I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it.
―Alice Walker, The Color Purple
My first curiosity with the color purple was in church. The formidably wiry Lutheran pastor, Pastor O___, with his black bowlcut and his square jaw and set-upon shoulders, bemoaned John 19:5: “So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, ‘Behold the man!’”
All us kids were called up to the front to get a special “kids sermon” during Sunday church. I hated going up, walking the aisle in front of everyone, but my parents would push me out of the pew and, with their lips pressed firmly together, eyes wide, I knew I didn’t have a choice.
Pastor O___ went on, asking if any of us knew why purple was so important, why the Bible went out of its way to mention that color here specifically.
We collectively shifted, didn’t say a thing. No one knew.
Pastor O___ knelt. He said purple was the color of royalty and of the rich. That they were taunting Jesus, the King of the Jews. He hung his head low. He asked us if we thought that was fair. The kids, in unison, said no. I said, quietly, mostly to myself, that it wasn’t fair the color purple was brought into things. It hadn’t done anything wrong. It was, I figured, just a color.
Pastor O___ shook his head, smiled as he stood. He repeated what I said loudly to the congregation. Everyone laughed.
In sixth grade, I saved up my allowance money to buy a purple Stüssy t-shirt. There was just something about the color that had always been with me, for as long as I can remember. Something deeply alluring, something that made me feel—silly as this sounds—brave and interesting and not-me. It was, I suppose, a shield of some sort.
I remember so vividly how excited I was to wear it to school. I laid out my outfit the night before. I probably dreamt in purple. Walking from my locker to my first class, two boys, M___ and S___, started laughing and pointing in my direction. I froze. I had hoped they were making fun of anyone but me. I looked around, then back at them. Their voices were honed in on my awkwardness: Purple, they said, was a girl’s color. Robby was, therefore, a girl. Robby was a girl a girl a girl a girl.
I don’t know why I had put so much stock in this shirt, in the purple of it. It was just a color. And it shouldn’t have mattered so much, those boys and their taunts, but middle school is a jungle and their cackles were machete strokes hacking away at me. I smiled. I held back tears. Everyone pointed and laughed. Later, at home, I buried the shirt in the bottom drawer of my dresser. My mother said I was making too big a deal out of it, that kids had short memories. I said she didn’t remember that far back, she’d forgotten how untrue that was. I never wore the shirt again.
Do me a favor, please:
Close your eyes. Imagine the color purple in your mind, the first shade that pops up.
You’re probably picturing a “classic” purple color, right?
Or maybe something lavender-like?
But the variation and depth of the color purple is astoundingly complex, as with all colors. Here, in this small sampling of purple hues, what do you see?
In that palette I see grape juice drinks and fruit roll-ups at friends’ houses, the treats I wasn’t allowed to have at home; I see the color of coming-night skies, storms and reflections on glassy-still Michigan lakes; bruises along my legs from playing in the woods in the dark, running into tree trunks and downed logs and not giving a damn. I can see it all.
I look around my room: purple cat toys and pajama bottoms, my wife’s purple yoga pants, a purple gingham dress shirt I only wear on special occasions; I’m even drinking blackberry sparkling water—the can has three different shades of purple on it. On my writing desk there’s a purple orchid I bought at the check-out of the nearby grocery store at a discount.
Chances are that You, reading this, might be wearing purple, or be in eyeshot of something purple-colored, at least. It’s inevitable; purple is everywhere from food packaging to cars to hair dye. But it wasn’t always this way.
In 1856, eighteen-year-old William Henry Perkin, while studying at London’s Royal college of Chemistry, was attempting to create synthetic quinine—an alkaloid used to treat malaria, which was quite expensive at the time—but instead, through combining hydrogen and oxygen with coal tar, he accidentally created synthetic purple. He became instantly wealthy.
Prior to Perkin’s discovery, purple dye was extremely difficult and expensive to make. We still associate the color with wealth and privilege and royalty for that very reason. Why purple? Outside of plants, where it can be fairly common, it is relatively rare to find mammals or birds or insects displaying the color. (Mammals can’t produce purple, blue, or green pigments at all. Birds can display purple through structure coloration only—by reflecting light along colorless cells to appear to be purple.)
