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Meridian | Study Guide

Alice Walker

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Meridian | Context


Postpartum Depression

Young Meridian Hill displays feelings of aversion toward the child she gives birth to. Walker's description of Meridian's feelings match the symptoms of severe postpartum depression as described by the Mayo Clinic. Postpartum is a severe type of depression occurring in some mothers after childbirth. The symptoms include:

  • Mood swings, including sadness, anger, anxiety
  • Frequent crying
  • Difficulty bonding with the baby
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sleep problems
  • Lack of energy
  • Reduced interest once enjoyable activities
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Inability to think clearly
  • Thoughts of harming the baby
  • Regular thoughts of death or suicide

Postpartum can happen to anyone—it is estimated that up to one in seven new mothers experience it. It can last for months, and treatment is needed. At the time of Meridian's symptoms, however, the condition was neither openly discussed nor treated.

Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s

Young African Americans in the 1960s became active in seeking civil rights because they were weary of waiting for conditions to improve. Many participated in the Montgomery (Alabama) Bus Boycott of 1956. They had seen that working together to peacefully protest segregation, discrimination, and the Jim Crow laws in the South (designed to discriminate against African Americans) could work. Exactly why the laws came to be so widely known as "Jim Crow" is not clear, but the name is that of the character invented by a popular white comedian Thomas Dartmouth Rice who put on a black face and performed in minstrel shows, acting as a mocking caricature of an enslaved African American.

The movement of the 1960s started when four college students in Greensboro, North Carolina, sat at a whites only counter in a drug store to protest. These types of sit-ins then began happening all over the South, along with efforts by Freedom Riders intent on desegregating bus stations. The activities were often organized and helped along by the newly formed Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). This organization focused on identifying local leaders to run grassroots efforts.

The efforts were organized and publicized so that the huge March on Washington was headline news. This protest rally for jobs and freedom on August 28, 1963, involved 200,000 to 300,000 participants. It included diverse people from labor unions, civil rights groups, and religious organizations. Across the world, people paid attention to the struggle for African American rights as the march played out on TV. The march culminated at the Lincoln Memorial with civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s inspirational "I have a dream" speech. Dr. King (1929–68) envisioned a future in which people would "not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

The United States government stepped up its own efforts to ensure an end to discriminatory practices. President Lyndon Johnson (1908–73) signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. However, the assassination of Dr. King in 1968 muffled the fervor of the earlier part of the decade. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders published its conclusion in 1968. The commission said that the country continued to move "toward two societies one black, one white—separate and unequal."

Walker uses a mix of fictional and nonfictional names in discussing the civil rights movement in the novel. President John F. Kennedy is called by name when his funeral is mentioned in the novel. President Kennedy was assassinated before the "comprehensive Civil Rights package" he announced to the nation on June 11, 1963, was passed by Congress. Another significant event included in the novel is the murder of three young civil rights workers in Mississippi. They were in the state during the summer of 1964 to help with Freedom Summer, a black voter registration program. Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner were the three young black men murdered by the Ku Klux Klan and referred to by name in Chapter 18. The death of these young people is the impetus for Lynne and Truman Held's decision to go to Mississippi two years later.

20th-Century African American Christianity

At times in the novel, Meridian Hill seems torn between the deeply religious beliefs of her parents and the way she chooses to live her life. However, African American Christianity was profoundly important in the civil rights movement. After the Civil War (1861–65), churches run by African Americans sprang up throughout the country, offering a unique worship opportunity specific to the African American experience. Important gospel music came from the slave spirituals. Sermons focused on the pain of enslavement and the victory of being freed from bondage.

As the civil rights movement began, many activists came from these churches. They were particularly interested in pursuing rights through nonviolent means. In 1957 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other black male clergy founded the Southern Leadership Christian Conference. Dr. Judith Weisenfeld, professor of religion at Princeton University, has written extensively on African American history and Christian activism. She regards this conference as the public face of the civil rights movement on both the national and international stage.

However, this Christianity-based perspective was not accepted by all. Tension arose from members of the Black Power movement, who had grown tired of nonviolent protests because they wanted better results faster. They saw African American churches as playing into the role of keeping blacks in an inferior place in society. They criticized African American churches as "counseling love for one's enemy and hope for reward in heaven." Civil rights activist Malcolm X, the outspoken leader of the Nation of Islam, a movement devoted to Muslim beliefs and African nationalism, was especially forceful. He called for separation entirely from white society and their religious practices and to achieve liberation by all means, including the use of violence.

Meridian views the African American church she attends in Atlanta near the end of the book as a place that is supportive of her community and as the repository of the community's promise to keep fighting the fight. This perception mirrors Walker's own view of religion as very important to the movement.

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