Alice Walker | Critical Essay by Susan Willis

This literature criticism consists of approximately 21 pages of analysis & critique of Alice Walker.
This section contains 6,176 words
(approx. 21 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Susan Willis

SOURCE: "Alice Walker's Women," in Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1987, pp. 110-28.

In the following essay, Willis discusses the women of Walker's fiction, in particular Meridian, and their relationship to their history and community. She asserts that revolution can only succeed when an individual commits herself to the community.

      Be nobody's darling
      Be an outcast.
      Take the contradictions
      Of your life
 
      And wrap around
      You like a shawl,
      To parry stones
      To keep you warm.
 
      What the black Southern writer
      inherits as a natural right is
      a sense of community.

The strength of Alice Walker's writing derives from the author's inexorable recognition of her place in history; the sensitivity of her work, from her profound sense of community; its beauty, from her commitment to the future. Many readers associate Alice Walker with her most recent novel, The Color Purple, for which she won a Pulitzer Prize. But the best place to begin to define the whole of her writing is with the semiautobiographical novel, Meridian. In that novel I suggest we first consider a very minor character: "Wile Chile." For "Wile Chile" is not gratuitous, not an aberrant whim on the part of the author, but an epigrammatic representation of all the women Walker brings to life. I think this is how Walker intended it, precisely because she begins telling about Meridian by describing her confrontation with "Wile Chile," a thirteen-year-old ghetto urchin, who from the age of about five or six, when she was first spotted, has fed and clothed herself out of garbage cans. More slippery than a "greased pig" and as wary as any stray, the Wild Child is virtually uncatchable. When it becomes obvious that the Wild Child is pregnant, Meridian takes it upon herself to bring her into the fold. Baiting her with glass beads and cigarettes, she eventually catches "Wile Chile," leads her back to the campus, bathes and feeds her, then sets about finding a home for her. However, Meridian's role as mother comes to an abrupt end when "Wile Chile" escapes and bolts into the street where she is struck by a speeding car.

If we consider the story of "Wile Chile" against the events that shape Meridian's development from childhood (the daughter of schoolteachers), through college, into the Civil Rights movement and finally to embark on her own more radical commitment to revolutionary praxis, the two pages devoted to the Wild Child seem at most a colorful digression. Her only language comprised of obscenities and farts, "Wile Chile" is Meridian's social antithesis. Nevertheless, the story of "Wile Chile" is central to our understanding of Meridian and the woman whose name is the title of this book, for it includes certain basic features, present in different forms in all the anecdotal incidents that make up the novel and through which Meridian herself must struggle in the process of her self-affirmation.

When Meridian drags the stomach-heavy "Wile Chile" back to her room, she puts herself in the role of mother and enacts a mode of mothering that smacks of liberal bourgeois sentimentality. On the other hand, "Wile Chile"'s own impending motherhood represents absolute abandonment to biological contingency. These are only two of the many versions of womanhood that the problem of mothering will provoke in the book. Although Meridian and "Wile Chile" do not share a common social ground, they come together on one point, and that is the possibility of being made pregnant. For "Wile Chile" and Meridian both, conception articulates oppression, to which "Wile Chile" succumbs and against which Meridian struggles to discover whether it is possible for a black woman to emerge as a self and at the same time fulfill the burdens of motherhood.

The story of "Wile Chile" also raises the question of Meridian's relationship to the academic institution and the black community that surrounds the university. Her outrageous behavior causes Meridian (and the reader) to reflect on the function of the university as a social institution whose primary role is to assimilate bright young black women, who might otherwise be dangerously marginal, to a dominant white culture. "Wile Chile"'s unpermissible language draws attention to the tremendous pressures also placed on Meridian to become a "lady" patterned after white European cultural norms. This is not a cosmetic transformation, but one that separates the individual from her class and community and forever inscribes her within the bourgeois world. That the university serves bourgeois class interests is dramatized when Saxon College students and members of the local black community attempt to hold "Wile Chile"'s funeral on the campus. Barred from entering the university, the funeral procession is isolated and defined as "other" in the same way that the local neighborhood, which ought to be the university's community of concern, is instead its ghetto.

