Category Archives: Writer’s Page

The Color Purple: A New Story for a Familiar Reader

Writer’s Page

by Chanequa Walker-Barnes

Courtesy of Chanequa Walker-BarnesEditor’s Note: In 1983 Alice Walker won both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for The Color Purple.

I have a fetish for books. In fact, if I were forced to spend the remainder of my life in a single location, I would hope that it would be a bookstore or a library. One with a good coffee bar would be nice, but not necessary. After all, when I walk into Barnes and Noble and pause to take a deep breath, it is not the scent of coffee that tickles my brain. And there is no coffee to account for the rush of ecstasy that I get when I cross the threshold of my local library. I buy books like many women buy clothes—impulsively, compulsively, and sometimes secretly. It has been three years since I bought shoes. But three specially ordered books arrived on my doorstep just today.

I love books so much that when my husband and I were house-hunting seven years ago, there was one feature about our house that sealed the deal for me—the twenty-foot span of blank wall, unobstructed by windows and doors, in the bonus room upstairs. The perfect spot for the built-in bookshelves to house the library that I had been collecting since graduating from college.

As it turns out, one of the first books that I bought for my collection was Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Only ten years old when the book debuted twenty-five years ago, I first read it during high school. Since my love of books began at an early age (in elementary school I was given special permission for an increased weekly book allowance from the school librarian), by middle school, I had long outgrown books for kids my age and had worked through a fair amount of adult mysteries, romance novels, and classic fiction. Around ninth grade, I decided to concentrate on reading as many books by African American authors as I could. Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Maya Angelou, Ntozake Shange, Langston Hughes, and Nikki Giovanni were some of my early favorites.

Of course, being so young, I did not really appreciate the profound subtleties that these authors wove through their texts. The Color Purple was no different. I read it because it was on my mental must-read list. And when I bought it a decade later, it was only because it was on my mental what-every-personal-library-must-have list. For years it sat on the bookshelf untouched, ostensibly for the sake of the still-future offspring whom I hoped would eventually read it. Indeed, like many people, the film version had filled my remembrance and understanding of the text. Fortunately, having recently learned the joy and benefits of repeated reading, I decided it was time to revisit The Color Purple.

The first few pages had a familiar ring. “Dear God,” starts each of Celie’s letters as she begins to describe being raped by her father, torn apart from her ensuing children, and sent to be the live-in maid, nanny, and concubine of a man whom she knew only as “Mr.” It is to God whom Celie describes her anguish at losing her sister, her fascination with the nightclub singer who is her husband’s mistress, her grief over her daughter-in-law’s arrest and imprisonment, and her murderous rage upon discovering that her husband had concealed years of letters from her sister.

I am sure that as a teenaged girl growing up in a household that was suffering the impact of an intergenerational legacy of trauma and abuse, I connected quite well with Celie’s feeling that God was the only one with whom she could share her innermost thoughts and feelings. Most likely, I noticed God’s deafening, enraging silence in response to her despair. And I probably lamented her turn from God even as I celebrated her growing into herself.

FlowerBut that is where the familiarity ended. This was a new story. As a teenager, I had identified most strongly with Celie. Now, two decades later, I am more keenly aware of the transformation taking place in each of the major characters and relationships: Alfred’s evolution from an abusive patriarch to a friend of women; Sofia’s journey from quick-tempered and combative through fearful and submissive to candid and caring; Shug’s learning to desire and appreciate what she has. By the end of the text, even Eleanor Jane seems to be changing, evidencing a growing awareness of, and at least temporary repentance for, her white privilege.

As an adolescent, I understood The Color Purple to be a story about pain and, ultimately, triumph. But as an adult who has gone through her own process of healing and who is nearing mid-life (God willing), this becomes a new story. It is an allegory of forgiveness and reconciliation, a story about a group of people—Albert, Shug, Harpo, Sofia, Nettie, and Mary Agnes—learning to be, to love, and to celebrate themselves as authentic human being. It is the story of people who learn to resist the forces of racial and gender oppression that have shaped their notions of who they are and how they are to behave in relationship to others. It is the story of people who realize that while they live in a world that oppresses blackness and femaleness, they are not required to be willing participants in the cycle of victimization.

