Womanist Theology and the Purple Perspective

This post is part of our forum on “Womanist Theology.

Woman gives a sermon at Bread of Life Church. (Aaron of L.A. Photography/Shutterstock)

Alice Walker’s definition of womanist—“womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender”—uniquely differentiates two complexions of racialized feminist identity. Yet little attention is paid to how Walker uses color theory itself to analyze and distinguish said identities.  Color theory is defined as a set of “rules and guidelines” that govern how colors complement each other, typically in art, film, staging and design. Sir Isaac Newton invented the color wheel, which is today the primary tool that is used to practice color theory in this regard. A lot of what we know about color theory, in fact, has been theorized and developed by white men; from Aristotle’s musings on color, to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Bemerkungen über die Farben (Remarks on Colour) (1950).

It is imperative to think about color theory within a construct of Black feminist thought. It’s taken up by Black women in creative and critical expressions of interiority as well as critiques of dominant social structures and oppression. This is a use of color theory that challenges human perception and asserts the multitudes of cultural contexts that colors exist in. In Walker’s case, to liken a womanist to the color purple is to liken the wearer of that name, or a practitioner of womanism, to the connotations of the color itself—regal, wise, feminine, imaginative. This understanding of the color purple, within the context of Walker’s theorizations and the greater landscape of Black feminist thought, reveals that the color and its connotations have been significant to Black women’s assertions of humanity, and their practices of resistance, self-recovery, self-discovery, and resilience throughout time.

Included in this matrix of understanding around purple, its connotations of spirituality and divinity inform Womanist Theology in thought and praxis. Springing forth from purple’s rarity in nature, its denotation of the third eye chakra in Indian yoga traditions, and its global associations with royalty by divine right, the spiritual meanings of purple are configured within American Black women’s textual and material rhetorics to support womanist theological thought. Here, I want to explore such rhetorics of Womanist Theology through purple, explicating its invocation in ideology, practice, and material culture.

Blooming in the mid 1980s, Womanist Theology takes the seeds of womanism, plants them to grow a “safe space for discussion and discovery,” as Stephanie Y. Mitchem put it, cultivating a garden for Black women beholden to the Christian faith. It creates an “opportunity to state the meaning of God in Black Women’s lives,” whereas traditionally Western, namely American, Christian institutions prioritize a white and masculine understanding of God. Christian churches continuously operate from a patriarchal model, leaving Black women most marginal in their expressions of faith and religious practices. In Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Color Purple, she illustrates womanist theological thought mostly through the character of Shug Avery. Shug, a central character and lover to the protagonist, Celie, explains who she believes God to be, and how “It” [God] feels when we pass by the color purple in the world:

“Listen, God love everything you love–and a mess of stuff you don’t. But more than anything else, God love admiration.”

“You saying God vain? I ast.”

“Naw,” she say. “Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”

Here, Shug is positioned as an example of a womanist theologian, as her personal perspective of God overrides common white, patriarchal, and Western notions of divine relationship. This is further crystalized in her own characterization as a blues singer who pushes social boundaries that were restrictive for women at the time. Shug’s belief in God as an “It” instead of a “He” already expresses a personal rendering of God that doesn’t adhere to common, Western depictions, and shows a blatant disregard for those depictions in favor for a more holistic and inclusive religious practice conducive to diverse and unique standpoints. Her declaring that It wants us to notice the color purple when it shows up in nature proposes a counter to the west’s inherently capitalist ‘always on the go’ attitude, demanding that one slow down to notice and appreciate the world around them. Purple is also a critical metaphor for how “misogynoir” inundates Black women’s lives, a term Moya Bailey uses to describe the forms of oppression unique to Black women. Walker spotlights the tendency for Black women to be hyper-invisible in a white supremacist society, flattened to legible depictions that marginalize our complexities and depth as human beings, questioning whether they have any semblance of autonomy. And because, in this context, God loves all It’s children, Shug declares that It gets mad when one child isn’t included or acknowledged for the knowledge, beauty, and life they bring to all the rest of It’schildren. In The Color Purple, purple in nature is a metaphor for Black women in society.

This notion makes Shug’s characterization all the more integral to how womanist theology cultivates a space for Black women to express themselves in their practices of faith. Shug’s artistry in a musical genre that has been constantly lauded as “the devil’s music,” her openness in her sexuality, her queerness, and her un-apology for her Blackness all fall outside patriarchal notions of what a Christian should look like and be like (which is further amplified when considering its intersections with the politics of respectability). As Thomas Marvin proclaims, Shug Avery “encourages Celie and other oppressed women in the novel to express themselves and stand up for their rights,” as she “promises her followers a new relationship between the individual and the world, one based on an understanding of the holiness of all living things and the spiritual power of the spoken word” This basis of womanist theology through purple moves beyond these intimate expressions to inform Black women’s activist ideologies, since the theoretical underpinnings of womanist theology all work in the general aim to build a new society, free from white supremacist, colonial, and patriarchal constructs of being, and that which is interested in the uplifting of whole communities.

Purple is one of the most prominent colors in Black feminist visuality and in the rendering of Black womanhood for media consumption. One of the earliest accounts of the vernacular prominence of purple is in Frances E.W. Harper’s 1892 novel Iola Leroy; Or, Shadows Uplifted, where the aforementioned protagonist’s name is derived from the Greek to mean “violet colored-dawn,” and in Welsh it means “valued by the lord.”Iola is a biracial Black woman who, after experiencing the horrors of slavery and its terror against the Black female body, commits her life to racial uplift and fervently holds to her identity as a Black woman despite her ability to pass for white. Iola’s dedication to bettering the material and social conditions of Black communities, and her undeniable love of her Blackness not only speak to Walker’s conceptualization of who a womanist is—a Black woman who loves her community and loves her Blackness—but also to how purple’s connotations are taken up in womanist theological praxis.

The racial uplift politics that Iola engages with were the crux to the Club Movement of the late nineteenth century (of which Harper and several of her contemporaries pioneered). When the Colored Women’s League and National Federation of Afro-American Women came together to form the National Association of Colored Women, their club paraphernalia consisted heavily of purple with gold accents. Pins, buttons and convention badges used this scheme, which is still prevalent today as the signature color of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. I’m particularly drawn to a royal purple club banner that states the club’s slogan, “lifting as we climb,” in gold lettering.

These objects and their significance in the NACW highlight the public-facing nature to Black women’s activism, and assert Black women’s inherent value in the world. Though the NACW’s goal to help poor and working-class Black women was more out of a sense self-preservation and less out of goodwill through its appeals to respectability, its ideal politics were caught up in their materiality, and how that materiality is an extension of the womanist ethics of community care through purple’s spiritual contexts. Reconfigured by womanist theological thought, the divine virtues of purple are disseminated through stewardship and advocacy for the oppressed.

These expressions of Black women’s religiosity, moving beyond the church to instead learn through color, show that Walker’s likening a womanist to the color purple is built upon a history of activism and intellectualism that opposed and resisted epistemological and ideological marginality. Purple and its connotations within a womanist theological framework symbolizes the interior worlds of Black women’s spiritual lives, and how those lives reach outward to bring aid and healing to a world in desperate need of it.

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Marlas Yvonne Whitley

Marlas Yvonne Whitley is a graduate student in English at New York University. Her current research examines the significance of purple in Black women’s visual, textual and material rhetorics, as well as working with color theory as a catalyst for thinking through and with Black women's intellectual traditions.