Because of its preciousness, like anything that comes into contact with humankind, a bounty was placed on it. For millennia, there were whole civilizations whose industry was devoted to creating purple dye and textiles. In 2019, on the now-uninhabited, sunswept Mediterranean island of Chrysi—literally translated to Golden—just nine miles south of Crete, researchers uncovered not just a trove of ancient treasures, but proof that the island’s economy was dedicated to producing the color purple. Dating from approximately 3,800 years ago, they found shallow beds around the island settlements where murex sea snails were farm-raised. These snails were the key.
To make even a small amount of purple dye, tens of thousands of murex snails would be dried, boiled, and crushed. From each, a small amount of deep-purple found in the snails’ glands (used as a defense against predators) could be harvested. These many thousands of snails with their tiny droplets of purple could dye, perhaps, a bit of neutral fabric or sheep’s’ wool. (The hardest part was getting the odor of desiccated sea snail out of it at all. Records indicate the vats the murex were boiled in smelled wretched.)
They called the color Tyrian purple, named after the city of Tyre, where the dye was also produced. They built complex cisterns to pump in fresh sea-water to keep the snails alive. It was an industrial-complex. A whole city-state dedicated to producing luscious purple.
Supposedly, the purple dye was originally found on a lark: 2nd Century mythographer Julius Pollux wrote of Hercules and his dog down at the beach, his pup’s mouth stained purple from chewing sea snails. A color then handed to mortals from the gods themselves. From the discovery of the color in the snails, however it might’ve happened, a commerce was born, perhaps always with this celestial reputation. And for millennia, it didn’t exist from any other source: all of the man-made things colored purple in the world were produced in and around the Mediterranean from a millenary of mashed-up sea snails.
Because it took so much time and energy to produce, only royalty or the ultra-elite could don purple robes; Roman emperors, their purple trabeae. (Roman law penalized the use of the color for other than their great leaders. (Their children were, then, “born into the purple.”)) It took thousands and thousands of sea snails and untold hours of manual labor to color a single garment. Quite simply, the color purple was a controlled commodity.
I’m thinking back:
A pasture of violets in an abandoned construction lot down the street from my childhood home that will, decades later, be filled in with cookie-cutter homes. There are so many purple flowers sprouting up around massive piles of dug-up dirt and stray cinderblock foundations laid and forgotten that they—their color—is no longer a novelty. Alone, my bike laid against the trunk of a nearby fir, I pluck them in handfuls and grind them into my palms furiously to see if the color will rub off on me.
Gaius Julius Caesar was stabbed to death on the Ides of March by forty Roman Senators. Beneath him, a pool of dark blood, his twisted purple toga.
Lavender, mauve, puce, phlox, periwinkle, Byzantium, amethyst, mulberry, wisteria, heather, plum, dark orchid, ultra violet, royal purple, liseran, heliotrope, magenta, maroon, fuchsia, jam, raisin, and wine.
Writer Katharine Lee Bates visited Pikes Peak in Colorado and felt inspired to write a poem about the land called, simply, “America.” She published it in 1895. In it, taken so thoroughly by the color of the ridge, the angle of the land, she described “purple mountain majesties.” In 1910, her poem was set to a hymn written by Samuel Ward and retitled “America the Beautiful.” In elementary school, we’d line up in our bleak, boxy gymnasium and sing the song on command until it sounded “right.”
The lyrics went through a few iterations before it became “America the Beautiful.” The “purple mountain majesties” line always stayed the same.
I’m in my twenties. My family, back in Michigan, is falling apart; secrets have been released and relationships are strained, severed. It’s a turbulent time and I don’t know who I am or what I want or where I’m going.
I move to Los Angeles without a car. The only people I know here are my roommate and my estranged ex who has decided, on a whim, to move out here for fashion school. I’m lonely.
They say Green is the color of harmony and health, a color that, supposedly, balances our emotions and helps us feel safe. Here in LA I have a surfeit of green clothing. It’s in style. But my mental health is at its worst. Everything about me is disharmony and disarray. Strange how we imbue colors with so much power.
Red: the color of excitement and love and passion. I also have a lot of red clothing, polo shirts and patterned button-downs, but I’m adrift here. I have no passion. I’m a nervous wreck all the time. LA is a bad place to live if you don’t have a strong sense of self. I’m dating a woman I have to convince myself is right for me. We’re incompatible in every way. I think we’re just trying to stave off the darkness together a little longer.
