Academic journal article MELUS

Remembering the Dream: Alice Walker, Meridian and the Civil Rights Movement

Academic journal article MELUS

Remembering the Dream: Alice Walker, Meridian and the Civil Rights Movement

Article excerpt

"If the Civil Rights Movement is `dead,'(1) and if it gave us nothing else, it gave us each other forever," wrote Alice Walker in her first published essay, in 1967 (Gardens 128). Her statement is true for Walker as an African American woman and as a writer. The Movement reaffirmed African Americans' connection to each other as a people and to their history of struggle against oppression. The Movement also allowed Walker to claim her self--she has described herself as "called to life" by the Movement--and to claim the lives of African American women of the rural South as the subject of her fiction (Gardens 122). Walker grew up in rural Georgia, and, as a student at Spelman College from 1961 to 1962., she became involved in the Atlanta Movement, working at voter registration and participating in marches and demonstrations (J. Hams 33). Inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr., who urged civil rights workers to "`Go back to Mississippi ... go back to Georgia,'" in his speech during the March on Washington in 1963, she returned to the South for two summers and went to live in Mississippi during the late 1960s and early 1970s, working at voter registration, teaching Headstart teachers and writing stories about rural southern black women. (Gardens 163, 27).

Participation in the Civil Rights Movement was central to Walker's life not only as a young woman but also as a young writer. She has written about the Movement in some of her early poems, in short stories, in essays, and briefly in her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), but Meridian (1976) is her novel of the Civil Rights Movement. Meridian is more than a novel about the Civil Rights Movement, and critics have focused on many aspects of this complex work.(2) But I would like to focus on Meridian as a novel of the Civil Rights Movement and try to show how Walker used her experience in the Movement and the experience of others of her generation to deal with the social, political and philosophical issues raised by the Movement, issues that continue to engage us today. Other critics have focused on the Civil Rights Movement in discussing Meridian,(3) but they do not discuss the connection between Walker's experience in the Movement and the novel. Alice Walker is the only major African American woman writer who came of age during the Civil Rights Movement and participated in it and the only one to write a novel about the Civil Rights Movement.(4)

By 1970, when Walker began to write Meridian (J. Harris 33), the Civil Rights Movement, which offered the hope of "Freedom Now!" and the ideal and practice of nonviolence and "Black and White Together," had been declared dead. Many young blacks had given up on white Americans and on nonviolence, because of their experience of white racist violence and intransigence in the Civil Rights Movement. As early as 1963, Anne Moody, a young black woman active in the Movement in Mississippi, began to "question everything I had ever believed in" and to think "Nonviolence is through," after a black church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed by racist whites and four young girls attending Sunday school were killed (Moody 320, 319). Despite the Movement, in 1970 the United States continued to be racially divided and violent against black people.

By 1970, some people, who called themselves black nationalists or black militants, and whose slogan had become "Black Power," urged black women, who had struggled for their freedom along with black men in the Civil Rights Movement, to subordinate themselves to black men, to make themselves less, for the good of their people. In an essay published in 1973, while she was writing Meridian, Alice Walker quotes Barbara Sizemore, writing in The Black Scholar, on the new "`nationalist woman'": "`Her main goal is to inspire and encourage man and his children. Sisters in this movement must beg for permission to speak and function as servants to men.'" (qtd. in Gardens 169). Both Walker and Sizemore viewed this development in the freedom struggle with dismay. Walker called it "heartbreaking" (Gardens 169). Barbara Omolade, like Walker a participant in the Civil Rights Movement as a young woman, also writes, like Sizemore, about nationalist men in the 1970s confining nationalist women to the role of wife and mother. She adds that "Among themselves, sisters balked at being mere supporters and complained of male chauvinism--while maintaining a united front with men against white racism." (Omolade 166).

The attempt by black nationalist men to subordinate black women was influenced, in part, by the ideology of the Nation of Islam, and Sizemore compares the position of black nationalist women to that of women in the Nation of Islam (qtd. in Gardens 169). Attempting to subordinate black women was also a response by some black men to the growing feminist consciousness of young black women in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) toward the end of the Civil Rights Movement. At that time, some black (and white) women, like their foremothers in the Anti-Slavery Movement, began to see, in their relationship to the men in the Movement, an analogy to the racist oppression of black people. Many black women in the Movement, like Cynthia Washington, put the struggle for black freedom first and saw "Struggle between black men and women" as "an effective way to keep us from working for our common liberation." ("We Started From Different Ends of the Spectrum" rpt. in Evans 239). Other black women, like Frances Beal, could not separate their struggle as women from their struggle as blacks and refused to "exchange a white master for a Black master," believing that "the ideology of male supremacy was divisive ... and had no place in the Black Movement." (qtd. in Jordan 166).

