"Racism is really just a mask for greed": Salon talks to Alice Walker on the 40th anniversary of "Meridian" about the power of revolt

The Pulitzer-winning novelist opens up about social justice, race, sexism and how literature can change the world

Published May 30, 2016 11:00PM (EDT)

Alice Walker   (Ana Elena)
Alice Walker (Ana Elena)

History has provided no shortage of art and literature deemed as “timeless”. The placeholder endeavors of a culture to ensure the permanence of its most impactful expressions is the kind of instinctive practice we’ve inherited over thousands of years of ancestry who, like us, sought to ensure that a people’s memory be memorable. For American history, the narrative did not splinter gradually. Fractured and deformed from the beginning, the story of our country, though rich with multiple perspectives, has for generations been relayed solely by the unreliable narrator of oppression and greed, a byproduct of white tyranny in the guise of righteousness.

Still steeped in fragility and glacier-paced progress, the struggle for equality in America has had no more powerful weapon than the written word. A history rich in expression and unwavering courage, African-American literature, more so than any other, has continually challenged the country’s vestigial constructs of oppression, bigotry, and self-delusion, seeking not just to open the discussion but to change the very dialogue of race relations in America. Of the wealth of its writers, African-American literature in the 20th Century has had few allies as instrumental as Alice Walker.

Though an immediately recognizable name thanks to her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Color Purple," Walker’s clout extends far beyond her work as a writer. Her worldwide activism efforts as an advocate for human rights has been just as profound and impactful. It was that dedication to activism on behalf of equality and justice that found its way into Walker’s writing early on with her second novel, "Meridian." Published 40 years ago just one year after the end of the Vietnam War, the story serves as both introspection and social criticism, with Walker’s narrative taking place in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement.

Outlining the well-documented struggles of the movement’s successes, its tragedies, its failures, and its many crucial questions that still remain unanswered, "Meridian" offered a perspective of the movement that, until its publication, had largely gone unsung. It was Walker’s depiction of the African-American woman’s struggles during the Civil Rights Movement that made Meridian more than just a document of the resistance. For the novel’s title character and for the harrowing reality she represents, the African-American woman’s battle was not only against oppression but against misogyny and violence that was not limited to her white oppressors but which revealed itself within and without the larger struggle for equality.

Four decades and as many generations later, "Meridian" in many ways bears even more relevance to racial relations in America today than it did in 1976. A cause often seen as glaringly simple, the fight against oppression is multifaceted, its victims on both sides of the line. 40 years later, the potency of Walker’s "Meridian" is far-reaching and more compelling than ever, lending a still often muted voice of a movement and cause that remain, frustratingly, unfinished. Eager to discuss the novel’s lasting impact and anniversary in our recent conversation, Walker also offered insight into today’s sense of activism and the centuries-long history of the African-American’s fight for equality 

Are there certain ways that you view "Meridian" differently now 40 years since writing it?

Hm. Well, I don't view it very often, the novel itself, because I'm always going on into whatever I’m writing next, and into life. I think of it as a gift that I was able to have the presence of being to give to especially movement people; people who are politically active and spiritually alive. I was able to send out a signal from a particular landscape, and a particular encounter with incredibly scary forces, and I’m very glad that I was able to do that even though many people have been afraid of the book, I think, in essence. Some of the resistance to it is a kind of fear, but it’s the same fear that the activists had in a way, because the novel is saying, essentially, that in order to be prepared for the battle, you have to do some major work on yourself, and sometimes you feel that you are losing the self, and of course many people were lost. They just couldn’t take it. Not only the ones who were firebombed or shot or had their cars or houses bombed, but people lost an inner compass because of the great violence and despair. So I’m happy looking back that when people are ready to encounter this novel, it will be there.

It’s easy to forget that the novel was written just one year removed from the Vietnam War. Civil unrest seems to have a different identity now than it did with Meridian, although the issues are still very present. Has the dynamic for protest evolved at all from your standpoint?

