Sunday, November 8, 2009

the Olinka in The Color Purple

As I made my way through this novel, I encountered numerous moments worthy of attention, but the stories Nettie writes of her life in Africa particularly resonate throughout the work for me. The life Nettie, Samuel, Olivia, and Adam (and Corinne for a while as well) live during their time in Africa and with the Olinka touches upon the effects of imperialism as well as cross cultural exchange or contact. That Nettie and her family are Christian missionaries leaves me somewhat suspicious. This is in no way saying that their intentions are dishonorable, but regardless, the nature of such a visit and the fact of their presence amidst the Olinka inherently poses a ‘threat’ to the culture and traditions of the Olinka people.

In her earlier letters, life in Africa seems wonderful. Nettie is happy, the children are doing well, the family embrace the life of the Olinka, and all is, for the most part, well; however, as time goes on, and more intrusions come upon the people and the culture, the reader quickly feels uneasy. The arrival of white, English rubber tree workers ultimately devastates and wipes out the Olinka culture as it had been before. The presence of the missionaries in the tribe was seen with indifference, they were outsiders. The arrival of the road builders was somewhat different. The missionaries lived in and with the Olinka, the builders did not. At first, the Olinka people did not think of these builders as a threat and thought the road was being built for them (168). But it quickly becomes clear that this land is not that of the Olinka. The roofleaf is plowed and the workers force the Olinka people to purchase tin for their roofs instead (227). The land is cleared and the culture is not only changed forever, but eventually undone by these foreign intruders.

One of the more heart breaking moments for me was when the younger members of the Olinka people wanted to acquire the possessions of the English rubber manufacturers. They want to be like them. Others go off and join the mbeles. Tashi and then Adam literally scar their faces.

It is also note worthy to recognize Tashi’s reluctance to enter the unfamiliar, foreign environment of the US right before the family leaves for home. She comes forth with her reasons, “…because of the scarification marks on her cheeks Americans would look down on her as a savage and shun her…she had seen the magazines we receive from home and that it was very clear to her that black people did not truly admire blackskinned black people like herself, and especially did not admire blackskinned black women” (278-279). She comes from another culture yes, but she is conscious of her face now as well. She is worried as to how she is to be received.

When Samuel was telling Nettie about the stories of his and Corinne’s aunts, he mentioned a school whose motto he thought ought to have been “our community covers the world” (235). If the world is a community, which I believe it is, I think many people do not understand or consider this in relation to their actions or in their thinking. The interactions between the Olinka people and the English rubber manufacturers suggest how we do not think of the world as a whole or oneness. This motto would then be a great indicator of our short comings as a people overall.

I can still remember vividly a memory from my early childhood. I had just begun to read and had a book on the rainforest. I loved this book and must have read it or looked at it several times a day because the pictures were colorful and the animals interested me. If you turned the pages, you could place an image from the previous page on the following one or uncover something that was hidden; I particularly liked the page with the leopard. And although I must have been around the age of five, I still have the memory of how I felt once I reached the last page. I was surprised and, at the time, a little confused and afraid.

The second to last page asked a question about the biggest threat to the rainforest. While the previous pages had essentially showed the different relationships between the animals and who is a threat to this one and so forth, the very last page said that it was us, human beings. The picture was of a green rainforest with the trees being cut down and a big, yellow construction truck that must have been a bulldozer or some other vehicle like it. I was shocked because I had not been expecting this answer. I remember feeling uncomfortable, but I also felt as though I was not a part of the ‘us’. I felt that the ‘us’, the human beings were separate from me and the fact that I was a human being myself. I guess this is because I was a kid, but I remember viewing the workers on the last page as a threat to not only the rainforest, but to myself as well.

History is filled with imperialism and colonization, with oppression and plight. Whether it is the rainforest, a people, a country, a race, a sex, a people of a particular sexuality, there is still this oppression today, this intrusion. I think The Color Purple and Alice Walker are meaning to make a statement, amongst others, by including the Olinka people in this story.

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