It is a story of people who come to forgive themselves for being black in a world that hates blackness, for being female in a world that subjugates women, and for being same-gender-loving in a world consumed with heterosexism. It is the story of a group of people who grow to appreciate their own beauty, who recover their own voices, and who learn to be happy, fulfilled, loving, truthful, and free in the midst of oppression and loss.

And ultimately, it is a story about finding and being reconciled with God. Because Celie does not really turn away from God. Rather, she turns to the only place where she has seen God’s presence—her relationship with her sister Nettie. And it is this relationship that carries her through the journey of healing as she finds her way back to God.

Yet in the very newness of the story is another tinge of familiarity. To be sure, there are many aspects of Walker’s masterpiece that I certainly did not understand and probably did not even notice as a teenager. But now, in retrospect, I am certain that the book planted a seed that has shaped the direction and course of my journey towards authentic being. Reading the book anew is like coming home, re-discovering part of my journey that had been forgotten but that explains much of who I have become. It feels like this must have been a formative text. Perhaps it was the fateful encounter that took a girl from a patriarchal, Baptist, southern African American family and set her en route to becoming a womanist/feminist scholar, LGBT-ally, and preacher with a passion for reconciliation ministry.

At least, I think that is the story that I am going to tell. It is, after all, a new story.

Chanequa Walker-Barnes D’07 is Assistant Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at the Shaw University Divinity School.

Read Books by Chanequa Walker-Barnes’s Early Favorite Authors

Maya Angelou. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou (omnibus edition of all six autobiographies). New York: Modern Library, 2004.

Nikki Giovanni. Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea: Poems and Not Quite Poems. New York: Morrow, 2002.

Langston Hughes. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Knopf, 1994.

Toni Morrison. The Bluest Eye; with a new afterword by the author. New York: Knopf, 2000.

Gloria Naylor. Mama Day, New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1988.

Nzotake Shange. Betsey Brown, a novel. New York: St. Martin’s Press, c1985.

Alice Walker. The Color Purple. San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1982.

Reopening The Closing of the American Mind

Writer’s Page

by Robert J. Bliwise

This summer was contest time at The New York Times. The venerable (and, if circulation patterns hold, vulnerable) paper invited students to respond to Rick Perlstein’s, “What’s the Matter With College?” Author and historian Perlstein argues that college, as a discrete experience, has begun to disappear. In the late 1960s, college was a cultural obsession because, well, it was so countercultural. Writers PageNo longer: The campus has become conventional, lured by the imperatives of entertainment, consumed by the values of marketing, and dedicated to producing investment bankers. “Just as the distance between the campus and the market has shrunk,” he writes, “so has the gap between childhood and college—and between college and the ‘Real World’ that follows.”

Perlstein arrived at his conclusions after immersing himself in student conversations at the University of Chicago, which, twenty years ago, produced a scholar who pronounced an even harsher verdict on higher education. That was Allan Bloom, with The Closing of the American Mind. (The book’s pointed if somewhat ponderous subtitle is “How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students.”) Bloom was a professor of philosophy and political science at Chicago; he was a translator and editor of Plato’s Republic and Rousseau’s Emile, both classic education tracts. Earlier in his career, he had taught at Cornell University—this during a time of student protests and building takeovers, unsettling episodes that he revisited in the book.

The Closing of the American Mind was a surprising sensation in the marketplace. A review in The New York Times hailed it as “essential reading for anyone concerned with the state of liberal education in this society.” Duke religion professor Kalman Bland observes that at the time the book appeared, at the height of the Reagan presidency, “bashing liberalism was fashionable. It also didn’t hurt sales that Saul Bellow’s prestigious name adorned the dust cover, announcing his foreword. It also didn’t hurt that Bloom gave voice to stodgy elders who were dismayed at the younger generation’s tastes in music and popular culture. A good inter-generational scold sells books, I suppose.”

Bloom himself, interviewed in The Chronicle of Higher Education, claimed he was “astonished” by “the favorableness of the response.” He added, “I thought my students and my small circle would have some interest in it…. Obviously, this was the right moment.”

Right moment or not, most readers, it’s easy to surmise, skipped over the lengthy discourse on European philosophical movements (with chapter headings like “The German Connection”). They were drawn, instead, to the opening section on students; there, the chapter on “Relationships” was divided into topics like “Self-Centeredness,” “Race,” and “Eros.”