Though the Civil Rights Movement was declared dead, Meridian is a novel that affirms the Movement's vision of freedom and nonviolence, affirms blackness and African American heritage in a racist society that failed to value and[ continued to destroy black lives, and focuses on black women and their participation in the Movement, refusing to make them less than they had been. Meridian is what Walker would later call a "womanist" novel: it combines the black consciousness and feminist consciousness that grew out of the Civil Rights Movement. The word "womanist" gives equal importance to race and to gender: a "womanist" is "a black feminist or feminist of color," who is "Committed to [the] survival and wholeness of [the] entire people, male and female." (Gardens xi). In choosing to use the word "womanist" rather than "feminist" Walker expresses her feeling of separation from white feminists who fail to consider race, and her feeling of exclusion, as a woman and a feminist, by black nationalist men. Madhu Dubey, in Black Women Novelists and the Nationalist Aesthetic, sees African American women novelists of the 1970s, including Alice Walker, as attempting to create a place for black women in the masculinist black nationalist discourse. Alice Walker's term "womanist" and her womanist novel Meridian are part of that endeavor.

Walker begins by acknowledging the death of the Civil Rights Movement in the epigraph to Meridian. The words are from Black Elk's lament for the end of the Lakota way of life with the slaughter of starving, freezing Lakota women and children by the United States Army at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on December 29, 1890. It reads, in part:

   I did not know then how much was ended.... I can still see the butchered
   women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked
   gulch.... And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud,
   and was buried in the blizzard. A people's dream died there. It was a
   beautiful dream....

With Black Elk's words, Walker mourns the deaths of those who died so bloodily during the Civil Rights Movement and the death of another "people's dream ... a beautiful dream," a dream of freedom, equality and nonviolence. But in the novel that follows, she creates Meridian, a young African American woman from rural Georgia, a student at Saxon (Spelman) College, who struggles, long after the Movement has been declared dead, to make the dream live.

It is significant that when Walker began to write Meridian she was thinking about Ruby Doris Smith Robinson (J. Harris 33). Robinson joined the Movement when she was seventeen and a student at Spelman College, participating in sit-ins, freedom rides and demonstrations; she was jailed many times. She was the only woman to hold one of the two top leadership positions in SNCC, and she is remembered by women who were in SNCC as one of the first to raise the issue of women's equality within the organization (Evans 39-40, 8488). She died of cancer in 1967, while still active in SNCC (Evans 40). Walker knew Robinson, though not "`that well'" (J. Harris 33). Howard Zinn, who taught at Spelman when Robinson was a student, "remembered her as someone whose strength was almost tangible, coming from `very deep inside her'" (qtd. in Evans 41). James Forman a leader of SNCC, remembers her as "one of the few genuine revolutionaries" in the Movement (Forman 475).

In Walker's novel, Meridian is like Robinson in her inner strength and her complete dedication to the freedom struggle. Robinson was determined to build SNCC into a political movement to bring about changes in the economic, political and social institutions of the United States necessary to free black people. Meridian is equally determined to free black people, but she must continue the struggle alone, after the Movement has been declared dead. She lives among the poorest blacks in the rural South, "`like the Civil Rights Workers used to do'" (31), becoming poor like them, leading them in nonviolent protest marches to improve conditions in their communities and persisting in registering them to vote, "as their smallest resistance" (191), as "the beginning of the use of ... [their] voice" (205).

Meridian's struggle is also personal and spiritual, a struggle with the ideal of nonviolence. With Meridian, Walker raises a difficult question, both political and philosophical, the question of how to create a just and peaceful or nonviolent society from one that is both unjust and violent. This question was raised but left unanswered by the Civil Rights Movement. By creating Meridian divided against herself on the question of nonviolence, Walker challenges the abandonment of nonviolence that followed the Civil Rights Movement. Though Meridian agrees with her friends that "`nonviolence has failed'" to free black people, she cannot, like them, proclaim herself ready to "`kill for the Revolution'" (31). Meridian is willing to die but does not think she can kill for the freedom of black people. She knows that it may be necessary to kill to free black people and poor people, but she cannot imagine a society created through violence in which people can be free and spiritually whole. Meridian expresses Walker's concern for "the spiritual survival, the survival whole of my people" (Gardens 250). Both Walker and her character Meridian believe, with Martin Luther King, Jr., that in using violence a people risk "losing ... [their] soul" (King 25).

Unable to kill, Meridian offers herself as a martyr for her people's freedom. Shortly after each march that she leads, Meridian loses consciousness and becomes paralyzed: she "dies." Meridian is "ready" (25) to suffer and to die for black people's freedom, because she feels unworthy to live. She is full of guilt, because she has given up her child for adoption, and she has failed to please her own mother, by refusing motherhood and joining the Civil Rights Movement: she has doubly betrayed "Black Motherhood" (96). Her readiness to die is an expression of her suicidal impulses. In discussing the novel, Walker describes Meridian as a "flawed revolutionary" because of her feeling of unworthiness and the physical symptoms it causes. But she explains that the flaw is one that makes Meridian "more worthy" to lead, that it is both the cause and "the cost of ... [her] heroism" (Tate 184, 179). Walker noticed other, similar "hidden" flaws in many of the people she knew and admired in the Civil Rights Movement, as they lived every day facing violence and death (Tate 179).

