The color purple: Alice Walker: Chapter 9

Samuel is a big man. He dresses in black almost all the time, except for his white clerical collar. And he is black. Until you see his eyes you think he’s somber, even mean, but he has the most thoughtful and gentle brown eyes. When he says something it settles you because he never says anything off the top of his head and he’s never out to dampen your spirit or to hurt. Corrine is a lucky woman to have him as her husband.

But let me tell you about the ship! The ship, called The Malaga, was three stories high! And we had rooms (called cabins) with beds. Oh, Celie, to lie in a bed in the middle of the ocean! And the ocean! Celie, more water than you can imagine in one place. It took us two weeks to cross it! And then we were in England, which is a country full of white people and some of them very nice and with their own Anti-Slavery & Missionary Society. The churches in England were also very eager to help us and white men and women, who looked just like the ones at home, invited us to their gatherings and into their homes for tea, and to talk about our work. “Tea” to the English is a picnic indoors. Plenty of sandwiches and cookies and of course hot tea. We all used the same cups and plates.

Everyone said I seemed very young to be a missionary, but Samuel said that I was very willing, and that, anyway, my primary duties would be helping with the children and teaching a kindergarten class or two.

Our work began to seem somewhat clearer in England because the English have been sending missionaries to Africa and India and China and God knows where all, for over a hundred years. And the things they have brought back! We spent a morning in one of their museums and it was packed with jewels, furniture, fur carpets, swords, clothing, even tombs from all the countries they have been to. From Africa, they have thousands of vases, jars, masks, bowls, baskets, statues—and they are all so beautiful it is hard to imagine that the people who made them don’t still exist. And yet the English assure us they do not. Although Africans once had a better civilization than the European (though of course, even the English do not say this: I get this from reading a man named J. A. Rogers) for several centuries they have fallen on hard times. “Hard times” is a phrase the English love to use, when speaking of Africa. And it is easy to forget that Africa’s “hard times” were made harder by them. Millions and millions of Africans were captured and sold into slavery—you and me, Celie! And whole cities were destroyed by slave catching wars. Today the people of Africa—having murdered or sold into slavery their strongest folks—are riddled by disease and sunk in spiritual and physical confusion. They believe in the devil and worship the dead. Nor can they read or write.

Why did they sell us? How could they have done it? And why do we still love them? These were the thoughts I had as we tramped through the chilly streets of London. I studied England on a map, so neat and serene, and I became hopeful despite myself that much good for Africa is possible, given hard work and the right frame of mind. And then we sailed for Africa. Leaving Southampton, England on the 24th of July and arriving in Monrovia, Liberia on the 12th of September. On the way, we stopped in Lisbon, Portugal, and Dakar, Senegal.

Monrovia was the last place we were among people we were somewhat used to since it is an African country that was “founded” by ex-slaves from America who came back to Africa to live. Had any of their parents or grandparents been sold from Monrovia, I wondered, and what was their feeling, once sold as slaves, now coming back, with close ties to the country that bought them, to rule.

Celie, I must stop now. The sun is not so hot now and I must prepare for the afternoon classes and vesper service. I wish you were with me, or I with you.

My love, Your sister, Nettie

 

It was the funniest thing to stop over in Monrovia after my first glimpse of Africa, which was Senegal. The capital of Senegal is Dakar and the people speak their language, Senegalese I guess they would call it, and French. They are the blackest people I have ever seen, Celie. They are black like the people we are talking about when we say, “So and so is blacker than black, he’s blue-black.” They are so black, Celie, they shine. Which is something else folks down home like to say about real black folks. But Celie, try to imagine a city full of these shining, blue-black people wearing brilliant blue robes with designs like fancy quilt patterns. Tall, thin, with long necks and straight backs. Can you picture it at all, Celie? Because I felt like I was seeing black for the first time. And Celie, there is something magical about it. Because the black is so black the eye is simply dazzled, and then there is the shining that seems to come, really, from moonlight, it is so luminous, but their skin glows even in the sun.

But I did not like the Senegalese I met in the market. They were concerned only with their sale of produce. If we did not buy, they looked through us as quickly as they looked through the white French people who live there. Somehow I had not expected to see any white people in Africa, but they are here in droves. And not all are missionaries.

