Academic journal article MELUS

Teaching Alice Walker's 'Meridian': From Self-Defense to Mutual Discovery

Academic journal article MELUS

Teaching Alice Walker's 'Meridian': From Self-Defense to Mutual Discovery

Article excerpt

Because the classroom is always a place of engagement and learning for me - as well as for my students - my two experiences of teaching Alice Walker's Meridian, a novel I had difficulty with at first, have been particularly challenging and instructive. Teaching this novel brings into focus several important interpretive and pedagogical issues having to do with positionality - that is, with the way in which situations of race and gender condition the production, reception, and interpretation of literary works. The story of a young black woman's struggle to find herself in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, it depicts a conflicted love triangle between the heroine, Meridian, her black boyfriend, Truman, and a white, Jewish woman friend, Lynne, whom he marries. Although its primary subject is the legacy of black women in sexist, racist America, the novel also tests the limits of cross-racial relationships between two minority groups, Blacks and Jews. It depicts the multi-faceted politics of race and gender, raising questions about the interaction of racism and anti-Semitism in the shaping of identity. If one is willing to tolerate discomfort, forthright discussion of these themes offers an excellent learning opportunity, particularly in a multi-ethnic classroom. For black students the challenge is to avoid uncritically submerging themselves into the author/narrator/heroine's point of view. For white students, particularly Jews, reading themselves as "other" in a black woman's text may initially prompt defensiveness or even shame, which, if analyzed, can be enlightening. For everyone, learning to balance empathic involvement with critical detachment results in expanded self-knowledge and insight. Walker's text affords an opportunity to disclose what Gregory S. Jay has cared the "pedagogical unconscious" (789), that structure of underlying biases which may inhibit expression if left unacknowledged, but will enable critical thought, debate, and the discovery of common ground if brought into view.(1)

Before I address these issues, let me explain the context in which my teaching of the novel took place. I first taught Meridian at Tufts University in 1980 as part of a freshman writing seminar I designed entitled -Contemporary Writers and Social Responsibility,- in which we also read the work of such representatives of the peace movement and the women's movement as Tim O'Brien, Denise Levertov, and Adrienne Rich. In conjunction with essays by King and Camichael, Walker's novel was used to represent a black woman's voice in the struggle for civil rights. I was a teaching fellow at that point, and although I had lived in Boston for some time, I was still clinging to my Canadian citizenship. I thought that because I had grown up in a region where there were no blacks, I was immune to the noxious effects of racism.

My class that semester was a bi-racial group of freshman men and women (about one-third black), and I was almost totally unprepared for both my own response to the novel and to the uncertainty I felt in the classroom because of it. Although I continued to be moved by the connection between Meridian's vulnerability as a woman and her role in the Civil Rights Movement, I was unprepared for my response to the portrait of Lynne, the white Jewish civil rights worker whose interracial marriage shakes the foundations of her physical and psychological integrity. A white, Jewish liberal myself, I identified with Lynne and felt angry and confused by Walker's attitude toward this character. Concerned about my responsibility to teach Walker fairly, and worried that I would bring distortion and prejudice into the classroom, I backed off completely and avoided raising these interminority issues, despite my knowledge that a large proportion of the student body was Jewish as well as black. Consequently, the class discussion was lifeless and rather strained, and I don't remember that anyone chose to write about the novel. …

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