Identity Crisis, Guilt and Power: Interracial Relationships in Alice Walker’s Meridian
Does Race Matter?
Alice Walker has written many novels about issues that African Americans have endured over history. From racism and prejudice to sexism, and relationships Walker has dared to touch the sensitive issues of society that others are perhaps too afraid to mention. The novel Meridian explores the concepts of interracial relationships, the idea of African American motherhood, “womanist” theory, spirituality, African American male dominance and suppression. A “Critique of the Revolution,” a civil rights novel, and a womanist novel, critics have viewed Alice Walker’s Meridian as a novel of great proportions (Karen Stein). The novel was written during the time when African Americans were struggling for equality and is the story of a young woman who rebels against the social standards that were set for African Americans by taking a stand in unconventional ways. In 1967 Alice Walker married a Jewish white man by the name of Melvyn Roseman Leventhal and became the first legally married interracial couple to reside in Jackson. They were constantly challenged as a couple and many times threatened.
One aspect in her novel MeridianWalker explores the interracial relationships between African American men and white women. Walker is said to have been the first person to explore such relationships in her work. Carolyn Perry and Mary Louise Weaks state that, “[Meridian’s] exploration of black identity and interracial relationships reaches issues well below the surface of racial tension, primarily to its psychological and even spiritual consequences” (422). It is here where I will focus this essay, on the relationships between African American men and white women as a threat to the male’s identity and their relationships with white women as fickle because of their tendency to discard the women in order to convey to the black communities’ ideal of what an African American man is supposed to be and who he should love. I want to focus on interracial relationships because even though the civil rights movement was supposed to lessen the gap between African Americans and whites in order to create equal ground for the two instead it had the opposite effect and cause a wider one. I would also like to look at the power struggle African American men deal with as well as the struggle white women have with guilt over being white. Although Meridian Hill is the main protagonist in the novel I would like to focus on Held because he is the universal figure of the African American male in this novel. Held has been to college and has learned French in order to become something more than just a black man. He educates himself to try to overcome the stereotypes that black men endure and by doing so some of his own don’t respect or understand why he does the to be these things because they will get him nowhere in the racist life of the Civil Rights era.
Black people, especially black men were disenfranchised at the time of this novel. They were thought to be ignorant and suffered from the invisibility syndrome. For Black men the way to be accepted by whites was to be more like them. According to Dr. Anderson J. Franklin:
“African American males know they are up against the prevailing white American image and ‘criteria’ for being an acceptable American. This is yet another variation on Dubois’s concept of ‘double consciousness.’ But the paradox in this message is that we (African Americans) can become more tolerable—visible—if we meet the criteria of being less black, that is, more white (37).
Dr. Franklin also notes that African Americans believe that, “education is the bridge over the barriers that skin color constructs” (37). And this is the case with Truman Held.
The most commonly looked at view of Walker’s Meridian is from that of a socio-historical kind of view. Walker’s novel was influenced by certain events that occurred during the Civil Rights Movement. The irony of the movement is played throughout the novel because “as the movement sought to breakdown social barriers to claim equal access for all individuals,” says Karen F. Stein, “the society which it opened up often proved to be an ugly one” (131). From looking at Walker’s novel from her 1983 coined term “womanist” point of view to viewing it as a peek into history of the Civil Rights Movement in America, Meridian is a story that relates to the “social, political, and philosophical issues” raised by the movement (Hendrickson 111). Roberta Hendrickson says, “Walker 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” (126). It seems that you will not find an article that does not at least mention civil rights as a theme in the novel. On noting how well of a Movement novel it is critics have said that the reason for this is because “as a black woman who grew up in the South and came of age in the 1960’s 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” (Hendrickson 125). Trudier Harris notes that Walker’s “strength as a writer lies in her ability to write about topics that are generally taboo, to construct character plots that are often untouchable for mainstream writers and audiences (5). Walker has a talent for talking about such things.