In Meridian, childbearing is consistently linked to images of murder and suicide. In this, the figure of the Wild Child is as much a paradigm for the book's main characters, Meridian and Lynne, as it is for another minor anecdotal figure, Fast Mary. As the students at Saxon College tell it, Fast Mary secretly gave birth in a tower room, chopped her newborn babe to bits, and washed it down the toilet. When her attempt to conceal the birth fails, her parents lock her up in a room without windows where Fast Mary subsequently hangs herself. In posing the contradictory social constraints that demand simultaneously that a woman be both a virgin and sexually active, the parable of Fast Mary prefigures the emotional tension Meridian herself will experience as a mother, expressing it in fantasies of murder and suicide. The tales of "Wile Chile" and Fast Mary also pose the problem of the individual's relationship to the group. Fast Mary's inability to call on her sister students and her final definitive isolation at the hands of her parents raise questions Meridian will also confront: is there a community of support? And is communication possible between such a community and the individual who is seen as a social iconoclast?

The problem of communication, and specifically the question of language, is at the heart of another of Meridian's anecdotal characters: Louvinie, a slave woman from West Africa whose parents excelled in a particular form of storytelling, one designed to ensnare anyone guilty of having committed a crime. Louvinie's duties as a slave are to cook and mind the master's children. The latter includes her own superb mastery of the art of storytelling, which for Louvinie, as for all oppressed peoples, functions to keep traditional culture alive and to provide a context for radical social practice. The radical potential of language is abundantly clear when the master's weakhearted young son dies of heart failure in the middle of one of Louvinie's gruesome tales.

At the level of overt content, the story of Louvinie focuses on the function of language; in its structure, it reproduces the features associated in the book with motherhood. Louvinie, who does not have children of her own, nevertheless functions as a mother to the master's offspring. She, like "Wile Chile," Fast Mary, even Meridian and Lynne, kills the child defined structurally as her own. In more narrow terms, Louvinie provides a model closer to the way Meridian will resolve her life. Her actual childlessness suggests in asexual terms Meridian's choice not to be fertile and bear children. Moreover, when Louvinie murders the child in her charge it is clearly a politically contestatory act, which is not the case for either "Wile Chile" or Fast Mary—but is true for Meridian when she chooses to abort her child.

Louvinie's punishment rejoins the problem of language, as the master cuts out her tongue. Louvinie's response is to bury her tongue under a small magnolia tree, which, generations later, grows to be the largest magnolia in the country and stands at the center of Saxon College. As a natural metaphor, the tree is in opposition to the two social institutions—the plantation and the university—and suggests an alternative to their definition of black history and language. Just as the university excludes women like "Wile Chile," so too does it seek to silence black folk culture typified by Louvinie's stories. The magnolia casts the university in stark relief, exposes its version of history as a lie, its use of language as collaborative with the forces of domination.

The magnolia also provides a figural bridge linking the struggle of black women from slavery to the present. In the past, it offered a hiding place for escaped slaves and in the present its enormous trunk and branches provide a platform for classes. Named The Sojourner, the magnolia conjures up the presence of another leader of black women, who, like Louvinie, used language in the struggle for liberation. In this way, Walker builds a network of women, some mythic like Louvinie, some real like Sojourner Truth, as the context for Meridian's affirmation and radicalization.

As the stories of "Wile Chile" and Fast Mary demonstrate, anecdotes are the basic narrative units in Walker's fiction. They reveal how Walker has managed to keep the storytelling tradition among black people alive in the era of the written narrative. The anecdotes are pedagogical. They allow the reader to experience the same structural features, recast with each telling, in a different historical and social setting. Each telling demands that the college students (and the reader) examine and define their relationship to the group in a more profound way than in the explicitly political gatherings where each is asked to state what she will do for the revolution. In this way, Walker defines story writing in the radical tradition that storytelling has had among black people.

