WILLA v7 - Honoring The Difficult and Different In The Classroom: Walker's The Same River Twice, The Color Purple and Communicative Ethics

Volume 7
Fall 1998

Honoring The Difficult and Different In The Classroom:
Walker's The Same River Twice, The Color Purple and Communicative Ethics


Danette Di Marco, Slippery Rock University

"How does the heart keep beating? How does the spirit go on? . . . That even to attempt to respectfully encounter 'the other' is a sacred act, and leads to and through the labyrinth. To the river. Possibly to healing. A 'special effect' of the soul."

-- Alice Walker, The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult - A Meditation of Life, Spirit, Art and the Making of the Film The Color Purple Ten Years Later </blockquote> </I>

What happens in a classroom where students understand their relationship to others as based solely on their coexistence in the course itself? How are community relationships within this classroom environment complicated when the group is generally homogenous, a sure visual sign that enables the elision of differences? The answer to those questions in many classrooms is certainly based on sameness-the fact that participants all share this space called a classroom. And that fact, I believe, hinders our successes in building classroom coalitions that are inclusive and accepting of difference. Walker's statement, printed above, suggests the possibilities for a politics of difference that leads to greater under-standing and healing. Her words may be thought of as a correlative by which we may imagine relationships in our classrooms. The classroom environment is an exemplary Iiminal space, a threshold, where individual beliefs and morals inform and are informed by others.

The classroom as a liminal space is characterized by hybridity, or mixed composition, a quality which is always already implicated in the classroom. To keep the hybrid possibilities of our classroom hidden is to leave in exile the possibilities for effective classroom solidarity based in difference; it maintains the boundaries whereby students are only accepted as they assimilate the general consensus of the attitudes or politics expressed in the class-room. The unveiling of hybridity may happen through performativity,' a process which subverts the existing class desire to have mutual boundaries, to maintain sameness based on unity as opposed to difference, one that imposes an artificial homogeneity.

Performativity in the classroom can resemble what Sharon Welch has described as a .communicative ethics" based on mutual critique. Different systems (or ways of believing) are not only discussed but are constructively critiqued as holding both positive and negative elements. Welch argues that "the moral calamity of our day lies. . . in the inability of most communities to engender or accept a thorough critique of their own purposes and their 'terms' of implementing those purposes" (87). Welch understands the Aristotelian polis (which is based on a shared set of ideas and is the main paradigm that communities seek to follow in order to develop democratic ideals) as "fundamentally flawed . . . unable to see as unjust the inequality crucial to its functioning" (87). For Welch community based polis is based on an ethics of exclusion that assumes one basis for morality is right and, therefore, the other must be wrong.

Although Welch speaks specifically of larger cultural communities beyond the classroom, her ideas can be usefully applied to classroom dynamics. To enable a communicative ethics (performativity) in the classroom, it is necessary for teachers to strategize ways of overcoming the Aristotelian approach to learning between not only themselves and students, but between students and students. The classroom must leave behind a this is right and that is wrong approach. In lieu of a classroom environment that relies upon rigid boundaries, erasures, and exclusions, teachers must work to establish one that is collaborative, student-centered, dialogic, and critical of all ways of seeing.

In order to redraw classroom boundaries to uncover hybrid possibilities and coalition based on difference brought on by mutual critique, I will examine the uses of Alice Walker's autobiographical piece entitled The Same River 7wice: Honoring the Difficult-A Meditation of Life, Spirit, Art, and the making of the Film The Color Purple some Ten Years Later (1996) -- from here on referred to as TSRT. This work enhances the study of Walker's novel The Color Purple and Steven Spielberg's film. version by the same name. In particular, I will demonstrate the ways that all three of these texts assist students in conversing about the ways that modes of interpretation have been engendered via traditional masculine and feminine models. Realizing that their own responses to texts may be coded by specific gender acts, students begin to challenge their own assumptions as well as become more tolerant of different views.