Since Walker was an “eyewitness” to the movement and was knowledgeable about the history of the movement “oppression is her history and heritage” (Bates 79). This is how she wrote this novel so well. Gerri Bates argues that Meridian is a “behind-the-scenes examination of the inner workings of the Civil Rights Movement through one woman’s eyes (Bates 80). Critics like Bates and Jerry Bryant note that Meridian is a novel about the rise of the black revolution. “In the world Meridian lives in,” writes Bryant, “men oppress women and whites oppress blacks” (258). This novel is important because it looks at the many aspects of African American culture. It explores the issues that the Civil Rights movement tried to overcome. But of all the different approaches critics have explored I would like to take a different approach.
Truman Held is a past lover of Meridian’s. He is the first man she ever really falls in love with. He is also an activist for the Civil Rights movement. He was in love with her but she could not see herself making love to him because she was not ready. Truman after not being able to woe Meridian into making love to him starts to date white women. According to Maria Lauret, “Truman deserts Meridian for the love of a white Northern woman, Lynne, sexual politics and the integration ethos of the Civil Rights movement, which come into conflict with each other” (60). This controversial issue of African American men having relationships with white women was and still is an issue that is looked down upon in society. I want to focus on this issue along with the status of the relationship between the characters of Truman Held and Lynne Rabinowitz in an attempt to fill a gap that is not entirely missing from scholarly criticism of this novel but is only touched in small amounts.
Truman Held has been curious of white women since told of three white young female exchange students who would be at a party where he and Meridian were to attend. Truman wanted to know where these girls were from, what they looked liked and their names. While at the party Truman sits on the stairs while conversing with one of the white girls then he disappears until the party is over. The next time Meridian hears of Truman he is dating the exchange students. Truman tries to reassure Meridian of his preference for white women by telling her that, “after reading ‘le matre,’ he [had] decided if he dated white girls it must be, essentially, a matter of sex” (Walker 106). 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” (Hendrickson 120). She had been taught that “nobody wanted white girls except their empty-headed, effeminate counter parts—white boys” and that “while white men would climb on black women old enough to be their mothers—‘for the experience’—white women were considered sexless, contemptible and ridiculous by all” (Walker 107). Bates acknowledges that Meridian challenges the black man’s stance on the “nationalist position, which idealized African American manhood,” thus causing Truman to allow the color of his wife’s skin (Lynne, one of the exchange students) to determine his decisions. In other words to be black one must love black women and hate what is white (Bates 75). But why is it that African American men’s identities and blackness are challenged because of their dating preference?
As a black man in the South at a time when civil rights were in full swing Truman Held had an image to fulfill. Even after he marries Lynne, Truman has issues with coming to terms with his life as being considered a traitor to his race. Though Lynne is also a fighter for civil rights and Truman loves her he does not even have to acknowledge the “sinking, hopeless feeling about opposites, and what they do to each other” (Walker 129). As Truman watches Lynne with a group of black children he has a strong desire to take a picture of the scene but instead he takes a picture of a shabby house in dire need of repair (Walker 129). He does this knowing that he and Lynne may be married but there are also barriers that are holding him back from truly being able to fully enjoy his relationship. But perhaps Truman is only trying to prove to himself that he is an African American.
Because of the violence against blacks and whites who spoke out for them were so strong, Truman’s feelings for Lynne started to change. It was not until a fellow civil rights activists by the name of Tommy Odds is shot by white men that Truman realizes his “feelings for Lynne had been undergoing subtle changes” (Walker 131). In the chapter titled “Of Bitches and Wives” comes this realization for Truman. While lying in the hospital Tommy Odds questions Truman’s blackness when Odds does not want Truman to even mention Lynne’s name, because she is white and therefore the enemy, Odds then says, “All white people are motherfuckers. I want to see them destroyed. I could watch their babies being torn limb from limb and I wouldn’t lift a finger. The Bible says to bash out the brains of your enemy’s children on the rocks. I understand that shit now” (Walker 132). Odds’ hatred for whites becomes so strong that he starts to lash out on his friend’s wife even though she had always been kind to him.
