The Color Purple Historical Context 📖

Some of the issues in ‘The Color Purple’ are still relevant in the present day. However, the dynamics of the society in the setting of the novel are different in some ways from the present-day society. The historical context of the setting puts the story into better perspective.

The Color Purple

Alice Walker

The Color Purple is set in the early twentieth century USA and parts of Africa which are characterized by racial discrimination, western encroachment into Africa, and human rights violation, all of which set the background for the events in the plot.

Racial Discrimination

The Color Purple is set in the early twentieth century when the racial divide between whites and blacks was more palpable. For instance, public trains had separate sections for white people into which black people were not allowed.

Racial discrimination is one of the key issues in the story of The Color Purple, and the sad realities of the time are depicted aptly in the story. For instance, Sofia was tortured, sentenced to prison, and later to eleven and half years of laborious servitude for the mayor’s household are injustices meted out on her because of her race.

Celie’s father and uncles being lynched by white competitors in the neighborhood is also a clear example of the racial discrimination prevalent at the time.

Western Presence in Africa

The early twentieth century saw a continuation of the presence of western countries, mostly from Europe and America, in Africa under various pretexts. The entire continent of Africa was a locus of attraction for missionaries, explorers, capitalists, and colonialists from the western world.

Some of the activities of the western countries in Africa were philanthropic, while many others were exploitative. Alice Walker shows in The Color Purple the different ways the encroachment of Western countries into Africa affected the people of Africa in the twentieth century. We see the people of Olinka who are forcefully evacuated from their homes and farms to make room for a western company that wanted their lands for rubber cultivation.


Although slavery had been abolished in the twentieth century in which The Color Purple is set, it still comes into the conversation of the novel with some thought-provoking perspectives.

The origin of African-Americans in the United States of America is traced back to Africans who were sold into slavery to work in plantations for Americans. Some of these slaves were sold into slavery by their fellow Africans. The role of Africans in the distasteful success of the slave trade is something Alice Walker talks about in The Color Purple.

Through the character Nettie, a reader feels an inquisitiveness to know how Africans in Africa feel about their African-American brethren who were victims of betrayal by their own brothers and cruelty by strangers. But from Nettie’s observations, we see that the Africans in Africa are indifferent to African-Americans and their fate, there is no remorse and no contrite acceptance of blame for what happened to African-Americans.

Human Rights

Human Rights in the setting of The Color Purple is not as well implemented in the USA as it is in the twenty-first century. While we cannot rightly say that Human Rights protection and implementation is perfect in the present day, it is still an improvement on what was obtainable in the early twentieth century.

Characters from The Color Purple, like Celie, might have been empowered by Child Rights to continue their education and not drop out of school if it had been in present-day America. And the cruel Alphonso would more likely have gone to prison for raping a minor. But the system was not structured to see the struggles and the rights of a child such as Celie as a priority in that era.


Was The Color Purple a true story?

No, The Color Purple is not a true story. It is a fictional novel written by Alice Walker, although she based some of the events in the plot on true happenings.

Why did they ban The Color Purple?

The Color Purple had been banned from schools and libraries in the USA on various occasions for containing violence and explicit language. It is on the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books from 1990-1999 and from 2000-2009.

Are Nettie and Celie sisters?

Yes, Nettie and Celie are sisters. Celie is the chief character and protagonist of the novel The Color Purple, and Nettie is her younger sister, who is younger than Celie by two years. Both sisters share a loving sisterly bond, although separated at several points in their lives.

What is the setting of The Color Purple?

The setting of The Color Purple is twentieth-century Georgia and Tennessee in the USA and a fictional African village called Olinka. Some parts of the novel are also set in England, Monrovia, and Senegal.

Onyeka Osuji
About Onyeka Osuji
Onyeka is a lecturer of Public Administration and a Literature enthusiast. After gaining accreditation in English Literature, Onyeka analyzes novels on Book Analysis, whilst working as an academic and writing short stories.
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