I think that the forces are still the same, and the battle is still the same for poor people in the streets. That’s why Ferguson was so important. It hasn’t changed very much at all. In fact, it has probably intensified, and even though I like social media, I don’t tend to feel that it is the ultimate answer, because often it doesn’t reach the people who are too oppressed to pay much attention. They’re trying to survive getting home in the dark and outwitting the police that are following them. I think it hasn’t changed as much as you would think, really, and especially for those who are really deeply wounded and oppressed by the system.

Do you see a kind of diluted sense of protest and social justice in the social media age where the shelf life of a topic is so brief?

I think it depends on what social media you’re paying attention to. The social media that I attend to is very clear about how bad it is on all kinds of levels that we haven’t even thought about before. For instance, the slaughter of elephants or the absolute destruction of so much of our food supply through chemical with Monsanto, especially. Code Pink, which I’m a member of, has brought us up to speed on some really heinous behavior in the Middle East, especially, but not just there. I think people probably connect with the social media that they can, and in that sense we’re bound to be responding at the level that we can be present for, and I agree with that. Because if you try to take on some of these issues without preparation, it can be very literally bad for your health, and that’s one of the things that Meridian is exploring. How deeply into the personal self and personal psyche these issues of brutality and various kinds of mental, physical, and spiritual coercion and domination can go, and how much you really have to prepare yourself, and how deeply you can be wounded in the effort to heal a community or even a planet. I want people to pay more attention to that.

I was talking to Tami Simon on "Sounds True" about coming home from trying to get to Gaza on one of the last flotillas, and nine people on the flotilla ahead of ours had been murdered by the Israeli military, and we knew it was extremely dangerous, and we lived through it, but then when I got home, it was weeks before I actually felt that I was back in my own body. I ran into a tree in my little farm truck, and I tripped over my dog – these are indications of how you can become dislocated internally and off balance by the effort to make a stand where you feel one has to be made. I think people fear this, and they’re right to fear it, but I think by ignoring it we don’t help ourselves either. That’s also Meridian, and it is her example of really what it takes, and what it takes out of you to make a stand for what you believe is right, often without any form of support from people who actually comprehend what you’re doing. It’s enormous, and it takes its toll. We should have a little altar somewhere, even if it’s in our minds, where we put a flower or a pebble there to remember that it’s not easy, and it’s not glamorous, and it’s not Hollywood in any way.

Speaking of Hollywood, obviously the success of "The Color Purple" was incredible to see, but what about that same possibility with "Meridian?" Just based on how different the novel is and how unpleasant but necessary its narrative is, are people ready for a film adaptation of that? Could it be done?

I think it would be relatively easy to make a film of "Meridian." I think you would need a really great director, somebody with real soul and art and some fidelity to the reality of our country and its past and its horrible greed, which racism is basically a mask for. Racism is really just a mask for greed. You need someone who has a good grasp on history – the real history and not the phony one. It could be done, and it could be very healthy for us if we had such a film, especially right now. In a curious way, "The Color Purple"’s success, and I’m very happy about it mainly because of my ancestors who inspired it, but it’s been such a big success that often I think people are unprepared to encounter the other novels and really give them the same kind of attention.

I think of "Meridian" as a very good medicine for the people who are activists, and who have been in the struggle for a long time now or even just getting into it. Encountering the fatigue of it, most people don’t have any idea of what it takes to actually try to turn a society around piece-by-piece and person-by-person over years. Then you’re standing on top of centuries of people doing exactly that, so you feel totally beholden to them. You’re grateful that they got you so far as you got, but it’s a heavy load, and that’s why we have such incredible music. African-Americans have just the most amazing music because the music is the art that gets more deeply into what fuels the struggle, that layer of pain, of suffering, of angst and sorrow that you have to do this with your precious life. You have a precious life, and you shouldn’t have to spend it proving you’re a human being. That should be really obvious and celebrated.

Thinking about African-American music, it’s interesting to see that the popularity of the music with White America would seem to lend hope to the idea that the discussion of race relations is thankfully not just limited to the oppressed.

It’s the ones who are not minorities are the ones who should be discussing it, because basically the problem of racism is their problem. They are the problem, and they should be trying to learn how not to be the problem, especially if we are going to survive at all. All of these backward attitudes, whoever’s holding them, will have to be released.