Listening to Odds causes Truman to think hard about Lynne and why she may or may not be guilty of Odds’ shooting. Truman thinks, “Is Lynne guilty? That she is white is true. That she is a killer, evil, a motherfucker—how true? Not true at all! And yet—By being white Lynne was guilty of whiteness” (Walker 133). As Odds’ words penetrated his heart, Truman could not deny thinking that Lynne was guilty on some level or another (Walker 134). He thought about all the times that Lynne had joined him and Odds on their sit-ins and other civil rights activities as well as just being with them, and came to the conclusion that Lynne was guilty on occasion of being with them and for being white period. He ceased to argue because he thought he might be just as guilty for loving her (Walker 134). This is the first moment where Truman thinks of how to get rid of Lynne because Odds says to him “get rid of your bitch, man” (Walker 135). He thought of all the African American men he had known or heard of dating white women and how they got rid of them or hid them when the movement began to change and whites were no longer welcomed as helpers of change. For the same reasons Truman fell in love with Lynne are the reasons he had to let her go.
Truman changes his attitude towards Lynne at first, because of the words “Black and white together,” a part of the Movement song “We Shall Overcome.” Truman then falls in love and marries her. When the Student Non-violent Coordination Committee an organization founded at ShawUniversity in 1960 and an organization that provided a place for young blacks in the Civil Rights Movement, begins to convert to an all black organization Lynne is then excluded. “From the change of Black and White together to Black Power,” Hendrickson notes the difficulty of Truman’s acceptance by other young blacks in the movement such as Tommy Odds and “the need to live up to definitions of blackness imposed by other blacks destroys Truman and Lynne’s marriage” (Hendrickson 121). Pamela E. Barnett wrote, “Truman’s marriage to Lynne cannot withstand the prevailing ideology of the late 60’s, which held that racial justice could only come about through black unity and around a unique, stable, and collective racial identity” (69). This is when the black men start to hide their white wives and girlfriends in order to declare their love for black women as proof of their blackness (Hendrickson 121). Truman thought of a man that he “despised” by the name of Tom Johnson who had lived with a white woman for years but anytime he had guest over the woman could not be found. Truman asked Johnson why he did not marry the woman and Johnson replied, “Boy you don’t understand anything yet. Margaret (the partner) is a sweet ol’ thing. We’ve been living together in harmony for five years. But she’s white. Or haven’t you noticed. It’s just a matter of pussy that’s all. Just a matter of my personal taste in pussy” (Walker136). To Johnson it was a matter of “war” in order to “fuck with the sucker’s (whites) minds” to date white women (Walker 136). It was the direction of the movement that ultimately changed the way Truman thought and felt about Lynne not his own heart.
While Lynne had been trying hard to fit in with African Americans, get them to trust and like her, the movement began shifting in a new direction. Lynne and other whites were no longer accepted at any of the meeting or marches, although Truman and Lynne were still married at this time and “although he (Truman) remained a member of all Movement discussions he would say nothing to his wife” (Walker 138). It was only three years after Truman marries Lynne that he tracts down Meridian and practically begs her to give him one more chance. If his love for Lynne were stronger than his love for the Movement and his image as a black man perhaps their marriage would have lasted. Truman tells Meridian, “I don’t owe Lynne the way I do you. You notice I don’t lie and say I don’t love her at all. She meant a great deal to me. But you’re different. Loving you is different--” (Walker 140). Meridian replies by saying, “Because I’m black.”(Walker 140). Meridian knew that Truman loved Lynne and the only reason he decided to get rid of her was because no would in the black community, especially the younger men would accept him as a serious activist in the Movement if he did not do so. Now I will come to my second argument that the relationships between African American men and white women in the novel are fickle.