Meridian refuses martyrdom and chooses to live when she is able to see her connection to her people:

   She understood, finally, that the respect she owed her life was to continue
   ... to live it, and not to give up any particle of it, without a fight to
   the death, preferably not her own. And that this existence extended beyond
   herself to those around her because ... the years in America had created
   them one Life. (200)

She reaches this understanding in church, at a memorial service on the anniversary of the death of a young martyr of the Civil Rights Movement. It is not the "reactionary" (199) black church of her childhood, but the new black church, where the music is "martial" (195), where the mood of the congregation is not one of "resignation" or "despair" but "`We are fed up'" (196), a legacy of the Civil Rights Movement.

Meridian realizes that she suffers because she cannot accept her inability to kill, because she thinks, "I am not to belong to the future" (201). But her new understanding enables her to imagine a place for herself and her nonviolence in the future:

  perhaps it will be my part to walk behind the real revolutionaries-those who
  know they must spill blood in order to help the poor and the black ... --and
  when they stop to wash off the blood and find their throats too choked with
  the smell of murdered flesh to sing, I will come forward and sing from
  memory songs they will need once more to hear. For it is the song of the
  people, transformed by the experience of each generation, that holds them
  together, and if any part of it is lost the people suffer and are without
  soul. If I can only do that, my role will not have been a useless one after
  all. (201)

Her ability to see the connection of African American people to each other and to their collective past and to see herself as the preserver of that past and its spiritual values, like an African griot, frees Meridian from suffering. Though once she felt burdened by the past, by her inability to live up to the example of her foremothers, by her betrayal of "Black Motherhood," now Meridian feels strengthened by her connection to them.

Meridian, who is a poet and loves and collects the songs of the black church, is meant by Walker to be seen as a black revolutionary artist. The same year as she began to write Meridian, Walker wrote and presented a paper on "The.... Duties of the Black Revolutionary Artist ..." (Gardens 130-38). Those duties, as she saw them, were "to create and to preserve what was created" by black artists of the past; to serve the people, by teaching them to read, by teaching them their history, by "staying close enough to them to be there whenever they need you;" and to be, not only "the voice of the people," but to see oneself in the people, to be "The People" (135, 138).

Her definition of the duties of the black revolutionary artist enabled Walker to see herself as both an artist and a revolutionary. But it was not enough to prevent her from suffering because she was an artist and not a revolutionary. It seems clear that Walker used her own suffering in creating Meridian. Like Meridian, Walker experienced suicidal feelings while living in Mississippi, in part because of "anguish that I was not more violent than I was" (Gardens 225). With the help of "a black woman psychiatrist who also grew up in the South," Walker:

   became increasingly aware that I was holding myself responsible for the
   condition of black people in America. Unable to murder the oppressors, I
   sat in a book-lined study and wrote.... I felt Art was not enough and that
   my art, in particular, would probably change nothing. And yet I felt it was
   the privilege of my life to observe and `save' for the future some
   extraordinary lives. (Gardens 226-27).

Young blacks like Walker participated in the Civil Rights Movement precisely because they held themselves responsible for changing the condition of black people in America. That feeling of responsibility did not go away when the Civil Rights Movement ended. Violence seemed to many young people at the time, including Walker, the only way to bring about change. Yet Walker's feeling of connection to her people, her love for them, and her feeling that it was important to "save" their lives "for the future" seems to have saved her life, as it saves Meridian's in the novel. In writing Meridian Walker accepts her role as an artist who is not a revolutionary but who has a place in the future, who "saves" lives "for the future." She adds her voice to "the song of the people" and transforms it, not only by remembering and honoring the past, but by passing on to those who come after her the experience of her generation in the Civil Rights Movement, inspiring them to continue the struggle. In this way her art can bring about change.

In Meridian Walker "saves" and celebrates the lives of many African American women. She portrays, with love and humor, women Meridian meets doing voter registration work. There is, for example, Mrs. Mabel Turner, who greets Meridian and Lynne, "`Y'all must be them outside `taters. Jooz an runnin' dogs. Y'all hongry?'" and explains, "`I wants to feed y'all real good, `cause I don't believe in votin'.'" (101-02).

Walker also makes the slaw,, past of African Americans and their resistance to slavery a source of pride. She traces Meridian's foremothers back several generations through her mother. One was a slave who slowly starved to death to keep her children and to feed them; another was a slave artist who bought her family's freedom with her portion of her earnings from the paintings she created to decorate people's barns. And Walker brings alive the African past of slaves in the story of the slave woman Louvinie, a storyteller. The slave artist and the slave storyteller represent Walker's concern with the creativity of African American women and its suppression: the slave artist's signature is "a small contorted face" (123); the storyteller's tongue is cut out. Walker published "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens," the essay in which she explores this subject at length, in 1974, while she was writing Meridian.