There are bunches of them in Monrovia, too. And the president, whose last name is Tubman, has some in his cabinet. He also has a lot of white-looking colored men in his cabinet. On our second evening in Monrovia, we had tea at the presidential palace. It looks very much like the American white house (where our president lives) Samuel says. The president talked a good bit about his efforts trying to develop the country and about his problems with the natives, who don’t want to work to help build the country up. It was the first time I’d heard a black man use that word. I knew that to white people all colored people are natives. But he cleared his throat and said he only meant “native” to Liberia. I did not see any of these “natives” in his cabinet. And none of the cabinet members’ wives could pass for natives. Compared to them in their silks and pearls, Corrine and I were barely dressed, let alone dressed for the occasion. But I think the women we saw at the palace spend a lot of their time dressing. Still, they look dissatisfied. Not like the cheery schoolteachers, we saw only by chance, as they herded their classes down to the beach for a swim.

Before we left we visited one of the large cocoa plantations they have. Nothing but cocoa trees as far as the eye can see. And whole villages built right in the middle of the fields. We watched the weary families come home from work, still carrying their cocoa seed buckets in their hands (these double as lunch buckets the next day), and sometimes— if they are women—their children on their backs. As tired as they are, they sing! Celie. Just like we do at home. Why do tired people sing? I asked Corrine. Too tired to do anything else, she said. Besides, they don’t own the cocoa fields, Celie, even president Tubman doesn’t own them. People in a place called Holland to do. The people who make Dutch chocolate. And some overseers make sure the people work hard, who live in stone houses in the corners of the fields.

Again I must go. Everyone is in bed and I am writing by lamplight. But the light is attracting so many bugs I am being eaten alive. I have bites everywhere, including my scalp and the bottoms of my feet.

But—

Did I mention my first sight of the African coast? Something struck in me, in my soul, Celie, like a large bell, and I just vibrated. Corrine and Samuel felt the same. And we kneeled right on deck and gave thanks to God for letting us see the land for which our mothers and fathers cried—and lived and died—to see again.

Oh, Celie! Will I ever be able to tell you all?

I dare not ask, I know. But leave it all to God.

Your everloving sister, Nettie

 

The color purple: Alice Walker: Chapter 6

 

What with being a shock, crying and blowing my nose, and trying to puzzle out words we don’t know, it took a long time to readjust the first two or three letters. By the time we got up to where she was good and settled in Africa, Mr. and Grady come home.

Can you handle it? ask Shug.

How I’m gon keep from killing him, I say.

Don’t kill, she said. Nettie is coming home before long. Don’t make her have to look at you like we look at Sofia. But it is so hard, I say, while Shug empties her suitcase and puts the letters inside.

Hard to be Christ too, say Shug. But he manages. Remember that. Thou Shalt Not Kill, He said. And probably wanted to add on to that, Starting with me. He knew the fools he was dealing with.

But Mr.not Christ. I’m not Christ, I say.

You somebody to Nettie, she says. And she is pissed if you change on her while she is on her way home. We hear Grady and Mr. in the kitchen. Dishes rattling, safe door open and shut.

Naw, I think I feel better if I kill him, I say. I feel sickish. Numb, now.

Naw you won’t. Nobody feels better for killing nothing. They feel something is all. That is better than nothing.

Celie, she say, Nettie is not the only one you got to worry bout. Say what, I ask.

Me, Celie, think about me a little bit. Miss Celie, if you kill Albert, Grady be all I got left. I can’t even stand the thought of that.

I laugh, thinking bout Grady’s big tools.

Make Albert let me sleep with you from now on, while you here, I say. And somehow or other, she does.

 

We sleep like sisters, me and Shug. Much as I still want to be with her, much as I love to look, my titties stay soft, my little button never rises. Now I know I’m dead. But she says, Naw, just being mad, grief, wanting to kill somebody will make you feel this way. Nothing to worry about. Titties gonna perk up, buttons gonna rise again.

I love to hug up, period, she says. Snuggle. Don’t need anything else right now. Yeah, I say. Hugging is good. Snuggle. All of it’s good.

She says, Times like this, lulls, we ought to do something different. Like what? I asked.

Well, she says, looking me up and down, let’s make you some pants. What do I need pants for? I say. I ain’t no man.

Don’t get uppity, she says. But you don’t have a dress do anything for you. You are not made like no dress pattern, either. I don’t know, I say. Mr. not going to let his wife wear pants.

Why not? say Shug. You do all the workaround here. It’s scandalous, the way you look out there plowing in a dress. How you keep from falling over it or getting the plow caught in it is beyond me.

Yeah? I say.

Yeah. And another thing, I used to put on Albert’s pants when we were courting. And he one time put on my dress. No, he didn’t.

Yes, he did. He use to be a lot of fun. Not like now. But he loved to see me in pants. It was like a red flag to a bull. Ugh, I say. I could just picture it, and I didn’t like it one bit.

Well, you know how they are, say Shug. What us gon make ’em out of, I say.

