A Journal of the Arts
By: Sophie Moore
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Alice Walker’s Meridian captures the life and internal struggles of a young African American woman, Meridian, in her trials to help obtain equality for her race. While she continues her quest for liberty, she suffers greatly with her health in order to achieve her goals, yet she refuses to let her condition prevent her from continuing to fight. Alice Walker’s character Meridian has evidently mastered what W. E. B DuBois coins as double consciousness, or an internal two-ness that allows a person to see how they are seen by those around them. What is most fascinating is that not all African Americans are able to grasp this concept written in DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk, and this inability to develop double consciousness can have dire consequences to the well-being of African Americans, though having this skill can also cause serious mental and physical issues for its user. Throughout the plot of Meridian, each character displays behaviors and attitudes that would prove DuBois’ theory, yet others are not so fortunate. Though characters such as Meridian and Truman display the wisdom of DuBois by using double consciousness to their advantage, Tommy Odds is not as successful due to his condition and is swept away in the obscured depictions racism causes.
Published in 1903, W. E. B DuBois’ Souls of Black Folk expands upon the results of racism within American society by establishing the causes of double consciousness—the “two-ness” of African Americans—to be the color line and the Veil. The color line is the physical separation of the races and the physical display of racism towards the African American community. It is this unjust reality, DuBois explains, that is the “the problem of the Twentieth Century,” as it is the first step towards permanent mental and physical damage to its victims (920). Once the physical divide is set in place, it creates the distorted image that people perceive others through—DuBois compares this mentality to a Veil placed over one’s eyes (920). The African American community are the “bone of the bone and the flesh of the flesh…that live within the Veil” due to the warped expectations whites hold against them (920). Like a domino effect, the color line causes the Veil to form, which in turn creates the skill African Americans can master to see themselves in the way they are perceived through the Veil: double consciousness—“two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body” (DuBois 922). Though this skill can be beneficial when mastered, having to use this ability constantly can take a toll on a person both physically and mentally. African American author, Ta Nehisi Coates, details his own experience within his book, Between the World and Me, where he recalls the following:
This need to be always on guard was an unmeasured expenditure of energy, the slow siphoning of the essence. It contributed to the fast breakdown of our bodies. So I feared not just the violence of this world but the rules designed to protect you from it, the rules that would have you contort your body to address the block, and contort again to be taken seriously by colleagues, and contort again so as not to give the police a reason (90).
What Coates describes is not far from what Meridian (and later, Truman) endures during her life as she fights for the rights of African Americans yet keeps pushing regardless of the pain she goes through.
From the evidence provided by DuBois and Coates, the events that transpire during the course of Meridian’s life prove she has mastered the skill of double consciousness and used it for her benefit, while also having to harbor the damage it can cause. One of the most crucial events that takes place is when Meridian and Truman are beaten by the Atlanta police as they are protesting the imprisonment of other civil rights activists outside of the city jail. It is during this time as her hair is being pulled and she is knocked to the ground that she realizes she is in a “time and place in History that forced the trivial to fall away” (Walker 81). This scene contributes to a major turning point for Meridian because she witnesses the physical damage the color line causes; the physical separation between the races due to the tainted mindset established in white supremacists. Some of the first glimpses of the Veil that warp the views of white people are also visualized in this scene as the police expect the black protestors to immediately fall into line and do as they are told.
The chapter entitled “Driven Snow” also incorporates the expectations put upon African Americans, especially the women. All students who attend Saxon University (which are mostly black girl students) were expected to “[wear] spotless white gloves,” meaning they were expected be perfect ladies that fell into line and did not get into trouble (Walker 95). Whites expect blacks to obey them and do whatever white people tell them to do, an expectation that is the result of the Veil metaphorically covering their view. However, many of the students, including Meridian, do not take this expectation seriously and continue to protest regardless. The rebellion of the students is a prime example of double consciousness put into action; Meridian knows the school and the police expect a certain behavior of her that goes along with their Veil viewpoint, yet she continues going against them. Shortly after, the narrator mentions how it was “not unusual for students to break under the pressures of the two (the university and protests),” which is a similar experience to the breakdowns that Coates references in his work (Walker 95). These pressures on Meridian take a large toll on her physically, her symptoms including not eating to temporarily losing her sight to losing her hair and even occasionally becoming paralyzed (Walker 123-124). Continuous strain and use of double consciousness leads Meridian to become extremely ill, so ill that her friend Anne-Marion is no longer able to take care of her, yet Meridian continues to keep pushing to fight even in her crippling state. Meridian’s capability to see the way those around her perceive her and go against it, while enduring the dire health conditions she is in, establishes her as a prime example of mastering double consciousness and using it as a skill as DuBois instructs his readers.