Both Dubey, in Black Women Novelists and the Nationalist Aesthetic, and Joan S. Korenman, in "African-American Women Writers, Black Nationalism, and the Matrilineal Heritage," have shown how African American women writers, in their novels (Dubey) and short stories (Korenman) have attempted to save their "matrilineal heritage" from black nationalist men who would deny the African American slave past and look to Africa to affirm their identity. In Meridian, Walker's saving of lives of African American women, past and present, and her concern with the suppression of their creativity are part of the attempt of African American women writers to affirm their "matrilineal heritage."

Because the Civil Rights Movement brought black and white young people together as equals, though they had been raised in a racist, segregated society, new possibilities for interracial friendship, love and conflict were created in life and in fiction. Walker explores the complexities of sex and race and racism in the triangular relationship of Meridian, Truman and Lynne, and the possibility of friendship between black and white women in Meridian and Lynne's relationship.

In Truman's relationship with Meridian, Walker is concerned with what she calls the "`self-hatred--hatred of one another--'" in relationships between black men and women "`that the rhetoric'" of black consciousness, created by the Civil Rights Movement, "`didn't root out'" (J. Harris 33). Truman calls attention to his blackness and Meridian's: he dresses in an African robe, talks about reading Du Bois and tells Meridian: "`I think I'm in love with you, African woman. Always have been." (115) and "`you're beautiful.... Have my beautiful black babies'" (116). It is a bitter irony to Meridian that he says these words to her after he has stopped seeing her to date white exchange students and after she has had an abortion (it was his child) and has been sterilized. That Truman dated white women "--and so obviously because their color made them interesting--made her [Meridian] ashamed, as if she were less" (106). Later in the novel Walker again emphasizes the irony of Truman's conflicted feelings about black and white women. When Truman is married to Lynne, he makes Lynne feel "worthless" (168), with his paintings and sculptures, which celebrate the beauty of black women. Yet, after Lynne resolves to give Truman "Back to His Own" (167-71), she finds him, wearing an African hairstyle, with a very blonde young woman from the South, whom he has promised to marry.

Meridian's reaction to Truman's interest in white women is like that of many young black women in the Civil Rights Movement. Not only did they feel, like Meridian, that they were "less" (Rothschild 148), many also felt "extremely bitter and hostile" toward white women (Poussaint 403). This was particularly true during Freedom Summer in 1964, when white women went South in large numbers and "interracial sex became ... widespread" (Evans 79-80). Many black women hated white women, because racism made white women the ideal of feminine beauty, and black women were made to feel that they had to straighten their hair and bleach their skin to be beautiful (Poussaint 403). For this reason, Ruby Doris Smith Robinson "hat[ed] white women so much it nearly made me crazy," and "for three years" she "wouldn't speak to" white women. But then she decided, "I had to find a new sense of my own dignity ... I had to start seeing ... in a new way," seeing the beauty of black women (J. Carson 254-55).(5)

Unlike many young black women in the Movement, Meridian is able to tell Lynne, "`I tried very hard not to hate you. And I think I always succeeded'" (175). It is possible for Meridian not to hate Lynne, because, through personal struggle and political involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, Meridian has created herself in the image of her black foremothers. She has a positive sense of herself as a black woman: strong, independent, adventurous, a daughter of Harriet Tubman. Walker celebrates black women for these qualities with brief anecdotes and community gossip remembered by Meridian (108-9). For Meridian, white women are bland and uninteresting, unworthy of envy. Among black women, "Only the rejects--not of men, but of experience, adventure--" become, like white women--"even the most intelligent"--simply wives and mothers (109).

For Meridian to be a daughter of Harriet Tubman, a woman who frees herself and tries to free her people, she must give up her sexuality, as she has given up her motherhood. She must be alone: "`that is my value'" (220). Walker is "writing beyond the ending" in Meridian, to use Rachel Blau Du Plessis's term, valuing "quest" over "romance," and Walker's novel suggests that women must choose one or the other. Meridian, who chooses "quest" over "romance," is more successful at creating her self than Lynne, who chooses "romance" over "quest," who gives her self to Truman and is destroyed. In The Color Purple (1982), Walker suggests that lesbianism or bisexuality may be more compatible with self realization for women than heterosexuality.

It is difficult for Meridian to see why a black man would be interested in white women, since she is not interested in white men. Black women's historic experience of rape by the white slavemaster and Meridian's mother's stories of white men's and boys' expectation that she, that all black women, would be sexually available to them, make it unthinkable to Meridian for a black woman to be interested in white men. When she wrote Meridian, Walker was married to Mel Leventhal, a Northern, Jewish white man who was active in the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi as a lawyer. But she does not write about such a relationship in Meridian, because Meridian, in consciously creating herself in the image of her black foremothers, identifies with their experience of rape by white men.

