- From Black Nationalism to the Ethnic Revival: Meridian's Lynne Rabinowitz
They made her conscious, heavily, of her Jewishness, when, in fact, they wanted to make her feel her whiteness. And, beyond her whiteness, the whiteness that now engulfed this family (originally, she heard, from New York) like a shroud.—Alice Walker, Meridian (195-96)
Late in Alice Walker's novel Meridian (1976), Lynne Rabinowitz recalls her confrontations with a family of Jewish deli owners in the South. During this confrontation, Lynne reflects on their mutual resentment: the couple judges her as a white woman who associates with black men, and she judges them for forsaking their once-oppressed Jewish community to join the community of oppressors—the dominant Anglo-American culture.
This passage takes place after Lynne has sustained a series of tragic losses. She has left behind her family and the creature comforts of suburbia, abandoned her dance career, moved to the South to join the Civil Rights Movement, and married Truman Held, a black revolutionary artist. She has befriended Meridian Hill, a black civil rights activist and the novel's protagonist, and borne a daughter, Camara, with Truman. She has been rejected by her black friends in the Movement after its ideology became more nationalist. She has been raped by Truman's friend and then sexually exploited by his other friends. She has lost her daughter to a violent crime and her husband to another woman. She is left wandering, alone, without a community or a cause.
Because Meridian remains one of few Civil Rights Movement novels, scholars have focused largely on either the relationship of this text to the African American literary canon or the main protagonist's (Meridian's) struggle to balance her loyalties to race with her identity as a woman. 1 In their illumination of these racial questions, few scholars have examined the Jewish character Lynne Rabinowitz. 2 I assert that Walker employs Lynne as a cautionary tale for ethno-racial groups in the US, many of whom, by the time of the novel's publication, had initiated nationalist movements to advocate for civil rights, foster cultural awareness and pride, and resist dominant culture conformity. 3 Lynne's tragic narrative of exile serves as an allegory for the flawed community- and coalition-building of the [End Page 159] 1960s. On the one hand, her narrative indicates the problems with total assimilation into a dominant culture that embraces individualist ideology, as her frustration with her suburban Jewish community reveals; on the other, her involvement with and rejection from the Movement reflect the essentializing tendencies of 1960s ideological movements. Black feminist scholars have since critiqued these movements for perpetuating the same short-sightedness of the dominant culture, which Audre Lorde calls "white america" (137), by rejecting others who may share their resistance to oppression. The Combahee River Collective, a black feminist organization that originated in Boston in 1974, has called for black feminist activists to "[do] political work within our own group and in coalition with other progressive organizations and movements" and fight oppression in all forms—beyond those that specifically affect them: "We are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking" (264). In Meridian, Walker shows how seemingly opposite patterns of social behavior—assimilation into "white America" and immersion in homogenizing coalition building—stem from the same problematic standards of organization and belonging. Lynne's double displacement, therefore, warns against conforming to dominant culture ideals and a nationalist ideology rooted in superficial criteria of belonging.
In this essay, I discuss how Walker advocates and affirms the white ethnic revival that would encourage assimilated ethnics such as Lynne to resist full immersion in the whitewashed dominant culture and rediscover the otherness that links them to a cultural legacy. In this sense, the novel is as much anti-assimilationist as it is an exploration of activism and coalition building. Walker juxtaposes Lynne with Meridian Hill, mapping Meridian's journey to community identification and individual self-discovery, to illustrate how other American ethnics can...