American author Alice Walker’s second novel, Meridian
(1976), has been described as encapsulating Walker’s views on the modern civil rights movement, focusing primarily on the psychological impact rather than social or political. The novel follows Meridian Hill, a young black woman and college student in the late 1960s, as she embraces the civil rights movement at a time when the movement becomes violent. The story follows her life into the 1970s through a relationship that ultimately fails, and her continued efforts to support the movement.
The novel begins in the 1970s. Truman Held, an artist and former civil rights worker, finds himself searching for Meridian in Chicokema, Georgia. Meridian is leading a group of children who have been denied entry to every freak show featuring Marilene O’Shay, who is said to be one of the Twelve Human Wonders of the World, a dead woman preserved in life-like condition. Truman first spots Meridian staring down a tank at the mummified woman on a day the children, mostly poor and black, are forbidden to attend. After she collapses and is brought home unconscious, she and Truman catch up.
Ten years ago, Meridian had been involved with a black revolutionary organization in New York City, but her refusal to kill on their behalf disappointed them and caused Meridian to leave the group. Still, she has a passion for black activism and has decided to return to her roots as a former civil rights worker, vowing to live and work amongst the people. Truman struggles to understand the mysterious illness that has taken hold of her, causing her to experience fainting spells and paralysis. He admits his inability to let her go.
Meridian does her best to adjust to college life, having left her son behind after getting pregnant in high school, but wanting to pursue a greater life for herself. She also falls in love with Truman. The two begin dating. White women arrive from the North, volunteering to assist the movement. Truman is attracted to one of the new arrivals, Lynne, and the two begin dating. Although Truman and Meridian briefly resume sexual relations, Truman continues to pursue his budding relationship with Lynne. Meridian becomes pregnant and has an abortion. After Lynne leaves, Truman attempts to rekindle his former love for Meridian, asking her to have his children. Meridian, in response, strikes him with her book bag, cutting his cheek.
As graduation is fast approaching, Meridian again falls ill. She loses her sight and lapses into unconsciousness. She stays in bed for a month, and Miss Winters, one of the college’s few black instructors, nurses her back to health. Truman and Lynne, now married, are living in Mississippi, where her whiteness begins to endanger them and the movement. Lynne is increasingly excluded from the marches and meetings. Despite having a daughter, Camara, Truman grows increasingly distant from his wife. He drives to Alabama to visit Meridian. Newly obsessed with his former lover, he tries to win her back, but Meridian denies his advances. Lynne also comes to visit Meridian, but she is really in search of her husband who has spent more and more time at Meridian’s bedside. Lynn has grown bitter over how her life has turned out and the slow dissolution of her marriage.
The action shifts to a flashback of Lynne, who left her family to be with Truman and pursue her involvement in the movement. Lynne and Truman grow increasingly distant, with other members of the black community suggesting to Truman that Lynne is only with him to assuage her feelings of white guilt. They both move to New York City but live separate lives. Lynne seeks out Truman only one time, to let him know that their daughter has been attacked and is in the hospital. She finds that he is living with a young blonde woman. Their daughter dies and Truman contacts Meridian, who comes to comfort him.
Eight years later, Meridian struggles with questions of radicalism and how the movement ultimately turned out. Truman finds it easier to leave such issues alone. Meridian remains in her small town, advocating for the black residents to vote and try to change their lot. She recalls the time she took to regularly attend church services. Once, an old man, whose radical son had been killed while working for the movement, addressed the congregation. Meridian regained her wavering desire to kill on behalf of the rights of blacks. She and Truman continue their voter-registration drives in earnest. Cured of her illness, Meridian prepares to move on, leaving Truman behind to continue the work that she started in Chicokema. Reading the poems she has posted on the wall, Truman falls to the floor in a swoon. Upon awakening, he concludes that he must take up the internal struggle of which Meridian has finally freed herself.