Walker writes about the rape of her great-great-grandmother, who was eleven years old and a slave, by a white man, her owner, in "The Thing Itself," a poem first published in Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful (1984).(6) The poem is about the pretend rape of a black woman, the author/speaker of the poem, by a white man (her husband?), to whom the poem is addressed. While the white man thinks the black woman will enjoy the pretend rape, she cannot enjoy rape, a male fantasy. Instead, she imagines she sees her "great-great-grandmother's / small hands / encircle / your pale neck." Her thoughts are murderous: she cannot enjoy her great great grandmother's "pain" (... Poems 1965-1990 388). It is possible, even likely, that the poem was written during Walker's marriage to Leventhal, while she was writing Meridian, and published later, because there is at least one poem in Horses that was written in 1973.(7) But the point I am trying to make is that the historic relationship of black women to white men, the burden of the past, was very real to Walker as she wrote Meridian, and that is why she chose not to imagine Meridian in a relationship with a white man. Walker is concerned with history, not autobiography, in Meridian.

Walker does write about a young black woman's involvement with a young white man during the Civil Rights Movement in the short story "Laurel" (1978). The relationship of Annie and Laurel, which is one of mutual "lust," is more imagined than real, in the still segregated South, and it is the impossibility of their relationship, the "adventure," that makes it exciting to them both (116). Annie is aware of "History," but when she is with Laurel she does not care about it "in the least" (108).

In Meridian, Walker is interested in relationships between black men and white women, again, because she sees the present in the context of the past, because she does care about history. Meridian fails to understand Truman's interest in white women, at first, because she does not consider that the historic relationship of black men to white women was different from that of black women to white men. White women were forbidden to black men during slavery. After slavery, lynching and the threat of lynching were used to "protect" white women from "rape" by black men and to terrorize all black people. Young Southern black men in Meridian, described as "naive" and "country boys," see Lynne as "a Route to Death, pure and simple," when they first meet her (137). But Truman, who is more sophisticated and a Northerner, is interested in white women precisely because they have been forbidden to black men. His interest in white women is an act of defiance against the white man. But Truman is divided against himself, rejecting Meridian for Lynne and other white women, yet affirming the beauty of black women in his art and wanting Meridian as an assertion of his blackness.

When Truman and Lynne marry, "Black and white together" is still sung as part of the Movement song "We Shall Overcome." But late in 1966, the year that Truman and Lynne return to the South to live in Mississippi, whites were voted out of SNCC (C. Carson 240). Their decision to expel whites from SNCC was a reassertion by blacks that the Civil Rights Movement was a black movement for the purpose of empowering black people. Ruby Doris Smith Robinson was among those who believed strongly that blacks should control SNCC (Evans 95-96). In Meridian, as a result of that decision, Lynne is "no longer welcome" at Movement meetings, is "excluded from the marches" and is "no longer allowed to write articles for the paper" (137-38).

With the change from "Black and White Together" to "Black Power," Truman's feelings for Lynne begin to change. It is difficult for him, but Truman manages to suppress his feelings of love for Lynne in order to be accepted by other young blacks in the Movement. In Meridian Walker writes with disapproval of the need to have one's blackness defined by others in the name of black consciousness. It does not matter to Walker if those who define blackness are now black instead of white. The effect is still the same: it denies human freedom and complexity. Historically, it caused pain to blacks and to whites. In one of her essays, Walker briefly :mentions the pain she and her white husband felt at strongly voiced disapproval of their marriage by a black man, a nationalist and self styled revolutionary (Gardens 226). In Meridian, the need to live up to definitions of blackness imposed by other blacks destroys Truman and Lynne's marriage. Truman learns not to love his wife from black men who get rid of their white wives or hide their white girlfriends and declare their love for black women as "proof of.... [their] blackness" (136). At this time, as a black historian who was involved in the Movement has written, "Militancy was no longer exhibited through the civil rights struggle but through advocacy of black ideals" (C. Carson 238).

At the end of the novel Truman takes Meridian's place to struggle with questions he believes nobody thinks about any more: about his relationship to black people, especially the poor, and his commitment to the freedom struggle, about nonviolence and revolution. He imagines that others who have managed to forget the Civil Rights Movement will one day have to do the same.

The white woman Truman marries, because she is white, and abandons, because she is white, is in love, not only with Truman and his blackness, but with rural Southern black people and with the South itself:

   To Lynne, the black people of the South were Art. This she begged
   forgiveness for and tried to hide, but it was no use. To her eyes, used to
   Northern suburbs where every house looked sterile and identical--to her,
   nestled in a big chair made of white oak strips, under a quilt called The
   Turkey Walk ... in a little wooden Mississippi sharecropper bungalow that
   had never known paint, the South--and the black people living there--was
   Art. (130)

Lynne persuades Truman to live in Mississippi (as a black artist he would have preferred exile in France) two years after the bodies of the three murdered civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were found: "For two years she thought of nothing else: If Mississippi is the worst place in America for black people ... the Art that was their lives would flourish best there." (130) Lynne admires what Walker has called the "incredible loveliness of spirit" (Gardens 28) of rural Southern blacks and the richness of their culture, because she has grown up in the "sterile" suburbs of the North. But at the same time, Lynne romanticizes poverty and suffering. Her emotions deny the humanity of black people and contradict the spirit and goals of the Movement.

