Reading the Archival Protest Body: Alice Walker’s Meridian and #BlackLivesMatter

Agnieszka Herra

September 2016 saw the anticipated opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. after a lengthy process of development. On the opening of the museum, Henry Louis Gates Jr. stated in an op-ed for The New York Times that the museum helps to “resolve the protracted debate about the contributions of black people to American history and, indeed, about whether they had a history worth preserving at all,” and ensures “that a mountain of evidence about black contributions to America will be on permanent display” (Gates). This integration into the Smithsonian collection, however, does not belie the fact that mainstream museums, memorials and archives have been slow to recognize the history and culture of African Americans. In this regard, Howard Zinn expressed the concern that the historian, the political scientist, and especially the archivist see their jobs as technical and neutral, rather than as a “political craft” (Zinn 20). This supposed neutrality has mainly affected minority communities who often do not get access to these spaces and have had to create their own repositories of memory. The “neutral” spaces of museums, memorials, and archives, then, tend to reproduce the systemic racism of American society.

Although archives have tried to address diversity concerns during the last forty years, and mainstream and marginalized archives began to converge during the Civil Rights Movement, the profession still lacks an “in-depth analysis of the historiography of the ethnic archives” (Gibbs 196). This lack of focus on the social and political priorities of the originating community means that mainstream archives may reproduce the silencing of alternative voices and perspectives in black collections (203). Early Black intellectuals often created these collections, and their goal was political empowerment and racial progress through refutation of the master narrative, which sometimes meant selectivity in which voices were heard (197). I am interested in the way that archives emerged during the post-Civil Rights era, especially in literature, to highlight the voices of those unheard. Specifically, I explore how post-Civil Rights protest movements resist mainstream archival sites as they extend the movement’s protest identity outside the context of the Civil Rights Movement. These alternative archival sites also help to sustain the act of protest by offering sites to express lived experiences.

A recent anti-racist movement in the post-Civil Rights Era that uses these alternative archival spaces is Black Lives Matter. This movement embraces a leaderlessness that resists the hierarchical organization of the Civil Rights Movement. Likewise, the movement has created alternative repositories of protest action in the digital realm because of a general distrust of institutions of power, and the discovery of new spaces for the dissemination of protest ideas like Twitter and Periscope. The Black Lives Matter Movement’s focus on the body that has undergone violence, and the ways that systemic racism affects specific communities, means that the movement tends to uncover histories and voices unrecorded in traditional archives. The relationship between alternative archival protest spaces rooted in the body and the community is also the focus of Alice Walker’s 1976 novel Meridian. I propose this novel as an intertext for the Black Lives Matter movement because Walker explores the impact of racial resistance in the post-Civil Rights era and creates symbolic alternative archives specifically focused on the name and body of the black victim and the affected community. This reading of Walker’s novel in connection to Black Lives Matter provides a productive dialogue to consider the ways that alternative archival spaces rooted in the body and the community allow for an expanded narrative of protest movements.

Sociological studies of protest movements often focus on the narrative history of the movement. Historians, including Jacquelyn Dowd Hall and Kevern Verney, have argued against a chronology of the Civil Rights Movement that only spans the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision to the 1965 Selma March and the Voting Rights Act. Hall argues that this dominant narrative of the movement distorts and suppresses many voices, events, and sites, and reduces the movement to a triumphal moment in the American progress narrative, rather than allowing for the history of a “long civil rights movement” (Hall 1234). The connection of narrative to protest movements also reflects the way that groups create their own narratives. Doug McAdam uses the idea of interpretive frames to describe “the conscious, strategic efforts of movement groups to fashion meaningful accounts of themselves and the issues at hand in order to motivate and legitimate their efforts” (339). However, sometimes these narrative frames exclude certain voices and undermine different views and tactics. Judith Butler notes that a collective notion of protest is flawed because “‘the people’ never really arrive as a collective presence that speaks as a verbal chorus; whoever the people may be, they are surely internally divided, appearing differentially, sequentially, not at all, or in degree, probably also in some measure both gathered and dispersed, and so ultimately not a unity” (166). Although looking at a protest through the lens of narrative has its place in defining a movement, a narrative frame also has the potential to obscure voices that do not fit into the mainstream.