Bloom conceived the book as “a meditation on the state of our souls, particularly those of the young, and their education.” He lamented what he saw as the decay of the humanities and the turning away from intellectual engagement—or from virtue—that resulted. “Today’s select students know so much less, are so much more cut off from the tradition, are so much slacker intellectually, that they make their predecessors look like prodigies of culture,” he wrote. Students arrive on campus “ignorant and cynical” about their political heritage, dispossessed of “respect for the Sacred,” and indifferent to the power of books as transmitters of tradition.

In Bloom’s view, youth culture—as expressed in its essence through the rawest of rock music—has drowned out any countervailing nourishment for the spirit. Young people have been conditioned, as it were, to see everything as conditional, or relative, whether the quality of books or the quality of relationships.

As Duke political scientist Michael Gillespie notes, the book was pounced upon by parents who saw their worst fears confirmed—that their children were out of control and that values-depleted campus environments would only foster more of the same. Gillespie taught at the University of Chicago and knew Bloom there. His older colleague, he observes, wasn’t convinced that democracy was good for breeding culture in young people (not that any other political system would be any better). As a scholar of Plato, Bloom was attuned to other transmission mechanisms. He wanted to channel erotic longing, which Plato identifies as a basic human impulse, into a longing for higher things. But as The Closing of the American Mind argued, the American campus had neglected that imperative as it abandoned the high-minded European intellectual tradition.

A sign of such abandonment, Bloom asserted, was a curriculum devoid of meaning, one that shied away from asking the questions that would elevate moral life. He said the humanities, in particular, suffer from “democratic society’s lack of respect for tradition and its emphasis on utility.”

Two years ago, The Chronicle of Higher Education looked at what has become a constant of the curriculum, literary theory. The article noted that theory has become entrenched in “the literary profession,” but that there’s no clear notion of what it means to be asking theoretical questions of a work of literature. One professor described the field as a free-for-all. “Theory has no material coherence, only an attitude,” he noted. Another professor was quoted as declaring that students “don’t have a background in literature because that isn’t anything that anyone thinks is of value anymore.” One can imagine the depths of Bloomian despair over such illustrations of intellectual fragmentation.

Just after the book was published, Duke Magazine brought together professors to ponder The Closing of the American Mind; the conversation was later edited for publication. Twenty years ago, in the faculty roundtable, Kalman Bland had this to say about Bloom: “He sees the university as an institution in society, and the function of the university in society as going against the grain. That’s the good part of the book—showing that the university does fit into the social context, and that it defines itself in relationship to the needs and values of that context. And the book asks us to take a close look at whether or not we’re serving the powers that be or whether we’re being the gadflies—the Socratic model of shaking our students up and liberating them from their popular biases.”

And what of the relationship now between campus culture and the wider culture? One answer comes in Louis Menand’s “Talk of the Town” essay in the May 21, 2007, issue of The New Yorker. Menand reported that the biggest undergraduate major by far today is business. Twenty-two percent of bachelor’s degrees are awarded in the field; less than four percent of college graduates major in English, and only two percent in history.

Looking at Duke today, Bloom might feel at once perplexed and vindicated, says Kalman Bland. From Registrar’s Office figures, Bland has found that the cohort of Duke students majoring and minoring in economics (648) exceeds the students majoring and minoring in philosophy(117) by almost 600 percent. “Perhaps, like many of us, Bloom would lament the practical pre-professionalism of so many of our students,” Bland says, and “be appalled at the miniscule number of majors and minors” in the traditional humanities. That relatively small numbers of students have chosen to major or minor in women’s studies or African and African American studies “would surely warm the cockles of his old-worldly, anti-liberal, anti-democratic, elitist, metaphysically-inclined, conservative heart.” (Bloom’s “vehement anti-feminism” had made “sexist patriarchy sound respectable,” Bland says.)

Bloom’s conservative heart helped shape a sort of literary genre, the higher-education critique. The Closing of the American Mind begat Charles Sykes’ 1988 Profscam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education, which begat Roger Kimball’s 1990 Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Higher Education, which begat David Horowitz’s recent The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics. The genre is populated by screeds against professors and their presumed political agendas; Bloom had a wider focus, as does Perlstein, in his recent essay.