Lynne is like many white civil rights workers in her romantic view of blacks in the rural South. She is, perhaps, like Jane Stembridge, a young white Southern woman who was very active in SNCC in the early years, whose book of poems, I Play Flute, is Lynne's "favorite book" (157). Stembridge admired blacks in rural Mississippi for their "`closeness with the earth ... [their] closeness with each other ... [their] sense of community developed out of dependence'" on each other, and for their strength, "`the strength of being poor'" (qtd. in C. Carson 155).

Black civil rights workers tended to take a less romantic view of Southern black poverty. Anne Moody, who grew up in unromantic poverty in rural Mississippi, describes the people she worked with in a CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) voter registration project in Mississippi this way: "I had never in my life seen people in so much need" (322). Civil rights workers like Anne Moody and Ruby Doris Smith Robinson came to see that they had to deal with the basic needs of people for food, clothing, shelter and a means to earn a living, before they could interest them in voting (Moody 341; C. Carson 105). Alice Walker went to live in Mississippi, not only to write and to work in the Movement, but also "To kill the fear it engendered in my imagination as a place where black life was terrifyingly hard, pitifully cheap" (Gardens 224).

Had Lynne known her own Jewish grandparents or great grandparents, their culture, their spirituality, perhaps she would have felt less deprived. If she had learned from them about their poverty and suffering, she would not have been able to think of any people as "Art." Had her grandparents or great grandparents seen the rural South, they might have seen in it things to remind them of the shtetl they had fled. The terror against blacks by the Klan in the South was like the pogroms against the Jews in late Tsarist Russia, and many in the Civil Rights Movement compared the treatment of blacks in the South at that time to the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany (Gardens 225; Moody 280; Sutherland 10).

Alice Walker has observed: "There is a close often unspoken bond between Jewish and black women that grows out of their awareness of oppression and injustice, an awareness many Gentile women simply do not have" (Gardens 347). This is not to suggest that the experience of Jewish women and African American women in the United States today is the same. Anti-Semitism is much less blatant than the racism directed against black people, and Jews share the privileges and may share the racist attitudes of other white Americans.

In Meridian, it is because of Lynne's "awareness of oppression and injustice" and because they share a love for the South and for rural Southern black people that Lynne and Meridian can be "like sisters" (173). But their sisterhood is precarious. One of the reasons Meridian has to try "very hard not to hate" Lynne (175) is Truman, but another reason is rape. Lynne is raped by Tommy Odds, a black civil rights worker, after his arm is shot off by racist whites, because his "thin defense against hatred [of white people] broke down under personal assault" (162). He rapes Lynne because, as a white woman, she is a symbol of the power white men have over him. Lynne resists him at first but does not fight him off because "She lay ... thinking of his feelings, his hardships, of the way he was black and belonged to a people who lived without hope; she thought about the loss of his arm. She felt her own guilt" (159). Lynne's thoughts and her guilt are white liberal thoughts, white liberal guilt. She sees Tommy Odds's blackness as a misfortune, like the loss of his arm. She thinks black people live without hope, despite the freedom struggle. She feels guilty because she is white. But Lynne also thinks as she does and fails to act because she has been raised to consider the feelings and needs of men before her own. And she also fails to act, to scream or to go to the police, because of her political understanding: she knows that they would use her cry of "rape" to terrorize or kill innocent black men.

Lynne also knows that Tommy Odds has chosen the perfect victim: not a powerful Southern white man or his wife--"she would scream and put him away for good" (162)--not another black man or a black woman, but "A white woman without friends. A woman the white community already assumed was fucking every nigger in sight" (163). When Lynne marries Truman she gives up the security and privileges of the white world. Her own parents consider her dead, and she is an outcast in the white South, because a white woman seen with a black man at this time was considered a whore by white Southerners. During Freedom Summer, a young Northern white woman was subjected to the following abuse, before a white mob, by a Southern sheriff, when her car and two others carrying civil rights workers and driven by black men were stopped: "which one of them coons is you fuckin'? ... Slut, I know you fuckin' them niggers. Why else would you be down heah?" (qtd. in Rothschild 35). Walker is sensitive to this kind of abuse of white women in the Movement by white Southerners. In The Third Life of Grange Copeland she writes:

   Of all the people marching the white girls got the most abuse. One of them
   carried a sign that said BLACK AND WHITE TOGETHER and each time she passed
   a group of whites they spat at her and hissed, "I'll bet!" One of them
   added, aiming a Coke bottle at her, "You nigger fuckin' whore!" (235)

Before she leaves the South Lynne becomes the whore of the white racists' fantasy. She has sex with any black man who demands it, because she cannot bear their hatred when she refuses. She cannot allow herself to see that they use her because they hate her, like Tommy Odds, because she is a white woman and a symbol of the power white men have over them. Instead she tells herself that they love her and prefer her to black women, because she is white. Lynne has paid dearly for the "sin" of seeing black people as "Art" and as "people who suffered without hatred" (162).