The creation of alternative spaces of narrative in the digital space by the Black Lives Matter movement means that the movement has the ability to resist these frames through the use of the hashtag, the focus on various kinds of bodies who experience violence, and the emphasis on systemic oppression in communities. The movement can be engaged in a national conversation about race, but can also use the increasing number of people with access to the Internet to engage in more localized kinds of activism and create these alternative archives. As the Black Lives Matter movement resists these narrative frames, Walker’s titular character also questions the short narrative of the Civil Rights Movement and finds protest spaces and sites of African American resistance beyond the “official” sites. She resists every narrative frame that tries to control her: the novel articulates this resistance through its form, its focus on naming, and the holding of memory repositories within the body and the community.

The alternate archival spaces in Meridian and within the Black Lives Matter Movements exemplify the Foucauldian vision of archives that emerge in “fragments, regions and levels” – those that are not concrete places, but abstract conditions of knowledge (Foucault 130). These archival spaces exist in everyday media environments, rather than official institutions (Ernst 16) and are no longer passive storage spaces but are “dynamic” (29) and “processual by nature” (27). The two levels of archival spaces that have been important for the development of the Black Lives Matter movement are the digital gathering space created by the hashtag and the specific community archive; both levels engage with the notion of the dynamic archive. Although Meridian does not include digital spaces, I will connect the notion of alternative archival spaces to the ways Walker uses the symbolic name and body and creates a repository in the community.

The hashtag and the open source community archive depend on the Internet as a platform. Wolfgang Ernst considers the Internet a new type of “transarchive … a dynamic archive, the essence of which is permanent updating.” For African Americans, the “permanent dynamic rewriting” (Ernst 84) of this archive creates spaces for connecting a history of oppression to the lived experiences of systemic racism in contemporary American society. The connection of these archives to the Black Lives Matter movement creates an even more dynamic sense of collecting stories and experiences. There has been increased research interest “in the development of the relationship between body-based street activism and digital media as central tools of tactical intervention in protest movements in the Americas” (Fuentes 26). The Black Lives Matter movement has been sustained through their presence on the street and in the online realm of Twitter, in particular.

The Black Lives Matter protest movement emerged out of a digital space when Alicia Garza, a community organizer in California, posted about the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin on Facebook. The post was a “love letter to black folks” that ended with the statement, “Our Lives Matter.” Garza’s friend Patrisse Cullors was moved to add the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter (King). This hashtag became a connecting idea for a movement after mass protests in the streets and on social media in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 after the death of Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer. The hashtag can be considered an archival space as it connects a multiplicity of ideas about black lives within a digital container. Anthropologists Yarimar Bonilla and Jonathan Rosa use the process of “hashtag ethnography” to examine this archival site of Black Lives Matter. This anthropological perspective on the use of digital media in protest movements uncovers the ways that hashtags create intertextual chains and have an interdiscursive capacity: “The hashtag serves as an indexing system in both the clerical sense and the semiotic sense” (5). They are useful as a retrieval system and create an interpretive frame through the information connected to the hashtag. They become entry points into complex worlds (7). Hashtags become a site for the revaluation of black materiality with statements like #HandsUpDontShoot and #IfTheyGunnedMeDown that comment on the representation of black people in the media (8). These hashtags accompany images that seek to show the humanity of the person. As archival sites, the hashtags allow for a symbolic entry into lived experience and expand the protest narrative. As more deaths of black men and women across the nation became connected through the Black Lives Matter movement, #BlackLivesMatter came to be used in multiple ways. Although these hashtags can be “hijacked” and counterslogans like #AllLivesMatter were formed to undermine the power of the statement, the opposition to the statement also adds to this archival site to show the immediacy of the protest (Carney 190).

Alternative digital and community-based archives that are based in lived experiences have a central symbolic focus: black identity through the name and physical body and its vulnerability in white spaces. As the black body experiences precarity in both the public and digital space, these spaces can actively shift their meaning. Judith Butler explores the precarity of bodies in protest spaces after the events of the Arab Spring: “For when bodies gather as they do to express their indignation and to enact their plural existence in public space, they are also making broader demands: they are demanding to be recognized, to be valued, they are exercising a right to appear, to exercise freedom, and they are demanding a livable life” (Butler 26). Butler articulates the bodily dimensions of public demonstrations by connecting agency to the vulnerability of the body in the street where “both action and gesture signify and speak, both as action and claim; the one is not finally extricable from the other” (83). Butler does not agree with the claim that the digital realm of protest takes away from the bodily dimension of protest. Rather, “the use of the technology effectively implicates the body” as a body needs to be present to transmit the media (94). Therefore, there is a sense of precarity in both the physical and digital space, as both can be attacked by the state. Both spaces can be considered ephemeral as eventually the protester will leave the street or the hashtagged tweet will disappear from a timeline. However, the interplay between both sites of protest allows for more archiving work to capture the varied lived experiences of oppressed bodies.