This essay does not seek to offer specific strategies for teaching The Color Purple (novel or film), but instead focuses on the ways that TSRT enhances the instruction of Walker's and Spielberg's texts. In so doing, TSRT can lead students to a better understanding of communicative ethics and a classroom solidarity that is based upon a politics of difference and mutual critique. I will first briefly provide some historical background concerning the extant controversies surrounding Spielberg's translation of Walker's novel onto film to be used as a point of contextualization for teachers. Second, I will show the ways that Walker's reflections on such controversies in TSRT set up a useful paradigm for bringing about communication and collaboration in the classroom. Finally, I will discuss some pedagogical strategies for applying TSRT. Such strategies are useful in a classroom that is trying to establish coalition through communicative ethics.


An article in the March 10, 1986 issue of People, entitled "Seeing Red Over Purple," recorded that Felicia. Kessel, Director of Public Relations and a spokesperson for the NAACP, accused the film version of The Color Purple as unnecessarily vilifying black men. Or that is how the reporters of the story interpreted her statements, evidenced in their context-ual styling of her words: "There are not enough positive black male role models around, and then to have this [the film of The Color Purple] come out . . ." (104). After seeing the printed article, Kessel considered herself unwittingly sabotaged, perceiving the final copy as an irresponsible account that ill-represented her critique of the film, and that took her words out of context. In a letter to People Kessel admonished the magazine for mis-representing her as well as the movie, its cast, production staff and Alice Walker insisting, "I agreed to the interview with a clear proviso that the NAACP was not to be used to denigrate Danny Glover nor any other individual involved with this movie" (TSRT 236). Kessel's heated response to the editor of People mirrors the ongoing controversy that took place in the mid-eighties concerning Walker's novel and Spielberg's interpretation and direction of it.

Although both the film and novel have received acclamations -- or the movie eleven nominations for Academy Awards and positive reviews by TV critics like Gene Shalit, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert (Bobo 334), and for the novel a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1983) and an American Book Award-negative critiques of both prevailed.

The Coalition Against Black Exploitation tried to police the making of the film by Spielberg, saying that they feared the overt display of physical love between women in a movie that the masses would see. They ultimately recommended a boycott of the film "assurances [would be] given in advance that homosexuality is not projected to [the public] as a solution to the problems black men and women face with each other" (TSRT 223). Others, also focusing on the existing power relations between black men and women, charged Walker with hating black men. Critic Jacqueline Bobo illustrates this point when she quotes Courtland Milloy, a journalist from The Washington Post, who refused to see the Spielberg production: "I got tired a long time ago of white men publishing books by black women about how screwed up black men are" (337). Like Milloy, Mel Watkins, in The New York Times Book Review, saw no good in a book that "portray[ed] black males in an unflinchingly candid and often negative manner" (1), or a movie that "has inspired community forums, pickets, and heated arguments among blacks [my emphasis] in many parts of the country" (35). Moreover, Spike Lee, who has spent much of his professional life chronicling African-American lives and stories, charges that Spielberg and Walker translated The Color Purple onto film because [my emphasis] the novel characterized black men as 'one dimensional" (Glicksman 48).

For Walker, such critiques of the novel and film version of The Color Purple were only some of the boulders she tried not to let crush her as she moved through that period in her life. She recalls it as "the labyrinthine river of high-risk collaborative creativity" (TSRT 33), a time when she shared the planning, production, and reception of the film with the men Steven Spielberg, Quincy Jones, and scriptwriter Mennos Meyjes. While creating TSRT as a way to catalogue her review of her experiences with that filming some ten years earlier, Walker notes that although "harsh criticism[s], especially when [they are] felt to be unjust, fare] at first very painful" (32), there must be, borrowing the words of Emily Dickinson, "the letting go" (TSRT 32). The seeming static nature of reality must be a "let go; " in its place must come the realization that they are versions of reality.

