The Color Purple as Political Critique of Race Relations
If the integrated family of Doris Baines and her adopted African grandson
exposes the missionary pattern of integration in Africa as one based on a
false kinship that in fact denies the legitimacy of kinship bonds across
racial lines, the relationship between Miss Sophia and her white charge,
Miss Eleanor Jane, serves an analogous function for the American South.
Sophia, of course, joins the mayor's household as a maid under conditions
more overtly racist than Doris Baines's adoption of her Akwee family:
Because she answers "hell no" (76) to Miss Millie's request that she come to
work for her as a maid, Sophia is brutally beaten by the mayor and six
policeman and is then imprisoned. Forced to do the jail's laundry and driven
to the brink of madness, Sophia finally becomes Miss Millie's maid in order
to escape prison. Sophia's violent confrontation with the white officers
obviously foregrounds issues of race and class, as even critics who find
these issues marginalized elsewhere in The Color Purple have noted. But it
is not only through Sophia's dramatic public battles with white men that her
story dramatizes issues of race and class. Her domestic relationship with
Miss Eleanor Jane and the other members of the mayor's family offers a more
finely nuanced and extended critique of racial integration, albeit one that
has often been overlooked.(11)
Like Doris Baines and her black grandson, Sophia and Miss Eleanor Jane
appear to have some genuine family feelings for one another. Since Sophia
"practically . . . raise[s]" (222) Miss Eleanor Jane and is the one
sympathetic person in her house, it is not surprising that the young girl
"dote[s] on Sophia" and is "always stick[ing] up for her" (88), or that,
when Sophia leaves the mayor's household (after fifteen years of service),
Miss Eleanor Jane continues to seek out her approval and her help with the
"mess back at the house" (174). Sophia's feelings for Miss Eleanor are of
course more ambivalent. When she first joins the mayor's household, Sophia
is completely indifferent to her charge, "wonder[ing] why she was ever born"
(88). After rejoining her own family, Sophia resents Miss Eleanor Jane's
continuing intrusions into her family life and suggests that the only reason
she helps the white girl is because she's "on parole. . . . Got to act nice"
(174). But later Sophia admits that she does feel "something" for Miss
Eleanor Jane "because of all the people in your daddy's house, you showed me
some human kindness" (225).
Whatever affection exists between the two women, however, has been shaped by
the perverted "kinship" relation within which it grew - a relationship the
narrative uses to expose plantation definitions of kinship in general and to
explode the myth of the black...