My most free-spirited niece, who was born in Boston, thanked me recently for writing “The Color Purple.” She said it gave her a sense of our family, though of course much of that family is imagined rather than literal. In particular, she said, it made her feel more loving toward her wayward-leaning self. She could witness aunts in ‘‘The Color Purple” who made perfect ancestral material for the person she is. This was lovely to hear. One of the values of a family knowing itself is that loneliness is decreased, mysteries explained, company for one’s journey on this planet thankfully acquired.
Not having grown up in the South, as I did, my niece knew almost nothing of the strong connections that existed between her grandmother, my mother, and her five sisters and six brothers. She never experienced as a child the huge gatherings of clan that gave young children a sense of belonging and familial security.
These gatherings were a special blessing to every child. Though, with so many uncles and aunts and cousins descending on the family at least once a year, it was a challenge to understand just exactly who each person was. It didn’t really matter, in a way, since it was the collective — so many aunts and uncles and cousins to wonder about and to enjoy! — that made each gathering special.
In a way, “The Color Purple” asks: Can a family fall completely apart — whether from alcoholism, child abuse, poverty, racism, violence, sexism, homosexuality (which would have seemed to be a negative in the days the book depicts) — and still reconstitute itself primarily through the efforts of the one member who begins to see the value of each participant? Can we find the thrown-away or broken parts of ourselves and reclaim and fix them?
The ending of the film adaptation of the book was disheartening to me, because I realized the movie’s editor did not share my faith that family is actually like any other living organism that will forever seek missing parts of itself. Mister, who has been so cruel to others because his father was cruel to him, is not allowed to grow in the movie to the full extent of his recovery. He wanders off, at the end, outcast from the family that he has harmed so deeply.
The play restores him to the family as the book intended. And answers the question we all must ask of our families and communities in these times that are so challenging to the spirit of us all.
At the end of our wandering lives, when each of us has fulfilled the dictates of our own natures as best we could, might we, as families, return to sit together on the same porch?
With all my heart, I am hoping the answer is yes.
Alice Walker is a novelist, short story writer, and poet.