Lynne behaves as she does because she is an abused woman, not only raped, sexually abused, but psychologically abused, abandoned by her husband and left without friends, black or white. Women working with victims of sexual abuse have found that children who are sexually abused will often act out by becoming sexually promiscuous. Lynne's behavior is like that of a sexually abused child, and she is as vulnerable and as helpless.

There seems to be no place for Lynne among blacks or among whites. She does not want to be accepted by white people: "`I know white folks are evil and fucked up. I know they're doomed'" (175). And she is no longer accepted by black people in the Movement. Yet she is the mother of an interracial child, now dead: "`where does that leave me?'" (175). Like many young blacks toward the end of the Civil Rights Movement, Lynne has given up on white people. But she must deal with the fact that she herself is white. Her alienation is not unlike that of other young whites who were deeply committed to the Civil Rights Movement.

When Lynne tries to tell Meridian that Tommy Odds raped her, Meridian refuses to listen or to believe her: "`Can't you understand there are some things I don't want to know?'" (153). Walker spells out the reason for Meridian's reaction to Lynne in a short story published the year after Meridian, "Advancing Luna--and Ida B. Wells." When she is raped by a black civil rights worker, Luna, like Lynne, does not scream. But the knowledge that by crying "rape" white women have power "over the lives of black men, over all black men, whether they were guilty or not, and therefore over [all black] ... people" (95), gets in the way of the black woman narrator's friendship with Luna. This same knowledge makes it impossible for Meridian to listen to or believe Lynne and difficult for her not to hate Lynne. While Meridian and Lynne's friendship is threatened by Lynne's power of life and death over black men, because she is a white woman, Lynne and Truman's marriage is destroyed by it. Walker tells us in "Advancing Luna" that until white women no longer have this power of life and death over black people, that is, until racism and the myths created by racism are destroyed, "relationships of affection between black men and white women will always be poisoned--from within as from without--by historical fear and the threat of violence, and solidarity among black and white women is only rarely likely to exist" (102).

As a black woman who grew up in the South and came of age in the 1960s in the Civil Rights Movement and was influenced by the Women's Movement that grew out of it, Alice Walker was uniquely placed to interpret the Civil Rights Movement and its aftermath in fiction. Because she writes from the perspective of the 1970s, when the Movement had long since been declared dead, she makes it possible for her readers to understand what was lost when the Civil Rights Movement ended: in remembering the dream, she reaffirms the Movement's vision of freedom, equality and nonviolence and its commitment to the black and poor and compels us to think about these issues once again. In Meridian Walker uses her experience in the Movement and the experience of others, especially black women, to explore issues of gender as well as race: she explores the effects of the burden of history, of growing up in a racist society, on relationships between black women and men, black men and white women, and black women and white women in the Civil Rights Movement. Writing Meridian also allowed Walker to accept her role as an artist and not a revolutionary, but a black revolutionary artist, one who passes on the story of the Civil Rights Movement to future generations, teaching them their history, inspiring them to continue the struggle.


(1.) Historians date the Civil Rights Movement from the 1954 Supreme Court Brown decision or from the Montgomery bus boycott, which began late the following year, to 1965, the year of the march from Selma to Montgomery and of the Voting Rights Act, or to 1968, the year of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination.

(2.) A few of the most interesting approaches are Barbara Christian's chapter on Meridian in Black Women Novelists, aptly described by Claudia Tate in Black Women Writers at Work as "an incredibly rich and full interpretation of Meridian," one which includes a discussion of the Civil Rights Movement; Christian's essay focusing on motherhood in Meridian, "An Angle of Seeing.... "in Black Feminist Criticism; Deborah E. McDowell's essay "The Self in Bloom," which focuses on Meridian as a bildungsroman; and Anne M. Downey's essay `A Broken and Bloody Hoop': The Intertextuality of Black Elk Speaks and Alice Walker's Meridian".

(3.) They include Barbara Christian in Black Women Novelists, Melissa Walker in Down from the Mountaintop, Madhu Dubey in Black Women Novelists and the Nationalist Aesthetic, Susan Danielson in "Alice Walker's Meridian, Feminism, and the `Movement'" and Norman Harris in Connecting Times: The Sixties in AfroAmerican Fiction. Danielson's and Harris's approaches are most like my own. They provide historical background about SNCC (Harris provides background about black nationalist groups as well), but they do not consider Walker's essays about her experience in the Civil Rights Movement (though Danielson mentions them in her notes).