The sexual relationships between white and African Americans had been a fear to society. Barnett notes that according to Cornell West’s Race Matters, “social scientists have long acknowledged that interracial sex and marriage is the most perceived source of white fear of black people…” (67). When Lynne is first discovered by her mother at Truman’s house she screams the whole way there and Lynne describes it as a “birth cry” that will haunt her even after she has died (Walker 155). When she becomes pregnant with Truman’s child she is outcaste by the rest of the white community as well as her family. I agree with Maria Lauret when she says, “Clearly, interracial sex was not simply a personal, but a deep political issue in the Civil Rights movement, well before Women’s Liberation invented the term ‘sexual politics’” (74). After Truman leaves Lynne they enter into a confrontation outside Meridian’s home and Lynne opens up about why she thinks Truman married her in the first place and the reason he left her. Lynne tells Truman that she feels the only reason he ran off was when “black became beautiful” (Walker 149). She says:
“You must think I’m stupid. You only married because me because you were too much of a coward to throw a bomb at all the crackers who make you sick. You’re like the rest of those nigger zombies. No life of your own unless it’s something against white folks. You can’t even enjoy a good fuck without hoping some cracker is somewhere grinding his teeth (Walker 149).
This outburst from Lynne shows that she had at least considered the possibility that Truman only wanted her because she was white. As Truman listens to Lynne he realizes that, “he had never hated, aesthetically, the whiteness of Lynne so much. It shocked him” (Walker 149). Truman wondered when and what had happened to him. Lynne is not the only white woman to become excluded in the community for having a relationship with an African American. Daxter the mortician in the novel has a white mother who was thrown out of her family’s home when she was discovered to be pregnant by an African American and this Barnett says, “ser[ved] as a warning to the community, for the consequences of the tale are fantastic only in their particulars: such couples do have much fear” (67). Gerri Bates notes that African American men dated white women because “These men empowered by the movement (Civil Rights Movement) exercised power over white women because this antagonized white men, especially the southerners, the women volunteers, liberated in their thinking and committed to their calling, accepted African American male dominance” (88). Not only did African American men in the novel date white women to make the white race angry, they did it to feel superior.
When Tommy Odds decides to rape Lynne it is because he wants to feel superior to her. He wanted Lynne because “she was white, first of all, which meant she would assume she was in control, and because he wanted—at first—to force her to have him in ways that would disgust and thrill her” (Walker 157). Odds wanted to feel power for once and the only way he could do it was by raping Lynne. In accordance with Bryant, Bates thinks that violence as a theme in Meridian, “emerges in the exploration into whether it is a necessary evil to effect change” (83). So it is not if violence is bad to the revolution but is it the key to changing it.
Since Lynne was an advocate for civil rights and knew that if she went to the police innocent African American men could be victimized. So in part, Lynne was not exactly raped by Tommy Odds. Lynne knowing the consequences of getting Odds caught “had not screamed once, or even struggled very much. To her it was worse than rape because she felt circumstances had not permitted her to scream” (Walker 158). Even when there was a chance for her to free herself, “she lay instead thinking of his feelings, his hardships, of the way he was black and belonged to people who lived without hope; she thought about the loss of his arm. She felt her own guilt” (Walker 159). When Lynne speaks to Meridian about other white women dating African American men she says, “There are all these white girls that are so fucked up with guilt they’re willing and happy to keep a black guy, even if he’s obviously a junkie bum” (Walker 152). Lynne reaffirms the guilt white women have over the injustices African American men have to deal with. Lynne’s dealings with Truman as well as Tommy Odds only prove that the relationship between African American men and white women in this novel is an attempt to feel powerful and superior to the white race. In the way that Truman dates white women to feel superior; Lynne dates African American men because she feels guilty as a white woman for their situation in life.