These particular versions, i.e., Milloy's, Watkins', Lee's, and People's interpretation of Kessel, brought to fruition via the media, in particular reputable newspapers and magazines, were understood as truths by the reading public. Phyllis McCord critiques the notion that the media wields enough power to claim itself the torchbearer of truth, but Walker recognizes the power of the media and includes articles from newspapers and magazines in TRST However her text critiques the media version of truth through Walker's autobiographical "letting go." In other words, she includes critiques in her text because they helped to shape her experiences during and after the filming of The Color Purple. Those excerpts, as they are juxtaposed with letters, journal accounts and other forms of narrative, demonstrate Walker engaging in autobiography, assembling narrative out of [her] own experiential history" (Smith and Watson 9).

The very obvious hybrid structure and content of Walker's work enables Walker and her reading audience to confront the problematic idea that reality is monologic and static. Instead, TSRT highlights the existence of a powerful dialogism, one made apparent when varying truths, many perceptions, meet. In assuming such a practice, Walker engages in a process of "refram[ing] the present" (Smith 14), and understands the truths of the past while "letting go" of old meanings in favor of newly gleaned ones, perceiving the ways that varying discourse communities shape her individual interpretations.

For me, one of the most important ideas when teaching The Color Purple (book and film) was to have students recognize and evaluate their individual responses to different portions of the texts and to be able to connect and better understand that their own reactions are informed by personal experience, shaped by specific understandings of gender, sexuality, religion, etc. This idea is certainly not new, and credit should be paid to the numerous critics who have come before me to assert the importance of discourse communities in shaping our individual perceptions, those communities or "group[s] of people who share ways to claim, organize, communicate, and evaluate meanings" (Schmidt and Kopple 2). During the Purple unit, I was concerned not only with getting students to engage in a consideration of varying discourse communities, and varying truths, but also with moving students beyond an Aristotelian mode of interpretation, beyond understanding individual truth claims as either normal (that which must be assimilated to) or different, deviant, and unacceptable.

Although I adopted the above positions because I wholeheartedly believed that classroom coalitions needed to be based on performativity and an acceptance of hybridity (as I said at the beginning), I was reminded quickly, especially in the initial stages of classroom discussion of the novel, that my class had its work cut out for it. That reminder came not in the form of Celie's sexuality (a point that is always difficult for me to handle because students undeniably link her lesbianism with male violence against the female body, often seeing no other reason for it), but in a class discussion of Nettie's letters to Celie dealing with the colonization of Africa.

Students were bothered by what they understood to be an unnecessary condemnation of whites. Their focus, specifically, was Nettie's repeated (their word) negative critique of the British colonial capitalists. They did not perceive black Africans generally, or the Olinka tribe specifically, to have been historically feminized via colonization. In fact, they redrew the parameters of colonial history, seeing Nettie's stories to Celie as a purposeful feminization of whites.

At the level of academic history, it was clear that they interpreted from a more or less uninformed position concerning colonialism which, even as I am a literature and writing teacher, I could help to mend by providing them with context. But from the level of subject construction, I found it was even more important to discuss with them (and have them discuss with one another) the ways that their assumptions (about race in this case) were tied to ideological concerns formed in social DNA systems. In effect, being raised in similar geographical locales, understanding race (and gender, etc.) pretty much the same way, enabled them to substantiate a system of interpretation that identified their feelings on the issue as valid and right, whereas other possibilities were seen as invalid, wrong, and eventually erased. In particular, the students in this class were from predominantly rural areas within a hundred miles of the university, were mostly white, and many had been raised in middle-class homes that identified personal success as flourishing through hard work. They expected success and defined it as future economic stability and a heterosexual relationship, most likely including a two-parent nuclear family.

While I do not want to belittle the more or less traditional values intersecting in many of the students' lives, in classroom discussion those value systems were problematic because they helped to establish -- without the students necessarily being conscious of it -- homogeneity and sameness as the legitimization of their feelings as well as becoming the basis for their classroom coalition. The majority, therefore, allowed little room for debate and silenced others who may not have necessarily felt the same way.

Danny Glover responded positively to the controversy over Spielberg's The Color Purple because he thought conflict was a route to consciousness-raising. He said, "[i]t's important for the NAACI? and other organizations to question the film . . . . It makes us actors more conscious of what we're doing. And that's all positive" (People 104). Modeling Glover, I tried to think of my students' responses to Nettie's letters as a conflict worth celebrating, they having taught themselves the first lesson about constructing education and community on static truths that are never questioned.