While Meridian’s character depicts the outcome of double consciousness fully mastered, Truman’s is a work in progress. Though he understands the views of the Veil, instead of going against it, he initially adopts it, until he later realizes his error and begins to journey to acquire double consciousness. As stated previously, Truman is there with Meridian during the protests where the police brutally beat them, and like Meridian, Truman discovers the effects of the color line and the Veil. However, rather than continuing to protest in the name of equal rights for blacks, he takes on the views of the Veil by beginning to date white women. Ironically, it is after he reads DuBois’ masterpiece that he decides to do this (107). Truman, along with other white people, begins to believe the view—contorted by the Veil—that African Americans are not as intelligent as white people are; a claim Truman backs up by stating he dates white women because ‘“they read The New York Times’” (Walker 152). Eventually, Truman marries a white woman named Lynne, and the two have a daughter together, Camara. Sadly, rather than being happy in his relationship, Truman slowly begin to realize that marrying Lynne was not the right thing for him to do but rather the opposite of DuBois’ teaches in his writing. When Camara is killed by white supremacies, Truman ends his marriage with Lynne, moving him from being behind the Veil to standing in front of it, the first steps to obtaining double consciousness. The conclusion of Meridian is where Truman redeems himself by taking on Meridian’s role in the Civil Rights Movement; he places Meridian’s visor on his head and feels the room “begin to turn and [falls] to the floor” (Walker 242). Here, Truman starts to feel the negative effects of double consciousness set in, just as Meridian does, and “must now be borne in terror by all the rest of them” (Walker 242). As readers, we don’t know what happens to Truman following the novel’s conclusion, but it is hinted through the dizziness he feels that he’s starting to understand and master double consciousness in the way that he should have from the start. Although Truman’s initial perception of DuBois’ work was mistaken, he eventually turns himself around and begins to follow Meridian down the right path of using double consciousness the correct way.
Unfortunately, while Meridian and Truman are able to successfully apply these strategies to their own lives, there are those who are not as successful—or smart—to do so themselves. Tommy Odds’ case is a brutal, yet occasionally common, story of an African American man who is unable to let go of what was done to him, and this inability to let go prevents him from gaining the skills to use double consciousness as a tool. Of all the trauma experienced due to the racist actions of the color line, Odds has it the worst, for he loses his arm as a “burst of machine-gun fire came from some bushes across the street” and he was “shot through the elbow” (138). Yet instead of pushing through and “sticking it to the man” as they say, Tommy’s mental state closes off all that DuBois teaches, which in turn causes Tommy to do the unthinkable: raping Truman’s white wife, Lynne. He does so once, and then returns later again with some friends claiming that ‘“Crackers (whites) been raping [their] mamas and sisters for generations and here’s [their] chance to get a piece of their (the whites’) goods’” (175). During this time, one of the crimes that a majority of the African American male population were falsely accused of was raping white women—another distorted view of the Veil. African Americans with the ability to think with a double consciousness would know not to go and attack the other side because that is what the whites expect of them—Tommy Odds doesn’t have that ability. When he is attacked, he goes and does what white people believe African Americans do because he sees it as his right after losing his arm. Due to the Veil’s distorted image hammering down on Odds and other African Americans, his logic takes a drastic turn after [FC(6] the attack, causing him to become mentally incapable of applying double consciousness to himself. Instead of attempting to see and understand the views of the Veil and refute them, he turns into the monster that the Veil crafts African Americans to be. He shows no form of guilt or awareness that what he had done was wrong, he even goes as far as to say what he had done was not considered rape because, according to his story, Lynne ‘“didn’t even fight. She was just laying back waiting to give it up,’” when in reality, she was too scared to fight him off (Walker 177). Because he feels no form of pain or hurt from his actions, he doesn’t feel the same pain Meridian and Truman do having mastered double consciousness; he doesn’t feel it’s toll because he is turning into a manifestation of the Veil rather than pushing against it.
W. E. B DuBois created The Souls of Black Folk as a guidance for his fellow African Americans to survive during the height of racism in America, while Coates also warns of the dangers of using these techniques. The master, student, and the opposed of these teachings are all evidently displayed in Walker’s writing. It has been over one hundred years since DuBois published his masterpiece, nearly fifty years since Meridian was released, and exactly five years since Coates expressed his own personal story; yet every single one of these pieces deal with the same issue of racism within the United States. Clearly, if three different works from three different time periods all focus on a common issue, this issue is one that needs to be dealt with. Even now, during our current society, the African American community has to accept this fate and pay the price for trying to survive in this unjust reality through psychologically draining techniques such as double consciousness. If we wish as a country to have this discussion of racism dropped and out of our news stories, then something must be fixed, or else the issue will continue in publications five years, twenty years, or even another hundred years in future.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “II.” Between the World and Me, Spiegel & Grau, 2015, pp. 74–132.
DuBois, W. E. B. “The Souls of Black Folk.” Norton Anthology of American Literature Volume C, edited by Robert S. Levine, Norton, 2017, pp. 920-954.
Walker, Alice. Meridian. Harvest Book Harcourt, Inc., 2003.