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Is The Color Purple appropriate for high school?

The Color Purple by Alice Walker is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that has become a modern American classic. However, due to its mature themes including racism, violence, and sexual assault, there has been ongoing debate around whether it is appropriate to teach this novel in high schools. Here we’ll examine the key arguments on both sides of this issue.

Background on The Color Purple

The Color Purple was published in 1982 and is set in rural Georgia in the early 1900s. It tells the story of Celie, a young black woman who endures abuse and oppression throughout her life. The novel deals with many mature themes including racism, sexism, domestic violence, incest, female genital mutilation, and lesbian relationships.

Due to its raw and unflinching portrayal of abuse and oppression, The Color Purple quickly became controversial, drawing criticism for its graphic language and depictions of sexuality. However, it was also praised for the strength of its female protagonist and its insightful examination of gender and racial inequality.

In 1983, The Color Purple was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. While it received widespread acclaim in literary circles, there was ongoing debate about whether its mature content made it appropriate for high school classrooms.

Arguments for teaching The Color Purple in high schools

Here are some of the key arguments in favor of teaching The Color Purple to high school students:

  • It is an important work of African American literature that gives voice to black women’s experiences and examines vital social issues such as racism, sexism, and violence.
  • The novel provides opportunities to discuss important historical contexts like sharecropping, segregation, and the Jim Crow South.
  • It encourages critical thinking about complex social justice issues that remain relevant today.
  • The protagonist Celie’s personal growth and empowerment can serve as an inspirational model for students.
  • Reading and analyzing challenging mature literature helps prepare students for college-level work.
  • Exposure to diverse perspectives builds social awareness and empathy.
  • The novel has literary merit as a modern American classic and Pulitzer Prize winner.

Supporters argue that with proper guidance from teachers, mature high school students have the capability to thoughtfully analyze this novel and appreciate its literary richness, complexity, and social insights.

Arguments against teaching The Color Purple in high schools

Here are some of the main arguments that have been made about why The Color Purple may not be appropriate for high school classrooms:

  • Graphic depictions of abuse, violence, incest, and sexuality are too mature for teenage readers.
  • The novel’s raw language, including profanity and racial slurs, is unsuitable for high school.
  • Parents may object to some of the book’s themes and content.
  • Students may lack the maturity and life experience needed to fully comprehend complex social issues in the novel.
  • Younger teens could find certain disturbing scenes upsetting or traumatic to read about.
  • Other novels by black authors or set during the same time period could convey similar themes in a more age-appropriate manner.
  • Required reading and analyzing explicit content could violate community standards or parents’ wishes.

Critics caution that exposing minors to graphic descriptions of sexual violence, profane language, and other mature content could be inappropriate or harmful. They argue there are many other meaningful novels that could teach similar lessons without requiring teenage readers to process upsetting violent imagery.

Key content areas of concern

Here are some of the main incidents and content areas in The Color Purple that have raised concerns about its suitability for high school students:

Content of concern Description
Physical abuse Celie endures repeated beatings and abuse from her husband who views her as property.
Incest Celie is raped and impregnated by her step-father at age 14.
Sexuality The novel contains depictions of coerced sex, lesbian relationships, and erotic awakening.
Violence In addition to Celie’s abuse, Sofia suffers violence as she resists oppression.
Language The novel contains profanity, racial slurs, and explicit sexual references.

These graphic scenes and language have caused concern that the book’s content is too intense for the sensibilities of teenage readers whose maturity levels vary greatly.

Teaching strategies to consider

For educators who believe the literary merits of The Color Purple warrant teaching it in high school, there are several precautions and teaching strategies to consider:

  • Provide advance notice to parents about mature content and require opt-in consent.
  • Only teach the novel in 11th and 12th grade when students are older.
  • Have students read with parental guidance so families can discuss disturbing content together.
  • Establish clear classroom ground rules about mature discussions.
  • Avoid requiring students to read disturbing passages aloud.
  • Plan lessons to mitigate shock value and focus on literary analysis.
  • Provide historical context to illuminate novel’s accurate cultural depictions.
  • Identify alternate novel choices allowing students uncomfortable with content to opt-out.
  • Send home permission slips for parents to consent or decline their child’s participation.

With sensitivity to the needs of individual students, thoughtful preparation, and wider community values in mind, teachers can design an approach to teaching The Color Purple that strikes an appropriate balance for their particular classroom context.

Key factors influencing appropriateness

There are several factors that likely influence whether teaching The Color Purple in high school is appropriate:

  • Age of students – Developmental maturity varies greatly between early and later high school years. The book may be too advanced for some younger teens.
  • Community norms – Rural, religiously conservative communities may object more strongly than liberal urban areas.
  • Parental consent – Advance notification and opt-in parental approval may mitigate many concerns.
  • Instructional purpose – Suitability often depends on learning objectives and lesson plan thoughtfulness.
  • Alternate choices – Providing substitute novel options can accommodate students uncomfortable reading about mature themes.
  • State standards – Local and board policies influence appropriateness judgments at the district level.

By thoughtfully considering student age, parental opinion, community standards, and curricular goals, educators can make informed choices about the use of The Color Purple in their specific educational context.


The appropriateness of The Color Purple for high school readers is a complex issue with reasonable arguments on both sides. Thoughtful teachers can craft age-appropriate educational experiences using the novel. However, the concerns about exposing teenagers to graphic trauma scenes and mature content are valid given varied student sensitivities. Providing substitute novel choices and requiring parental opt-in consent are proactive measures teachers can take. Overall, the novel’s merits justify teaching it in most 11th and 12th grade classrooms, but only with proper precautions, framing, and alternative reading options provided.