After Truman confronts Tommy about raping Lynne, Odds tells him, “Black men get preferential treatment, man, to make up for all we been denied. She ain’t been fucking you, she’s been atoning for her sins” (Walker 164). Odds believes that the relationship between Truman and Lynne is only a sham for each of them to get what they need out of their relationship. Truman gets his power and Lynne releases some of her guilt. Even though Meridian Hill tries to dislike Lynne, she feels sorry for her because “after witnessing the sexual humiliations Lynne is forced to undergo at the hands of battle-scarred black men who take their anger out on her,” she pities her (Lauret 61). For Lynne Susan Willis says, “the pressures upon the biracial couple in a racist society, leads not to liberation and the affirmation of a new social mode, but rather the rock bottom debasement of self” (92). For Meridian the rape of Lynne by Odds was not justified by “the black man’s need to liberate himself from white oppression by taking revenge upon white women” (Lauret 66). As a result of all the things that happen to Lynne she transforms from, “a naïve idealist who romanticizes black people and the South into a kindred spirit who, after relinquishing her white, middle-class privilege, experiences the cost of resistance and comes to a more realistic appraisal of black people’s human flaws as well as her own” (Lauret 63). For Lynne says Susan Willis, “the pressures upon the biracial couple in a racist society, leads not to liberation and the affirmation of a new social mode, but rather the rock bottom debasement of self” (92). While Lynne recognizes her own faults Truman on the other hand does not realize that he is in fact searching for his own identity.
Truman Held dresses in African attire yet he speaks French, Felipe Smith says, “his [Truman] pretense of internationalism in clothing and speech “Signifies” upon his retreat into pan-culturalism to escape the onus of his black American identity” (Smith 118). He is an artist who creates beautiful pictures of the African American community. He has paintings of Meridian’s face and other African Americans plastered all over his walls yet he continues to date white women. According to Felipe Smith, “Since Truman surrounds himself with pictures of Meridian and with paintings and sculptures of the black women of the South, his torment poetically stems from the nature and source of his crime—the sin of reducing people to Art (118). Truman has let the misfortunes and racism that come along with being African American affect his identity as an African American man.
African Americans have always been excluded in one way or another in American society. Whether political, racial, or just plain ignorance, African Americans have had to gain citizenship even though they are just as much a part of the country as any other race. It is because of this exclusion that African Americans have had a hard time identifying their group identity. According to Rebecca Kook, “Most Americans identify themselves as Americans (hyphenated or not)” and African Americans are no exception. America is supposed to be a fundamentally equal place to live, “born out of the fact that America—as opposed to Europe—lacked a feudal social structure; generated civic identity; and associated more with the free exercise of civil rights than with a particular history, ethnicity and cultural tradition” (Kook 156). Even though America was founded on these things it discriminates against its very own, African Americans only because of their skin color differs from the majority in America.
Since America was born it was supposed to be a place where discrimination was kept at a minimum, but instead of an American “collective” identity minorities were kept as property and their identities taken from them. The “so-called” values that America was built on were put in place only to be manipulated to fit certain situations. After the 15th amendment was put in place, it, “assumed to incorporate a people, without designating any concrete mechanisms that determine exactly who constitutes this people” (Kook 157). Even though America is supposed to include all of its members of the American race, for a very long time and sometimes still today it excludes African Americans. Also according to Kook when the value system of America was designed, “it enabled all of the main theorists to maintain the universalistic vision of American identity, while acknowledging the reality of racism, segregation, reservations, and the like” (158). In other words the system could be used to enforce slavery and other discrimination when necessary. For example when slavery was abolished and African Americans were set free the American system then excluded them by enforcing Jim Crowe laws. The next step for African Americans was to gain some kind of equality and citizenship for them to become educated and trained. After the Civil Rights movements the obtaining the right to vote, and the desegregating of public schools and businesses were some of the greatest moments in African American history and inclusion of them into American society. The gaining of better employment was also a factor in the way African American’s identified themselves. But although these small achievements helped African Americans gain better opportunities, at first their self-image as a group was low.
