Tackling issues of race, gender, and class from historical, literary, political, and religious perspectives in a single thesis is no small task, but English major Abby Cox was more than up to the challenge.
In her thesis, “‘It’s Time to Leave [and] Enter Into the Creation’: Community, Letters, and Networks of Exchange in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple,” Cox explores the intersections of these identities and theoretical lenses by focusing her analysis on the relationships between women of color in the novel.
“I was particularly interested in choosing a novel that focused on women and their relationships with each other, as many of the novels I’d written about prior to my thesis focused on relationships between women and men,” said Cox, who also minored in Spanish. “The Color Purple, which focuses primarily on the familial and romantic relationships between black women, seemed like an ideal site to examine and dive into these areas of interest further, so I chose this novel as the focus for my thesis, since it both continued the general themes I’ve been interested throughout my studies at Haverford, and took them in a new direction that I hadn’t fully explored yet.”
Cox plans to continue her study of the intersectional aspects of race, gender, and sexuality after graduation, and hopes to attend graduate school to pursue a career in law or public policy.
“I want to engage in public service and community engagement work,” she said. “In many ways, the means of building and sustaining a loving community that I explore in The Color Purple are something I would like to model in my life and in the communities I live and work in after graduating. This may involve building meaningful relationships that involve reciprocal care and work, which is something the novel has taught me to care about and given of an example as to how one might create these relationships and communities.
What did you learn working on your thesis?
I think the biggest thing I learned from my thesis is how much a piece of work can evolve and grow over time. My thesis went through many stages and iterations, and I had at least five different themes that I thought would be the main focus of my thesis at different points in the process, before arriving at the final version. What I’ve come to see, looking at the final product, is that each of the focuses I worked on over the course of the year are still present and incorporated into my thesis, and they all shaped and informed it in important ways. At times, I felt like I was starting over and abandoning the work I’d done earlier, but it’s clearer to me now that every stage was necessary to the process, and none of the work I did entirely disappeared, even as it evolved and now shows up in a different form. It can be easy to grow discouraged over the course of a long process like this, or feel lost in the midst of it, so I think I really saw how every piece of research and writing can eventually be useful, even when it doesn’t seem to be at the time. I also learned how to keep searching for new angles and perspectives on a topic, to keep pushing myself and wondering if there’s a new direction I might take my questions in. While this was often tiring and frustrating, it led me to my final topic, so a huge takeaway for me is the value of continuously searching for a new approach, both in academics and in other types of work, as this can almost always reveal something new and exciting.
What are the implications for your thesis?
My thesis draws on a large body of previous critical work on both The Color Purple and on race, gender, and sexuality, and it tries to integrate many of these threads into a new perspective. I think my thesis is valuable and useful for other researchers because it brings together a variety of different theoretical approaches to the novel and the issues surrounding it, so someone who reads it could gain an introductory sense of the field surrounding this novel, and how this has developed over the past 30 or so years. In addition, I bring a new perspective to The Color Purple, integrating critical race theory, theory on the history of letters and epistolary literature (novels written in the form of letters), and sexual and emotional relationships between women into a broader framework. I put each of these issues (among others) in the context of networks and relationships of exchange, where letters, cultural information (about race and racial history in the U.S. and Africa), and intimate relationships are shared and exchanged between the central female characters of the novel. For me, the central figure in the novel is this idea of reciprocity and exchange, and this is what allows the characters in it to create successful relationships and communities. The novel starts out with Celie writing letters to God, and receiving no letters in return. About halfway through, she discovers letters her sister, Nettie, has been sending her from Africa, and this introduces many changes into the novel–Celie is no longer stuck in one place, she is able to move more freely, she interacts more openly with others, and she also develops a reciprocal relationship with Shug, another woman, as she begins to receive these letters. While many critics think the introduction of Nettie’s letters into the novel is an anomaly, I focus on this change, and argue that it’s essential to Celie’s development and ultimate fulfillment as a character, and to the arc of the novel overall. I use the idea of exchange to frame these changes, as exchange informs the personal relationships, physical movements, and passage of information across distance that the characters experience.I haven’t encountered much critical or theoretical work centered around these broad ideas of exchange, so my thesis expands the already much-studied field around The Color Purple. It implies there are still new routes to be explored, particularly in tying the novel more directly to the racial and cultural history of slavery and the slave trade in the U.S., something that has been touched on peripherally in theory around the novel, but not fully explored.
“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.
Photo: An exhibit at the Archives and Rare Book Library at Emory University showing Alice Walker’s manuscript and other “The Color Purple” items. Credit: (cc) Jason Puckett