“If Perlstein wants a return to the ideals of an academy that is critical of the values of the larger society, the Bloom tradition aims at an embrace of traditional standards and norms,” says classical-studies professor Peter Burian, another participant in the original Duke Magazine conversation. “For Bloom, it was an issue that students were being assigned Toni Morrison rather than Plato, for Perlstein, that students mostly ignore both and the issues they raise.” Of course, if Perlstein’s lament rings true that college has lost its critical distance, then the so-called tenured radicals—concentrated as they are in the humanities—are marginalized. As Burian puts it, faculty members in areas like economics, business, engineering, and the sciences “have no problem with the disappearance of any distance—in terms of research funding and agendas and subjects taught—from the claims of the real world and its markets.”

Though it hardly had the marketplace success of The Closing of the American Mind, one book this summer aspired to a similar status as cultural critique. That was The Cult of the Amateur, by Andrew Keen, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and writer. Considering such phenomena as Wikipedia, the blogosphere, and YouTube, Keen argues that the Web is threatening the very future of our cultural institutions. It’s all part of “the great seduction,” as he labels it—perhaps (or perhaps not) with a nod to Plato. The “revolution” unleashed by the Web, he writes, “has peddled the promise of bringing more truth to more people—more depth of information, more global perspective, more unbiased opinion from dispassionate observers.” In his view, this is all a smokescreen. What the revolution is really delivering is “superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgment.”

For someone who decries a culture of shrillness, Keen can seem awfully shrill. But in a sense he’s illustrating the latest expression of what Bloom called democratic relativism. Twenty years after The Closing of the American Mind, we have cause to wonder if a culture with multiple seductions—real and virtual alike—can find an effective counterforce in the college experience.

Robert J. Bliwise: Duke University PhotographyRobert J. Bliwise is editor of Duke Magazine and an adjunct instructor in magazine journalism at Duke’s Terry Sanford Institute.

Get more about the college experience

Michael Bérubé. What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.

Allan Bloom. The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.

Derek Bok. Our Underachieving Colleges. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.

Rachel Donadio. “Revisiting the Canon Wars.” The New York Times Book Review, Sept. 16, 2007.

Darryl J. Gless and Barbara Herrnstein Smith (eds.). The Politics of Liberal Education. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992.

Lawrence W. Levine. The Opening of the American Mind. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.

Anne Matthews. Bright College Years. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Bill Readings. The University in Ruins. Boston: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Henry Rosovsky. The University: An Owner’s Manual. New York: W.W. Norton, 1990.

Charles J. Sykes. ProfScam. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1988.

Where Did All the Evils Go?

Writer’s Page

Michael Allen Gillespie

From a fading photo on the title page of Ron Rosenbaum’s recent book, Hitler: The Search for the Origins of his Evil, [1] a small child peers out at us. Who is this child? A victim of the Holocaust? An image of all that was lost? Or perhaps a shattered survivor who lived on haunted by the ghosts of those who died? No, it is something worse, a photo of baby Adolf, as innocent as any child who has “not yet bitten of the apple.” There is no hair combed carefully into place, no steely glint in his eye, no narrow mustache above an unsmiling lip, no arm extended in salute, and no indication of future deeds so horrible as to beggar the imagination. Just a small child, filled with all the promise that youth has to offer. The question at the heart of the book is captured in this photo. It is a question posed not merely by the victims of the Holocaust or the millions killed in Hitler’s war, but by our very humanity. Is there a humanly comprehensible path from that small child to the gray and brooding figure searing his course across our history? And if there is, how can we ever use the word “humane” again? How can we look at ourselves in the mirror and not wonder if that unspeakable something that was in him is not also in us?

Rosenbaum’s personal search takes him not only to piles of crumbling newspapers and letters, to distant towns and lost places in all corners of Europe, Israel and North America, but also into the pages and the living rooms of nearly all the world’s most famous Hitler scholars. What he discovers there is quite disturbing. Although they are all ardent foes of Hitler and everything he stood for, they fundamentally disagree about his moral character. For some, such as Emile Fackenheim, Hitler is evil incarnate, utterly inhuman, the epitome of absolute evil. In stark contrast, others such as H.R. Trevor-Roper (author of The Last Days of Hitler), argue not only that he was not evil but that he was in fact an idealist, horribly misguided, to be sure, but an idealist nonetheless, who sought to do good. There was not evil will at work in Hitler, they maintain, only (terribly) faulty reasoning. There are some, such as Robert Waite, who try to steer a middle course between these two extremes, but this proves difficult, for while they describe a path from here to there, they are almost all forced to admit that at some point that path is profoundly ruptured, that it passes through an unfathomable abyss, an anomaly of such magnitude that it is difficult to say how the human being who entered it is related to the inhuman being who comes out the other side.

