What Is the Meaning of Revolutionary Petunias?
Revolutionary Petunias is the title of a poem written by American author Alice Walker. It is included in a collection of poems that is also titled Revolutionary Petunias. The volume was originally published in 1973, several years after Walker had participated in the 1960s civil rights movement in the south. It was published 12 years before her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple was written.
The poems in this book, and the title poem in particular, are about women who are oppressed by the men in their lives as well as by American society, which has historically been a bastion of men. As Walker said: "These poems are about (and for) those few embattled souls who remain painfully committed to beauty and to love even while facing the firing squad."
Flowers have a strong symbolic meaning in many of Alice Walker's writings, especially in Revolutionary Petunias. Flowers symbolize a commitment to beauty that seems revolutionary in the face of the ugliness that so often attends their lives. Sammy Lou, the doomed protagonist of the poem, expresses concern that beauty and spirituality live on even after her death.
Sammy Lou commits a crime of revenge in the poem. In her eyes, it is justifiable and correct to kill her husband's murderer. She is pictured as a backwoods woman who has lived a peaceful life as a wife and mother until evil enters her life. She heeds the Bible's injunction of "an eye for an eye" and cannot understand how the outside public--strangers all--can paint such terrible images of her without knowing anything about her. The suggestion is that the judgmental venom she encounters is doubled because she is black and because she is a woman.
A great many of Alice Walker's poems and stories are set in a time before feminism was even a concept. While there's no specific date mentioned in Revolutionary Petunias, references to the electric chair and funeral home calendars on the walls of her home give the poem the feel of a period piece, which implies sexism and racism out in the open. Sammy Lou fits Walker's definition of an exemplar of Womanism: "She is purple--purple with rage, purple as restored royalty, purple blossoming wild in an open field." Womanist characters are empowered by a strong sense of self to speak out and to act out, even in the absence of a social movement to support their actions.
Revolutionary Petunias is about Sammy Lou, but her relationships with men are wound throughout. We know little about Sammy Lou's husband other than that he was killed and avenged. In many of Alice Walker's other works, including the lauded novel The Color Purple, it is the male partner who causes the female protagonist the most pain. In this poem, the absent husband is not assigned any such characteristics, but he was murdered by another man, which makes the world of men seem even more brutal.
Sammy Lou faces her impending death bravely. Perhaps she knows that she leaves the best part of herself behind. When she enjoins those around her to water her petunias, she suggests that life and beauty will continue without her. Since she has raised several children, there is a symbolic link to her family, which will live on after her death. In this way, she survives.
Eric Angevine is a freelance writer and editor from Charlottesville, VA. He writes about sports for ESPN.com, music and environmental issues for Blue Ridge Outdoors, and travel for several publications. He is the Editor of Jayhawk Tip-Off. He attended the University of Kansas and graduated from Old Dominion University with a B.S. in Professional Writing.