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A Psalm of Celie



This past weekend, I went to see The Color Purple with my mom. It was a nice moment as we had seen the Broadway musical together in 2016 with some of the same cast. 1. It was lovely. 2. Bring tissues. As much as I love a book that was turned into a movie, that was made into a musical, that became a movie musical (looking at you, Mean Girls), there’s something that can’t quite be translated from the original novel. If you haven’t had a chance to read Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning novel, I highly recommend it particularly for the style of writing, as Walker writes the book entirely in prayers.

 

Really, when I think about it, The Color Purple is its own Book of Psalms. Celie’s words to God detail her laments, her hopes, Shug Avery’s words of wisdom, the pilgrimage of Sofia, and eventually, praise.

 

Throughout the first half of the book, Celie never finishes her prayers with the usual conclusion. There is no “Amen.” And what is the purpose of that word, anyway? It originates in the Hebrew Bible, the root of which has been translated as “verily,” “truly,” or “may it be so.” Commentaries on Celie’s letters have theorized that the absence of this conclusion might indicate Celie’s inability to accept the truth of this God in whom she has been taught to confide, often by the men in her life who have hurt her.

 

Her first usage of the word is actually in a letter to her sister, which begins with “Dear Nettie, I don’t write to God no more. I write to you.” She describes a conversation with Shug Avery where she admits her frustration with such a God, “the God I been praying and writing to is a man. And act just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgitful and lowdown.” And in this lament of Celie, we find the wisdom of Shug:

 

“You telling me God love you, and you ain’t never done nothing for him? I mean, not go to church, sing in the choir, feed the preacher and all like that?”

 

“But if God love me, Celie, I don’t have to do all that. Unless I want to. There’s a lot of other things I can do that I speck God likes… I can lay back and just admire stuff. Be happy… 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?”

 

“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.”

 

It is here in Celie’s lament, in her questioning, that she signs her first “Amen.” And from here, Celie’s wrestling begins to transform her understanding of herself, the reclamation of her body, the discovery of her sexuality, her perseverance amid a lifetime of abuse, and who God is among all of this. Until, in the final prayer of her epistolary writing, she begins with this address:

 

“Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything. Dear God.”

 

And for the first time, verily, and truly, she ends her prayer.

 

“Amen.”

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