It is not surprising that language is crucial to Meridian's process of becoming. From slavery to the present, black women have spoken out against their oppression, and when possible, written their version of history. However, their narratives have fared less well in the hands of publishers and the reading public than those written by black men. Only very recently and with the growing interest in writers like Morrison, Marshall, and Walker have black women enjoyed better access to recognized channels of communication outside those of home and church. As testament to the very long struggle for recognition waged by black women and the deep oppression out of which their struggle began, the literature is full of characters like Hurston's Janie Woods, whose husband sees and uses her like a "mule" and will not allow her to speak, to Walker's most recent female character, Celie, in The Color Purple, also denied a voice, who out of desperation for meaningful dialogue writes letters to God. For black women writers, the problem of finding a viable literary language—outside of the male canon defined predominantly by Richard Wright—has generated a variety of literary strategies. Morrison's solution was to develop a highly metaphorical language, whereas for Walker the solution has been the anecdotal narrative, which because of its relationship to storytelling and the family more closely approximates a woman's linguistic practice than does Morrison's very stylized discourse.

The fact is no black woman has ever been without language, not even the tongueless Louvinie, who uses the magical preparation and planting of her tongue to speak louder and longer than words. The question of language is not meaningful except in relation to the community. Louvinie's example affirms that the community of struggle will always exist and that the actions of a single black woman join the network of all. In contrast, "Wile Chile" represents a negation of the individual's need for community. With language reduced to farts and swears, hers is a one-way communication whose every enunciation denies integration with the group and proclaims her absolute marginality. Contrary to the Wild Child's self-destructive marginality, Meridian must define a form of oneness with herself that will allow her to speak and work with the community and at the same time will prevent becoming submerged by it. Meridian's quest for a language and a praxis is analogous to Walker's work as a writer, which demands both distance from and integration with the people.

When, in the book's first chapter, Meridian is asked if she could kill for the revolution, she finds herself unable to make the required revolutionary affirmation and defines instead what will be her more difficult form of revolutionary praxis: "I'll go back to the people." People means the South, the small towns, the communities for whom the Civil Rights movement passed by too quickly to transform embedded racist and sexist practices. In this, she is the antithesis of "Wile Chile," who never was a part of any community and hence can never return to one.

Meridian's decision is her way of defining the single most common feature in fiction by black women writers: that of return to the community. From Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, to the recent novels by Toni Morrison, the trajectory of departure and return is the common means for describing a woman's development and structuring the novel. In every instance, return raises the fundamental question of whether a community of support exists and what will be the individual's relationship to it.

For Morrison's Sula, return articulates the tragic plight of an extremely sensitive and perceptive black woman, in many ways ahead of her time, who goes to college, sees the world and a fair number of men, only to find herself dispossessed of place. Although the community of her girlhood has undergone economic progress, neither the town's new golf course nor its convalescent hospital testify to deep social transformation. Sula returns home to find her girlhood friend deeply stigmatized by male sexual domination. Traumatized by his abandonment, she has become a sterile shell living out a life whose only excuse is her moral and economic enslavement to her children. There is no community of possibility for Sula, who dies alone with her dreams and aspirations—a halcyon symbol of a future womanhood that can never be the basis for a community in this society.

Walker's rendering of return involves elements present in both Hurston's tale of Janie Woods and Morrison's account of Sula, but set in an entirely different context: the Civil Rights movement, which historically was not a factor for Hurston and geographically does not significantly enter into Morrison's tales, which are usually set in the Midwest. Only in Walker, a writer of the Southern black experience, do we come to understand how psychically important the Civil Rights movement was—not that it solved anything, but it definitely marks the moment after which nothing can ever be the same. Meridian's mission is to help discover the shape of the future.

Return is the developmental imperative in all Walker's novels, where the journey over geographic space is a metaphor for personal growth and, in a larger sense, historical transformation. In her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Walker's conception of geographic space embodies a dialectical understanding of history. When Grange Copeland abandons wife and child to seek self and fortune in New York City, he leaves behind a rural community historically representative of the plantation system for the North and the industrial mode. The third moment of the dialectic is marked by Grange's return to the South, not as a penniless sharecropper, but with money in his pocket to buy his own land. The farm Grange brings into being suggests Walker's vision of a very different basis for black community, one that has experienced and transcended two forms of enslavement: first to the plantation, then to wage labor. In Walker's vision of the future, property ownership will not be for the purpose of accumulation as it is under capitalism, but will provide for the satisfaction of basic human material and spiritual needs.