I guided students through excerpts from Walker's text TSRT in order to assist them in the "letting go" of old and potentially imperial critical habits in order that they might learn to use performativity and hybridity as means to respecting diversity and difference. Walker's book allows students to develop new ways of seeing and interpreting since, by exploiting the autobiographical nature of the text, she lays bare specific gender, sexuality, race, and disability (among other) truths that seriously affected her personal growth during, and for years following, the filming of the movie.

While students read excerpts from TSRT, they collected written reflections and peer responses that tracked their development in learning how to critically examine personal assumptions. The completed portfolio demonstrated the ways that individual or group assumptions might positively or negatively affect other individuals and was turned in at the end of the unit. What follows is a reconstruction of the path that my students followed.

We examined four passages from TSRT that enhanced our discussion of Walker's and Spielberg's The Color Purple since they enabled a classroom where hybridity might be negotiated. I hoped

  1. To raise student consciousness about the engendered nature of colonization, and, specifically, to address their concerns over Nettie's "negative" depictions of whites, we read the article "Erasing a Black Spot'." It is an account of how and why the Bakweria tribes people of Magopa were forced to leave their South African home because of Apartheid laws.
  2. To understand the ways that people necessarily feel silenced and managed when others charter their territory and claim it different, thereby delegitimatizing it, we examined Walker's reflections on her physical disability-caused by Lyme disease.
  1. To perceive the ways that discourse communities can conflict but still be in dialogue, we examined two articles printed side by side in TSM' the first by Tony Brown, 'Blacks Need To Love One Another," which was originally published in the Carolina Peacemaker, the second by Anita Jones, "Scars of Indifference."

"Erasing a "'Black Spot'": A Consciousness-raising Text

"Erasing a 'Black Spot'," originally published in Newsweek in 1983, describes the unjust treatment of the Bakwena tribe of Magopa, victims of Apartheid laws and made outcasts from their own land and homes that they had owned "since South Africa gained independence from Britain" (56). In the article, the author condemns the South African government for creating inequities based on race by attempting to erase what they called "black spots' (i.e., black communities) in "all-white areas" (57), forcibly resettling black South Africans in new and barren homelands known as "Bantustans." The journalist's rhetorical strategy, noted most clearly at the ending of the article, is to have readers recognize Apartheid laws as gross realities that attempt to destroy other realities: 'But the forced exodus did benefit at least one man in Magopa. Lieb Niehaus charged the Magopans 300 rand ($250) a truckload to move them to their new 'homeland.' He is white- (58).

After reading the article, students were asked to write out homework answers to a list of questions similar to the following:

  • Did you know anything about the Bakwena tribe before reading this essay? Now that you have read the essay, write out your immediate feelings concerning the situation of the Bakweria. tribe? What in your life has helped to shape this attitude?
  • Did you know anything about the South African government before reading this essay?
  • Now that you have read the essay, write out your immediate feelings concerning the actions of the South African government? What in your life has helped to shape this attitude?
  • State your understanding of how you see race relations operating, as they are depicted in this article.
  • Why do you think Alice Walker may have included this article in a book on her reflections about the making of the film The Color Purple?</LI></UL>
    • State your understanding of how this article relates to Nettie's comments about black Africans and whites in The Color Purple. Remember to take into consideration the different historical periods (i.e., Walker situates Nettie's letters in the earlier twentieth century and "Erasing A Black Spot" was written in 1983).
    • In what way might our understanding of British colonialism of Africa be important to us today?