We have to get our hands on somebody’s army uniform, say Shug. For practice. That good strong material and free. Jack, I say. Odessa’s husband.

Okay, she says. And every day we going to read Nettie’s letters and sew. A needle and not a razor in my hand, I think.

She doesn’t say anything else, just come over to me and hug.

 

The color purple: Alice Walker: Chapter 7

 

Now I know Nettie is alive I begin to strut a little bit.

Think, When she comes home us leave here. She and me and our two children. What they look like, I wonder. But it's hard to think bout them. I feel shame. More than love, to tell the truth. Anyway, are they all right here? Got good sense and all? Shug says children got by incest turn into dunces. Incest part of the devil’s plan.

But I think bout Nettie.

It’s hot, here, Celie, she writes. Hotter than July. Hotter than August and July. Hot like cooking dinner on a big stove in a little kitchen in August and July. Hot.

 

Dear Celie,

We were met at the ship by an African from the village we are settling in. His Christian name is Joseph. He is short and fat, with hands that seem not to have any bones in them. When he shook my hand it felt like something soft and damp was falling and I almost caught it. He speaks a little English, what they call pidgin English. It is very different from the way we speak English but somehow familiar. He helped us unload our things from the ship into the boats that came out to get us. These boats are dugout canoes, like the Indians had, the ones you see in pictures. With all our belongings we filled three of them, and a fourth one carried our medical and teaching supplies.

Once in the boat, we were entertained by the songs of our boatmen as they tried to out-paddle each other to the shore. They paid very little attention to us or our cargo. When we reached the shore they didn’t bother to help us alight from the boat and set some of our supplies right down in the water. As soon as they had browbeaten poor Samuel out of a tip that Joseph said was too big, they were off hallooing another group of people who were waiting at the edge of the water to be taken to the ship.

The port is pretty but too shallow for large ships to use. So there is a good business for the boatmen, during the season the ships come by. These boatmen were all considerably larger and more muscular than Joseph, though all of them, including Joseph, is a deep chocolate brown. Not black, like the Senegalese. And Celie, they all have the strongest, cleanest, whitest teeth! I was thinking about teeth a lot on the voyage over because I had toothache nearly the entire time. You know how rotten my back teeth are. And in England, I was struck by the English people’s teeth. So crooked, usually, and blackish with decay. I wondered if it was the English water. But the Africans’ teeth remind me of horses’ teeth, they are so fully formed, straight and strong.

The port’s “town” is the size of the hardware store in town. Inside there are stalls filled with cloth, hurricane lamps and oil, mosquito netting, camp bedding, hammocks, axes and hoes and machetes, and other tools. The whole place is run by a white man, but some of the stalls that sell produce are rented out to Africans. Joseph showed us things we needed to buy. A large iron pot for boiling water and our clothes, a zinc basin. Mosquito netting. Nails. Hammer and saw and pick-ax. Oil and lamps.

Since there was nowhere to sleep in the port, Joseph hired some porters from among the young men loafing around the trading post and we left right away for Olinka, some four days march through the bush. Jungle, to you. Or maybe not. Do you know what a jungle is? Well. Trees and trees and then more trees on top of that. And big. They are so big they look like they were built. And vines. And ferns. And little animals. Frogs. Snakes too, according to Joseph. But thank God we did not see any of these, only humpbacked lizards as big as your arm which the people here catch and eat.

They love meat. All the people in this village. Sometimes if you can’t get them to do anything any other way, you start to mention meat, either a little piece extra you just happen to have or maybe, if you want them to do something big, you talk about a barbecue. Yes, a barbecue. They remind me of folks at home!

Well, we got here. And I thought I would never get the kinks out of my hips from being carried in a hammock the whole way. Everybody in the village crowded around us. Coming out of little round huts with something that I thought was straw on top of them but is a kind of leaf that grows everywhere. They pick it and dry it and lay it so it overlaps to make the roof rainproof. This part is women’s work. Menfolks drive the stakes for the hut and sometimes help build the walls with mud and rock from the streams.

You never saw such curious faces as the village folks surrounded us with. At first, they just looked. Then one or two of the women touched my and Corrine’s dresses. My dress was so dirty around the hem from dragging on the ground for three nights of cooking around a campfire that I was ashamed of myself. But then I took a look at the dresses they were wearing. Most looked like they’d been drug across the yard by the pigs. And they don’t fit. So then they moved up a little bit—nobody saying a word yet—and touched our hair. Then looked down at our shoes. We looked at Joseph. Then he told us they were acting this way because the missionaries before us were white people, and vice versa. The men had been to the port, some of them, and had seen the white merchant, so they knew white men could be something else too. But the women had never been to the port and the only white person they’d seen was the missionary they had buried a

 

 year ago.

