Celie, a nearly illiterate black Georgia girl, writes a short note to God, confiding to him that she's only fourteen, but already she is burdened with cooking, cleaning, and caring for a multitude of brothers and sisters because of her mother's failing health. In addition, her father has raped her.
We are stunned. Seldom has a novel begun so melodramatically — and yet so briefly and in such a matter-of-fact style. We are caught off-guard. Clearly, this letter to God is not a prayer, as one might expect a letter to God to be. But, on the other hand, despite the sexual violence described in the letter, there is nothing excessively melodramatic about the letter in terms of its style. In fact, what we notice, first of all, and perhaps most important, is the fact that Celie is writing to God in much the way that she would write to, or speak to, a good, close, loving friend. This letter, written in what Walker has called black folk language, contains a strong and sustained sense of naturalness throughout.
Talking to her friend God, Celie uses the words "titties," "pussy," and "his thing" without any sense of embarrassment. These words are the only words that Celie knows for these terms. Celie is an innocent young girl who has been sexually abused by her father, and now she is confused as to why it happened to her. So she asks all-knowing God: why? And in telling God what has happened, there is nothing shocking about her language because it is the natural language of this black girl. What is shocking is the fact that her father has raped her and has threatened more violence if she tells anyone about it. The violence itself is shocking — not Celie's language.
The reason why Celie writes to God is that she would like to tell her mother what happened, but Celie's father has warned her not to — to tell "nobody but God," especially not Celie's mother because, according to him, "It'd kill your mammy."
Again, we are caught off-guard. We know that this novel is written by a contemporary black woman, and therefore, the word "mammy" is jarring. Usually we encounter "mammy" only in so-called softcore racist songs and literature. For example, we think of the song "Mammy's Li'l Baby Loves Shortnin' Bread," and we also think of all of the turbaned, sassy, protective "mammies" who (according to the movies) ruled Southern plantation kitchens, as well as most of the rest of the plantation house affairs, and, of course, we recall Al Jolson's "black face," sung-on-bended-knee version of "Mammy," and scores of other instances where the word "mammy" is used in a condescending, put-down, racist context. "Mammy" does not have a positive connotation to today's progressive black and white ears.
Yet here, Celie's father uses the term, and obviously, it is as natural to him as his untamed need for sex is. So, not only are prudish readers caught off-guard by Walker's language concerning Celie's rape, but so are black and white liberals when Walker, very naturally, within the context of this novel, introduces a word that has evolved into a racist term. Walker begins this novel, as one critic has noted, with exactly the same ingredients that a Greek playwright would have used for the climax of his tragedy.
We realize, then, that Celie is too scared to tell her mother, or her mammy, what her father has done, so she has told no one. She wants to be a "good girl," and she knows that if she lets her father rape her, he will leave her sick mother alone. Celie abhors her father's rough, sexual brutality, but by submitting to it, she spares her mother. Note that Celie tells God, "She happy" — that is, to Celie's mother, sickness seems far preferable to Fonso's (Celie's father's) brutality.
In addition, Celie is telling God that sexual violence should not be her reward for having been (and she emphasizes that she has been) a "good girl." She asks God for a "sign" to let her know "what is happening." She feels that she's being punished, that somehow she's to blame, and she doesn't understand why. She hopes that a sign from God will explain why she is suffering — from rape, incest, and so much sudden responsibility. Celie, of course, doesn't know these words — rape, incest, and responsibility — yet. She knows only that she is struggling to endure — to hold on — during this crisis. She is troubled, and in terrible pain, and is deeply confused. And in addition, she feels utterly alone. Therefore, she writes to someone whom she trusts — God, asking for understanding and explanation.