    In class the following day, students worked in small groups to discuss their responses to each question. Students summarized, in writing, what they heard the others say. Then each student responded orally, specifically designing a response around the question, Is there anything that your peers shared that you felt was fair? Unfair? Why? When provided with this or a similar question that set up a pattern for conversation and mutual critique, students began to explore issues that they may have first reacted negatively to. For example, one topic that has repeatedly come up during the discussion of this section is the fact that "Erasing A Black Spot" must hold some value to Walker herself since she included it in a text where she reflects on the novel's transformation to the screen. When students discuss this fact, they usually note that Walker obviously understood the historical realities and complexities of colonization that continue to effect black Africans in contemporary times. In fact, many students go on to discuss the importance of not only learning about such historical events but also state that we should remember them so that self- and group-consciousness can help to alter future behavior patterns that might be similarly destructive.

    At this point, teachers may discuss the ways that the South African government feminized, or rendered powerless, the Bakwena people; and they may ask in what ways Celie or Nettie had been feminized. Finally, as a move into the next excerpt from TSRT, they may ask students to consider in writing and then in small group discussion to remember when they have felt feminized -- silenced or powerless -- because someone perceived their diffrence as deviant. Similarly, teachers may ask students to answer the question, Have you ever silenced someone (consciously or unconsciously) because you understood hislher difference as deviant? The sharing of personal stories helps to build a community that recognizes that difference doesn't have to be negative.

    Disability and Silence

    The last two questions posed to students, Have you ever felt silenced or powerless because someone perceived your difference as negative? and Have you ever been the Perpetuator of silencing? are crucial for purposes of transition into Walker's reflections on her temporary physical disability brought on by Lyme disease.

    There was no formal diagnosis or even name for Lyme disease in the early eighties. Thus, Walker's potential discourse community (those with Lyme disease who interpreted the daily world through their physical struggles with the illness) did not exist. She experienced the disease at a personal and lonely level. Walker, struggling with the immanent death of her mother, was certain that she was dying too. As part of a way to evaluate her symptoms she continually (and painfully) tried to fit into groups -- from sufferers of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome to those dealing with HIV and AIDS. Walker looks back and writes "Reading through my journal from that time I am amazed at how upbeat I sound, with remarkably little mention of my fear. I just omitted any mention of health" (28). She also claimed, "[n]ot knowing what is wrong with you is silencing, even to yourself' (28).

    That silencing, brought on by her lack of knowledge concerning her disease and perhaps by her fear of how others might react to her, placed Walker on the emotional margins during a time when she was, ironically, physically at the center of the filming community of the production of Purple. Walker shows her awareness that she had no space to speak about her medical history, which often left her unable "to speak up" (30) elsewhere. This particular comment left my students wondering that if there had been a space for articulation, whether Walker would have spoke up against some of Spielberg's interpretations of her novel: Shug going into the church or Mr. __ acting as a catalyst in bringing Nettie, Samuel, Olivia, Adam, and Tashi home, both of which never happened in the book.

    Discourse Communities in Dialogue

    Although I felt that the students had been successful with this portion of the unit -- that is they were more able to note the problems in covering over or erasing alternative attitudes and beliefs -- I felt that they would benefit if they also considered that many discourse communities simultaneously shape attitudes -- that gender or race or class issues don't completely shape our reactions and interpretations as single, monolithic categories.

    The comparison of Tony Brown's "Blacks Need To Love One Another" and Anita Jones's "Sears of Indifference" highlighted the ways that individuals never belong to one discourse community only, but are a part of shifting communities that simultaneously intersect and clash. The Brown/Jones dialogue also demonstrated the ways that some opinions can be oppressive to others; but emptying the alternate argument to empower your own is not necessarily the answer for solidarity.

    For students, this became clear in Brown's and Jones's works that held opposite opinions of the film The Color Purple and that played themselves against one another because of differing gender politics. For Brown, the continued vilification of the black male, in conjunction with the offering of lesbianism as an alternative lifestyle, can only further divide the black community. He states that ". . .lesbian affairs will never replace the passion and beauty of a free black man and a free black woman. In Purple, emotional and sexual salvation for women is found in other women. That's not the real world, as some black women, out of frustration, seem to want to believe" (224). Conversely, Jones believed that Brown's evaluation of Purple was "a single-handed attempt to slander the basic principle upon which feminism and humanitarianism are built. . . personal freedom-the right to choose" (225). While both Brown and Jones share a racial identity, the differences in opinion concerning gender politics is here highlighted when they are placed next to each other (as Walker chose to do in TSR7). As a dyad, the articles helped students envision that having the same race doesn't mean having to agree; instead, different gender is what marks the dyad's point of contention-a moment of resistance through dialogue and mutual critique.