Meridian is rooted in some of Walker’s experience as a marginalized voice and body in the Civil Rights Movement (Stein 129). Critical readings of Meridian mostly emerged in the 1980s and 90s and they focus on analyzing the Meridian’s positioning as a black woman in the Civil Rights era and her creation of a protest role beyond that period. For example, Karen F. Stein examines Meridian as a novel about a black woman coming to voice in the form of a female bildungsroman in a novel about progress and rebirth (130). As a young girl, Meridian becomes pregnant and marries the father of her child because she lacked a sexual education. When she realizes her unhappiness and she sees an activist house get blown up on television, she “became aware of the past and the present of the world” (70). Meridian gives up the baby to join the Civil Rights Movement and then goes to Saxon College to pursue her education. The novel’s fragmentary form touches on Meridian’s experience in college, during the Civil Rights Movement and through her decision to continue street-based activism on her own after the mass protests are over. Roberta M. Hendrickson sees the novel as an affirmation of women’s role in the Movement(113).

In a more recent examination of Meridian, Shermaine M. Jones focuses on the intersection between grief and rage in the novel, what she calls the “radical ethic of rage.” Writing in 2013, just as the seeds of the Black Lives Matter movement were being sown, Jones refers to contemporary police brutality victims in order to examine the grievability of the black body. She sees grief and rage as part of the lived experience of Meridian and what propels her forward as her former friends move from the streets of protest to the suburbs. Jones’ articulation of the body in mourning is one of a few readings of the novel that focus on Meridian’s body. I also cite Alan Nadel who contends that 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” (155). This idea supports my understanding of Meridian’s body as a way to tell other people’s stories and connect multiple voices. John F. Callahan discusses Meridian coming into her voice, not only as a way to reclaim her personhood, but also as a way to connect to her ancestors. Callahan argues that Walker uses a variety of voices that may seem incongruous to “fuse personal, racial, and national history with myth” (218). This use of the body and voice as entrance into other sites of storytelling makes Meridian into an alternative archive. Meridian has a symbolic function that works to embody the desires and questions of political protest. Her name has one such symbolic function, which connects to the role of naming for Black Lives Matter.

Along with #BlackLivesMatter, movement activists have also begun hashtagging the names of police brutality victims. Hashtags like #MichaelBrown, #EricGarner and #SandraBland also connect to the protest slogan #SayHisName or #SayHerName as a means to declare the identity of those who were the victims of systemic racism. This declaration of the name as a marker of the personhood of the victim creates an alternative archive to connect the body of the victim to the larger movement. Within this name-based archive, the victim becomes a symbolic site to uncover the identity of a person who normally would no longer be able to speak about their lived experience. This act also prevents the victims from becoming a statistic and losing their humanity. Voicing these identities in the digital space in order to connect to the body lying on the street creates urgency for the movement and expands the dimensions of identity.

I connect Walker’s novel to Black Lives Matter, not only through the body and protest, but also through the style of writing. Like Twitter’s multivocality and Bakhtinian dialogicality, the novel’s historiographical metafiction form engages with fragments and multiple voices (Hutcheon). The narrative form connects to the way that protest is potentially fragmentary and the way that the Black Lives Matter movement is linked and connected through handles, hashtags and the interconnectedness of people through social media. Walker does not write the novel in a linear style, similar to the way that hashtags can exist in multiple senses of time through retweeting and archiving. The opening of the novel describes Meridian as she protests the limited access that black children have to a sideshow in Chicokema, Georgia. Her ex-lover and fellow Civil Rights activist Truman Held observes her facing a tank that the town bought “during the sixties when the townspeople who were white felt under attack from ‘outside agitators’ – those members of the black community who thought equal rights for all should extend to blacks” (2). The novel ends with the aftermath of this scene as Meridian vows to continue as a lone protester in the South, but everything in between is what Walker calls a “crazy quilt”  (Tate 176) or a collage because of the combination of longer descriptive sections, short sketches, epigraphs, and poetic fragments (J. Jones 21). An omniscient narrator describes Meridian’s life before and during the Civil Rights Movement, along with stories of her parents, Truman and his wife Lynne, and other moments that connect Meridian to a legacy of violence within three sections entitled “Meridian,” “Truman,” and “Ending.” These three major sections contain smaller fragments of varied length with titles like “The Happy Mother,” “Of Bitches and Wives,” and “Settling Accounts.” Each of these fragments contains non-linear stories rooted in the body and meta-historical moments that appear like files within an archival container.