The epic of Grange Copeland is doubly transformational in that the character who will bear his experience into the future (both of the distant past that Grange passes along in the form of folktales and of the more recent past that Grange has directly known) is not a male heir, as more traditional literature might have it, but his granddaughter, whose coming-of-age is marked by sit-ins, voter registration, and the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. His own life marred by his struggle against bigotry, his own acts of violence, and the terrible racism and sexism of which he has been both a victim and an agent, Grange cannot be the embodiment of the future. Rather, some great moment of rupture from the past is needed, and this Walker achieves in the transition from the male to the female principle. The novel ends on a note of affirmation—but not without uncertainty over the shape of the future. Ruth, Grange's granddaughter, is an adolescent and her future as well as the post-Civil Rights black community in the South cannot yet be told, but is, like the sixteen-year-old Ruth, on the threshold of its becoming.

In geographic strokes less broad, Walker's most recent novel, The Color Purple, also articulates personal and historical transition. In it, Celie is married as an adolescent to a man who makes her cook and keep house, tend the fields and look after his unruly children from a previous marriage, and who pretty much conceives of her as a "mule." Celie's abuse is deepened by the fact that before marriage she had already been repeatedly raped by the man she calls "father" and made to bear his children only to have them taken from her soon after birth. If there is to be any transformation in this book, its starting point is the absolute rock bottom of a woman's economic and sexual enslavement in a male-dominated and racist society.

The possibility of Celie's transformation is brought about by her journey away from the rural backwater and to the big city, Memphis, where she comes to support herself—not by means of wage labor (it is clear that Walker sees no hope for liberation in the transition to the industrial mode)—by means of learning a trade that is both artistic and necessary. She designs and sews custom pants.

If Celie's transformation is to be thorough, it must be not just economic, but sexual as well. Celie's ability to question what would otherwise be her "lot in life" and to break with her passive acceptance of her husband's domination is made possible by her friendship and eventual lesbian relationship with a black blues singer, Shug Avery. Unlike the monstrous inequality between husband and wife, theirs is a reciprocal relationship—Celie giving of herself to heal the sick and exhausted Shug (even though Celie's husband has for years been enamored of the singer), and Shug giving of herself, patiently and lovingly teaching Celie to know the joys of her own body and to follow the intuition of her mind. Neither the economics of pants-making nor the sexuality of lesbianism represents modes of enslavement as do the economics of industrial capitalism and the sexuality of male-dominated heterosexual relationships. At book's end Celie is neither seen as a pantsmaker in the way one might see an autoworker as a particular species of human, nor as a lesbian lover the way one sees a wife and mother.

Out of Walker's three novels, The Color Purple defines return in the most auspicious terms and offers not a prescription for but a suggestion of what a nonsexist, nonracist community might be. No longer a voiceless chattel to her man, Celie is able to converse with her husband. Having undergone liberation in both economic and sexual terms, she is for the first time perceived not as a domestic slave or the means toward male sexual gratification but as a whole woman: witty, resourceful, caring, wise, sensitive, and sensual. And her home—the site of an open and extended family where family and friends merge—suggests the basis for a wholly new community. The Fourth of July picnic that concludes the book and reunites Celie with her sister and children redefines the traditional family group in the context of a radically transformed household.

Of all of Walker's novels, Meridian offers the clearest view of the process of radicalization. For Meridian, the autobiographical embodiment of Walker herself, coming of age in the sixties does not offer a free ticket, but provides an atmosphere of confrontation and the questioning of contradiction with which the individual must grapple. Early in the book it becomes clear that one of the most profound ideologies to be confronted and transcended is the acceptance of mystical explanations for political realities. Meridian's childhood is steeped in Indian lore, the walls of her room papered with photographs of the great Indian leaders from Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse to the romanticized Hiawatha. Moreover, her father's farm includes an ancient Indian burial mound, its crest shaped like a serpent, where, in the coil of its tail, Meridian achieves a state of "ecstasy." Absorbed in a dizzying spin, she feels herself lifted out of her body while all around her—family and countryside—are caught up in the spinning whirlpool of her consciousness. It is not odd that Walker focuses on mystical experience. After all, this is a book about the sixties whose counterculture opened the door to more than one form of mysticism. It is also not strange that Meridian's mystical experience derives from Native American culture, given the long cohistorical relationship between blacks and Indians in the southeastern United States (their radical union goes back to the time of cimarrons and Seminoles).