    Before students turned in their portfolios at the completion of the unit, I gave them a final two-part assignment: (1) to order the material in their portfolio as they saw fit and (2) to reflect on what they had learned about versions of reality, discourse communities, and interpretative modes in whatever form they felt the most comfortable with. Some wrote the final evaluation of the unit as a personal narrative tracing their journey; others chose to use the letter format; a few students wrote poems; and one student even made a collage that she thought visually expressed both her process of understanding discourse community and her growth as an individual when she realized how her truths constantly spoke with those from other groups.

    In asking them to complete this unit and then reflect, I suppose I was asking them to "let go," to go through their own river twice, to evaluate the material that had helped them to identify themselves and their learning processes and to construct something new from that. I wanted them to emulate Walker; to forge the ebbing and flowing contradictory pieces of one river; to make the private migrations of their hearts and souls (as Marita Golden might say) a public acknowledgment of what is "real" to them; and to acknowledge and confront the "realities" of others that exist and simultaneously shape them. But more than that, I wanted them to reveal how, to use Walker's phrase, they had "honored the difficult." It is never easy to "respectfully encounter 'the other' it is difficult. Resolving the difficulty lies in the difference'in a liminal space where classroom solidarity might be formed through communicative ethics.


    1. Numerous theorists have offered definitions of performativity as a liberating act: Jacques Derrida has examined the performative utterance as a repetition, at once working from a position of familiarity but simultaneously defamiliarizing and resisting the original utterance (-Signature, Event, Context"); Homi Bhabha has defined performance in accordance with mimicry, searching for the between space or third dimension that performance can help to unveil (The Location of Culture); Judith Butler has talked about performativity in terms of exposing the "regulatory law--- and cultural hegemony as crucial to discovering the agency that might come with performance. For purposes of clarity' I am defining performance here as a conversation or dialogue that constantly works to represent the elusiveness of boundaries that work to contain. maintain, and leave unchallenged all belief systems.

    Works Cited

    Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 1995.

    Bobo, Jacqueline. "Sifting Through the Controversy: Reading The Color Purple." Callaloo 12 (1989): 332-342.

    Butler, Judith. Bodies the Matter. On the Discursive Limits of 'Sex'. New York: Routledge: 1993. 12-16.

    Derrida, Jacques. "Signature, Event, Context" Ed. Gerald Graff. Tr. Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman. Evanston [IL]: Northwestern UP, 1988. 18.

    Glicksman, Marlaine. "Lee Way." Film Comment October 1986: 48.

    McCord, Phyllis Frus. "The Ideology of Form: The Nonfiction Novel." Genre 19 (1986):59-79

    Schmidt, Gary. D. and William J. Vande Kopple. Communities of Discourse: The Rhetoric of Disciplines. Englewood Cliffs INJ1: Prentice Hall, 1993.

    Smith, Sidonie and Julia Watson. Eds. Getting a Life: Everyday Uses of Autobiography. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1996.

    Walker, Alice. The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult - A Meditation of Life, Spirit, Art, and the making of the Film The Color Purple some Ten Years Later. New York: Scribner, 1996.

    Watkins, Mel. "Sexism, Racism and Black Women Writers," The New York Times Book Review

    Welch, Rachel. "An Ethic of Solidarity." Postmodernism, Feminism, And Culture Politics, 15 June 1986: 36.

    Welch, Rachel. "An Ethic of Solidarity." Postmodernism, Feminism, and Culture Politics: Redrawing Education Boundaries. Ed. Henry A. Giroux. Albany: SUNY P, 1991.

    Reference Citation: Di Marco, D. (1998). "Honoring The Difficult and Different In The Classroom: Walker's The Same River Twice, The Color Purple and Communicative Ethics" WILLA, Volume VII, p. 8-14.