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  • Reading the Body:Alice Walker's Meridian and the Archeology of Self
  • Alan Nadel (bio)

Alice Walker's writing presents a continually dichotomous world, the antecedents of which we can locate in a problem common to slave narratives—a problem emphasized in the Epilogue of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man —that identity is a function of place: "If you don't know where you are," the invisible man informs Mr. Norton, "you probably don't know who you are" (436). An underlying premise of the slave narrative was that a literal place existed that altered the definition of humanity for Blacks. When the North failed to fulfill its promise of being that place, the relationship of place to identity became one more dichotomy embedded in the language and activities of black American existence, one more dichotomy embodying the impossibility of assimilation and the impossibility of continued "apartheid."1 [End Page 55]

The problem is one as well of reconciling the individual and tradition, which means both finding a tradition and breaking with one, for "tradition," as it has been handed down, is the tradition of an enslaved or oppressed people who have had many of the direct connections to their native rituals, beliefs, and languages ruptured by violent racial and economic oppression. Under such circumstances, Walker has pondered, "how was the creativity of the black woman kept alive . . . when for most of the years black people have been in America, it was a punishable crime for a black person to read or write? And the freedom to paint, to sculpt, to expand the mind with action did not exist?" (Gardens 234). Walker concludes that this creativity often manifested itself anonymously, in folk arts and domestic activities (Gardens 240). The "anonymity," of course, has made the tradition hard to identify, and Walker recalls longing for black anthropologists and collectors of folklore: "Where is the black person who took the time to travel the back roads of the South and collect the information I need . . . ?" (Gardens 11). It is not surprising, therefore, that in the fictional world Walker presents, Blacks as a result of this oppression often repress their desires and sublimate their frustrations in ways that enable them to accept the status quo and/or even adopt their oppressors' values.

With this in mind, Meridian can be read as an attempt to mend the ruptures and reconstruct an alternative black tradition from its contemporary American artifacts. The novel, in other words, conducts an historical search in that it tries to recontextualize the past. In so doing, I will argue, Walker treats narrative as archeology and thus provides instructions for reading Meridian's life as though it were inscribed on the archeological site of her body. Such a reading depends on recognizing the relationship between Meridian's body and the body politic, and it reveals the role of maternal history in the definition of self. This lesson in reading, Walker further suggests, is necessary to reconcile the conflicts between art and activism in black American life.

Narrative as Archeology

The first half of the book moves not only through Meridian's personal history and the history of her parents and grandparents but also through the history of her land and folklore. It moves almost in an archeological manner, less interested in chronological exposition than in a process of unearthing and reexplaining.

In many ways, this situation could be seen as a structuralist endeavor of the sort applied to cultural anthropology by Claude Lévi-Strauss, among others, in that it attempts to decode cultural phenomena by understanding [End Page 56] the implicit system that gives them meaning.2 "When one takes as object of study," Jonathan Culler explains, "not physical phenomena but artifacts or events with meaning, the defining qualities of the phenomena become the features which distinguish them from one another and enable them to bear meaning within the symbolic system from which they derive" (5). These "defining qualities" only have meaning in terms of the single point of view from which they are gathered. To change the point of view is to restructure the investigation and change the meaning of the constituent phenomena—just as changing the rules of grammar...