In Search of The Color Purple Author and Book Cover
Images via Nick Romanenko/Rutgers University; Salamishah Tillet © Abrams Press, 2020

'In Search of The Color Purple' and Why Black Women Look For Each Other

A new book by Salamishah Tillet continues the decades-long tradition of Black women unearthing other Black women’s literature.

Almost fifty years ago, in 1975, writer, poet, and activist Alice Walker left a note of gratitude and remembrance for anthropologist, researcher, and writer Zora Neale Hurston. On Hurston’s tombstone, which had gone unmarked for over a decade, Walker wrote, “Zora Neale Hurston – A Genius of the South – 1901-1960 – Novelist – Folklorist – Anthropologist.” Hurston’s work had drastically shaped Walker’s understanding of what it means to see through a society built atop white supremacy and male rage. So in an essay titled “Looking for Zora,” Walker put to form what Black women—and in particular writers—have done for generations, which is to find and bring back the insight of other Black women creators and groundbreakers who came before.


In Search of The Color Purple: The Story of an American Masterpiece, released January 12, begins with a somewhat similar note of gratitude: “To my sister Scherharazade without whom I would not have been able to pick up the pieces and make myself whole again,” writes critic, scholar and activist Salamishah Tillet. Her book is focused on Walker’s seminal novel about sexual assault, her characters, and how this piece of fiction has moved through the years, changing lives, including her own, and shaping a generation of Black women interested in queering Black history and querying structures of oppression and erasure.

Over the years, various Black women have unburied the works of Black women who made their own journeys possible: Alexis De Veaux unearthed Audre Lorde in Searching for Audre Lorde, Imani Perry did the same with Lorraine Hansberry in Looking for Lorraine, and Nina Collins with her mother Kathleen Collins in Notes from a Black Woman’s Diary. Two years ago, I set off on my own search for the Afro-Brazilian writer, diarist, playwright, and singer Carolina Maria de Jesus, tracing the fissures of her life through the words she shared in her work and the memories carried by her one living child, Vera Eunice de Jesus Lima. In this continuous act of unearthing, Black women have helped each other breathe easier, see farther, and believe more deeply in the possibility of a world that cherishes their mundane, striking, broken, and full selves.


“I think when you go back, you are looking for some sort of genesis of your identity,” Tillet told me over a Zoom call in late December. “So how do I pay homage to someone [Walker] who made me understand Zora Neale Hurston better? Because Zora is a part of our canon now. But the way she is available for me, she wasn’t for Alice.”

“It’s a question about lineage and tradition and how we go looking for one’s past in order to learn who we are supposed to be in the present and the future,” Tillet added.

What makes Tillet’s book different from other works addressing unexamined parts of Black womanhood and artistry is that the author is still living, and so Tillet was able to sit down with Walker and include Walker’s own recollections of her artistic trajectory. Unlike many of her foremothers, Walker is well and content in a house surrounded by verdant vineyards overlooking the mountains and, as noted in the book, fog that “stretches across the entire valley” in the mornings.

In contemporary conversations about The Color Purple, amid the countless stage productions, the epic Oscar-nominated film, and the hundreds of papers centered solely on its influence, it’s easy to forget that following the book’s release, there was a coordinated effort to ban it from schools, libraries, and stores, along with nationwide protests and television programming dedicated to pillaging its merits. In various portions of Tillet’s book, she makes sure we never forget what Walker endured so that four fictional Southern Black women could exist on their own terms. Tillet notes a moment in 1981 when after sending an excerpt of The Color Purple to Essence magazine, Walker received a letter of rejection and the bruising remark that, “Black people don’t talk like that.” Influential figures such as Louis Farrakhan and Spike Lee condemned the book, choosing to focus not on the voice of a Black teenage girl, but the depictions of the men in her life who’d caused her harm.


“It was so lame, so ridiculous and so untrue a lot of it,” Walker told Tillet. “A book and a movie that urged us to look at the oppression of women and children by men (and to a lesser degree by women) became the opportunity by which many Black men drew attention to themselves.” The vitriol compelled Walker to retreat from the public eye and lose herself in new stories, but Tillet also offers a look at those who did love the work, specifically Black women from all walks of life, including those shuttered into invisibility by labor and anti-blackness, and those carrying the weight of being the first: Women like Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, who wrote to Walker after reading the book and passed on her gratitude to the writer for showing us “loving and changing and raising kids and fighting and dealing and winning and being friends.” 

In going back to rediscover The Color Purple, Tillet gives readers a look into the thoughts of Black women of that era who embraced the book as a personal and public statement of their most intimate desires and pains. “We get absorbed into this world and while some people are Celie, lots of the readers are not,” said Tillet. “And so for us to be able to stay in her story and see the world through the eyes of a teenaged girl in the segregated South who is a rape survivor, do you know how many possibilities of justice can come through that gaze?”


