photo by gurdonark
September is all about banned books here at PEN American. We reached out to writers, editors, literary illuminati, and PEN staff to write about the banned books that matter to them most. Today’s piece comes from poet Amy King, author, most recently, of I Want to Make You Safe.
The ban on this book reminds me of the ban on Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret. I very much appreciated the girl-specific content found there that was not sanitized for a health class. I also surely could have benefited from The Color Purple when my hormones were ramping up and I knew boys were expected to enjoy Playboy in bed but had no clue as to what girls were permitted, except to be “lady-like” and modest. The Color Purple is no more “graphic” than what is implied by billboard ads on city streets or overtly depicted on television or in superhero comics (during the “romantic” scenes). Instead, this scene with Celie is female-affirming and instructive in ways that girls, and even a few women, might benefit from:
Listen, she say, right down there in your pussy is a little button that gits real hot when you do you know what with somebody. It git hotter and hotter and then it melt. That the good part. But other parts good too, she say. Lot of sucking go on, here and there, she say. Lot of finger and tongue work…She say, Here, take this mirror and go look at yourself down there…I lie on my back and haul up my dress. Yank down my bloomers. Stick the looking glass between my legs. Ugh. All that hair. Then my pussy lips be black. Then inside look like a wet rose…
I say, Where the button? Right up near the top, she say. The part that stick out a little. I look at her and touch it with my finger. A little shiver go through me. Nothing much. But just enough to tell me that this right button to mash. Maybe. She say, While you looking, look at your titties too. I haul up my dress and look at my titties. Think bout my babies sucking them. Remember the little shiver I felt then too. Sometimes a big shiver….But when I hear them together all I can do is pull the quilt over my head and finger my little button and titties and cry.
Never did telling such an American story raise so consistent an ire as that of Alice Walker’s epistolary novel The Color Purple. The list of school board meetings and library debates conducted over the availability and consideration of this book, especially in relation to the youth across the country, is historical as well as contemporary. Put your finger randomly on a U.S. map. Chances are, the debates carry on somewhere in that state over which aspects of this text deem it most worthy of shelving for “mature” eyes only. The hypocrisy is racial and gendered. In high school, we sat riveted by the jealous, money-grabbing, womanizing exploits of fellows in The Great Gatsby and via Hemingway’s skirt-chasing, bull-running, and hunter protagonists, but when a story primarily about poor black women trying to make their way rear its head, it becomes a target of “worthiness” and “offensiveness” meritorious discussions, seemingly permanently. We live in modern day America where video games and graphic “Law & Order” episodes depict, or at least describe on the daily, some of the most brutal violences we may never have heard of, but this book remains a focal point of contention. Is it the rapes? Dealing with the daily difficulties faced by blacks in a town run by whites and a court system that denies the former’s humanity in favor of the latter? Or could it be the unapologetic homosexuality? “Graphic sexual content?” Learning how to self love? Pick your issue; eliminating this book from most curriculums and libraries, even now, is a cakewalk.