However, ecstasy is not the answer. Although Meridian will learn from the mystical experience, it will not be sufficient to her life's work to rely on the practice of retreat into the ecstatic trance. What, then, of the historic link between Indians and blacks? If, in the course of the book, Meridian learns to transcend ecstasy, is this a denial of her (and her people's) relationship to the Indian people?

Definitely not. The book's epigraph gives another way of defining Meridian's relationship to Native Americans, which the great lesson taught by her radicalization will bring into reality. Taken from Black Elk Speaks, this is the epigraph:

I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now … I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. 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 … the nation's hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.

Black Elk's words remember the massacre of Wounded Knee, which for Indian people was the brutal cancellation of their way of life. The dream Black Elk refers to is the vision he, as a holy man, had of his people and their world: "The leaves on the trees, the grasses on the hills and in the valleys, the waters in the creeks and in the rivers and the lakes, the four-legged and the two-legged and the wings of the air—all danced together to the music of the stallion's song."

This is a vision of a community of man and nature, which Black Elk, as a holy man, must bring into being—not individually, but through the collective practice of the group. As he sees it, the nation is a "hoop" and "Everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round." These are images of a community's wholeness, which Meridian takes as her political paradigm—not the particulars of Indian culture; not the beads that hippies grafted on their white middle-class identities, not the swoons of ecstasy—but the Indian view of community, in which the holy man or seer is not marginal, but integral to the group. So when Meridian says she will "go back to the people" and when she leads them in demonstration against racist practices, she enacts Black Elk's formula for praxis. As an intellectual and a political activist, she understands that the individual's inspiration for social change can only be realized through the group's collective activity.

By far the greatest test of Meridian's radicalization is to overcome the social and sexual categories ascribed to all women, and black women in particular. Because she does not choose the lesbian alternative as Celie does in The Color Purple, Meridian's struggle is within and against heterosexual relationships. As Walker describes it, the two most fundamental categories of womanhood defined under male-dominated heterosexuality are bitches and wives. The first category is composed of white women; the second is made up of black women and is essentially the same as saying "mothers." The bitch in the book is Lynne, who in many ways is Meridian's antithetical parallel. A white woman, from the North, Jewish, a student and fellow Civil Rights worker, Lynne is the third factor in a triangular love relationship that includes Meridian and Truman, also a Civil Rights worker and the man both Lynne and Meridian love. The tension produced by love and jealousy is the ground on which Walker examines social categories and defines the process through which Meridian eventually liberates herself from male sexual domination.

Meridian begins her adult life a high-school dropout and teenage mother married to a restaurant busboy. Motherhood for Meridian is fraught with contradictory impulses. Caressing her child's body, she imagines that her fingers have scratched his flesh to the bone. At other times, she thinks of drowning her baby; when not fantasizing her child's murder, she dreams of suicide. Murder and suicide are the emotional articulation of social realities. This is the experience of futility—the mother's purposelessness as an individual, whose only function is to add yet another little body to the massive black underclass, and the child's bankrupt future, another faceless menial laborer.

In contrast to the futility is the one moment—equally profound for its singularity—when Meridian beholds her child with loving wonderment and sees him as a spontaneous, unasked-for gift, absolutely unique and whole. In response to the possibility for her child's selfhood and in recognition of her own desperate need to redefine her life's course, Meridian chooses to give her child away when, as if by miracle, her high IQ makes her a college candidate. In relinquishing her child, Meridian recognizes her relationship to the history of black motherhood, which, under slavery, defined the black woman's struggle to keep her children as a radical act, making the mother liable for a beating or worse; as well as to the time of freedom, which, in giving black women the right to keep their children, provided the fetters of enslavement to poverty and sexism. Meridian's mother is very much a part of this tradition. Although morally outraged at her daughter's decision to "abandon" her child, the mother exemplifies the plight of black mothers, "buried alive, walled away from her own life, brick by brick" with the birth of each successive child.