Walker’s novel was not written in an era of social media and hashtagging but it does illuminate the power of #SayHerName and finding intertextual chains within symbolic statements. Meridian has a symbolic function that works to embody the desires and questions of political protest. Before the narrative begins, Walker inserts a page-long definition of the word “meridian.”  The definition relates the main character’s name (and title of the novel) to the imagery of midday, the middle, distinction, highest point, and the south. These definitions relate to the way Meridian exists at the center of the narrative, but also the way her story radiates onto the stories of others, especially through the various histories of black Americans that permeate the narrative. Meridian herself therefore acts as a connecting hashtag and is a site of ethnography by telling the stories of others through the site of her body. Her name is an identifying marker establishing the value of her voice in the movement and beyond, and connecting to her suffering body as she moves through spaces of protest.

Meridian’s involvement in the movement comes from an act of violence, and names in the novel are imbued with a history of historical violence towards African Americans. Meridian is present in moments of mourning, like during a short fragment where she seems to be present at the Martin Luther King Jr. funeral (201-03). Another fragment begins with no title, but instead Walker lists famous names in the Civil Rights movement like King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evans, but also includes the little girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing. These names are written in all capital letters with slashes between them:

MEDGER EVERS/ JOHN F. KENNEDY/ MALCOLM X/ MARTIN LUTHER KING/ ROBERT KENNEDY/ CHE GUEVARA/ PATRICE LAMUMBA/ GEORGE JACKSON/ CYNTHIA WEDLEY/ ADDIE MAE COLLINS/ DENISE MCNAIR/ CAROLE ROBERTSON/ VIOLA LIUZZO (21)

These names float inside the narrative as symbols connected to Meridian’s work and radiate from the questions she asks about the role of violence in protest. For Shermaine L. Jones, this list of capitalized names invokes rage within the “ritual of reading the names of fallen heroes at a memorial site” (188), and for Callahan, the slashes evoke sounds from an automatic rifle that signify the political assassinations of the 1960s. In the context of Black Lives Matter these names call to mind the hashtagged names of people like Michael Brown that become signifiers in the social media realm for violence against black bodies in a police state. The little girls from Birmingham may not hold the same weight as political leaders, but their inclusion signifies the importance of the ordinary person.

The novel draws on many other stories of black bodies being destroyed by an oppressive state, which does not understand their value as storytellers. These ancillary stories create a pattern of destroyed black bodies in a similar vein to the hashtagged names for Black Lives Matter. When Meridian is studying at Saxon College, the omniscient narrator tells the story behind The Sojourner Tree, a central landmark of Saxon College which used to be the Saxon plantation. A slave named Louvinie came from an African story-telling family and the children of the plantation loved to hear tales of horror from her. With the children’s encouragement she told a chilling tale, which frightened the youngest Saxon child so much that his heart gave out. Master Saxon cut out Louvinie’s tongue, taking away her ability to tell stories. She planted her tongue under a scrawny magnolia tree that subsequently grew exponentially so that the other slaves believed it possessed magic, including being able to obscure a hiding slave (31-34). This story signifies the importance of language and speech as a form of power and a force that has to be conquered with violence. The magnolia tree is linked to a story of a young feral girl who lives in the area of the college called Wild Child whom no one can capture and help. When a car hits her, the girls at the College hold a funeral for Wild Child but when they are not allowed to lay her coffin in the school chapel, they attack the Sojourner Tree in their rage (38-39). This pattern of black bodies destroyed, black rage, and interconnected stories of oppression links to the archiving of stories in the Black Lives Matter movement. These bodies emerge within these literary fragments through Meridian as an archival site.

The only linear aspect of the narrative is the fact that Meridian’s acts of protest make her more and more fragile in body. For example, she faints and has to be taken to her room after standing up to the tank in the opening scene. At one point she loses her eyesight for a day, while another month she experiences a state of paralysis (124-25). But this physical deterioration also helps her connect to the power of protest. For example, when she is beaten in a march during the Movement, and she later sees Truman in the same beaten state, she feels a kinship with him (81). These connections link to the way hashtag in the Black Lives Matter movement creates connections between bodies engaging with activism. Emotionally, Meridian is in a constant state of tears as she experiences the battle fatigue of protests (82-83). Her body acts as an emotional conduit in a similar way that the social media community was used to create emotional bonds between protesters. She also sees her fragility as a way to connect to the people she is fighting for:

And it was also true that she was frail and sickly-looking. But among the impoverished, badly nourished black villagers- who attempted to thrive on a diet of salt meat and potatoes during the winter, and fresh vegetables without meat and potatoes during the winter, and fresh vegetables without meat during the summer- she did not look out of place. In fact, she looked as if she belonged. (153-54)

Her body creates kinship through the experience of protest and gives her entrance into complex spaces and closed communities.

