The Color Purple was first published in 1982, was made into a movie in 1985 (it was Whoopi Goldberg’s breakthrough role, which led to her Academy Award nomination for Best Actress and winning her first Golden Globe), and then was made into a musical in 2005. It is a story of the lives of Black women in the Deep South during the 1930’s, specifically following Celie and the struggles she faced during her life, and one that captivated audiences, no matter if they were readers, movie goers or lovers of musical theater.
Despite the popularity of the novel, The Color Purple faced a large amount of book challenges since it was published, mainly in schools. One of the main reasons it faced so much push back from parents was due to its sexual explicitness, and the language used in the book.
Here’s a more detailed timeline discussing specific book challenging instances:
|Year||Reason For Being Challenged|
|1984||Challenged at an Oakland, California High School honors class because of its “sexual and social explicitness” and “troubling ideas about race relations, man’s relationship to God, African history, and human sexuality.” After nine months, the divided Oakland Board of Education retained the book.|
|1985||Rejected for purchase by Hayward, California school’s trustee since there was “rough language” and “explicit sex scenes.”|
|1986||Removed from the shelves of Newport News’ (Virginia) school library because of “profanity and sexual references”. It was then placed in a special section accessible to students over the age of 18 or those with written permission from a parent.|
|1989||Challenged at Saginaw, Michigan’s public libraries because it was “too sexually graphic for a 12-year-old.” |
Challenged as a summer youth program reading assignment in Chattanooga, TN due to language and “explicitness.”
|1990||Challenged as an optional reading assigned for schools in Ten Sleep, Wyoming|
|1992||Challenged as a reading assignment at the New Burn, NC High School since Celie is raped by her stepfather.|
Banned in the Souderton, Pennsylvania Area School District as inappropriate reading for 10th graders as it was considered “smut.”
|1995||Challenged to be removed from the curricular reading list at Pomperaug High School in Southbury, Connecticut because sexually explicit passages were deemed as not appropriate high school reading.|
Retained as an English course reading assignment in a Junction City, Oregon high school after months of controversy. An alternative assignment was available for students, but The Color Purple was challenged because of “inappropriate language, graphic sexual scenes, and book’s negative image of black men.”
Challenged at St. Johns County Schools in St. Augustine, Florida.
|1996||Retained on Independent High School’s reading list after the book was challenged for being too violent. (Round Rock, Texas)|
Challenged to be removed from reading lists for AP English classes in Northwest High Schools in High Point, North Carolina. The book was challenged because it is “sexually graphic and violent”, although it was eventually retained.
|1997||Removed from Jackson County, West Virginia school libraries. It was one sixteen titles removed from the shelves.|
|1999||Challenged to be removed from a supplemental reading list at the Shawnee School (Lima, Ohio) as parents said the content was vulgar and “X-rated.” Eventually, the book was retained.|
Removed from Ferguson High School’s library (Newport News, Virginia), although students can request to borrow the book if they have parental consent.
|2002||One of seventeen titles challenged in Fairfax County (Virginia) elementary and secondary libraries. It was challenged by Parents Against Bad Books in Schools as the (seventeen books) books “contain profanity and descriptions of drug abuse, sexually explicit conduct, and torture.”|
|2008||Challenged in Burke County schools in Morganton, North Carolina by parents concerned about the books portrayal of homosexuality, rape, and incest.|
|2017||Banned in all Texas State Prisons due to explicit language and graphic violence|
Note: These are only the incidents which were documented and had media coverage, as it’s important to remember that a lot of cases concerning books being banned/challenged aren’t always reported to the American Library Association, or receive media coverage.
I want to start off by saying that this isn’t a story meant for elementary school kids, as the way its written and the themes discussed just aren’t appropriate for that age group. Middle school is more of a grey area, and mainly depends on the maturity of the individual reading it, but this is a book which should be available to high school students. I’m surprised that one of the reasons it’s banned in the Texas Prison System, and one of the reasons is because of “explicit language”. Your main concern, in a prison, is the explicit language of a book… really?
The Color Purple also brings the perspective of what it’s like to be Black, and more so a Black woman, during the thirties, after the Reconstruction period ends, Jim Crow Laws are in place, and in the midst of the Great Depression. Even though there are some hard topics of discussion in the book, such as rape and incest, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be talked about. In fact, these topics need to be discussed more, especially when it comes to recovering from a traumatic past such as Celie’s. This quote from Demi Marshall’s article, “Banned Books Week: The Color Purple” describes perfectly why the scene’s that are considered “sexually explicit” play an important role in Celie’s character arc throughout the novel.
There is a specific scene in the book that caused a lot of uproar because it explicitly describes a sexual scene. In this scene, Shug encourages Celie to explore her own body, and Celie begins to experience sex in a personal way, which is a milestone considering how painful and traumatic her past is.(I included the article in my further research section below, if you want to read the entire article)
I also want to touch on the fact that the book contains “homosexuality” is deemed a valid enough reason to attempt banning this book. Why is it so controversial that Celie realizes she is attracted to women? A reason why there are so many LGBTQIA+ people that don’t come out until later in life is because of fear, but also because they simply didn’t recognize what their feelings meant. That’s why it’s important to have characters who are are so open about their journey of self-discovery, as there are students who are most likely going through the same process and can relate.
I’m going to go off topic here, but the fact a lot of recent book challenges revolve around books which discuss members of the LGBTQIA+ community, even when it’s a simply a children’s book that happens to have LGBTQIA+ characters in it, also says a lot about how the community is viewed in society. Even when the content itself isn’t inherently sexual, because discussion of the LGBTQIA+ tends to revolve around sex, it can lead people to oversexualize those in the LGBTQIA+ community, and deem any discussion of it “sexually explicit”. I wanted to point this out, as I think it’s a topic that needs to be discussed during a time when a fair amount of the books included on “Top Ten Most Challenged Books” lists are those that handle LGBTQIA+ topics, especially when the content is aimed towards children.
At this point, you might be wondering what exactly my point is here, and it’s that The Color Purple should be available, for high school students especially, as it covers important topics such as race, sexuality, and womanhood in the United States through Celie’s personal journey.
If you want to learn more about The Color Purple‘s history of book challenges/bans, check out the articles below:
From the Banned Books Project: Alice Walker, The Color Purple
Business themes in The Color Purple– I thought this was an interesting discussion of how business themes are portrayed in The Color Purple, especially in the context of the Great Depression.
Here’s a post I wrote right after I finished reading The Color Purple that touches on a few topics I didn’t cover here.
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If interested, you can donate to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom
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