In giving her child away, Meridian makes it clear that mothering, as it has been defined by heterosexual relationships in racist society, is the single most insurmountable obstacle to a black woman's self-affirmation. Only by refusing ever to be a mother in the particular can she carve out a new social function, which includes a form of mothering, but in the larger sense of an individual's caring for her community. We get a sense of what this might involve when Meridian first appears in the novel leading a band of children in demonstration. But for the most part, Meridian's practice is less an indication of future possibilities and more a critique of the way heterosexual relationships have individualized a woman's relationship to her children, making them her property. This is the mother-child relationship that Meridian violently denies for herself when, becoming pregnant for a second time, she chooses to abort her lover's baby. Her decision is also a dramatic refutation of Truman's overtly male-chauvinist invitation to "have [his] beautiful black babies" for the revolution. For Meridian, the subsequent decision to have her tubes tied represents another step in the direction toward a new form of womanhood where heterosexuality will not be the means toward oppression but a mode within which sexual partners will one day set each other free. But for the time being, her espousal of a selfless, nunlike celibacy suggests that the day is a long way off.

For Lynne, however, heterosexuality, complicated by the pressures on 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. Notwithstanding her marriage to Truman, Lynne will always be the white bitch, and notwithstanding their child's African name, Camara, the mulatto does not represent a hope for a nonracist future. This is because American society—before, during, and after Civil Rights—remains racist and sexist. Camara's brutal murder graphically puts an end to any liberal thoughts about a new, hybridized society of the future. The death of this child—and all the book's children, either by abortion or murder—dramatizes Walker's radical intuition that the future as something positive and new cannot be produced out of genetic or personal terms, but demands, as Black Elk saw it, the selfless involvement of the individual with the community. When Truman criticizes Meridian for never having loved him, she responds, "I set you free." Meridian has chosen to relinquish personal and sexual relationships, which in this society cannot help but be the means and form of a woman's oppression, as a way of advancing her own struggle—and that of her loved ones—toward their liberation.

For the most part, Walker's writing is not figural, but there is in Meridian one very important metaphor, whose function is to synthesize the many levels of Meridian's struggle. This is the significance of Meridian's sickness, which goes by no medical name but is characterized by dizziness, temporary blindness, swooning faints, loss of hair, paralysis, and general bodily weakness. The illness strikes Meridian immediately after she first sees the Wild Child. Because many of the symptoms coincide with her childhood experiences of mystical ecstasy, the illness is a link between her early confrontation with cultural ideology and her later struggle as an adult against social and sexual oppression, typified by the plight of the Wild Child. The illness allows the reader to perceive at the level of experience the absolute energy-draining work of political praxis, as with each demonstration Meridian must struggle to regain her vanquished strength, patiently forcing her paralyzed limbs to work again. Meridian's trademark, a visored cap to cover her baldness, articulates the contradictory notions attached to a black woman's hair—her crowning glory and sign of sexuality—for which the head rag was both a proclamation and refutation. With each confrontation with white male authority—be it under the abortionist's knife or facing down an army tank—Meridian's swoon and faint proclaim not surrender but absolute commitment to the struggle. Coming back to consciousness, Meridian awakens to find the struggle—an ongoing process—renewed on a higher, more exacting level.

At the novel's conclusion, Walker gives us to understand that Meridian has mastered not the whole struggle but herself in that struggle. Rid of the sickness, her woolly head restored, she discards her cap and packs her bag to set out once again on the road to confrontation. Although one individual's coming to grips with self can be a lesson for others, it cannot be their solution. The novel closes on Truman, dizzily crawling into Meridian's sleeping bag, pulling her cap upon his head, and accepting for himself the long process of her struggle. The transition from Meridian to Truman lifts the book out of its sexual polarization and suggests that everyone regardless of socially ascribed sex roles, must work to deessentialize sex. Now it will be Truman who works for the community and in its care to bring the collective dream into being.

