a young woman shouted, “Some of the things that happened to Celie also happened to me.” The whole class turned their gaze toward her; as a result, she muted her voice.
This spring semester, in a recent class lecture as I was attempting to establish connections and parallels (i.e. woman suffering, rape, abuse, wife-beating) between the lives of women in the novel and the testimonies of the women in the #METOO movement, two young women burst into tears and cried for almost the entire class. Two other young ladies walked out of the class. Several of them (female students) put their heads down. The class was in absolute silence for the next 10 minutes. Everyone was starring me, unable to utter a word!
At the end of our uneasy dialogue, I told the class courageously, “Unfortunately, sometimes in life we have to go through pain and suffering in order to find healing, peace, and an escape. However, it does not always have to be that way.” I will not teach Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” in the next semester or in the academic year, 2019-2020. I am taking a mental break from TCP.
A year ago, when I told my colleague, DrDanny Hoey, that I was planning to teach Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” and Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple.” He kindly asked me, to paraphrase him, “Celucien, are you (emotionally and mentally) ready and prepared.” He advised me to hold on to the Morrison’s text, but start with Walker. I thought that I was ready to confront the force and revolutionary pen of Alice Walker’s pen.
I estimate that profound and honest textual exegesis and creative hermeneutics of a good text could potentially lead to both emotional pain and psychological healing, even holistic transformation.
Reading a novel and teaching it are two different beasts!