(4.) Other well known African American women novelists have written about but do not focus on the Movement in their novels. Ntozake Shange writes about her childhood in St. Louis during the school desegregation struggle in Betsey Brown, and in The Salt Eaters, Toni Cade Bambara's protagonist, a nationalist and activist, remembers the brutal beating of another character and a grueling march during the Civil Rights Movement. In Down from the Mountaintop Melissa Walker writes about Shange's and Bambara's novels, about Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon and Tar Baby, novels that are set, in part, during the years of the Civil Rights Movement or its aftermath, though the characters are not involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and about novels by less well known writers like Rosa Guy, whose novel A Measure of Time deals briefly, at the end, with the Montgomery bus boycott, and Kristin Hunter, whose novel The Lakestown Rebellion is set in the North during the Movement. Melissa Walker has pointed out the similarities of time and place in Meridian and The Salt Eaters and the [act that "each novel has a female protagonist suffering from debilitating illness that is at least in part caused by stress in the civil rights movement." (180). But Toni Cade Bambara was born in the North a decade before Alice Walker and did not participate in the Civil Rights Movement in the South. She was an activist in African American communities for much of her adult life, and that is the experience she drew upon in writing The Salt Eaters. (See Tate, 12-38).

(5.) Carson gives Robinson the fictitious name "Sarah," but Rothschild (148) and others (see Hardy 329) have identified her as Ruby Doris Smith Robinson.

(6.) She also writes about her great-great-grandmother's rape in the "Dedication" poem to Horses, and in the essay "In the Closet of the Soul" in Living by the Word.

(7.) "Mississippi Winter III," where she mentions her age as "twenty-nine" (... Poems 1965-1990 339).

Works Cited

Toni Cade Bambara. The Salt Eaters. New York: Random House, 1980.

Carson, Clayborne. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1981.

Carson, Josephine. Silent Voices: The Southern Negro Woman Today. New York: Delacourt P, 1969.

Christian, Barbara. Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976. Westport: Greenwood P, 1980.

--. "An Angle of Seeing: Motherhood in Buchi Emecheta's Joys of Motherhood and Alice Walker's Meridian." Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers. New York: Pergamon P, 1985. 211-52.

Danielson, Susan. "Alice Walker's Meridian, Feminism, and the `Movement.'" Women's Studies 16:3-4 (1989): 317-30.

Downey, Anne. M. "`A Broken and Bloody Hoop': The Intertextuality of Black Elk Speaks and Alice Walker's Meridian." MELUS 19.3 (Fall 1994): 37-45.

Dubey, Madhu. Black Women Novelists and the Nationalist Aesthetic. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994.

Du Plessis, Rachel Blau, Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth Century Women Writers. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985.

Evans, Sara. Personal Politics: The Roots of Women's Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left. New York: Knopf, 1970.

Forman, James. The Making of Black Revolutionaries. New York: MacMillan, 1972.

Guy, Rosa. A Measure of Time. New York: Bantam, 1983.

Hardy, Gayle J. American Women Civil Rights Activists: Bibliographies of 68 Leaders, 1825-1992. Jefferson, SC: McFarland, 1993.

Harris, Jessica. "An Interview with Alice Walker." Essence 7 (July 1976): 33.

Harris, Norman. Connecting Times: The Sixties in Afro-American Fiction. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1988. Hunter, Kristin. The Lakestown Rebellion. New York: Scribner's, 1978.

Jordan, June. Civil Wars. Boston: Beacon P, 1981.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. Why We Can't Wait. New York: Harper, 1964.

Korenman, Joan S. "African-American Women Writers, Black Nationalism, and the Matrilineal Heritage." CLA Journal 38:2 (1994): 143-61.

McDowell, Deborah E. "The Self in Bloom: Alice Walker's Meridian. "CLA Journal 24:3 (1981): 262-75.

Moody, Anne. Coming of Age in Mississippi. New York: Dell, 1976.

Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. New York: Knopf, 1977.

--. Tar Baby. New York: New American Library, 1981.

Omolade, Barbara. The Rising Song of African American Women. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Poussaint, Alvin, M. D. "The Stresses on the White Female Worker in the Civil Rights Movement in the South." American Journal of Psychiatry 23.1 (1966): 401-07.

Rothschild, Mary Aickin. A Case of Black and White: Northern Volunteers in the Southern Freedom Summers. Westport: Greenwood P, 1982.

Shange, Ntozake. Betsey Brown. New York: St. Martin's, 1985.

Sutherland, Elizabeth, ed. Letters from Mississippi. New York: McGraw Hill, 1965.

Tate, Claudia, ed. Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum, 1983.

Walker, Alice. "Advancing Luna--and Ida B. Wells." You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down. New York: Harvest/Harcourt Brace, 1981. 85-104.

--. Her Blue Body Everything We Know: Earthling Poems 1965-1990 Complete. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991.

--. The Color Purple. New York: Washington Square P, 1983.

--. In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens. New York: Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.

--. "Laurel." You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down. New York: Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981. 105-17.

--. Living by the Word. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.

--. Meridian. New York: Washington Square P, 1977.

--. The Third Life of Grange Copeland. New York: Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970.

Walker, Melissa. Down From the Mountaintop: Black Women's Novels in the Wake of the Civil Rights Movement, 1966-1989. New Haven: Yale UP.

Roberta Makashay Hendrickson has a Ph.D. from the Department of English and American Literature at Brandeis University. She teaches Women's Studies as an adjunct in the University of Wyoming Outreach School. Her teaching and research focus on the comparative study of US ethnic minority women writers, including African Americans.

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