If we accept Rosenbaum’s account, we seem compelled to choose between one of two impossible alternatives: either Hitler was not evil or Hitler was not human. This dilemma is particularly troubling because for many years Hitler has been the only absolute in our relativistic moral universe, the one point on our moral map that always flashed “Forbidden! Do not enter here!” And our certainty of his evil has been just about the only thing that has given us the resolve to defend the cause of humanity. Apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and the like evoke not merely disapprobation but action because, at some level, we see in them the reappearance of that malignant spirit we imagine to have possessed Hitler. If we doubt that Hitler was evil, how can we sustain any notion of evil or find any ground for moral judgment or action? And if we are left with only silence in the face of this question, how can we not conclude that we are lost on an infinite moral sea, beyond good and evil?

Nietzsche believed that such a fate was inevitable, for the death of God and the collapse of everything built upon that God were already well underway, even if most Europeans had not yet recognized that fact. [2] He was equally convinced that the consequence of this “greatest event” would be the collapse of European morality, centuries of brutal war, and the advent of a world in which everything is permitted. Was he right? Is this the source of the difficulty we face when we consider the question of evil? Are we at heart already entertaining that “uncanniest of all guests,” nihilism? While it is tempting to leap to such a conclusion, it might behoove us to ask a preliminary question, not whether the absence of a point of absolute evil on our moral map is the result of a creeping atheism and nihilism, but how it came about that all the lesser points of evil were effaced. Might our difficulty in coming to terms with the possibility of “radical” or “ultimate” evil not be connected to our difficulty in believing in evil in all of its lesser forms?

The existence and variety of evil was certainly not a question for the High Middle Ages. Aquinas and Dante, for example, knew what evil was, described its forms and degrees, and laid out the appropriate punishments and remediations. Judas, the medieval moral equivalent of Hitler, was in this way clearly connected to the baby who, according to Augustine, concupiscently sucked at its mother’s breast. For these thinkers, there is no problem with how we get from the child to the monster. Medieval Christianity had a moral map that was complex, rooted in reason and revelation, reflected in civil and canon law, and embedded in creation. Yet by the middle of the seventeenth century, the points on this map had largely been erased. Indeed, Descartes and Hobbes, the two great pillars of modern thought, proclaimed that good is what pleases me and evil what causes me pain or opposes my will. Where, then, did all the evils go?

This is the question I address in this essay. I believe that the answer helps to explain the mysterious ambiguity of evil in modern times. In what follows, I argue that the answer to this question lies in the theological and philosophical transformations that mark the passage from the late medieval to the early modern world. Descartes and Hobbes are not the source of this change. They articulate a radically subjective, quasi-utilitarian view of morality. However, they do so not because they clearly prefer it but because the alternative they see in front of them is much worse. They turn away from a notion of evil so vast and a notion of good so compelling that it had become easy on moral grounds to justify not merely casuistic equivocation but the slaughter of whole populations. To understand how morality came to this pass and why our moral map has become so useless to us, we thus need to examine not Nietzsche, or even Descartes and Hobbes, but the tremendous theological and moral transformation of the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries. In doing so, I believe we can see that our inability to sustain a notion of evil arises not from the death of God but from the proclamation of his omnipotence, thus not from atheism but from a particular kind of theism.

Michael Allen Gillespie

Michael Gillespie is Acting Chair of Political Science 2006-07; Jerry G. and Patricia Crawford Professor and Professor of Philosophy and Director, Gerst Program in Political, Economic, and Humanistic Studies at Duke.

This selection is excerpted from his essay, “Where Did All the Evils Go?,” which appears in Naming Evil/Judging Evil, edited by Ruth W. Grant and published by the University of Chicago Press, ©2006.


1. Ron Rosenbaum, Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil (New York: HarperCollins, 1999).
2. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science with a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1974), 343.