According to J. E. Porter and R. E. Washington early research on racial paradigms of group images of African Americans, “assumed that the racial self-image of African Americans was invariably damaged, recent studies have been guided by three major social-psychological paradigms; relative deprivation, alienation, and the role of subculture” (Porter and Washington 11). As a result African Americans have found no true identity as Americans because they still are relatively discriminative against. Compared with white Americans, African Americans are deprived of power and prestige but as a result they have developed a “high” sense of racial self- esteem (Porter and Washington 11). It was the movement and awareness of the black consciousness that was stressed in the 1960’s that led to the shift in self-esteem. And with this shift in self-esteem African American pride led to inclusion it also led to the forgetting of a unique black identity to one that was westernized.
For Joseph Baldwin the heightened pride of African Americans was “a lack of true racial cultural consciousness” (178). Baldwin feels this way because even though Americans have decided to become more educated they are dependent intellectually on Europeans. He feels that, “the values and attitudes as well as African American politics and so-called leadership itself are all merely imitative of the European community” (178). It seems that Baldwin feels that, as African Americans they should create their own identity not try to imitate one that does not recognize them as citizens and excludes them on several occasions. He feels that that they should create their own sense of politics, education, values, etc. Not having a black identity is the way to psychological destruction of the African American and Western oppression.
Western oppression not only distorts the psychological adaptiveness of African Americans, it will eventually destroy it (Baldwin 1780). As a result black personality has become “estranged from its natural condition under the ‘unnatural’ influence of the western reality structure that dominates American society” (180). Even if African Americans wanted a collective identity of their own they identify with so many different groups and issues that it is hard to gain one true identity. It is because of the way black personality is identified by Western society that causes African Americans to lose their own identity and emerge with one that excludes them. Vetta L. Sanders Thompson notes that:
African American identification is part of a process by which a self is constructed and understood and a basic psychological need is satisfied via the establishment of a sense of belonging and symbol around which a group of similarly affected people may organize for effective collective action (11).
The group should also establish a clear sense of what exactly they identify their group with by discussing it openly amongst each other. For African Americans to have a clear understanding of who and what they want to be associated with they need to keep an open communication of what it is to be African American. It is argued that there will be mixed feelings positive and negative about the feelings individuals have about disadvantages, privileges, roles, and specific identity (Thompson 76). Thompson says, “It is based not only on physical characteristics, but also on cultural and political alliances, ancestry and history” (Thompson 78). These identities are separate and unevenly developed and are also diminishing. In order for there to be a stronger association with blackness African Americans will need to gain awareness to regain a stronger African American identity (Thompson 78). As an African American I feel that we are indeed losing our identity to the mainstream of what it is to be American.
Even though African Americans want to be treated equal and have equal opportunities as white Americans I don’t think they need to lose their own identity just to get them. Truman does not need to lose himself in order to gain acceptance. If anything he needs to demand respect for The African American culture. He does not need to convert and lose his own identity to be included in mainstream America. Part of Truman’s identity is a result of what America has done to African Americans, has offered them, and has taken way from them as well and given them. Being black in America is like being locked outside of your own home they have a key yet they still cannot get in. No matter how hard they try African Americans will lose the little things that make them who they are by letting America rob of them of their heritage and culture if they let it do so.
Truman Held as a universal figure for black men in the novel Meridian experiences a crisis in knowing who he is and what he represents because of the society he lives in, a society where being black means one cannot have the same opportunities as whites. Truman lives in a society where to be considered American blacks had to be less African American like and more like whites. Where to love because of love and not color was forbidden. The atmosphere that the Civil Rights movement created was backwards. Instead of bringing blacks and whites together it only created more animosity in the aspect of the novel. The interracial relationships between black men and white women was a way for black men to feel a superiority they had never experienced and white women used the movement as an opportunity to gain a kind of forgiveness for the hardships that black men had to endure. The guilt and power struggles brought on by the movement caused a rift in the already damaged relationship between blacks and whites. Black men’s identities were destroyed and so were their relationships with white women because at this time to be considered black, African Americans had to love themselves as well as their race.
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