One of the novel’s most powerful and critically lauded aspects is its portrayal of the woman’s role in the Civil Rights movement. In terms of activism, has the role of the woman, and specifically the African-American woman, evolved at all from your perspective?

I think women just went off and started doing our own thing, basically. I’m not up to speed on the Black Lives Matter movement. I live outside of the country for months at a time, so I’m not so in touch with a lot of things, but it seems to me that women are very present and very courageous and very upfront, which they were doing in the Civil Rights Movement, but they were often overshadowed when the men came, and there was a feeling that it was time to “let the men be men”. But there was so much sexism. It was rampant, and you can see this in every one of the movements. The Panthers were very sexist. I remember the comment that made all the women very sad was Stokely Carmichael’s position that the only correct position for women in SNCC [Student Non-Violent Coordinating Council] was prone; that they were to be used for sex.

It was so weird, because so much of the movement was held together by women. Fannie Lou Hamer inspired everybody who ever heard or met her during that period, and of course Rosa Parks and all of these incredible women. I was looking at that in the novel, and showing also how so-called foot soldiers like Meridian was, were just people who showed up to volunteer and help out in any way they could, and they were often women. They were almost always women. Not to say there weren’t men and women, but the women were taken advantage of because they were female, and their contributions then were not considered as important.

In a way I think we all understood that then, because we all knew the history of lynching in the South, which had harmed more black men than women. Of course, we now know that there were many, many black women who were lynched and brutally. There were women lynched who were pregnant, and then the fetus was cut out of them. So I think out of respect for the history where black men had been so brutally lynched, and where white men were so clearly jealous, really, of whatever they thought black men had, I think people felt that it was okay for black men to be up front. And of course we loved them. We loved Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy and Andy Young, and all the men who came forth. We were very proud of them and very happy that they were there, and that we were together.

Do you see today’s younger generation of African-Americans as having just as strong a connection to their ancestry and to the more recent history of the Civil Rights movement?

I’m not really a Buddhist, but I do a lot of Buddhist practices, and younger people that I see are meditating. [Laughs] I think history has to be foundational, but then we encounter the terrible educational system where certain things are just not taught. Although, Howard Zinn, who was my professor at Spelman, thank goodness, wrote "A People’s History of the United States," in which it’s possible that younger people can get a fuller sweep of the true history and therefore feel they have a context for honoring the Civil Rights Movement in the whole scope of the history of the country. But I think it will always be a reference. How could it not be? Revolts have been ongoing and long before people like Dr. King or Malcolm X. Look at Marcus Garvey or Nat Turner. There’s not been a time where we didn’t have people struggling, and they paid the price.

Literature has been one of the most effective forms of revolt in that struggle. Do you see it as still being just as powerful now in effecting change as it was 40 years ago?

Absolutely. I just finished reading a collection of short stories, and one of them is about the caste system in India, which is something they think they’ve gotten rid of, but they really have not. There’s a caste called the Nat people, and for as long as they can remember, they’ve been so down in the depths of the caste system that they have felt that their only way to survive would be to sell their children into sexual slavery, so that’s what they do. It’s been their business for as long as they can remember. So today there is a movement that has been started by this really brilliant woman, and it’s called Apne Aap, which is Hindi for self-help, to try to stop this.

I’m reading these two books, and it’s a lot like reading Harriet Beecher Stowe or Frederick Douglass, because you see how these people are so enslaved in this centuries old business that they cannot free themselves without outside help, and the outside help is in the form of these books. One is called "Town of Love," because even though this is a slave pen where the young women are absolutely slaves, they call it the town of love because they’re being prostituted, and the men are encouraged to think of what they’re doing to these people as love. The other book is by the woman who started Apne Aap, this organization that’s trying to free these women and deal with these men, and it’s grim. I’m trying to think of how to move these books into consciousness and at the same time realizing that it is absolutely books like that that will change consciousness if you bring that to the books. I have great faith in literature, always, to present people with an alternative to how they experience their reality.

By Jonathan Dick

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Alice Walker Black Lives Matter Books Civil Rights Movement Editor's Picks Fiction Meridian Novels Race Racism