I take the bus to my job almost an hour each way from Culver City to Redondo Beach until, months later, I can finally afford a car. I want to expunge my past life and start over here, but I find California to be so perplexing: everyone is “on” all the time. You can’t go to the gym without seeing everyone completely made-up, men and women, hoping to get discovered. Same with the grocery store and the video rental place on the corner that doesn’t hide its pornography in a curtained-off backroom like in Michigan.
It’s funny: I want to disappear in a land where everyone is trying to be as visible as possible.
Purple: the color of power and wisdom, of deep spirituality. I have none of these things. There is a purple t-shirt at the store with a funny slogan—forgettable to me now—I desperately want to buy and wear. I make it a point on my lunch breaks at the mall where I work to walk by the store, to touch the fabric between my fingers as if I might glean something. I do this for a week and then talk myself out of buying it. I’m afraid of what people might say.
There are fifty-eight species of thistle native to North America. Most of them are considered weeds or invasive. Scotch thistle grows abundant in Nebraska, where I live now, mainly along roadways, in ditches, along river and stream banks. It can reach a height of 5 feet, 9 inches, the average height of an adult American man. Its flower is a gorgeous light purple—called, now, thistle purple, the color you see in early spring dawn skies. Whole government programs, groups of people, exist to eradicate the flowering plant mechanically, chemically, or biologically, by any means necessary. Its crime: thriving here instead of there.
In his exhaustive 1907 book Extinct Birds, Walter Rothschild writes a single, brief entry about a supposed “purple macaw” based only upon centuries-old accounts:
Why he chose to include the entry at all, a bird there was absolutely no evidence for, is a mystery. Perhaps he just liked the idea of a brilliant purple bird. That he couldn’t comprehend how a thing didn’t already exist.
Somewhere, in some long-forgotten relative’s house, there is a coffee table book of Georgia O’Keefe paintings just sitting there. I’m young. I flip through and stop on a painting from 1924 called Purple Petunias and am transfixed. I trace my finger along the interlocking petals, the subtle purple colors that melt into one another.
Then the shout, the slap: that book, those paintings, aren’t meant for kids.
Robert James Russell, Lake, February, 2021, watercolor on paper. Courtesy of the artist.
Nearly four-thousand years ago, workers fish sea snails from porous rock by the many thousands. They have hard lives. They keep the snails in shallow, hand-made basins, boil and dry them, bash them in with crude hammers, eviscerate their insides for a tiny drop of natural purple. They do this to dye wool to make clothing for the 1% of the 1% who won’t even look them in the eye, won’t acknowledge their existence. These workers will never own a purple garment in their lifetime, not an iota of anything purple. It isn’t even an option. The closest they get will be the purple stains on their fingers and palms that, no matter how hard they scrub, hardly comes off.
Purple, made up of blue and red in equal parts, is a figment, not on the visible spectrum. They call it a non-spectral color. It doesn’t even have its own wavelength. We’re worshipping a ghost.
Purple, the color of wisdom and royalty, now the color of children’s cereal boxes and dollar-store toys and spray-painted graffiti near where I live asking IF NOT NOW THEN WHEN. It’s everywhere, and we overlook it, its origin, how we were able to get to this point where we don’t even see it any more. It’s just a purple shirt, just a piece of fruit.
No, purple is
a mountain I might climb someday,
a forest I might hike in that particular dusky morning light,
a riotous maybe-love that’ll rip me apart.
Twenty-eight years ago I was a child who didn’t know himself or where he was going. There’s a steady framework that’s been there all along, I guess, a boy who loved abstract humor and touching nature and comfort food and getting lost staring out at the horizon and wondering What’s over there, then? I’ll be forty this year, and this is all still true of me. And yet would I even recognize who I was at thirty? At twenty? At tender adolescence?
I suppose I know this: I’ve always loved this color; then, I loved Marvel’s Hawkeye because of the purple costume he wore, how hard, without powers of his own, he fought to belong in a super-powered world. I loved seeing wild purple flowers on road trips out West in those great expanses of endless land and staying up late in the summer to make up names for the purple colors in the sky I assumed no one else ever had. I was their discoverer, these colors that revealed somewhere other than home, other than here, this laid-out life. For a child who didn’t know who he was and an adult who maybe never fully will, purple was and always will be royal. It will always be for everyone.
My mother said not to make a fuss about the purple t-shirt and the boys who teased me. That they’d grow out of it. That it was just a color.
See, but it’s not. That’s the whole point.