The Kind of Love That Black Women Make
I have come to understand that women who have not learned to truly love themselves, and then love each other, struggle in their personal lives, and have difficulty positively and powerfully loving men and being loved by them. I am interested in exploring the impact of sisterhood and its influences on the important tenets of personhood & womanhood for Black women, and how it affects romantic or sexual male-female relationships. I know the importance of revisiting the past to consider the present and plan a future. In that spirit, I chose a classic film, The Color Purple, to examine Black love, relationships, and sisterhood. Vanessa Yancy joined me as co-writer in narrating our responses to revisiting the celebrated coming-of-age tale as together as Black women.
Together, as sisters, we collaborated where Vanessa enquired about the main character, Miss Celie, and I explored the strongest supporting character, Shug Avery. In a story, the main character consumes most of the attention; and he or she is how readers or viewers remember the narrative. If they fail to note both the burdens & blessings, they usually walk away too involved with one of them. For Celie, many failed to see any blessings; meaning their takeaways were born in her burdens—unless you count “survivor” as a blessing. For Shug, many failed to see her burdens, a common reality for women perceived as “beautiful” or “independent.” Though this film might not immediately jog our memories with visions of self-love or sister-love, in reading our reflections, we hope you realize that it fills our hearts with the kind of love that Black women make.
WRITTEN BY JOYICE ROBINSON
I polled my peers requesting for them to share descriptions of how they recalled Celie’s character. It generated a list of painful adjectives like displaced, abused, mistreated, strong, lonely, victim, and survivor. Fortunately, no one mentioned any recollection of the many references to Celie being seen as ugly. However pleased with it, I also noted that no response recounted her as beautiful either, and not one description came even remotely close to regarding Celie as being loved or being loving. The film effectively portrays Celie as undesirable and timid. For most of the movie, she’s depicted as powerless and vulnerable to the abuses suffered at the hands of the men in her life. Viewers watch her body violated and her children snatched from her arms. Then, after being married off, “Mister” intentionally deprives her of any semblance of love.
We witness the conscious or subconscious implications of misogyny with scenes of both Celie’s father and husband stifling her voice and denouncing her beauty. These men behave like they believe it’s their right to judge and punish her though she had no wrongdoing, and this inhibits her ability to see and embrace her intrinsic worth. Undeservingly, Celie inherits this generational abuse that passes from her father to her husband (by way of his father). Considering the extent of her traumas and the lack of support to navigate her pain, Celie is susceptible to believing any narrative presented to her. We woefully observe how Celie is groomed by the beliefs and bad behaviors of these men beginning with her own rejection of her beauty and love.
One of my favorite pivotal scenes was Celie’s amusement in learning that Mister’s name is indeed “Albert”—an ordinary man with an ordinary name. I wondered if this was the moment where he began to lose his power over her identity and value. The realization of his mortality began to dissipate her fear and sparked the genesis of a journey toward discovering her own self-worth and self-love.
Celie & Self-Love
For me, a deeper understanding of love’s roots in each person came by way of Match Marry Mate™. We worked through the importance of identifying the “love people” in our lives. These are the individuals who pour love into us during our formative years that increases our capacity to share that love with others. From the beginning, Celie’s love person was her sister. They shared a bond, an inherent understanding, that didn’t automatically require physical beauty or validation. The gift concocted from an elixir of love, femininity, and relationship, is sisterhood. In their case it was also biological, but such sisterhood continues to be demonstrated throughout the movie, even with women showing no obvious connection to each other.
As children, Celie and Nettie love one another deeply and infinitely enough to sustain them throughout their entire lives. Love manifests in their sisterhood. Upon cultivating a relationship, Celie is influenced by Shug’s freedom and independence, and love transfers to their sisterhood. Amidst her lowest moments, Celie is moved by Sofia’s determination to maintain her dignity, and she acts to cover her weakness. Again, love transfers to their sisterhood too. Could it be that sisterhood fostered the development of Celie’s love and respect for herself? Finally, in arguably the most empowering scene in the movie, Celie speaks a powerful statement claiming liberation and demanding respect from her oppressor giving birth to her own self-love. This resonates because, like Celie, I am no stranger to feeling unlovable; yet her character teaches me that where love is established, it cannot cease to exist. If there is even the slightest bit of love that we have to share with others, there is also the possibility for it to be returned.
In the end, Celie creates a new home. We witness a woman who loves herself surrounded by a community of people, largely women, whom she loves and who also loves her. She becomes a pillar. Not merely loveable, but the personification of love itself. While the painful events she endured are more than heartbreaking, it creates the inspiration she was to other women through her own source of love. Celie never experiences romantic love, still she was fulfilled by the Black love in her community, in her sisterhood, and through her triumphant self-love.
WRITTEN BY VANESSA YANCY
These elements of personhood & womanhood: Love, Beauty, Independence, Acceptance, and Freedom were polled in purview of Shug Avery, a Southern showgirl. I asked my clients and followers, groups of Black women, to best recall the character of Shug Avery by selecting one of the elements I shared above. The highest response was Freedom and next was Independence. Then, Acceptance and finally Beauty. No woman selected Love. What an unfortunate outcome as Shug embodies love. This realization was both shocking and warming because it’s unusual that a “mistress” and a “wife” grow to love each other as women, yet they did. Their love for each other is so sister-like that we almost forget that the traditional relationship is that of rivals. How do two women who are “supposed to” disdain each other manage to befriend in love? When we think of love in relation to this narrative brilliantly penned by Alice Walker, it’s obvious to name Celie & Nettie. The most fascinating notion of Celie and Shug’s story is that their love is not easily apparent. So then, once a viewer like myself notices it, it becomes impossible to let it go.