The emergence of the Black Lives Matter protest movement has also led to the establishment of community archives that collect stories about police violence in specific communities. Michelle Caswell argues that “community archives can serve as powerful forces against symbolic annihilation by collecting a more inclusive historical record; using language emic to communities to describe those records; and creating preservation and access policies that reflect community values” (59). These community archives, like A People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland, Documenting Ferguson, and Preserve the Baltimore Uprising Archive Project, create alternative spaces on open-source independent platforms that allow for the community to voice their experiences of anti-black racism by bypassing the traditional archive. These archives are centered on the lived experiences of black bodies in a particular space. Hashtags used in conjunction with Black Lives Matter are also often linked to space like #Ferguson or #Baltimore. These kind of local archives reveal the local conditions of spaces that experience systemic racism. Butler explores how protest can “animate and organize architecture” and the ways that “assembly and speech reconfigure the materiality of public space and produce, or reproduce, the public character of that material environment” (70). As activists take to the streets of Ferguson or Baltimore and open the digital space to these places, they animate unheard voices from these sites.

Like Saxon College and the Sojourner Tree, sites of protest can also animate the lived experiences of suffering in Meridian, and the fragments in the novel highlight these kinds of spaces. In the opening scene, Meridian fights for the children in Chicokema to have access to the sideshow wagon, which contains the remains of a white woman who was murdered by her rich husband for having an affair. The husband strangled her and threw her in a lake but when her body up washed six years later he decided to make an example of her. By highlighting this act of gendered violence in the opening narrative, Walker argues for the opening of these sites to expose violence towards vulnerable people. Another fragment, entitled “Indians and Ecstasy,” focuses on Meridian’s father who owns the deed to sixty acres of land his grandfather acquired after the Civil War. This land contains Indian burial grounds and he feels a deep connection to the Indians in Georgia who had been run off the land, eventually giving the deed to Walter Longknife who “was a wanderer, a mourner, like her father” (48). Of course, the deed means nothing when government officials bulldoze the land to create Sacred Serpent Park, “which, now that it belonged to the public, was of course not open to Colored” (49). This transformation of Meridian’s father from an owner of land to someone who does not have access to that land signifies how easily the state can transform the black body into an undesirable subject. Meridian later returns to the park when black people were allowed. She sees some people “shouting and laughing” while others “stood glumly by, attempting to study the meaning of what had already and forever been lost” (54). The novel’s fragments do not provide a superficial understanding of the spaces Meridian inhabits. The narrative always strives to uncover the hidden layer of systemic oppression.

As Meridian passes through these sites on her mission to recover the potential of bodily activism, she becomes a figure that is in some ways outside of time. She bridges a gap between eras of protest and becomes a symbolic archive that opens up unrecorded histories. She recovers spaces of resistance, healing, and storytelling in her dynamic archival role. She is a connecting point like Michael Brown is for Black Lives Matter. His name and body exist within multiple spheres of understanding. Through the archival space of the hashtag, he opens up a community from which voices are rarely heard. He joins into the interdiscursive chain of police brutality victims and his words create a protest slogan (#HandsUpDon’tShoot). He resists a cohesive narrative frame and his story helps to sustain the act of protest, like Meridian.

At the end of the novel, Meridian finds spaces where she can enact her connecting function. After witnessing the healing of a community in the black church through the recuperative act of music, she recognizes her role as an activist:

But then, she thought, perhaps it will be my part to walk behind the real revolutionaries – those who know they must spill blood in order to help the poor and the black and therefore go right ahead – and when they stop to wash off the blood and find their throats too choked with the smell of murdered flesh to sing, I will come forward and sing from memory songs they will need once more to hear. (221)

As a source of memory songs, Meridian enacts her archival function to sustain acts of protest. For Black Lives Matter, these memory songs are centered in both the body of the unheard victim and the digital space, to sustain the movement beyond a simple narrative frame. Some may argue that dynamic rewriting in the digital space is not enough to sustain a protest movement. Walker’s Meridian, however, illuminates a possibility for sustained protest against systemic oppression through alternative archive spaces. These archive spaces allow for a narrative of protest that does not close off potential voices; rather, the narrative embraces oppressed bodies and communities that contain multitudes of stories.

 

 

 

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