Although not by his choosing, Truman, at book's end, is no longer capable of being perceived either as a lover or a father. The course of Meridian's struggle to liberate herself from sexually prescribed categories has been the means for Truman's unwitting relinquishment of positions from which men have traditionally exerted domination. The transcendence of sexual domination undermines other forms of domination including racism, but this does not mean that race itself has been neutralized. Rather, blackness is affirmed. Meridian's new crop of woolly hair testifies directly to her renewal as a black woman. Nor has transcendence brought about Meridian's separation from the community, whose coherent presence has always been the novel's core. In contrast to the strength of the black presence, white people enter Meridian incidentally and are always perceived as individuals, bereft of any relationship with their own community. Almost freakish in their singularity and behavior, white people in general closely approximate their symbolic representation in the form of a mummified white woman, a sideshow attraction, whose husband carts her from town to town earning money off her exhibition.

Walker's affirmation of blackness uses racially specific traits not to define a form of black racism but to delineate the look of a class. Black is the color of the underclass. And all Walker's women are peasants, from Celie in The Color Purple, to Ruth's mother and grandmother in The Third Life of Grange Copeland and Meridian's female forebears. Bound to the land and their husbands (or fathers), worn by toil in the fields and the demands of childbearing, these women are the underclass of the underclass. This is why literacy and education are so crucial to the way Walker depicts the process of liberation. Her radical understanding of education lies at the heart of literacy campaigns from revolutionary Angola to Grenada and Nicaragua. Clearly, the ability to raise questions, to objectify contradictions, is only possible when Celie begins writing her letters. Similarly, for Meridian, education (notwithstanding its inspiration in liberalism) and the academic institution (notwithstanding its foundation in elitism) offer the means for confronting social and sexual contradictions that she, as a black teenage mother, would not have been able to articulate—either for herself or anyone else.

Walker elaborated on the importance of class and the role of women in class politics in a workshop on black women writers held at Yale University (spring 1982). She stressed the significance of rediscovering Agnes Smedley, particularly Smedley's description of Chinese women during the years of the Revolution. Both Smedley and Walker would agree that the radical transformation of society can only be achieved when the bottom-most rung attains liberation; in fact, the wellspring of revolution is the rebellion of the peasant class. This is the great historical lesson of revolution in the twentieth century from China to Cuba and Central America. And it lies at the heart of all Smedley's "sketches" of women revolutionaries, who, when their class background and education more closely approximate Meridian's, must, like Walker's character, turn to the people and be one with their struggle. The individual who becomes separate from the peasantry is truly lost, like Walker's Lynne, who never outgrew her liberal background and the tendency to see black people as works of art; and Smedley's the "Living Dead," women reclaimed by the aristocracy and abandoned to opium dreams or so traumatized by the White Terror that they wander about dazed.

There is a great deal of similarity between the real-life Smedley and the fictional Meridian—and her autobiographical inspiration, Walker herself. Smedley, born in the South (Missouri), was also a peasant woman. Her childhood grounded in poverty, she, although white, knew a form of enslavement when, at the age of eleven, she was hired out as a domestic. Education and, later, leftist politics were her way up and out of poverty, just as writing was her way back to the people. Always an advocate of feminism, both in journalism and in fiction, Smedley, like Walker, depicts the contradictions of womanhood as they relate to abortion, birth control, and mothering. Finally, although Smedley's chosen community was revolutionary China, her relationship to that community as a foreigner and an intellectual bears striking similarity to Meridian's relationship to her community.

Perhaps the best way to characterize all three—Smedley, Meridian, and Walker—is with the title of one of Walker's collections of poems: Revolutionary Petunias. It captures the spirit of revolutionary women both in beauty and in struggle. Certainly, there was a great deal of flamboyance in Agnes Smedley as she donned a Red Army uniform and marched into Xi'an. Rather than a simplistic identification with the Communist forces, her act was intended to draw the attention of the world press (which it did) and to articulate a joyous celebration of struggle (which it still does) in the linguistics of gesture and playacting often used by women in lieu of those modes of communication, like speech and writing, that have been traditionally defined by male discourse. This is a form of revolutionary praxis very like the moment when Meridian, at the head of a pack of kids, faces down the town militia and a World War II tank. Not to be confused with flower children and the politics of counterculture, "Revolutionary Petunias" are those women, who, with grace, strength, and imagination, have put their lives on the line.

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