The Love Cocktail
I have learned seven virtues that define love from bell hooks—care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, trust, and open & honest communication. I call this The Love Cocktail. I often define love by the giving and receiving of all these seven “ingredients.” As I re-watched the film and studied Celie and Shug’s relationship, I observed them all. In my relationship coaching experience, I have noticed that women will often receive one or two of these attributes and mistakenly call either the feeling or the action “love.” This is rather premature. After all, Celie and Mister demonstrate some levels of care for each other yet no one—absolutely no one—describes their relationship as loving. Their interactions remind us that one ingredient, or even a few, should never be mistaken as a full manifestation of love. Does love even exist among any of male characters? It is perfectly unquestionable that the women have their own command on being loved and being loving, bearing testament to the necessary and infectious sisterly love that flows from Celie & Nettie to Celie & Shug and even to Celie & Sofia. These sisterhoods remind us how valuable and transformative it is to truly be our sister’s keeper.
We first meet a sickly Shug arriving at Mister’s house. Though they are not introduced, and Celie is not warmly greeted, she gently nurses Shug back to health. Celie has already grown fond of Shug mainly enchanted by her beauty, independence, and the influence she has on Mister. Eventually, Shug takes her own liking to Celie too. They bond over motherhood and daughterhood, and it becomes painfully obvious that Shug is seeking her father’s acceptance as Celie comforts her emotional wounds. Thus, the first ingredient of love among these two—care. Next, Shug performs “Miss Celie’s Blues”, a song she’s written for Celie, where she calls her “sister” and recognizes her as a fellow woman. They lock eyes and exchange this deep, new warmth as if they are the only two in the juke joint. Now, the next two love ingredients between them are added to their cocktail—affection and recognition.
Later, Shug presents Celie with a powerful lesson ultimately showing her signs of respect in teaching her how to be comfortable with herself, how to see herself, and to locate her joy. We feel that joy in the tender moment of Celie’s rupture of laughter down from her loins, and it “does us good.” The energy grows chilly as Shug announces that it’s time for her to leave and Celie’s carriage recoils. She confesses that Albert beats her, addresses the elephant in the room, and they have their own heart-to-heart, introducing respect, trust, and open & honest communication to their forming sisterhood. That’s all the remaining love ingredients added to their cocktail except one. Though Shug literally tells Celie that she loves her, very few people actually remembered that line in the movie. I wonder why. Shug sets off on the road again, but we can expect a different Celie now. This Celie sees herself and is accepting the newly developing image. This Celie is evolving to love herself and that love begins to drive out the fear she has of Mister.
Shug & Sister-Love
Those same love ingredients manifest again in Shug’s second visit causing their love cocktail to become more sweet and rather intoxicating. Shug helps Celie with discovering Nettie’s letters, saves her from slugging Mister’s jugular twice, and opens her mind to a life beyond Mister with an invitation to join her and Grady in Memphis. The final dinner table scene transitions from ordinary to special when Celie declares, “You took my sister, Nettie, away from me. You knew she was the only somebody in the world who loved me.” It’s not the declaration of love that makes this scene special, but it’s the realization that Celie’s story proves that love does not die. No matter the lengths Mister has taken to force love out of her life, Celie reclaims it anyway—in herself, with her sister, and with Shug. This is the power in the kind of love that Black women make.
This “family” dinner reveals another truth about sisterly Black love—it restores the soul and quickens the spirit. Yes, Shug has breathed new life into Celie; but notice how Celie’s new life also lives in Sofia. Sofia is arguably the character most robbed of joy. No other character’s development digresses from high-spirited to deeply downtrodden like hers. As Celie speaks up for herself, an act of her own self-love, laughter spreads across the table and Sofia earns our attention with her own resurrection. She recounts Celie’s kindness and perks up more as Celie rightly chooses herself and confronts her abuser.
In my life, I have learned that both self-love and the love of other Black women are powerful to redeem. Originally, Celie was the woman who ignorantly told Harpo to beat Sofia, but in this full-circle moment, Celie is the vehicle by which Sofia frees herself. Sofia hums, “Ol’ Sofia home now. Sofia home. Things gonna be changin’ ‘round here, too!” Change is one of the most attractive options for an oppressed woman. So, there’s no surprise to me that this viral sister-love overwhelms Squeak, and she announces her desire for change too. In the next and most iconic scene, Celie double-handedly blesses herself and curses her enemy through the power of her own voice and her self-love.
While the center of the story focuses on Celie, do not fail to recognize how Shug serves as the loving change agent necessary for them all to rise. Finally, Shug keeps her word to Celie and takes her away from the hell she’s known as home. And just like that, three women ride away breaking their ties and bad agreements with the undeserving men in their lives. We intuitively know that Shug ceases to warm Albert’s bed again, that Celie never cowers to Mister again, that Sofia will fully return to self again, and that “Squeak” has died, and Mary Agnes lives. Shug adds the last-standing love ingredient to their cocktail—commitment. In their departure, Shug’s heart is now ready to heal from her father whether he grants her acceptance or not, but he does.
Reborn in Love
Four women are reborn, and true love has freed them all. I believe that love transforms the spirit to renew and these four women, through Shug, and also Celie, reveals this to us. Could this be why my audience remembered Shug Avery as representing Freedom the most? Above all, Shug’s love is fiercely intentional. There’s a sage that says, “Whoever loves the least has the most power.” Shug recognizes her power (because Albert loves her more) to help heal Celie and boldly uses it to love her. Other women would have abused that power, but not Shug. This is the freedom in the kind of love that Black women make. Dear, Black women may your love not only be romantic, but also sisterly. Tell us, which woman most resonates with you?
WRITTEN BY JOYICE ROBINSON
We grow as we go®️,