Samuel asked if they’d ever seen the white woman missionary twenty miles farther on, and he said no. Twenty miles through the jungle is a very long trip. The men might hunt up to ten miles around the village, but the women stayed close to their huts and fields.

Then one of the women asked a question. We looked at Joseph. He said the woman wanted to know if the children belonged to me or Corrine or both of us. Joseph said they belonged to Corrine. The woman looked us both over and said something else. We looked at Joseph. He said the woman said they both looked like me. We all laughed politely.

Then another woman had a question. She wanted to know if I was also Samuel’s wife.

Joseph said no, that I was a missionary just like Samuel and Corrine. Then someone said they never suspected missionaries could have children. Then another said he never dreamed missionaries could be black.

Then someone said, That the new missionaries would be black and two of them women was exactly what he had dreamed, and just last night, too.

By now there was a lot of commotion. Little heads began to pop from behind mothers’ skirts and over big sisters’ shoulders. And we were sort of swept along among the villagers, about three hundred of them, to a place without walls but with a leaf roof, where we all sat down on the ground, men in front, women, and children behind. Then there was loud whispering among some very old men who looked like the church elders back home—with their baggy trousers and shiny, ill-fitting coats—Did black missionaries drink palm wine?

Corrine looked at Samuel and Samuel looked at Corrine. But I and the children were already drinking it because someone had already put the little brown clay glasses in our hands and we were too nervous not to start sipping.

We got there around four o’clock and sat under the leaf canopy until nine. We had our first meal there, a chicken and groundnut (peanut) stew which we ate with our fingers. But mostly we listened to songs and watched dances that raised lots of dust.

The biggest part of the welcoming ceremony was about the roof leak, which Joseph interpreted for us as one of the villagers recited the story that it is based upon. The people of this village think they have always lived on the exact spot where their village now stands. And this spot has been good to them. They plant cassava fields that yield huge crops. They plant groundnuts that do the same. They plant yam and cotton and millet. All kinds of things. But once, a long time ago, one man in the village wanted more than his share of land to plant. He wanted to make more crops to use his surplus for trade with the white men on the coast. Because he was chief at the time, he gradually took more and more of the common land and took more and more wives to work it. As his greed increased he also began to cultivate the land on which the roof leaf grew. Even his wives were upset by this and tried to complain, but they were lazy women and no one paid any attention to them. Nobody could remember a time when roof leaf did not exist in overabundant amounts. But eventually, the greedy chief took so much of this land that even the elders were disturbed. So he simply bought them off—with axes and cloth and cooking pots that he got from the coast traders.

But then there came a great storm during the rainy season that destroyed all the roofs on all the huts in the village, and the people discovered to their dismay that there was no longer any roof leak to be found. Where roof leaf had flourished from time’s beginning, there was cassava. Millet. Groundnuts.

 

 

For six months the heavens and the winds abused the people of Olinka. The rain came down in spears, stabbing away the mud of their walls. The wind was so fierce it blew the rocks out of the walls and into the people’s cooking pots. Then cold rocks, shaped like millet balls, fell from the sky, striking everyone, men and women and children alike, and giving them fevers. The children fell ill first, then their parents. Soon the village began to die. By the end of the rainy season, half the village was gone.

The people prayed to their gods and waited impatiently for the seasons to change. As soon as the rain stopped they rushed to the old roof leaf beds and tried to find the old roots. But of the endless numbers that had always grown there, only a few dozen remained. It was five years before the roof leaf became plentiful again. During those five years, many more in the village died. Many left, never to return. Many were eaten by animals. Many, many were sick. The chief was given all his storebought utensils and forced to walk away from the village forever. His wives were given to other men.

On the day when all the huts had roofs again from the roof leak, the villagers celebrated by singing and dancing and telling the story of the roof leak. The roof leak became the thing they worship.

Looking over the heads of the children at the end of this tale, I saw coming slowly towards us, a large brown spiky thing as big as a room, with a dozen legs walking slowly and carefully under it. When it reached our canopy, it was presented to

us. It was our roof.

As it approached, the people bowed down.

The white missionary before you would not let us have this ceremony said, Joseph. But the Olinka like it very much. We know a roof leak is not Jesus Christ, but in its humble way, is it not God?

So there we sat, Celie, face to face with the Olinka God. And Celie, I was so tired and sleepy and full of chicken and groundnut stew, my ears ringing with song, that all that Joseph said made perfect sense to me.

I wonder what you will make of all this?

 I send my love,

Your sister, Nettie

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The color purple: Alice Walker: Chapter 8
 

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