Unlike Hurston and De Jesus, who died penniless and no longer doing what had brought them momentary visibility, or Hansberry and Lorde, both of whom spent their last days moving between cancer treatments and bed rest, Walker has spent the majority of her time writing and will most likely spend the rest of her days doing just that. She has attained a level of financial stability and career longevity not often granted to those of her race and gender. Her clarity of thought remains as sharp today as it was when she first started piecing together the lives of Celie, Shug, and Sofia while living under the looming skyscrapers of New York.

“She’s such a prolific writer, so for me to show how this young girl becomes a writer who can then write The Color Purple, I had to leave a lot of things out,” said Tillet, who found much insight from the Alice Walker archive—a formidably deep physical library filled with notes, letters, and manuscripts; evidence of labor and heart’s work. 

For there to be The Color Purple, Walker had to first craft Meridian, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, and In Search of Our Mothers Gardens, and so Tillet connects all the dots that would inevitably align and produce a literary offering that stirs as much adoration as it does ire. It’s hard not to imagine that Walker was intentional with the notes, manuscripts, diaries, and ephemera she chose to keep as archives, having spent years herself trying to find parts of Hurston, a journey made difficult because there was so little information available. In collecting so much of her own work and the responses to it, Walker made it possible for those who would come searching for her to map the way and rediscover moments in time that shaped her literary journey. “What I knew,” Walker told Tillet from her peaceful home, “was that I had a responsibility to those after me and if I could be helpful by leaving a map, that’s what I’d do.”


Seeing images of Black death in the digital era has made the act of rediscovering authors not only an artistic practice but an essential part of existing. Black people need to see evidence of how others before us lived and survived because so often it seems like we may not survive our own times. And we need to see how Black artists achieved bliss, both in the small, private moments and the public unforgettable ones. Jessica Lynne, writer, art critic, and co-founding editor of ARTS.BLACK, has spent the better part of her life unraveling the stories of creative Black women. Currently, she is working on a series of essays looking at the work of Black women artists in the U.S. South, with the hope that her findings will spotlight the intergenerational histories of Black Southern cultural production.” Included in the map-making is the work of the late architect and teacher Amaza Lee Meredith in speculative dialogue with contemporary artists Thulani Davis, Michelle Polissaint, and Samella Lewis

The experiences of Black women are so often intertwined across generations and borders that it can be challenging for authors to balance writing in their own voice with giving a nod to the women who shaped them. With her essays, Lynne is working on paying attention to the archival material left behind, and not projecting the things that she is searching for as a writer. “I think that complicated choreography is so important,” she said, “and perhaps especially for Black women who are not quite as named or as recognizable as others.”


This unearthing is present not only with writing but art-making as a whole. In 2018, Ng’endo Mukii, a Kenyan animation filmmaker, collaborated on an animated film in homage to the late Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangarĩ Muta Maathai, while completing a residency in Salvador, Brazil. For Mukii, sharing Maathai’s history in a country so far from home highlighted the radical comradeship that stretched across continents. “I think that the discovery of an afro-feminist from across the continent who did things that people are also struggling to achieve in their own country was such a powerful thing for the artists I worked with,” said Mukii. Maathai’s trajectory from a young girl in Nairobi, to one of the most educated women in East Africa and an eventual Nobel laureate, was marked with public humiliations and personal devastation. 

“I remember sitting on the carpet in my home when I was very young and seeing her getting beaten on television,” said Mukii. “That crap that if you are educated you get more respect obviously went out the window.” Maathai died in 2011, and in the public adulations, there was little mention of the state-sanctioned violence she endured at the hands of government officials who were angered by her tireless organizing regarding climate change and environmental conservation, or how she was subject to virulent sexism both in her marriage and in academia. “I regularly think about the things that I am doing on the internet and kind of counter check because of a fear of what the government might do,” Mukii said. “She [Maathai] was doing good things for people and it didn’t matter, they still beat her to a pulp. So I received that message very clearly.” 

There are throughlines between these women—Collins was inspired to write with greater attention to the minute details of Black women’s interior lives after reading Hansberry. Hurston’s own revelations and constant wonderings opened up a world of possibility for Walker. Lynne’s framework on Southern femme artistry exists because of Meredith. Mukii moves with intention and caution while never losing sight of the precarity of her position as an African woman. And Tillet’s prior work and organizing centered on Black girls, especially her non-profit, A Long Walk Home, were made possible because of the arcs of Shug, Celie, and Sofia. There is something vigorously moving about the ways Black women have historically cultivated and returned to each other’s work, that to paraphrase Tillet, “grounds us in their presence and our skin.” At the end of it all, we are searching for imprints of our mothers.

Early this year, I read Zora Neale Hurston’s The Complete Stories, and I remember thinking that had she not written about her neighbors in Eatonville, Florida, with such vibrancy and literary whimsy, Alice Walker might not have been able to find the tools and precedent that would later ground her own work. “I think Black women look back to find permission and possibility,” Tillet said at the end of our conversation. By consistently tracing the lineage of our global and regional artistry, Black women allow themselves to discover new answers to old questions and also center the realities that molded them, the ways they survived, and the gardens they tilled.

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