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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.4 (2002) 969-1000

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Queering Black Patriarchy:
The Salvific Wish and Masculine Possibility in Alice Walker's The Color Purple

Candice M. Jenkins

Family has come to stand for community, for race, for nation. It is a short-cut to solidarity. The discourse of family and the discourse of nation are very closely connected.

—Paul Gilroy, Small Acts

In her 1989 essay "Reading Family Matters," Deborah McDowell examines a pattern of hostile critical responses directed toward a "very small sample" of contemporary black women writers by some black reviewers and critics, mostly male (75). 1 McDowell describes the critical narrative employed by these figures as a black "family romance," the creation of a "totalizing fiction" of community wholeness—a fiction which, if realized, could rehabilitate a fragmented and painfully complex racial past (78). Gesturing toward the overwhelmingly masculinist ideology of black cultural nationalism, whose disciples she posits as the most powerful proponents of this family fiction, McDowell writes: "[T]his story of the Black Family cum Black Community headed by the Black Male who does [End Page 969] battle with an oppressive White world, continues to be told, though in ever more subtle variations" (78). Indeed, part of the increasing "subtlety" of such narratives is their extension into broader spheres of cultural influence than the putatively "political" arena, including the space of black literary production and analysis.

As McDowell goes on to note, Alice Walker has received more than her share of black (male) critical attack for disrupting this notion of family romance in her fiction; at least in part, that attack has been in response to the 1985 film adaptation of Walker's novel The Color Purple by Steven Spielberg, which brought a great deal of additional publicity to Walker and her work. Walker, accused by various critics of being unduly influenced by white feminists and of harboring animosity toward black men, seems to have written herself out of the so-called black family embrace, even out of the black community as a whole, by "expos[ing] black women's subordination within the nuclear family, rethink[ing] and configur[ing] its structures, and plac[ing] utterance outside the father's preserve and control" (McDowell 85). In other words, Walker's work (along with the work of such writers as Ntozake Shange and Gayl Jones, who have been similarly criticized) deconstructs a black family romance and represents unequivocally the ways in which "traditional"—and traditionally idealized—family structures can endanger black women both physically and psychically, largely because of the patriarchal power that such structures grant to black men.

Perhaps even more significantly, however, Walker's writing, and particularly her 1982 novel The Color Purple, also engages in a project of "queering" the black family, reshaping it in unconventional ways that divest its black male members of a good deal of power, thereby reconfiguring the very meaning of kinship for black sons, brothers, and especially fathers. 2 Indeed I invoke McDowell's essay, and the generally masculine critical furor to which it refers, at the opening of this essay on Walker's The Color Purple because I believe there are crucial connections to be made between the ways in which Walker's text calls for a queering or refashioning of family dynamics and the manner in which Walker herself, as author, has been scripted by a black (male) critical establishment as a delinquent daughter who has strayed from the black family fold. Not only do Walker's characters repeatedly find ways to subvert the shape and order of the heteronormative, patriarchal family, but in many ways [End Page 970] Walker's authorly body functions as an apparent source of subversion or betrayal in its own right, imagined by her critics to be waging treacherous assault upon a mythologically unified black community.

"Imagined" is, of course, the operative word in the foregoing sentence; nothing in Walker's published reflections on the filming (and resulting criticism) of The Color Purple suggests that her intention in writing this novel...


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